Tuesday, July 17, 2018

THE MEDUSA AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES (1963)

We are told that, "through the centuries, in olden times," great heroes have been given the honor of the title of Son of Hercules, and Perseus is one of these men, or will be when we meet him, but first we get some backstory. There's a Hamlet vibe in the royal house of Argos: the previous king was killed by Acrisius who then married his widow, Danae. Her son, who would be heir to the throne, has been missing and presumed dead for many years, but Danae believes that he (identifiable by three marks on his shoulder) will return someday. Acrisius will not let the people of nearby Seriphos pass through his land to get to the sea so they can engage in trade. The soldiers of Seriphos also have to deal with a deadly water dragon and the Medusa, not the serpent-haired woman of mythology, but a shambling treelike monster with tentacles and a single glowing eye with which it turns people to stone. In the middle of a battle between the two armies, most of the Seriphan soldiers, despite being warned not to look directly at the monster, wind up as statues. With his army decimated, the only way to avoid invasion by Argus is for the King of Seriphos to allow Acrisius’s son Galenore to marry his daughter Andromeda.

As Acrisius and Galenore head off to Seriphos seal the wedding deal, enter Perseus, handsome, fair-haired, and nicely built (though not your typical sword-and-sandal muscleman), who pals around with a fawn and enjoys occasional sylvan encounters with a mysterious young woman—who turns out to be Andromeda. And, gasp, he has three marks on his shoulder! When Galenore shoots Perseus's fawn for sport, the two wind up in a duel fought with whips, but Andromeda steps in and arranges for them to work things out in a tournament, with the winner getting Andromeda in marriage. Perseus wins but Galenore ungallantly kidnaps Andromeda. When Perseus goes to Argos after her, Danae recognizes his shoulder marks but Galenore kills Danae. The stage is now set for a climactic battle involving Perseus, Galenore, the two armies, the dragon, and lest we forget the movie's title, the Medusa, as the death of the Medusa may bring the stone soldiers back to life.

As you can tell, this has more narrative than the average Italain peplum movie. I'll let you to go to Wikipedia to check out the story of the mythical Perseus; suffice to say that some of the names and legends of his story (Medusa, Andromeda, relation to Hercules) are here, but mostly the plot is made up fresh for the movie. Richard Harrison makes a nice exception to the rule of the musclebound hero—he is handsome and fit, but he surely doesn’t have super strength. Because of the often atrocious dubbing in these films, it can be difficult to judge a performance, but Leo Anchoriz as the evil Galenore and Anna Ranalli (pictured with Harrison) as Andromeda are fine. The effects are cheap but surprisingly effective, especially the Medusa (pictured top right). This, like MOLE MEN AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES, was actually released under a different name in Europe (PERSEUS AGAINST THE MONSTERS) and first appeared in America as part of a television package of Sons of Hercules movies, hence the catchy theme song. Worth seeing, though I wish I'd seen a cleaned-up widescreen version instead of the dull colored pan-and-scan version. [Cable]

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

TARZAN’S SAVAGE FURY (1952)

Lord Oliver Greystoke is on safari in Africa with his guide Rokov, but when Greystoke takes aim at a lion, Rokov (Charles Korvin) takes aim at Greystoke and shoots him dead. Rokov and his partner in crime Edwards (Patric Knowles), a patrician looking Brit, steal Oliver's belongings and Edwards poses as the dead man. Their plot: to find Tarzan, Greystoke's cousin, and get him to take them to a hidden treasure of diamonds which they'll claim they want to take back to England to enrich the country's post-war coffers but they actually plan to keep for themselves. Meanwhile, we see Tarzan (Lex Barker) watching some natives use small children as bait for hunting crocodiles. He saves one child, Joey, a white orphan, and lets him stay with him and Jane, teaching the boy survival skills such as being able to stare down a lion. When the men meet up with our jungle family, Tarzan has his doubts, but Jane convinces him to help, so they all (including Cheetah) head out to cross potentially dangerous territory to find the gems. The bad guys act in the usual fashion, doing something stupid (in this case, unnecessarily shooting at a hippo) that puts the entourage in danger. There's also the usual danger from natives (in this case, a cannibal tribe), the usual trapping of Tarzan which puts him out of commission at a crucial moment, and the usual antics of Boy (err, Joey) and Cheetah which end up helping to save the day.

I've now seen all five of Lex Barker's Tarzan movies; he's not as muscly as Gordon Scott, or as articulate as Jock Mahoney, but he seems comfortable in the character. He's not as primitive or hot-headed as Weissmuller, though he still speaks in broken English and he is (rightfully) distrustful of white interlopers. Dorothy Hart is fine as Jane, and actually looks a bit like the original, Maureen O'Sullivan. Tommy Carlton is good as Joey, though this was his only movie role of credit. Hungarian actor Korvin is nicely villainous, and Knowles fills out the sort-of bad guy role well—he's bad at first but soon regrets his actions and tries to change, naturally with unhappy results. There isn't really any "savage fury" on display here—it would be up to Gordon Scott to give Tarzan a little more edge—but this is generally enjoyable, and though a couple of effects shots are poorly done, the stock footage scenes look like they've been refurbished. [TCM]

Monday, July 09, 2018

THE SMALLEST SHOW ON EARTH (1957)

aka BIG TIME OPERATORS

Matt, a struggling novelist, and his wife Jean inherit some property from a great-uncle whom Matt barely remembers. When they hear it's a cinema in a small town, they get excited about the possibilities, but the reality is that the Bijou is known by the locals as the "flea pit"; it’s a small dilapidated theater with three old and eccentric employees. Hardcastle, the owner of the Grand, the bigger, more modern cinema in town, offers to buy the property from them to turn it into a parking lot, but Matt has a plan: engage in a surface effort to make improvements and keep the place going, so that Hardcastle will up the ante on his price. Things actually start looking up for a while. They show some Hollywood westerns and rowdy teenagers start showing up (partly for the fun of the movies, partly to make out). During "The Mystery of Hell Valley," Percy, the recovering alcoholic projectionist, pumps up the heat so their ice cream sells better, and hiring a lovely young woman to walk around selling snacks also helps. After some ups and downs, and an attempt at sabotage by Hardcastle, Old Tom, the senile usher, solves their problems with his own act of sabotage.

This is a charming little comedy with a nice atmosphere and good performances, but given the actors involved, it's a shame that the characters are not better developed. Matt and Jean are played by real-life couple Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna (pictured, of BORN FREE fame), Peter Sellers (in fairly artificial-looking old age make-up) is the projectionist, Bernard Miles is the usher and Margaret Rutherford (Miss Marple in the 1960s movie series) is the cashier. They're all fine, but each character remains flat, defined by only one trait or quirk. Despite the occasional misstep, you're never in doubt that things will turn out fine for Matt and Jean, though the way their happy ending comes about is unusual (and technically seems in violation of America's production code of the era in that someone breaks the law but isn't punished). The ending also has a fun callback to an earlier joke about a trip to Samarkand. It's a feel-good movie with a nice pace and good-natured tone. [TCM]

Thursday, July 05, 2018

ISLE OF DESTINY (1940)

During a South Seas storm, radio contact is lost with famed pilot Virginia Allerton and her navigator Max as they fly their plane Lady Bird around the world. At the U.S. Marine base on the South Seas island of Palo Pango, Lt. George Allerton, her brother, is particularly upset, but finally, contact is made and two Marine buddies, Thornton and Barnes, are sent to meet her. When they do, both men fall for her and begin a rivalry to win her heart. Meanwhile, the dashing but dastardly Oliver Barton is operating a gunrunning ring on the island and he is determined to use Virginia's presence as a cover for sending a load of illegal arms to China. Barton's associate is a doddering old guy named Doc Spriggs who is pretending to be an ethnologist (and who actually does believe he has lived many past lives). As they socialize on Palo Pango while Virginia and Max prepare to continue their flight, Barton and Virginia agree on a friendly bet as to who can reach Guam first. Virginia is cautioned to avoid taking a dangerous route over the island when she leaves, but when Barton goes that way, she follows. In short order, she and Max wind up grounded and held by Barton. The plan is that, when Virginia again is not heard from, the swarming of planes looking for her will be a cover for Barton to fly his illegal arms out. But Barton hasn't planned on the involvement of Thornton and Barnes.

This B-adventure film is an odd duck. It’s cheaply made but the flying and action sequences are pulled off nicely. The two lead actors, William Gargan as Thornton and Wallace Ford as Barnes, though likeable, both come off as rather lightweight for Marines, or at least for Hollywood Marines. Ford seems intended as comic relief, but given the light tone of the entire film, it's more like the villain (well played by Gilbert Roland) is there for some dramatic relief. The movie is so light that the odd character of Doc Spriggs (Etienne Giradot) must function as comic relief for the bad guys—otherwise, there is no reason for his character to exist. June Lang is fine as Virginia, showing more spunk than many B-heroines of the era did. Good support comes from Grant Richards as George and Ted Osborne as Max. There is a cute song, "Moonlight Magic," sung by four Marines as a serenade to Virginia. One of the singers is Thurl Ravenscroft, best known for singing "You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" in the original Grinch TV special. This was the first, and apparently only, film shot in Cosmocolor, though it seems only black and white prints still exist. Pictured are Ford (left) and Gargan. [YouTube]

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

SUNNY (1941)

In New Orleans during Mardi Gras, handsome rich guy Larry Warren (John Carroll) is swept away from his sister and parents in a crowd and literally bumps into the lovely Sunny O'Sullivan (Anna Neagle, pictured with Carroll). As she's in a hurry to make an appointment, he tries to navigate their way through the crowded streets, but they run into a street combo who won't let them move while they sing "The Lady Must Be Kissed"—so he kisses her (when she darts off, the combo calls her a "kiss and run girl.") Larry and his family attend the Streamlined Sawdust circus and he sees Sunny performing and makes a date with her; in a mix-up, she is stood up, but Larry finds her and the two hit it off so well, he proposes to her that night. Her circus friends are sad to see her go, but Larry's sister Elizabeth (Frieda Inescourt) feels Sunny is a lower class golddigger and tries to stop the relationship. She thinks she has a sympathetic relative in Aunt Barbara (Helen Westley), but surprisingly, when Sunny visits the family mansion, she finds an ally in the strong willed Barbara. It looks like smooth sailing until, on the day of the wedding, Sunny's raucous circus friends show up and cause chaos ("They're ad-libbing all over the place!" someone says) that threatens to derail everything.

There’s nothing new or very original in this romance of rich snobs vs. salt-of-the-earth folks, but it all passes quickly and painlessly. The Broadway musical this is based on was a big hit in 1925 for Marilyn Miller who reprised her role in a 1930 film version (in which most of the songs were cut out). This B-movie remake has a handful of songs and a few athletic dance numbers performed by Ray Bolger who gets top billing despite having a relatively small role. Neagle, a big star in England, never quite took off in the States, and she seems fairly colorless here. Carroll, one of my favorite B-leading men, made this worth my while with his looks and charm. Edward Everett Horton, as the family lawyer, is another bright spot, as is Helen Westley as the crusty aunt. The somewhat rushed ending (Carroll calls off the marriage because of the behavior of the circus folks, then suddenly changes his mind) tries for an antic madcap tone but mostly feels jumbled and forced. Still, a watchable B-musical. [YouTube]

Monday, July 02, 2018

TARZAN AND THE MERMAIDS (1948)

The last of the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies has a more elaborate plot than most of the others, requiring an off-screen narrator to set things up for us. The isolated island of Aquatania, not far from the river that runs past Tarzan's home, has set itself up as taboo to strangers. The people worship a god named Balu, a statue that occasionally comes to life and makes pronouncements communicated to the natives by the high priest Palanth (George Zucco). Balu has the people dive for pearls and bring them to him as offerings. What we soon find out is that Balu is actually a shady pearl dealer named Varga who puts on a mask and robe for his appearances (pictured), and he and Palanth have rigged this island as an easy money-making scheme. When Mara (Linda Christian) is chosen against her will to be Balu's bride, she escapes into the sea and winds up in the river where Tarzan finds her, thinking for a moment that she's a mermaid. Tarzan and Jane take her in, but a gang of Aquatanian men find her and snatch her back to the island. Tarzan goes to rescue her, joined eventually by the local commissioner who is investigating pearl smuggling, and by Tiko (Gustavo Rojo), Mara's boyfriend who was exiled from the island for speaking out against Balu.

Weissmuller went out with a bang with this movie which mostly shook off the formulaic doldrums into which the Tarzan films had settled. Boy is gone (being schooled in England) and the antics of Cheetah the chimp are sharply reduced. The evil white hunter is now an evil pearl trader, and, though the actor playing him (Fernardo Wagner) actually has little to do, his henchman, the fabulous George Zucco, gets quite a bit of screen time to be dastardly. A new character—Benji, the singing mailman, played by John Laurenz—acts as a theatrical chorus, summarizing plot points in song. Near the climax, Tarzan executes a dangerous dive from a high cliff; according to rumor, the stunt man who did the dive died as a result, but that seems to be unsubstantiated. Brenda Joyce as Jane is fine if a bit colorless, but Christian (who soon married Tyrone Power) and Rojo are fine as the threatened lovers. Weissmuller had been seeming a bit bored and bloated in previous films, but for his last stand, he's a bit more energized, even if his acting remained lackadaisical at best. BTW, despite the title, there are no mermaids other than the swimming Mara. [TCM]

Friday, June 29, 2018

DIONYSUS IN '69 (1970)

I was quite happy to find this oddity from early in Brian DePalma's career, a film of a performance of an avant-garde play performed in New York City by an experimental troupe led by Richard Schechner. My impressionable 12-year-old self was fascinated with the press coverage of the avant-garde art scene in the 60s, and I have a vivid memory of reading about this play in magazines like Life. It looked less like a play and more like a "happening," one of those free-form art events, often including audience participation, that were all the rage in the hippie era. The play is performed more or less in the round, with the audience sitting on the floor and on scaffolding that surrounds the primary performance space. The text, such as it is, is drawn from The Bacchae by Euripides, and the best way to summarize what happens in this play is to go to the source. Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility, has come to town and his female followers have whipped themselves into a frenzy of religious ecstasy, much to his pleasure. But the young king Pentheus is opposed to this worship (and religion in general) and wants to suppress it. The bulk of the dialogue is a debate between the god (William Finley) and the king (William Shephard), though most of the play's action consists of the undifferentiated cast members, dressed in skimpy clothes, writhing and spinning and chanting, and twice engaging in orgies in which clothes are taken off completely.

I don't mean to suggest that this comes off as an unplanned free-for-all; clearly, there is a script, though it often departs wildly from Euripides' text. Frequently, the actor playing Dionysus refers to himself by his real name, and also calls the actor playing Pentheus by his name.  The movement of the cast, while it sometimes looks—and might be—improvised, is clearly well-choreographed, though audience participation is encouraged now and then—I think a handful even join in on the orgies. Even though I read The Bacchae years ago, I got lost in this play's twisted narrative, but there's usually something interesting to watch. DePalma presents the entire play in split-screen, which in the beginning works well, as we see the same action from two different perspectives (and sometimes we see the audience reaction), but I grew tired of this style and longed to see what the show looked like to the audience, as we rarely get a full length shot of the entire performance space. There is some homoerotic content that may have seemed daring in the time—in addition to Dionysus kissing Pentheus, he also gives Pentheus instructions on how to give him a blowjob (ultimately done offstage). At about 90 minutes, it felt too long to me—the writhing of the cast and the speechifying by Dionysus get repetitious—but as a historical record, it's fascinating. The play was performed in 1968, but the title comes from the final scenes in which Dionysus posits running for office in '69. [YouTube]

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE (1935)

William Magee (Gene Raymond) is an author who has bet a friend that he can whack out a novel in 24 hours. To accomplish this, he gets a key, supposedly the only key, to Baldpate Inn, a resort hotel closed for the winter where he can get peace and quiet to write. However, that night he is anything but lonely as several other folks with keys to the inn show up, including a gangster, a hermit, a professor, and an actress who is in hiding as part of a publicity stunt. There are secret passages, a safe everyone wants into, an insurance scam and (maybe or maybe not) a murder. This is in some respects a classic "old dark house" tale, based on a popular 1913 play George M. Cohan, itself based on a novel by Earl Derr Biggers, the creator of Charlie Chan. In addition to three classic-era film versions (1929, 1935, 1947), there were two silent films and a 70s horror film version called HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS, notable mostly for its stars: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and John Carradine (and Desi Arnaz Jr. who actually isn't bad).

You may think if you've seen one, you've seen them all, but not so. In the original play, there is a trick ending which is not used in the 1935 version, but is used in the 1929 film. Also, the three versions offer various running times which may affect your enjoyment of the movie. I would imagine that the stage version played out with the energy of a farce, but the pace of this version, at 80 minutes, is a little too leisurely despite the various entanglements that crop up constantly. The 1947 film is only an hour but feels as long as the '35 film. However, I liked Philip Terry as the writer, giving him the edge over Raymond. The 1929 film is my least favorite due to the presence of the wooden Richard Dix in the lead. The 1935 version has the added appeal of an excellent supporting cast including Eric Blore, Henry Travers, Grant Mitchell, Emma Dunn and Walter Brennan. There is a nice DVD set from Warner Archive with all three versions, and they're all worth watching for fans of the genre, though I'm not sure I'd suggest a binge-watching event. Pictured are Raymond and Travers. [DVD]

Monday, June 25, 2018

HEATWAVE! (1974)

It's Los Angeles in the 1970s, it's summer, and it's 112 degrees—and it's been that way for days. Young husband Ben Murphy wakes up in the morning, already sweaty and uncomfortable, to discover the bedroom air conditioning unit has stopped working. While he showers, his pregnant wife (Bonnie Bedelia) finds that the tap water has turned brown. At work, just as Murphy's boss is about to give him a promotion, the entire office is ordered to shut down for the duration of the heat wave to save resources. Bedelia's folks have offered them the use of their mountain cabin to escape the heat; Murphy resents his in-laws for making him feel inadequate but soon they feel they have no other choice. On the way up, Murphy stops to help a man attend to his heat-stricken wife, but the man winds up stealing Murphy's car so the two endure a long, sweltering hike only to discover that 1) the heat is just as bad up in the mountains, and 2) a fire has knocked out all the power. Not to mention that their cabin already has occupants: a young couple who found the back door unlocked. What could happen next? Yes, Bedelia, only seven months pregntant, goes into labor.

On the surface, this seems like a typical 70s disaster movie, albeit on a small scale since it was made for television. Modern day viewers would expect scenes of panic verging on the apocalyptic and at least a cursory attempt to blame the heat on climate change. But given the TV movie genre conventions, the era, and the low budget, what we get is basically a domestic melodrama with the climate phenomenon settling into the background, as issues such as career advancement and family tensions become the focus. To be clear, we're never allowed to forget the heat, mostly because of the visual representation of sweat—on Murphy's yellow t-shirt, in Bedelia's mussed-up hair, and on everyone's face. But the last half-hour is all about Bedelia's baby—once she delivers him, prematurely, the doctor (Lew Ayres) says that he needs an incubator to survive, but of course, there is no incubator and no power, so the climax is centered on whether or not Murphy, having already been symbolically emasculated a couple of times, can "man up" and save the child. [Spoiler: he can, with a little help from others. Also, the final shot is of rain falling, apparently signaling the end of the heat, with no attempt made at any time to explain why this has happened.] Murphy and Bedelia are very good, and David Huddleston is fine as a beer salesman who seems to befriend the couple but who then acts selfishly later before finally, with no apparent motivation, coming to their aid. Though the print on YouTube isn't great, I stuck with it because I like Murphy (pictured above in full sweat); unless you are already a fan of 70s TV-movies, you can probably skip it. [YouTube]

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

MACABRE (1958)

In the small town of Thornton, old man Wetherby has been going through a rough patch. His daughter Alice, who once dated police chief Jim Tyloe, married town doctor Rod Barrett, but she died giving birth and many of the townsfolk, including Tyloe, blame Rod who was dallying with Sylvia, his neighbor and mistress, at the time. Now Wetherby's other daughter Nancy, blind but something of a wild child, married to Tyloe but pregnant (perhaps by her handsome chauffeur Nick), has died, and again aspersions have been cast on Dr. Rod. Just hours before the scheduled midnight funeral of Nancy, the local undertaker reports that a child-sized coffin was stolen from his parlor. Meanwhile, at Rod's house, his nurse Polly takes a call that causes her to collapse: a man said that he has taken Rod's young daughter Marge, has buried her alive, and that Rod has just a few hours to find her before she will die. The suspects are plentiful since so many townsfolk dislike the doctor (indeed, as Polly notes, he barely has any patients anymore). But the focus seems to be on Polly, who, in unrequited love with him, is having a hard time dealing with the fact that he plans to marry Sylvia. But what about Sylvia? Or the cop? Could Wetherby himself have snapped? Even Rod's kindly housekeeper seems suspicious. Rod and Polly head out into the night, racing against time—and butting up against the midnight funeral—to find the little girl.

William Castle sold this film as being so shocking that is was likely to cause death by fright. But actually, it's not really a horror movie, though it's dressed up like one. It's a slightly ghoulish mystery with a child-in-menace theme, though that aspect is handled rather badly; since we never see the missing girl until the very end, we don't identify with her and it's difficult to be concerned about her. The movie is almost real-time, all taking place on the night of the midnight funeral (a cool and creepy idea which is not handled as effectively as it could be). Backstory is filled in with some awkward flashbacks, and the blind daughter, the most interesting character (well played by Christine White), is not developed much at all. The acting is either bland (William Prince as the doctor) or over-the-top (Jacqueline Scott as Polly). I have a hard time watching Jim Backus in serious roles, because my memories of Mr. Magoo and Thurston Howell III intrude, but he's fine as the police chief, and Ellen Corby—best known as Grandma Walton—is OK as the housekeeper. The uncredited Robert Colbert is nice eye candy as the chauffeur (pictured with White). The mystery is interesting and the outcome not immediately predictable, so it's worth watching, but don’t expect a full-blooded horror movie. [TCM]