Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Operator 13' (1934)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

It's sort of shocking to see this movie right now, just airing in the middle of some random weekday on TCM (it's also available on a Warner Archive DVD), with its extensive and prominent use of blackface that takes up almost the entire first half of the film. I'm used to the occasional use of blackface in a musical-comedy capacity in films like Holiday Inn, and even in those cases it's hard to take. But Operator 13 puts star Marion Davies in blackface as an integral part of the plot, an ostensibly serious story about Union spies during the Civil War, and then takes the opportunity to have her play a horrific caricature of an African-American woman. Offensiveness aside, the jarring tonal disconnect is just one of this terrible movie's many faults.

Davies plays actress Gail Loveless, who's recruited by the U.S. government and given the titular designation as a covert agent, sent to infiltrate a Confederate camp while posing as the black maid of another actress-turned-spy. Not only is Davies' performance a crude stereotype, but her makeup is also so unconvincing that it's hilarious to hear other characters dismiss her as a "colored girl" when she looks like a white woman covered in shoe polish. Davies affects a comically exaggerated "Negro" voice that clearly would fool no one, certainly not all the actual black people who take her on faith as one of their own.

That debacle occupies the first half of the movie, but when Gail's fellow agent gets her cover blown, Gail ends up on a new mission, this time as her normal Caucasian blonde self, posing as a Northern Confederate sympathizer taking refuge in the South. There she re-encounters a handsome Confederate officer played by Gary Cooper, and they of course fall instantly in love. The movie doesn't spend a whole lot of time on the star-crossed-lovers angle, though, and the two characters share virtually no romantic moments, instead just blandly declaring their love for each other before being forced to part ways. The movie ends with the abrupt and unexplained reconciliation of the lovers following the war, which is dispatched in a montage lasting about 30 seconds. Disjointed, unconvincing and frequently offensive, Operator 13 is barely even worthwhile as a historical curiosity.

Monday, June 11, 2012


Let's get this out of the way right off: Bunheads doesn't know the first thing about Las Vegas. Main character Michelle Simms (Broadway star Sutton Foster) is meant to be a Las Vegas showgirl, but creator Amy Sherman-Palladino's sense of Vegas shows is seriously outdated. The headdress-wearing showgirls are almost nonexistent in Vegas these days, and certainly aren't part of any show at Caesars Palace, where Michelle mentions working. The rest of the show's Vegas references (Michelle lives next door to a prostitute and gets married at a drive-through wedding chapel) are similarly lazy.

But Bunheads leaves Vegas behind 10 minutes into its first episode, and it isn't really a show about Vegas at all, so I'll forgive Sherman-Palladino her sloppy research. The Vegas stuff is really just a plot device to get Michelle at her career low point, so low that she impulsively agrees to marry a middle-aged admirer who showers her with gifts whenever he's in town. He whisks her away to his home in the whimsical small town of Stars Hollow, er, Paradise, which is basically the quaint setting of Sherman-Palladino's Gilmore Girls transported to the California coast.

Bunheads' biggest strength and greatest shortcoming is its overwhelming similarity to Gilmore Girls, from the quirky small-town setting (full of characters with names like Boo and Truly) to the fast-talking, sharp-tongued lead character (Foster is definitely channeling Lauren Graham), even to Kelly Bishop as an imperious matriarch (in this case, Michelle's disapproving mother-in-law). After failing disastrously with the shrill sitcom The Return of Jezebel James a few years ago, Sherman-Palladino is back on familiar ground here, and that's a good thing. There's enough about Bunheads that's different from Gilmore Girls to make it feel relatively fresh, while the similarities allow Sherman-Palladino to confidently do what she does best.

Foster ably delivers the dense dialogue, and she has the same world-weary sass that Graham brought to Lorelai Gilmore. The Rory role is divided among the four teenage girls who are students at Michelle's mother-in-law's dance studio (actress Julia Goldani Telles even looks like a young Alexis Bledel), and they're a little more one-dimensional in the pilot than Michelle is, but they have potential to develop into distinctive characters as the show progresses. With the focus more varied than the intense Lorelai/Rory relationship of Gilmore Girls, there's opportunity to tell stories about a wider range of characters.

Still, Bunheads is very much about Sherman-Palladino working within her comfort zone, and anyone who didn't like Gilmore Girls or got tired of its style by the time Sherman-Palladino left may want to steer clear. To me, Gilmore Girls got tiresome the more it was weighted down by soapy relationship twists and angsty family squabbles, so a fresh start in the same style is very appealing, and I'm eager to see where Bunheads goes from here.

Premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on ABC Family.