Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Captures - Viva Villa!

If you’re familiar with the Jahnke’s Electric Theatre page on Facebook, you’re all too aware of the ongoing JET’s Most Wanted project. If you’re not, I’m not sure how you got here but hey, welcome! Simply put, JET’s Most Wanted spotlights obscure but worthy titles that have never before been released on DVD (in the US…foreign mileage may vary).

Since I started JET’s Most Wanted waaaaay back in 2010, over 300 featured titles have been released on DVD, Blu-ray and/or MOD DVD. It’s an eclectic group, so odds are you’ve probably even purchased a few of them. But if you’re anything like me (and honestly, I pray to God you’re not), there are likely a few discs in your collection that remain unwatched, despite your best intentions. Personally, I feel a twinge of guilt when I finally get a Most Wanted pick on disc and allow it to sit, unopened, for months. I can almost hear the disc taunting me from the shelf. “You asked for it. You got it. Now what are you gonna do with it?”

Welcome to Captures, an occasional new feature here at the Electric Theatre. In this space, I’ll be taking a closer look at former Most Wanted picks to see how they hold up now that they’re readily available. When I first started JET’s Most Wanted, I focused on movies I’d already seen that weren’t on disc. It didn’t take too long before the scope widened to include movies I’d always wanted to see but couldn’t, which naturally led to discovering more unavailable movies that sounded interesting. Captures is meant to be a deep dive into the seemingly bottomless well of movies previously unavailable on DVD.

Viva Villa!, newly available on MOD DVD from Warner Archive, has tumbled into obscurity since its release in 1934. If you Google “Viva Villa” today, the first results you’ll get are for a chain of Taquerias in Southern California. But at the time, it was a sizable box office hit and up for multiple Oscars including Best Picture (hey, this can double as an Honor To Be Nominated column, too! Score!). It even won one for Best Assistant Director John Waters (not that one, obviously). Bet you didn’t even know Best Assistant Director used to be a category, did you? I know I didn’t.

If Mr. Waters assisted everybody who had a hand in directing Viva Villa!, I’d say he earned his Oscar. Like most studio system films, this was producer David O. Selznick’s vision more than the director’s. Jack Conway ended up with screen credit but William Wellman and Howard Hawks each did uncredited work as well. It comes as no surprise that the resulting film is extremely episodic and about as authentically Mexican as a Doritos® Cheesy Gordita Crunch from Taco Bell. But the movie is undeniably entertaining and that goes a long way.

Wallace Beery, sounding more like Chico Marx than a Mexican Revolutionary, stars as Pancho Villa. Beery was a huge star in the 30s thanks to movies like The Champ and The Big House but for years, I only knew him as a punchline in the Coens’ Barton Fink. (“Wallace Beery! Wrestling picture! What do you need, a road map?”) Beery is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the other legendary stars of the 30s these days but after watching some of his most enduring work, it’s easy to see why he was such a popular personality. He’s a boisterous, larger-than-life character, eager to please and oddly likable even when he’s boasting about his rape-and-murder filled exploits.

Part of this is due to the fact that most of the violence and mayhem takes place off-screen. The storyteller’s mantra may be “show, don’t tell” but Viva Villa! never uses imagery when dozens of words can be employed instead. Although the filmmakers do have a penchant for whips, first in the opening scene where young Pancho sees his father killed after 100 lashes. This comes back into play years later when an incensed Pancho tries to teach Spanish aristocrat Teresa (Fay Wray) a thing or two about real suffering. The scene is shot in silhouette (presumably by the great James Wong Howe, one of two credited cinematographers). The moody camerawork and Wray’s reactions give the whole thing a distinct S&M quality. Even during all this, Pancho Villa comes across as a big, friendly, loyal, kinda dumb dog, ironic considering his father dies protesting that he is a man, not a dog.

Structurally, Viva Villa! bears an unmistakable similarity to Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata!, released almost 20 years later. Personally, I preferred Viva Villa! to Kazan’s humorless slog of a movie. Neither movie can lay much claim to historical accuracy and suffers from casting very American actors in very Hispanic roles (though, granted, Kazan’s movie does have Anthony Quinn’s Oscar-winning performance going for it). But Beery as Villa at least seems to be having fun. You can’t say the same about Marlon Brando as Zapata. Brando always seems on the verge of realizing he’s made a mistake and walking off set.

A dozen movies were nominated for Best Picture in 1934 and, believe it or not, three of them still remain unaccounted for on DVD: the opulent biopic House Of Rothschild, the musical One Night Of Love, and The White Parade, a tribute to young nurses. I can’t say how Viva Villa! stacks up next to these rarities. For that matter, I don’t think anyone would argue that it deserved to triumph over the year’s winner, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. If nothing else, Viva Villa! serves as a reminder of the studio system’s remarkable capacity for making effective entertainment out of the most chaotic and troubled productions. It’s no classic but the fact that it’s even coherent is something of an achievement.

Viva Villa! is now available on MOD DVD at

Friday, May 15, 2015

Thanks For Watching. Good Night, Everybody.

It’s difficult for me to overstate the profound impact David Letterman has had on my life. That may sound ridiculous or, at the very least, pretty lofty for something that Dave himself has repeatedly dismissed as just a TV show. But for over 30 years, Dave has helped shape my sense of humor, my taste in music, even my image of New York City, a town I’ve only been to once in my life. Without David Letterman, television would have been a far more boring medium for the past few decades.

I first discovered Dave on his short-lived daytime talk show. I can only assume I was home from school sick that day (and I’m sure Dave would say, “Well, that explains a lot.”) (Note: Actually, a quick internet search reveals the show debuted in June, so I probably watched it all summer long. But that home sick joke seems appropriate, so I’m leaving it in.) I was hooked from the very beginning. I loved his total lack of talk show phoniness and the absurdist streak in his comedy. A favorite gag from the daytime show that I still remember all these years later: Dave’s Household Hints – Scrape the dried up globs of toothpaste from the bathroom sink and serve them as after-dinner mints.

When school began in the fall, I would occasionally skip class just to catch the show. Still, nobody was happier than I was when The David Letterman Show was canceled after just four months. In those pre-VCR days, skipping school was my only option but not really a viable long-term solution. But staying up to watch Dave guest host The Tonight Show or, as of 1982, even later once he snagged the post-Carson slot? That I could do.

Thus began a steady diet of Stupid Pet Tricks, Top Ten Lists, Viewer Mail, Small Town News, suits made out of Velcro and Rice Krispies, Larry “Bud” Melman and various Guys played by Chris Elliott. At its best, the comedy was sharp, surreal and utterly ridiculous. At its worst, Dave would give the camera a withering, knowing look and somehow make it work.

It also didn’t hurt that Dave brought out the best, and occasionally the worst, in his guests. Recurring favorites like Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Tom Hanks, Martin Short, and many more always brought their A-game to Dave’s shows. Hell, even Jay Leno was a frequent and hilarious presence during the Late Night years. But Dave could be, in the immortal words of Cher, an asshole but really only when the guest deserved it. Dave had zero tolerance for fools and idiots and while that edge may have softened a bit after he moved to CBS, it never entirely went away.

As much as Dave helped mold my sense of humor, Paul Shaffer was an equally big influence on my taste in music. Paul was the perfect choice for the show, having honed his comedy chops on Saturday Night Live in addition to his prodigious musical gifts. I was introduced to countless songs and artists thanks to Paul and The World’s Most Dangerous Band/The CBS Orchestra playing them during commercial breaks. Not for nothing is Paul the musical director for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. These folks can back up pretty much any artist, play any kind of music under the sun, and sound amazing.

As for the musical guests, it goes without saying that I discovered countless artists thanks to their exposure on Dave’s shows, first and foremost, the late, great Warren Zevon. But over the years, there have been so, so many others, including Janelle MonĂ¡e, Heartless Bastards, The Heavy…the list goes on. Dave clearly loved nothing more than when a mostly unknown band or artist made their network television debut on the show and proceeded to “blow the roof off the dump”. And what Christmas is going to be like this year without Darlene Love’s annual performance of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is simply too awful to contemplate.

So far, Dave’s swan song has been refreshingly and predictably free of sap. Dave has never seemed like the sort of person who dwells too much on the past. But if (when) some sentimentality creeps into these final shows, it’ll be borne of genuine, heartfelt emotion tempered by a realistic view of what’s really ending here. It’s natural to get emotional when you’re saying goodbye to people you’ve worked alongside for years and closing a major chapter of your life. But at the end of the day, it’s just a little comedy show, one of way too many cluttering the airwaves these days. In a few months, Stephen Colbert will make the show his own. Life will go on.

Dave’s best on-air moments have always struck that balance, whether it was his return to TV after 9/11 or his heart surgery or speaking candidly about the birth of his son or his sex scandal. When it mattered most, Dave always spoke from the heart and helped put things in perspective. These bigger issues, community, family, health, wellbeing, these are what matter. Everything else is pretty small in comparison. But if crushing watermelons with a steamroller and having stagehands Pat and Kenny read Oprah transcripts helps us to momentarily forget about these bigger problems in some weird way, so be it.

It’s important to remember that for the most part, all these indelible memories are just that: memories. Sure, we have some YouTube clips these days and there were a tiny handful of best-of releases on VHS long ago but there are no DVD releases of Late Night or the Late Show. Part of me doubts there ever will be. It’s no easy thing to revisit these old episodes. Somewhere deep in storage I have a few videotapes full of episodes of Late Night. For years, I kept one right next to the VCR, ready to be popped in if there was a good guest. Eventually that practice fell by the wayside, but at least I got some gems including anniversary specials, the Holiday Film Festivals and the Dave-hosted Academy Awards.

Dave’s final episode of Late Night on NBC was just about perfect, capped by a surprise appearance from Bruce Springsteen, making his first appearance on the show after years of requests, performing (what else?) “Glory Days”. The show ended on a high and why wouldn’t it? It was a send-off, not a farewell. Dave was on to bigger and better things.

This time is different but I suspect the final show will still be a celebration, not the quiet, somewhat mournful goodbye of Johnny Carson’s final Tonight Show. The show and its host have always been too modest, self-deprecating, and irreverent for that kind of treatment. Over the years, it’s become easy to take Dave for granted but to a lot of us, he really mattered. A lot. And we’ll miss him when he’s gone.

Thanks Dave. Maybe I’ll run into you on the street in Montana someday. Enjoy your retirement and, of course, enjoy every sandwich.