29 June 2007

Corn's-A-Poppin' (ca. 1956)

Most bad films inflict their aesthetic injuries through blandness. A lumbering mistake like The Last Samurai or Four Daughters is especially infuriating because the very emptiness of the enterprise makes it difficult for the critic to enumerate objections. A few hours have been wasted, but the style and force of the thing are so elusive that the addled viewer can scarcely spin a yarn about the experience. Mediocre films yield, at best, an amnesic void.

Certain bad films stand up better to the outraged recounting. The Fountain, for example, leaves the viewer feeling short-changed but also refreshingly awake to a particularly uncomfortable brand of Kabala-inspired spirituality that seems endemic to pampered but disillusioned wunderkinds who’ve been dreaming up personal cinema since receiving a camcorder as a bar mitzvah gift. Yet even here that perverse interest only contributes to the unsatisfying tension of the thing: with such eccentric motivations underpinning the film, why is the final product ultimately kin to the least compelling brand of syndicated television?

The greatest kind of bad film opens up aesthetic territory that seems, if only in the dark, to dissolve the earnest impulse to proffer aesthetic evaluations at all. Such a film is Corn’s-A-Poppin’. It’s a backstage musical that most people, even connoisseurs of the genre, have never heard of, much less seen. It features no familiar stars and stands outside most simple means of classification. The only immediate reason to be interested in Corn’s-A-Poppin’ at all is that Robert Altman had a hand in the screenplay. He wrote it, obviously from hunger, while toiling away at short documentaries and television work. Exactly where it stands in his filmography is unclear; some sources date Corn’s-A-Poppin’ to 1951, others to 1956. The studious compilers of the AFI Catalog of American Feature Films admit that trade sources betray little about its production and that it would be presumptuous to assume that the film was ever exhibited in commercial cinemas at all. In a very real sense, then, Corn’s-A-Poppin’ lies outside of film history, as well it should be for such an awesome and unaccountable film.

Corn’s-A-Poppin’ was shot sometime in the 1950s in Kansas City by Crest Productions under the direction of Robert Woodburn, who also served as cinematographer. The sets look to be dressed-down television leftovers, which is actually appropriate, as the plot revolves around the trials of producing an inept program called The Pinwhistle Popcorn Hour. The show, a wild scheme hatched by marketing man Waldo Crummit (James Lantz) to boost sales for Thaddeus J. Pinwhistle (Keith Painton) hovers between an embarrassment and outright sabotage. In the first reel Waldo introduces Pinwhistle to his newest headliner, former hog-caller Lillian Gravelguard (Nora Lee Benedict) whose rendition of “Drink Only to Me” actually makes the anemic popcorn seem the rightful highlight of the program. Just about the only positive effect of this enterprise is the flirtatious manner affected by Pinwhistle’s “more-than-a-secretary” secretary Sheila (Pat McReynolds) and folksy Pinwhistle Popcorn Hour announcer Johnny Wilson (Jerry Wallace), whose charm helps viewers to forget that the show only runs half an hour. The only obstacle to their union is Johnny’s pushy juvenile sister Susie (Little Cora Rice) who orders him around like hen-pecking wife and airs her opinions about his TV show with minimal tact. Part of what makes Corn’s-A-Poppin’ so unaccountable is the way it moves effortlessly between studied sarcasm and tone-deaf line readings. Waldo Crummit seems like a creation shoplifted from a Frank Tashlin comedy—a vulgar show biz mover who profits in proportion to the talent’s bust. Most of his dialogue with Pinwhistle is surely meant to be understood as a thinly veiled jazz of a shyster howling at his crooked moon. When Pinwhistle finds Crummit making a deal with an executive at Chicago’s Crinkle Corn to swoop in and buy the company for ‘peanuts,’ Crummit deploys some improbable hooey about negotiating with a senator. The audience is clearly meant to take Crummit’s listless recitation as a bad joke. Likewise when he insists that the vocal talents of Miss Gravelguard are not a danger to Pinwhistle or his popcorn, reasoning that his business is about corn, not critics. Or when he laments a strain of ‘vocal cord-itis.’ These are low-rent one-liners and lame locutions infused with a consciously pathetic air apparent even to those in the rowdy back rows. Much in the same manner, Gravelguard’s singing is meant to be bad, horrendous, an ongoing train wreck of a thing. She becomes the butt and embodiment of a familiar joke about no-talent floozies crooning through a sea of cheap whiskey tears.

More famous musicals also have a good deal of fun at the expense of characters who can’t sing. Indeed, Jean Hagen’s dumb matinee idol in Singin’ in the Rain encapsulates the subject of that classic movie: the disjuncture between sight and sound. We laugh whenever Hagen opens her mouth and spews out lines in that fatuous Texan-New Englander drawl, especially when she tries to sing those lines. And it’s one of the glories of the Hollywood musical cycle when Ann Sheridan teaches an inept band of church ladies to sing the title tune in Take Me to Town. But Corn’s-A-Poppin’ possesses no correlative to Sheridan or, for that matter, Debbie Reynolds. In Corn’s-A-Poppin’ the intentionally incompetent performances exist side-by-side with and really indistinguishable from the merely misguided ones. How are we to reconcile the knowing dumbness of James Lantz’s performance and the near-documentary coyness of Pat McReynolds and Jerry Wallace? Keith Painton screams all his lines into an intercom, frets while twirling his girly fisticuffs, and always dances on the line of being hip to the whole ploy but never quite crosses it. In other words, a film that takes as its subject the effect of bad performances, amateur theatrics, impoverished plot twists, and end-of-the-tether desperation and yet is replete with all these.

Woodburn shot the film in a strange yet affecting style. Despite Corn’s-A-Poppin’ being shot with a dash of midnight oil on tawdry television sets, it does not deploy the television style of multiple cameras recording simultaneously from many pleasantly-lit angles. Most of the scenes are one-take wonders, sometimes spoiled by an unexpected cut-in. The lighting is of the lowest possible quality: while the figures are always intelligible, shadows begin to converge whenever one walks towards the corner of a room. The act of opening a door becomes a kaleidoscopic moment when the set is lit with half a dozen stray fill-lights. The film’s intended aspect ratio is also something of a puzzle. The credits fill the 1.37 frame with relevant information, but most of the shots look shoddily composed for the sub-Cinemascope flat matting so prevalent during the American conversion to widescreen. Most films shot to accommodate varying exhibition ratios center all the action in the frame, leaving dead air at the top and bottom that a projectionist could chop off without any dramaturgical loss. Not so with Corn’s-A-Poppin’ where the characters hover towards the bottom half of the frame, leaving empty spaces (bare walls, kitchen cabinets, windows looking out on nowhere) in the upper half. It’s almost as if Woodburn and his crew could only afford a tripod that rose four feet too high.

All of the incompetent evidence on screen is so singularly wrong to make chalking it up to a simple foul too dismissive. Corn’s-A-Poppin’ ignores, defies, and denies all established rules of composition. Woodburn’s film reminds us anew of the aesthetic reasoning in the ‘invisible’ codes of Hollywood filmmaking; it demonstrates the virtues of staid visual harmony by presenting an alternative so ludicrous as to be entrancingly primitive. This film so upsets our notion of cinema that calling it ‘bad cinema’ would miss the point.

That said, Woodburn, Altman, and their actors should not necessarily be credited with a concrete point, per se. One of the most beguiling qualities of the film is the ambiguity (previously discussed) about when or if the film crosses between deliberate joshing and authentic ham. Did the actors mean us to laugh at their every interjection? Is this straight or camp avant la lettre? The performance style is the logical extension of the one presented by J.S. Watson in his modernist masterpiece Tomatos Another Day, a spoof of the early talkies and their supposedly wooden line readings. But here the intent of the enterprise is much hazier. In the middle of Johnny Wilson’s first rendition of ‘Running After Love’ number (which began with Johnny robotically inching his way towards Shelia on his couch, a mix of satiric reserve and its failed realization) the star turns towards the camera for half a line and then proceeds to sing with his back to it once more. This is a moment of disarming life that, intentionally or not, completely removes the viewer from the diegesis of the film and turns that viewer towards contemplation of the film not as a narrative but as a precious document of non-professional actors ambling towards expression. When he performs ‘Running After Love’ again on the air as the film’s finale, Wallace makes literal the song’s title, prancing back and forth in a straight line with all the panache and painful limitations of the first Vitaphone performers.

The emotional heart of a picture filled with obtusely intimate moments is the penultimate number, “On Our Way to Mars.” It has the greatest build-up of all the numbers, with little Susie begging her brother to be allowed to sing with him on the air. The result is a piece of minimalist s-f: Susie and Johnny float in a cardboard rocket while crooning about finding a grilled cheese sandwich on the moon. They set up rhyme schemes and then abandon them, finishing couplets with ‘Zoom! Zoom!’ It’s a creepy number, filled with romantic and sexual overtones—already present from the first reel of Corn’s-A-Poppin’ during which we’re not quite sure whether Susie is Johnny’s sister or his midget bride. (Susie speaks with all the bluster and toughness of a boozed-out Hollywood sideshow, cooks all of Johnny’s meals in an apron, and possesses a disposition very unbecoming of a child star.) But “On Our Way to Mars” becomes unexpectedly moving when Johnny sings about ‘dreams in Cinemascope,’ a timidly self-conscious expression about the kind of ragged, desperate movie that Corn’s-A-Poppin’ must be. Its actors will never see their names on a marquee or headline a Hollywood production; the reference to unattainable aesthetic luxuries has the effect of reminding us that Corn’s-A-Poppin’ constitutes a wooly alternative to them. The enterprise is so small-time that most of the performances come across better and stronger as documentary records of deer in the proverbial limelight. Intentionally or not, local acts of guerilla cinema like Corn’s-A-Poppin’ unleash a torrent of poetic feeling and reveal a new territory in film aesthetics.