Then Playing — Mr. Soul; East Side, West Side; Where’s Poppa?

Mr. Soul! (Melissa Haizlip, 2018). Like Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s more recent Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), this documentary aims to correct the aggressive erasure of triumphant Black culture. Created by Ellis Haizlip, Soul! was a program that aired for five years on public television stations. It offered a dizzying array of musicians, poets, writers, and intellectuals from the Black community compellingly engaged with the topics of the day. The principled leadership of Haizlip, who was also Soul!‘s primary on-air host, is the focus of Mr. Soul, perhaps in part because his niece is the director (Sam Pollard is the credited co-director of the film). Melissa Haizlip doesn’t indulge in pure hagiography, but the film is also clearly structured as a celebration, more appreciation reminiscence than historical investigation. The approach can sometimes make the overarching issues and conflicts feel a little obscure. The plentiful clips from the original program, however, are well-deployed. They are riveting and immediate, vibrant testament to the time when U.S. television made room in limited confines for deep, challenging material. It’s enthralling to see Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin in spirited conversation before studio cameras, like a dispatch from an alternative media universe that’s so much better than our own.

East Side, West Side (Mervyn LeRoy, 1949). James Mason plays Brandon Bourne, a caddish playboy whose roving ways are always quickly followed by just the right dose feigned penitence to keep his long-suffering wife, Jessie (Barbara Stanwyck,) from fleeing the marriage. A greater test arrives in the form of Isabel (Ava Gardner), the past fling that caused the most damage to Brandon and Jessie’s relationship. Gardner glides through scenes with canary-consuming satisfaction, making it exceedingly clear where this melodrama is headed. The outcomes grow yet clearer when Mark Dwyer (Van Heflin), a resolutely decent ex-cop and current government agent, shows interest in sweeping Jessie away. Working from a screenplay by Isobel Lennart (adapting a novel by Marcia Davenport), director Mervyn LeRoy assembles the film’s heavy load of elements, including a murder mystery, with his customary season-professional panache. Although Stanwyck is in the slightly stilted mode she could sometimes fall into in later films, she’s still commanding, providing a sturdy center that the other actors can do crafty work against.

Where’s Poppa? (Carl Reiner, 1970). A dark comedy on the early part of the curve after the scrapping of the Motion Picture Production Code made just any but of bawdy business suddenly fair game, Where’s Poppa? hasn’t aged all that well. There are fleeting signs that director Carl Reiner is trying for sharp-edged satire, but welcome commentary is overwhelmed by material that’s simply in bad taste, the worst of it flatly offensive through a modern lens. George Segal brings brio to the lead role of a man chafing against the chore of carrying for his senile mother (Ruth Gordon, operating with the same cunning charisma she brought to most of her late-in-life roles). That committed energy too often pushes into off-putting cartoon chaos, especially in the scenes of frantic horndog longing.

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