Bombast: I Love Don Weis
Fourteen years ago as of tomorrow, Don Weis went to his reward. You may be excused for not immediately recognizing the significance of this event.
In cinephile circles, the name “Don Weis” is probably best recalled for the enthusiasm that it sparked in a handful of French film-lovers in the middle years of the 20th century. It may seem perverse, but those are the years in which the groundwork for modern film culture was laid, for better or worse, and their preferences and prejudices continue to resound through the decades. Here is Jacques Lourcelles, writing about Weis’s 1954 film The Adventures of Hajji Baba in the 1992 Dictionnaire du cinéma: “American critics, so seldom lucid,* evidently ignored this praiseworthy film… [It] earned the reputation it deserved thanks only to the clear-sightedness of certain French cinephiles, and in particular of the MacMahonists.”
The name “MacMahonists” derives from the Cinema MacMahon, the theater founded by Pierre Rissient in the late 1950s, which still today can be found on the Avenue Mac-Mahon, in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe. The MacMahonists were a small but vociferous bunch who had their own house publication, Présence du cinema, co-edited by Rissient and Michel Mourlet.** The interests expressed therein were apparently nearer to those of the Cahiers writers of the period—J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum note in their Midnight Movies that both Breathless and Shoot the Piano Player were “fragment[ed] into a shrine of MacMahonist fetishes”—than those of the Marxist-identified Positif. Dave Kehr defines their critical credo as “a sort of muscular realist approach that, in particular, disdained the use of special effects and complicated visuals—anything that would distort the spatial integrity of the shot or the continuity of an action.” The presence of certain (mostly he-man) actors, and in particular the existential integrity of the gesture, was particularly fetishized; see for example Mourlet’s proclamation “Charlton Heston is an axiom,” in a 1960 Cahiers essay titled “Apologie de la violence.”
It was in a 1962 Présence du cinéma article called “Introduction à Don Weis” that Gérard Legrand called The Adventures of Hajji Baba “one of the 50 best films in the history of cinema” and Weis one of “the freest, most refined and fascinating talents in Hollywood.” Legrand, a surrealist poet who collaborated with André Breton and was later a regular contributor to Positif, goes on to praise Weis’s films for their “sense of humor, [their] comedy, and [their] abundance of invention combined with a dryness in the images” and for the director’s “passionately balanced research between horror and fascination, satire and lyricism, in view of the less superficial aesthetic perfection of someone like Douglas Sirk.”
This brings us to the prodigy himself. Weis was born in Milwaukee in 1922. Milwaukee is of course the largest city in Wisconsin, the cradle of American filmmaking genius, as the birthplace of Nicholas Ray, Joseph Losey (both of La Crosse), and Orson Welles (Kenosha). These men were of the generation preceding Weis’s—and it should be noted that his second wife, Rebecca Welles, was not Welles’s daughter with Rita Hayworth. He was, then, of prime fighting age when the bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor. Instead of heading for the front, Weis stayed in southern California, where he’d attended the University of Southern California film studies program and, after a stint as an errand boy at Warners, started working at the Jack Warner–founded 1st Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Army Air Corps at Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, which produced propaganda and training films.
In peacetime, Weis went to work for John Garfield’s Enterprise Studios, a stronghold for leftist filmmakers, and in the late ’40s and early ’50s he is credited as dialogue director or script supervisor on some of the most gritty, hard-hitting, politically committed films of the period: Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (48), Mark Robson’s Home of the Brave (49), Ida Lupino’s Outrage (50), and Losey’s M and The Prowler (both 51). Perhaps on the strength of these associations, Weis was signed to a two-year contract at MGM by Dore Schary, then chief of production, who was known for his liberal politics. In terms of overtly politicized content, Weis’s apprenticeship would appear not to be reflected in the films that he made as a director, which is understandable, as he was starting out on the job when many of his former associates were being put out of work by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Though Weis was a Schary hire, he was assigned to Louis B. Mayer films. Case in point is I Love Melvin, released in the spring of 1953 approximately a year after Singin’ in the Rain had done nicely for MGM, and reuniting two of that film’s stars, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor, he of Singin’ in the Rain’s suicidal “Make ’Em Laugh” routine. (Reynolds is also in Weis’s buoyant The Affairs of Dobie Gillis from the same year, which showcases a young Bob Fosse.) Melvin starts off looking very much like another backstage musical, but the big number being enacted on a Hollywood set by starlet Judy LeRoy (Reynolds) fades out just as she’s about to be kissed by Robert Taylor—Judy’s mother shakes her awake, and the dreamer is revealed to be a chorus girl still living with her parents, born Judy Schneider. Enter Melvin Hoover (O’Connor), a cloddish, penniless photographer’s assistant working for LIFE magazine who falls for Judy and uses her lust for fame as a passkey to her affections, promising to make her a cover girl, though such a promise is well beyond his ability to fulfill it.
The “rude awakening” introduction can be read as an inside joke about Melvin’s origins, humble compared to those of its predecessor. Melvin wasn’t a product of Arthur Freed’s famous unit, responsible for top-line musical product like Singin’ in the Rain, but a 77-minute programmer with just enough budget to cover the Technicolor and some location shooting in New York. The version of the city that the film offers is a pretty milk-and-cookies, middle-class one, and you’re taken aback the first time that Judy walks out of her parents’ clean, doily-stuffed apartment, so like a cozy Midwestern home, and emerges on the actual streets of the Upper West Side. Comparatively, Gene Kelly’s On the Town looks like a work of stark neorealism—though Melvin does beat that film’s semi-sequel It’s Always Fair Weather to the punch with its roller-skating number “Life Has Its Funny Little Ups and Downs,” tremulously sung by Noreen Corcoran, then a charming child actress playing Judy’s little sister. (And while Robert Taylor is the real McCoy, in another fantasy sequence the film deploys dancers in somewhat nightmarish Astaire and Kelly masks.)
I had the pleasure of watching I Love Melvin with an audience this past Tuesday at BAMcinématek, the first half of a double bill with Weis’s The Adventures of Hajji Baba that I co-programmed with FILM COMMENT senior editor and film culture gadfly Nic Rapold. I can report that the movie plays remarkably well, earning actual applause with the death-defying “Football Ballet” and O’Connor’s manic “I Wanna Wander” number, in which he ransacks the costumes and sets of the LIFE photo studio, taking on a dozen different characters in rapid succession. (Ideally a couple of these wouldn’t involve doing “Chinky eyes” and playing an ooga-booga nose-ringed savage, but whaddya gonna do?)
The year of I Love Melvin was the last one on Weis’s MGM contract, and the studio worked him hard—the musical was one of five films he directed that were released in 1953. His first solo outing, The Adventures of Hajji Baba, opening the following year, was made under the auspices of the independent producer Walter Wanger. Wanger was then in the midst of staging a comeback of sorts—in 1951, he had discovered that his wife (and Fritz Lang’s muse), Joan Bennett, had been having frequent extramarital assignations with her agent, Jennings Lang (no relation), using the Beverly Hills apartment of one of Lang’s underlings at the MCA talent agency for their trysts. This arrangement was apparently one of the inspirations for Billy Wilder’s celebrated The Apartment some years later, a fact that, even had he known it, would probably have given very little succor to Lang after Wanger discovered him and Bennett in flagrante delicto-ish, and shot him in the groin.
Well served by a temporary insanity defense, Wanger would put in a four-month sentence at the minimum-security Castaic Honor Farm, located 40 miles north of Los Angeles. From this experience sprang Wanger’s first real project upon release, Riot in Cell Block 11, a brutal depiction of an inmate uprising filmed on location at Folsom State Prison by director Don Siegel, which was released in February 1954. (Riot recently became the first Siegel picture since The Killers to receive the Criterion Collection treatment, and the disc is zealously recommended.) Hajji Baba, “Suggested By” James Justinian Morier’s 1824 The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan, came to theaters that fall. Riot is black-and-white, a squat and gritty thing, its newsreel opening marking it as urgently contemporary. There isn’t a single woman on screen until the last shot, and the score is blunt and perfunctory. Hajji Baba is DeLuxe Color and CinemaScope, an escapist Orientalist fantasia. Its cast included once-and-future Playboy Playmates Joanne Arnold (May 1954), Pat Lawler (August 1955), and Pat Sheehan (October 1958), alongside a bevy of other pin-ups in skimpy desert wear. (Elaine Stewart, the female lead, would eventually pose for the magazine in 1959.) The zesty score was the work of Dimitri Tiomkin, who also provided the instrumentation to the Nat “King” Cole theme song “Hajji Baba (Persian Lament),” a piece of loungy exotica (“Come to my tent, oh, my beloved…”) swinging along with Nelson Riddle’s orchestra which fades in and out on the soundtrack throughout the movie to curious fugue-like effect, as if playing on a transistor radio wandering in and out of range.
It is difficult to imagine two more markedly contrasting movies, and it seems feasible that Wanger wanted to offset his risk (Riot, billed as “Walter Wanger’s RAW-TRUTH EXPOSE!”) with a sure thing (Hajji Baba: “The girls pronounce it ‘Hotcha Baba!’”). A bronzer-slathered John Derek, a favorite of young lady moviegoers at the time, plays Hajji, a barber who dreams of wealth and adventure. Hajji finds his opportunity in a chance encounter with Princess Fakzia (Stewart), running away from the marriage that her father has arranged for her so that she may be instead be wed to the bellicose Nur-El-Din (Paul Picerni), her absence no doubt a relief to her handmaidens, whom she is seen abusing with impunity. Despite poor first impressions, Hajji and the princess become traveling companions—she of necessity, he for an emerald the size of a ping-pong ball—and set out to cross the desert together.
Casual cruelty of the sort that Fakzia indulges in is very much one of the movie’s hallmarks, from the image of a handmaiden having the bottoms of her feet slashed with a crop, to the bodies strung up outside the camp of the Turcoman women—escaped harem girls who’ve formed a band of hard-riding, hell-bent-for-leather brigands. Their leader, Banah (Amanda Blake), takes Hajji for her concubine, though not before warning him what becomes of her cast-offs: “They rot in the sun when their ardor cools.”
Redhead Blake makes quite an impression on screen with a wet, bloody smear of lipstick, malachite-green silks, and massive gold gauntlets. Production designer Gene Allen and fashion photographer Hoyningen Huene, credited here as “Color Consultant,” create a distinctive palette for each of the tribal groups that Hajji and Fakzia encounter in their travels: green for the Turcoman women, red-and-gold for Osman Aga (Thomas Gomez) and his fellow merchants, black-and-white for Nur-El-Din and his soldiers. The program notes for a screening of the restoration of Hajji Baba at the 2013 Venice film festival refer to these as “symbolic,” but if this is the case, then I suppose that the rooms at Graceland or the suites at the Madonna Inn are symbolic as well.
The Adventures of Hajji Baba is, yes, tacky. It is also full of what Martin Scorsese is fond of calling “strong images”: the pan across a canyon pass that ends on the imperious, battle-ready Banah; the tracking shot along the chained legs of the Turcoman women when they’ve been captured; the tiered hammocks of Nur-El-Din’s harem, from which Rosemarie Stack’s Ayesha steals away in the night; and, throughout, the voluptuously beautiful lead performers looming against cloudless blue skies. If we are to understand Legrand’s canonization of Hajji Baba, we must understand it as championing an intoxicant, imagist cinema over a sober, responsible cinema. Because films like I Love Melvin and Hajji Baba have no redeeming social value beyond their cinematic brio, they are ideal rallying points for anyone championing “movies for movies’ sake,” as Hoberman and Rosenbaum identify the MacMahonist creed in Midnight Movies.
“Movies” per se seem to have held no such sacrosanct place for Weis, and Hajji Baba would appear to be both the apex and the beginning of the end for Don Weis, auteur. For in 1954 he had also begun to direct for television, the upstart, encroaching medium that sumptuous widescreen entertainments like Hajji Baba had been cooked up to combat. His first outing was an episode of I Married Joan, which for three seasons on NBC detailed the misadventures of the wacky wife of an upright judge, respectively played by Joan Davis and Jim Backus (who has a chewy role as Melvin’s splenetic, drunk, and possibly deranged boss).
Over the next three-and-a-half decades, Weis would direct episodes of anything and everything put on television. He presided over episodes of The Jack Benny Program (10 of them), The Andy Griffith Show (9), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (5), The Twilight Zone (1), The Patty Duke Show (9), Batman (4), Planet of the Apes (2), Ironside (57), Kolchak: The Night Stalker (4), Starsky & Hutch (7), M*A*S*H (16), Hawaii Five-O (11), CHiPs (9), Fantasy Island (22), The Love Boat (7), Remington Steele (17), Hill Street Blues (4), and Freddy’s Nightmares (1). There was steady work to be had in the little box, if nothing else—the year after Hajji Baba, Blake, the leader of the Turcoman women, would begin a 19-year stint as Miss Kitty on TV’s Gunsmoke. Weis’s final credit dates to 1990. In retirement, he headed the Motion Picture Permanent Charities Committee (PCC) and served on the New Mexico Film Council.
When I said earlier that Hajji Baba “appeared” to be Weis’s apex, it is because I have had neither the time nor inclination to post up in a viewing booth at The Paley Center for Media and summon every 22 minutes of network television that Don Weis ever directed, right down to the last MacGyver (1 episode). In addition to Weis’s TV output, I count a total of 20 theatrical features to his name. Of these, about half are available on DVD or some kind of streaming service. Among the missing titles are Hajji Baba and 1953’s Remains to Be Seen, a June Allyson–Van Johnson pairing about which a very young François Truffaut filed an appreciative notice, as well as the 1968 Phyllis Diller vehicle Did You Hear the One About the Traveling Saleslady?, co-scripted by future M*A*S*H writers James Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum, which seems like it would have to be engagingly appalling.
Aside from the canonical Weis, I will put in a word for 1965 teen musical Billie, a return to “Football Ballet” territory with Patty Duke playing a tomboy high-school track star. It has some fairly provocative things to say about sex roles, for a while at least, and reunites the winning duo of Weis and Backus, clueless patriarch in this Gender Rebel Without a Cause. (Scroll down to watch Duke singing the fairly wrenching “Lonely Little In-Between,” from the film.) Andrew Sarris, who cagily consigned Weis to the “Miscellany” section of The American Cinema, gives italicized preference to 1959’s The Gene Krupa Story, starring Sal Mineo, and 1963’s Critic’s Choice, with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. Rounding out the Weis oeuvre, there are six TV movies, the last of these being The Munsters’ Revenge in 1981.
Weis died in Santa Fe at age 78, presumably comfortably off and possibly even with a tan. It is unclear whether, at the end of his days, he knew anything of his French following. I can find no evidence that any of Weis’s devotees made the trek to Los Angeles with a tape recorder in hand and gave him a chance to cast his Hollywood output in the light of subversive art, as Sirk would. If he did know of his cult reputation, it is not at all clear that he cared, and certainly nothing about his conducting of his career suggests that it was done with critics in mind. Even in Paris, the flame of Weis love would appear to have dimmed—a friend tells me that Bertrand Tavernier, once a Weis partisan, has tempered his appreciation. Sarris was always cautious, writing that “the Don Weis cultists in Britain and France are not normally frivolous, but just this once it remains to be seen,” and calling the director’s career “longer on commission than on conviction.” If he wasn’t convinced by 1968, there’s little chance that he ever would be.
I prefer to file Weis under “Subjects for Further Research” for the time being—that’s a lot of Ironside episodes to clock for anyone who wants to call themselves a completist. While Don Weis the man remains a vague figure, in I Love Melvin and The Adventures of Hajji Baba you can see the film sense that made him an unwitting cause célèbre. For a while, in a handful of lobbies and cafés in Paris, at least, Don Weis seemed like a hill worth fighting and dying on—and for a few films, at least, he was.
* Har. Har.
** The MacMahonist roll call included Lourcelles and Fereydoun Hoveyda (who wrote for Positif as F. Hoda), later Iranian ambassador to the U.S. under the Shah. Bertrand Tavernier, Jean-Claude Biette, and the robustly entertaining Louis Skorecki have variously been listed as fellow travelers. The RC Cola to the Pepsi and Coke of Cahiers du cinéma</em> and Positif, Présence du cinéma folded in 1967.