There were good times. There were bad times. There were more good times, and then there were more bad times. Now we seem barely to be living in times at all, much less good or bad ones. Perhaps it is because our national mirror-images are produced today for instantaneous mass consumption, whereas in the '30s and '40s they were, somewhat blessedly, delayed. When they come back to haunt us now, however, they are no less haunting.
"America lost and Found," a stunning and muddled hour about the Depression, at 10 tonight on Channel 26, tries to bully the past into perspective, and its pushing and shoving get to be wearing and wearying. But the raw materials of the program, the vintage newsreels themselves, are by degrees wonderful, heartbreaking and astonishing -- something to see.
Producer Tom Johnson, director Lance Bird and writer John Crowley had some apparently vague notions about how America came through the Great Depression with its concepts of self greatly altered. But of course a nation is not a single person and generalizations like these are inherently risky.
Because so much of the footage is so extraordinary, and because Crowley's highfalutin prose is such a constant nudge, the final effect is of words battling with pictures for one's attention. The pictures win. They could have told the story alone, without an intrusive narration made worse because it is spoken by Pat Hingle, an actor who on this occasion suffuses things with meaning until they croak.
But the film! It documents the beginning of what Erik Barnouw would later call "The Image Empire." Here were pictures of us, ourselves, our countrymen, refashioned through the manipulative tools of newsreel photography and editing, played back as reality a few weeks later at movie theaters where they were brought to the screen by the same light fantastic that made Garbo laugh and Astaire dance.
These were days long before "the media" were discussed and analyzed every five minutes. It did not seem presumptuous then to call a magazine LIFE.
And so we see: Thomas Alva Edison telling 49 boys there is "no substitute for hard work" and to go out and get plucky. And a Ford Motor Co. newsreel that proclaims with more enthusiasm than authority, "Detroit is regaining her stride!" And the Bonus Army being routed from Washington by the real Army. And Eleanor Roosevelt congratulating the coldly immobile winner of the National Smiles Contest.
James Dunn shouts "The Depression is Over! We're out of the Red!" and Shirley Temple leads an eerily militaristic, agitproppy mass march in "Stand Up and Cheer." It was hope-prop, really -- as when two trains, one marked "NRA" and the other "Old Man Depression," collide in symbolic combat.The resust appears to have been a draw, but what a draw.
We see Mt. Rushmore being carved, watch an American cake being assembled, see the Republic Steel Strike in Chicago through the eyes of "the most impartial of all reporters, the newsreel camera" -- or so Paramount claimed -- and witness repeated attempts t dock dirigibles at the tippy-tippy top of the Empire State Building, a feat that could finally be accomplished only through Hollywood special effects.
The film opens with stirring poignant footage of old-looking young men talking to the camera, in a surprisingly direct, verite way, about what they hope to fine in the big city -- in most cases a job, in one, "adventure." Inserted among these hopefuls is a man who gives the safest and surest counsel possible, as true today as it was in the '30s: "My advice to all, everywhere, is not to come to New York."
It took 3 1/2 years to locate and assemble all this material, and so one can't really blame the producers for thinking too grandly and overdoing the commentary. The narration doesn't completely blunt the impact by any means, and some good points are made, but there are probably 100 better and less doctrinaire ways to organize the footage. Nevertheless, much of it is priceless and incandescent, and for the new season of "Non Fiction Television" programs from New York's Channel 13, the score is now three hits, no errors. 'The Ivory Ape'
Get that big white gorilla out of my television set! Throw a net over that thing, will you? Will you please get the white gorilla out of the -- oh, forget it. "The Ivory Ape," or, a 1,000-pound albino monkey failed to run amok in Bermuda, is so hilariously inept and negligible that it scarcely merits alarm of any kind.
If it is possible to be both rollicking and tedious, tonight's ABC movie, at 9 on Channel 7, manages it. This is one of the most amusing dullards of the year.
See, there's this big white ape, looking more like a flotkati rug with pink eyes, who is captured in Africa and takes a boat to Bermuda. Two American endangered species protectors fly down there to rescue the beastie -- which is, unbeknownst to them, a pregnant female -- from the great white ape hunters. i
But that sounds like a story. There is no story. There is no action. There is, however, a wealth of adorably rotten movie dialogue -- "the bloody monkey tried to eat me!" -- by William Overgard, nondirected into ossification by Tom Kotani. The ape is really quite a docile, sheepish, mangy old hulk, given only to spitting bananas in people's faces and strangling (not demolishing, not even really throttling) those who mean it harm. Everyone seems to mean it harm for one flimsy reason or another, but the poor things just wants to waddle around and eat cantelopes on rooftops, as who doesn't?
"Ivory Ape" does offer a gourmet feast of atrocious acting. Among the finds is a tall woman with a cultivated willowy voice, a kind of cross between Lois Chiles and Sally Kellerman, named Tricia Sembera. She plays a debutante named Vita Havermayer, and when the nominal hero of the piece remarks to her in bed about a well-known animal behaviorist, she gets to purr, "Darling, it's your animal behavior that I'm interested in."
But the topper is ancient ham Jack Palance as a retried hunter who is asked to help fine the ape but chooses to stop the narrative dead for five minutes while he tells an almost interminable anecdote about how his 8-year-old son was eaten by crocodiles. It's rib-tickling enough in its own right, but riotous when followed by a heavy silence and the remark of the local police chief: "That was (pause) -- the worst thing I ever heard."
"What started as a joke has turned into a tragedy," a local TV newswoman is heard saying. With "Ivory Ape," what starts as a tragedy turns quickly and with unwitting hilarity into a joke. Get that monkey off my roof! q