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BCB After Dark: On the Marquee

The cool night spot for night owls, early-risers and Cubs fans abroad asks for your opinion of the Marquee Network.

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Pittsburgh Pirates v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Welcome back to BCB After Dark: the hip hangout for night owls, early-risers, new parents and Cubs fans abroad. We’re so glad that you stopped by tonight for some music and a show. Bring your own beverage. No cover charge tonight. I hope you have been staying warm and dry. Let us take your hat and coat.

BCB After Dark is the place for you to talk baseball, music, movies, or anything else you need to get off your chest, as long as it is within the rules of the site. The late-nighters are encouraged to get the party started, but everyone else is invited to join in as you wake up the next morning and into the afternoon.

Last week’s question asked you to re-evaluate the Yu Darvish trade, one year later. That turned out to be a really good question as it got a lot of response and discussion. (I’m afraid to admit that not all of my questions are good ones.) Winning the vote with 30 percent was “I hated it at the time but I like it now.” Close behind with 28 percent was “I liked it back then and I still like it,” which is a much higher percentage of people who said they liked it at the time it was made. In third place, with 27 percent, was “I hated it and still hate it.” No one said that they liked it last year but hate it now. The rest of you were “meh” about the whole thing.

But that was a very close vote.

I’m going to have to split up my discussion of Nightmare Alley into two parts, with the second part coming on Wednesday night/Thursday morning. Quite frankly, I just have too much to say about the film to contain it in one night, plus I had some other cinema notes that I want to make tonight about two stars that we lost over the past week.

Here’s the part where I discuss jazz and movies. Feel free to skip to the baseball question at the end. You won’t hurt my feelings.

I’ve kind of been neglecting Latin jazz in this space primarily because I know even less about it than I do regular jazz. (Is that the correct term?)

So I’m trying to rectify that a little with some people I do know, the Brazilian husband-and-wife team of Paula and Jaques Morelenbaum. Paula is a terrific jazz/samba/bossa nova singer and Jaques is a jazz cellist, which is a pretty rare thing. (He can play other genres as well.) The two of them have worked with David Byrne in the past, if you need someone more familiar to connect them with.

This is an intimate concert with the two of them along with guitarist Jurandir Santana. The final song they play, “Mas, que Nada,” is one of the few Brazilian songs that Americans are generally familiar with.

I’m afraid my knowledge of Brazilian Portuguese is non-existent, so I mostly have no idea what they’re saying or singing. But I think it’s pretty cool nonetheless.

Before I get to Nightmare Alley, I wanted to say a few things about two giants of the cinema that we lost since we last met. The first is Sidney Poitier. Many of Poitier’s published obituaries called him “The Jackie Robinson of the movies,” and I think that’s about right. I’m not going to go into all of Poitier’s firsts and accomplishments because that would take forever. But like Robinson, Poitier had to find a way to fight for civil rights in a way that was seen as respectable and non-threatening by the white majority. He was a trailblazer off the screen, but he was also a terrific actor on-screen as well. By sheer coincidence, I watched Poitier’s film debut, 1950’s No Way Out, just a couple of days before he died. He was fantastic in his very first time on screen. His character, Dr. Luther Brooks, was the protagonist with the most screen time in No Way Out, but he had to settle for fourth billing behind established (white) stars Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell and Stephen McNally. Such were the indignities of the time. But despite all those indignities, Poitier never lost his dignity.

The other giant who left us was director Peter Bogdanovich, who was one of the early wunderkinds of the “New Hollywood” movement of the late-1960s, early-1970s, only to flame out quickly because of personal and professional setbacks. But unlike some of the “New Hollywood” directors, Bogdanovich worshipped the greats of “old” Hollywood such as Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks, John Ford and Orson Welles, He actually befriended Ford and Welles and Bogdanovich finished Welles’s final picture, The Other Side of the Wind, in 2018.

Bogdanovich had a streak of three films, The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon from 1971 to 1973 that were all commercial and critical smash hits, establishing him as one of Hollywood’s hottest directors. But success eluded him after that. Although he had two or three films after 1973 that received positive critical notices, only 1985’s Mask was ever a real commercial success for him again. Most of his films after Paper Moon sank without much of a trace at the box office. But to put in in baseball terms, few directors had a higher “peak value” than Bogdanovich had in the early-70s.

I hope to be able to do an essay on a Poitier and a Bogdanovich film in the near future.

OK, now it’s time for Nightmare Alley, the 1947 version starring Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray and Helen Walker, directed by Edmund Golding. Nightmare Alley is the story of a con man who goes from rags to riches to rags, with the backdrop of mid-century carnival culture. Thanks to a mentalist act stolen from some fellow carnies, Stanton Carlisle’s (Power) story is one of a man who laughs at fate only to discover that fate gets the last laugh.

Nightmare Alley also presents a contrast between the “honorable” con game of the carnival, where rubes are taken for a few bucks as part of the entertainment, and the utter corruption of the long con that operates among the rich and powerful of elite society.

Nightmare Alley has gained almost a mythical status in the film noir genre since its release. It was a rare 1940s film noir that was an “A-picture” with a big budget and big stars, despite Fox studio head Daryl Zanuck (correctly) believing that the picture would bomb. The studio spared no expense at trying to create a reasonable presentation of the carnival, going so far as to bring in real sideshow acts into a big carnival set on the studio backlots.

Another reason the film has achieved such mythic status is that disagreements about the rights kept it out of circulation for almost 50 years after its release. For years, people could read about this rare film that big star Tyrone Power called the best performance of his career, but they couldn’t see it. The film has been available for about 25 years now, and its popularity has exploded in that time.

A third reason that the film is so legendary is the way that protagonist Stanton Carlisle’s life parallels the life of William Lindsey Gresham, the author who wrote the novel that the film was based upon.

Finally, a reason that Nightmare Alley is so highly-regarded is that it is, in general, a very good picture. There are some little problems that keep it from being truly great, many of which were dictated by the requirements of the Production Code of the time. But Power was right about his performance—he is terrific in this film playing against the pretty-boy lead that he’d been typecast as.

The story of this film starts with the novelist Gresham. Nightmare Alley was the only real success of his career and today he’s mostly remembered as a minor player in the story of a much more famous writer: C.S. Lewis. For those of you who are familiar with Lewis’s life or with the 1993 Anthony Hopkins/Debra Winger film Shadowlands, Gresham was the abusive husband that Joy Davidman fled to England to escape, eventually marrying Lewis.

But long before that, Gresham was a volunteer on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War. While there, he befriended another American volunteer, a carnival barker who went by the name of “Doc” Halliday. Gresham became fascinated by the stories of the carny life that Halliday shares with him and he eventually made it his life’s mission to learn everything he could about the carnival.

Gresham turned that carny knowledge into Nightmare Alley, a tawdry story of corruption, crime and sex set in the milieu of the carnival. Gresham also took readers behind the scenes of the carnival and explained in great detail the tricks that the carnies used to separate the rubes from their money. Published in 1946, the book became an instant best seller, the only one of Gresham’s career.

Meanwhile, actor Tyrone Power was one of the people that read Nightmare Alley. Power had been one of Fox studio’s biggest stars of the 1930s, starring in several romantic swashbuckling roles in films like The Mark of Zorro and The Black Swan. But Power was in his mid-30s by the time Nightmare Alley (the book) came out and he wanted to do a film that would show his range and allow him to transition into more serious roles. Power became convinced that Nightmare Alley could be that film and convinced Fox studio head Zanuck to buy the rights.

Because Power was such a big star at the studio, Zanuck made the movie and gave it a big budget, even though he strongly believed the film would flop. For one, the story was too dark for postwar audiences. In the second place, Zanuck didn’t think that audiences wanted to see Power as anything other than a romantic lead. Finally, he knew the Production Code would insist on making a lot of changes to the film that would lead to difficulties.

In the end, Zanuck was right. The film was a flop at the box office. Some have tried to blame the fact that Zanuck didn’t put the muscle of Fox’s marketing department behind the film, but it’s tough to deny that audiences in 1947 did not want to see Power starring in something as dark as Nightmare Alley. Fortunately, we’re not bound by the opinions of our grandparents.

As far as Gresham went, he continued to fall down the hole of alcoholism. much as his protagonist Stanton Carlisle did. He wrote a non-fiction book on carnival that is even today considered a definitive text about carnival culture, but it didn’t sell while Gresham was alive. In 1962, possibly after receiving a diagnosis of cancer, Gresham checked himself into the same New York city hotel where he wrote Nightmare Alley and committed suicide.

As far as the film itself goes, Power’s portrayal of Stan is easily the best part of the film. Stan is a ex-con who gets a carnival job and quickly becomes mesmerized by a mind-reading act performed by Zeena (Joan Blondell) and her sad, alcoholic husband Pete (Ian Keith). When Stan discovers that Zeena and Pete used to do their act in high-class theaters to high-paying customers, he decides that learning the code from Zeena is the path to riches for himself. But Zeena, who reads the tarot cards for Stan, warns him that the path he is on leads to doom.

And that is another interesting aspect of Nightmare Alley. While Stan is convinced that all this mentalism and fortune-telling is nothing but mumbo-jumbo, the film isn’t so sure. Zeena’s tarot card predictions come true twice. When Stan does his mentalist act, there are several points where Stan guesses things that he could not possibly know. When called on it, Stan just writes it off to intuition, lucky guesses or a good cold reading. But the film itself leaves open the possibility that there is something real behind all of this.

One person who isn’t so sure is psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), who joins in with Stan’s con under the pretense of studying (and treating) him. Walker is truly chilling as an icy, cold-hearted criminal who uses her psychology practice to defraud her patients. Lilith (and her name is no accident) stands in sharp contrast to the other women in Stan’s life, Zeena and Stan’s young wife Molly (Coleen Gray). Whereas Zeena and Molly are part of a carny world that is all about conning the suckers, they also live by a strong moral code. They don’t con fellow carnies, for example. On the other hand, Lilith, who represents the upper-class elite of society, plays for blood. Goulding also makes an interesting choice by usually dressing Lilith in masculine clothing like suits and ties. Stan’s fatal flaw is that he sees Lilith as just a richer version of Zeena and Molly, whereas Lilith is actually an entirely different and far more dangerous creature altogether.

Before I wrap this up for the day, and I will say more about Nightmare Alley later in the week, I want to mention the new film version of the story released just last month by Academy Award-winning director Guillermo del Toro and starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett and Toni Collette. I have not seen this new version as I’m not comfortable sitting in a movie theater yet. But one advantage of having seen one version is that you can read about the other version without worrying about spoilers, so I have a general idea of how they differ.

The del Toro version of Nightmare Alley is much more true to the book, for better or for worse. The new version gives a lot of backstory to the characters before the action starts, whereas the Goulding version just starts with the characters already working the carnival and doing the mentalist act. The new film version, like the book, explains carnival culture a lot more than the 1947 version does. By sticking those elements back into the film, del Toro adds about 40 minutes on to the running length of the movie. It’s up to you to decide whether or not that’s worth the extra time.

Secondly, del Toro doesn’t have to worry about the Production Code like Goulding had to. In addition to just being able to be a lot more graphic about the sex and violence, topics like adultery could only be vaguely hinted at in 1947 and abortion had to be cut out altogether. That makes one scene more than a little puzzling.

Finally, Zanuck was worried that the original film was too dark and that Stan was too unsympathetic and that the audience would cheer his demise rather than be moved by it. Zanuck ordered a somewhat-more optimistic ending tacked onto the end and it’s not one that the picture has really earned. To make Stan more sympathetic, the death of one character was made out to be an accident that Stan was tormented by guilt about, even though it really wasn’t his fault. Additionally, in the film Stan eventually finds himself truly in love with Molly and in the end, he sends her away out of selflessness so that she won’t get caught up in all the trouble that he’s in. These are not elements present in the book or the more-recent version.

Here’s the original trailer for the 1947 film.

That’s more than enough on Nightmare Alley for tonight. I’ll have more to say about it on Wednesday night/Thursday morning.

Welcome back to all of you who skip the jazz and movies. There was a lot to skip tonight.

I’m just stealing questions from The Athletic’s fan survey at this point, but cut me some slack. There’s a lockout on, in case you haven’t heard.

Today’s question is about the Marquee Network, that Cubs broadcast channel that we were all promised that we’d love by owner Tom Ricketts. The simple question is “Do you love it?”

Or more specifically, I’m asking you to give the Marquee Network a grade. Now I would like you take into consideration that the channel launched under some very difficult circumstances. There have been two seasons now that have been badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Jon Scambi, Jim Deshaies and the rest of the gang have been forced to call road games remotely, which is definitely not ideal. Poor Taylor McGregor had to do an entire season as the reporter in the stands when there were no fans in the stands to interview.

Still, there’s a lot of stuff on the Marquee Network that aren’t game broadcasts. Or so I’m told. I can’t watch most of it. That’s another issue.

Still, there have been changes to the broadcasts from the NBC Sports Chicago/WGN days that have nothing to do with the pandemic, and it’s certainly fair to rate them on that. They’ve also added a bevy of minor league games to the schedule, and those I was able to watch, along with the actual games. So I could rate them on that.

So after two years being the official home of the Cubs, what grade would you give The Marquee Network?


What grade do you give the Marquee Network?

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    (5 votes)
  • 12%
    (22 votes)
  • 25%
    (45 votes)
  • 15%
    (28 votes)
  • 8%
    (15 votes)
  • 34%
    I don’t get the Marquee Network
    (61 votes)
176 votes total Vote Now

If you feel you can rate the Marquee Network just from their game broadcasts, go ahead. That’s what most of us want from it anyway. Otherwise, it would be interesting if you’d tell us whether or not you don’t have it because you’re a cord-cutter or because you live outside the Cubs market and the Cubs don’t make it available to you.

We hope you had a good time with us tonight. Please tell us if there is anything we can do to make your next visit more enjoyable. Please drive home safely. Dress warm. And join us again tomorrow night for what I promise will be a much-shorter edition of BCB After Dark.