Rooting For The Villain, Until You Can’t.

Bonnie - A Novel

Another Bonnie and Clyde book? Clearly writers continue to be intrigued by the Depression era duo, publishers seem happy to put their books out, and readers keep buying them

Heck, I did.

Not that I’m qualified to quibble over historical details, but Christina Schwarz’ new Simon & Schuster hardcover Bonnie has obviously been carefully researched (the novel’s backmatter details some of it in fact) so I’ll leave it up to true crime and B&C experts to pick apart minutae. I wasn’t looking for a history lesson but only a good read, and Schwarz’ lean but still lyrical prose delivered on that. Bonnie is more literary fiction than an action-packed crime novel, and it’s inevitable that once done, the reader might feel a little depressed. But the doomed criminals were who they were, came to a well-deserved end, and it’d be foolish to look for something uplifting here.

For a lifelong city-dweller in the northern midwest, the rural south and southwest can almost seem like a foreign country, particularly when dialing back decades to the Depression and Dustbowl eras. But Schwarz (through that careful research and lyrical wordsmithing) manages to bring it to life and just a few chapters in, you’ll find yourself fully immersed in this time and place and almost – almost, mind you – going along with Bonnie Parker and her long series of incredibly bad choices.

The robbers/kidnappers/murderers have been thoroughly romanticized on screen with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, Holliday Grainger and Emile Hirsch as well as numerous other literary retellings. You can root for the antihero. Maybe even find yurself cheering for the villain. Until you can’t, that is. Because these were very very bad people, no matter how we want to picture them or how we might try to understand what led them down the paths they chose. Schwarz may not wallow in the heists and gunplay, but it’s still grim stuff, and the myth may be more relatable than the reality, even when it’s a moving read.

Bonnie Parker…With Electric Guitars.

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When you go for the free movies on your cable provider’s on-demand menu, you can’t complain. And I wouldn’t anyway, even though American International Picture’s 1958 The Bonnie Parker Story starring Dorothy Parker (1935 – 2010) in the title role as the ‘better half’ of the notorious Depression era outlaw duo bears little resemblance to their real-life escapades…or even the now-mythical Arthur Penn-Warren Beatty-Faye Dunaway 1960’s anti-hero film classic.

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In this half of a drive-in double feature (paired with Machine Gun Kelly), Dorothy Provine’s Bonnie Parker is a broke, bitter, take-no-sass small town waitress saddled with a husband doing life in the pen. She teams up not with Clyde Barrow, but for some reason, ‘Guy Darrow’, played by Jack Hogan. Bonnie doesn’t set her eyes on him so much as the very lethal Thompson submachine gun he drags around in an enormous wooden tool box. After an exciting (albeit frustrating) series of small-time armed robberies, the duo briefly join up with Guy Darrow’s brother Chuck Darrow (not Buck Barrow) and his wife, the gang on the run now from Texas Ranger Tom Steel (a stand-in for Frank Hamer). After busting Bonnie’s husband, Duke, out of prison, an ill-conceived armored car robbery goes bad, Mister Bonnie Parker’s gunned down, and soon the outlaws are brought down in a hail of bullets by the Texas Ranger and his posse in a Louisiana backroads ambush.

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This is strictly an AIP B-movie (if that) production, obviously made fast, on a tight budget, with a script that could’ve used a revisit or two, and visibly aimed at the studio’s drive-in teenage audience, right down to the out-of-place twangy Rockabilly electric guitar and saxophone film score (which is really pretty cool, albeit out of place). Swap out the 1930’s automobiles for fifties cars with fins and it would play like a pair of doomed juvenile delinquents aiming for the big time, right down to Dorothy Provine’s long blonde tresses, snug pencil skirts and slender heels.

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She’s really something to see in this film, and the director makes sure we see a bunch (for the time), from the opening credits to several other scenes in which the camera lingers on Bonnie getting dressed or undressed. If she’s not shooting someone, Bonnie’s likely in a slip and rolling her nylons off or putting them on. We’ll leave that stuff for the horny teenage boys in the 1958 audience, and focus instead on Provine’s wicked performance. Small-time crook Guy Darrow and jailbird husband Duke Jefferson might be lusting after Bonnie (without success), but this femme fatale’s all about shooting back at an ugly world and the useless men in it…with a big, noisy and very lethal Tommy Gun.

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Darabont’s Mob City

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Magic City, Agent Carter, Birds Of Prey…it’s shows like those that keep me from getting hooked on TV series, and on pins and needles till I hear if new favorites like Batwoman or Stumptown are safe for renewal. Let’s include Frank Darabont’s 2013 Mob City in the list of shows that lured me in, only to vanish prematurely.

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The TNT series only lasted one season, and I suspect Darabont had some big plans for story lines and themes had the show lasted. Familiar faces like Ed Burns and Jon Bernthal populated this loose adaptation of John Buntin’s hefty 2009 L.A. Noir: The Struggle For The Soul Of America’s Most Seductive City (BTW: A very worthwhile non-fiction read even if you care to look for it). It covers familiar ground touched on in the amazing L.A. Confidential and the less-than-amazing Gangster Squad, specifically the mid-twentieth century struggle for mastery of Los Angeles’ organized crime scene by Jack Dragna, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen, the bad guys pitted against ‘good guy’ LAPD Captain William (later Chief) Parker. Mob City  was deliciously dark and grim, with Alexa Davalos an absolute treat to watch every moment she was on screen, and yet another in a long list of frustrating disappointments when it disappeared.

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Happy Valentine’s Day?

Daily News

I’d love to send each and every one of you a gold box of decadent Godiva chocolates and a dozen long stemmed roses for Valentine’s Day. Not gonna, of course.

Since The Stiletto Gumshoe comes from the Second City (well, it was ‘second’ at one time) or the Windy City if you prefer, lets skip the hearts and flowers for this Valentine’s and consider a Valentine from just over 90 years ago…along with one from over 50 years ago while we’re at it.

You know, you can chow down on pretty darn good pizza at an Italian restaurant/bar where a corner table looks out right into the alley where John Dillinger was gunned down. In fact, if the pussycat-sized rats will let you pass, you can even take an après-dinner stroll between that eatery and the Biograph Theatre where the Public Enemy, his gal-pal Billie Frechette and the notorious “lady in red” took in Manhattan Melodrama almost ninety years ago.

Unfortunately, you can’t poke around the bullet-riddled brickwork of the North Clark Street garage where the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre occurred, that building torn down long ago and only a vacant lot now (photo below).

2018

That bloody but botched assassination attempt was a symbolic climax to the violent prohibition era gangland warfare that turned Chicago into a battleground throughout much of the 1920’s, in which Al Capone and the Mafia tried to take out North Side bootlegger George ‘Bugs’ Moran once and for all. As it happened, Moran coincidentally escaped the bloodbath, but members of his gang, hangers-on and a garage mechanic were lined up against the wall by Capone gunmen dressed as Chicago cops and Tommy-gunned down. Capone was questioned but never charged with the crime, but always assumed to have ordered the killings, supposedly planned by Jack ‘Machine Gun’ McGurn.

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For all of Hollywood’s fascination with gangsters, no one made a movie specifically about the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre until Roger Corman’s 1967 version with 20thCentury Fox. Working with an unfamiliar big-budget and full studio resources, B-Movie veteran Corman intended to shoot on location in Chicago with classically trained actors backed up by some AIP reliables, but studio execs immediately vetoed Orson Welles as Al Capone, putting Jason Robards (originally cast as Bugs Moran) in the role. Moreover, the movie was shot on the Fox studio backlot and sound stages, some street scenes looking pretty familiar from countless 1950’s/60’s/70’s era TV shows and movies. (The climactic massacre itself was shot at Desilu studios.) Ralph Meeker, Bruce Dern and Jack Nicholson all make appearances along with often-seen TV and B-movie actors, and while no one would claim that Robards looks remotely like Capone, he delivers an energetic performance. Screenwriter Howard Browne had done extensive research on the subject and already written Seven Against The Wall for CBS’ Playhouse 90 in 1958. Supposedly with the seven-week shoot nearing completion, director Corman fretted that the movie was missing something – specifically, a woman…any woman – and they quickly cobbled together some business for Moran gang gunsel George Segal’s gun moll, played by Jean Hale. Intrusive as the bit may be, it’s a surprisingly well done and entertaining sequence for something shoehorned in at the last minute.

St Valentine Massacre

The St Valentines Day Massacre 1967

I’ll leave it to true crime and gangster buffs to nit-pick the historical inaccuracies – and I’m sure there are many. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde this is not. Still, it’s a pretty entertaining flick, surely lurking online somewhere or likely to turn up on cable. Hopefully you’ll have more romantic things to do this Valentine’s weekend. But if not, what would go down better than Chicago bootleggers, mobsters and the most infamous gangland slaying in a kitschy 1960’s B-movie?

Al Capone - Jason Robards

Bullets On Broadway?

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Mixing murder and mayhem with romance, sixties-style damn-the-man social justice and humor was an odd if inspired choice in Warren Beatty’s and Arthur Penn’s 1967 film Bonnie And Clyde (written by David Newman and Robert Benton). It may not have had very much to do with the real-life escapades of the Depression era crooks, but it made for one hell of a good film that still stands up today.

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow singing?

Now that may be pushing it a bit, even straining the notions of sympathetic anti-heroes past the broadest definitions.

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No, I’ve never seen the Broadway musical Bonnie And Clyde (script by Ivan Menchell, music by Frank Wildhorn, lyrics by Don Black, with Emmy, Tony and Oscar nominations and awards among them). No one’s a bigger fan of dark, flawed anti-heroes than me. Do I fall for hapless fools in over their heads? Yep. Do I have a soft spot for mid-twentieth century crime sagas? If you stop by here at this site, you know better than to ask. But Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow (to say nothing of Buck, Blanche and sundry lawmen) bursting into song after a bloody shootout? Hmmmm.

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Well, apparently it played well, starting in 2009 in La Jolla, California and then Sarasota, Florida, though the musical’s 2011 Broadway run was short-lived, closing after only 36 performances. Still, there was enough popular and critical interest to warrant overseas productions in Japan, South Korea, the UK, Germany and the Czech Republic through 2016.

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No one’s saying gangsters and music don’t mix. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1984 Cotton Club is but one example, and I for one look forward to seeing the fully restored version of that film.  I honestly never minded the 1967 Bonnie And Clyde film’s romanticizing of those two rural southwest 1930’s nut-jobs, guilty of killing at least nine police officers, four civilians, and more inclined to rob small town grocery stores and rural gas stations than banks. I simply choose to appreciate the film as an entertaining work of art in its own right, divorced from the much more banal evil of the real-life crooks.

But sometimes theatre creatives have to understand that not everything makes for a good musical.

Thou Shalt Not…

Fake Production Code

You’ve seen this photo a million times, I’ll bet. But I, for one, hadn’t seen it credited anywhere before, till it popped into my feed from HistoryCultureEducation at Tumblr. That site says it’s a 1934 staged photo by A.L. ‘Whitey’ Schafer, poking fun at the new Hays Production Code, and shoehorning in as many violations as possible. Accurate or not, it’s still pretty amusing.

Gun Crazy

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Nothing to do with the iconic Joseph H. Lewis 1950 cult classic film noir Gun Crazy co-scripted by Dalton Trumbo for the King Brothers. These are selected images from the “Gun Crazy” series by photographer Vladimir Volf Kirilin.

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Bonnie And Clyde, 1991.

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Revisiting the work of photographer Peter Lindbergh, who passed away last week on 9.3.19. Shown here is his 1991 shoot with models Karen Mulder and Linda Evangelista as Bonnie And Clyde. The Depression era gangsters more or less mimic scenes and the ‘feel’ of the groundbreaking 1967 film Bonnie And Clyde produced by star Warren Beatty and directed by Arthur Penn, with Burnett Guffrey in charge of cinematography. Okay, neither Mulder or Evangelista look like the real Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, or even like Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway for that matter, but I could argue that Peter Lindbergh’s fashion editorial homage is no more historically inaccurate than screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton’s story was in that iconic film.

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R.I.P. Peter Lindbergh.

The Tommy Gun Dolls

The Tommy Gun Dolls

I always enjoy a surprise, such as discovering something unknown and unexpected on a comic shop’s graphic novel shelves. A recent example: Daniel Cooney’s The Tommy Gun Dolls, a handsome creator-owned hardcover graphic novel set in Prohibition era San Francisco, with both story and art by Cooney himself, assisted on inks and colors by Leigh Walls and Lisa Gonzales.

It’s 1928, and the city’s practically a war zone with rival Irish, Italian and Chinese mobs duking it out over turf, booze, gambling and prostitution. Meanwhile, at the bawdy Frisky Devil speakeasy-burlesque house (and its adjoining bordello), the showgirls and hookers endure the mobsters’ and customers’ abuse. When one of them is murdered and her grisly death hushed up by cops on the take and a tight-lipped coroner, the ladies take matters into their own hands, egged on by part-time grifter, part-time gambler, part-time snoop and full-time trouble-maker Frankie, the dead girl’s lover, and apparently a refugee from a Bob Fosse musical, complete with a black bob, derby and a complete Sally Bowles ensemble.

Oh yeah, and a tommy gun.

The Tommy Gun Dolls – Volume One: “The Big Takeover”  was a Kickstarter campaign project that resulted in a very handsome book. I don’t know the status of Volume Two – “Double Cross On Maiden Lane”, though the first book clearly was a ‘to-be-continued thing’, so I hope we’ll see that next book and more from Mr. Cooney soon. This is a pretty complex tale full of double-crosses and retro-decadence, all rendered in some mighty nice artwork. Not sure if I buy ‘proto-punk’ Frankie’s torn stockings and unlaced Doc Martens get up in the story’s opening scenes, but let’s give the artist some creatively anachronistic leeway there and just say they were World War One doughboy surplus gear. The boots, that is.

The Tommy Gun Dolls 2

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