Wednesday, November 22, 2017

THE SWORD IN THE STONE (1963)

In this Walt Disney fantasy film, an animated retelling of the King Arthur origin story, the king of England is dead and there is no successor yet; whoever is destined to be king will be able to pull a magic sword out of a stone, but none of the men—able-bodied or not—has been able to accomplish the task. A young orphan known as Wart (real name Arthur—hint, hint), who performs squire duties for Sir Ector and his thuggish son Kay, is taken in by the magician Merlin and taught a series of life lessons, mostly by being turning him into a series of animals and having to get out of scrapes with other animals. Of course, what Merlin knows that no one else does is that Wart is the one who can pull the sword from the stone. I saw this when it was first released (I was 7) and I loved it—its color scheme of blues, greens and purples is gorgeous; Wart's animal adventures seemed magical, and there's even a proper wizard duel between Merlin and the wicked Madam Mim. I also remember hearing the distinctive voice of TV actor Sebastian Cabot as Ector, probably the first time I recognized a celebrity voice in an animated movie. But this does not stand up to critical scrutiny 50+ years later. Usually the glow of nostalgia will prop these childhood favorites up for me, but I had to struggle to stick with this to the end. Undoubtedly, part of the problem is that animated films have changed so much over the years; not just the present-day glossy CGI but also the fast pace, the snarky humor, and the relentless action sequences. But there's also this: the movie is just plain boring. The bulk of the action concerns Wart's magical transformations, and after you've seen him learn a couple of lessons, you're ready for something else. The songs are by the Sherman brothers, who would, a year later, create such wonderful music for MARY POPPINS, but these songs are generally instantly forgettable. I did like the owl Archimedes, and the conclusion, though lacking in heft, is nice. I will always carry warm memories of this with me, but I doubt I’ll ever watch it again. It's possible that today's kids will enjoy it, but probably just the youngest. [DVD]

Monday, November 20, 2017

SALOMÉ (1922)

In this silent film version of the Oscar Wilde play, based on a story from the gospels, Herod has married Herodias, his brother's widow, but he lusts after his stepdaughter Salomé (Alla Nazivoma, at left), who is also lusted after by Narraboth, the Captain of the Guard. But Salomé only has eyes for the imprisoned John the Baptist, mostly out of stubbornness because he stoically resists all of her erotic entreaties. One night at a large feast, Salomé ignores her stepfather and flounces about outside as Narraboth pines away, in thrall to both her and the full moon. She connives to get John, shaggy and dressed only in a ratty loincloth, released from his underground cell and taunts him with demands for a kiss: "Suffer me to kiss thy mouth! I will kiss thy mouth!" He remains defiant, and when what looks a shadow of a fist passes over the moon, he proclaims that the Angel of Death is nigh. The petulant Herod demands Salomé's attention, offering her anything she wants if she'll dance for him. Her demand: the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter—she'll get her kiss one way or another.

The production of this silent film was overseen by the star, often known just by her last name of Nazivoma, directed by her husband Charles Bryant, and written and designed by Natacha Rambova (wife of Rudolph Valentino). The ravishing look of the film is by far the best reason to watch it. Rambova's large set encompassing both the feasting hall and an attached outdoor balcony is inspired by the illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley who did the drawings for Wilde's published play, as are the costumes. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie has dated rather badly; your tolerance for exaggerated acting and a camp atmosphere will determine your ability to stay with this to the end.

On balance, I enjoyed this. I watched it as if it were a ballet or a highly ritualized drama, like something performed for acolytes of an ancient mystery religion, which, if we're to believe the rumors, may be close to the truth—supposedly, the entire cast and creative crew were gay or bisexual. I suspect that is not true, and even if it were, I don't know that the film "reads" gay. On the other hand, there is the strange performance of Earl Schenck as Narraboth, who despite his pining for Salomé, seems more interested in messing around with his buddy, Herodias' page, who holds Narraboth's hand and paws at him constantly (pictured at right). Nazivoma is far too old to be playing the teenaged Salomé—frequently seen in close-up, she looks every one of her 42 years—and her facial reactions are never subtle, a problem which is not her fault entirely, as that seems to have been the style in the early 20s. Nigel de Brulier gives an oddly mannered performance as John the Baptist (called Jokaanan here, as in the Wilde play), consisting entirely of looking up or off in another direction instead of at whoever's talking to him. The inevitable beheading and kiss are not shown, perhaps because of skittish censors, which is rather disappointing for a production that is at its best when it heads over the top. It's worth staying to the end, if only for the last shot of Salomé surrounded by men with spears, about to kill her on Herod's command, and the intertitle "The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death." I don’t think Salomé loved anyone here—her desire to kiss John seems to spring for a desire to humiliate him and to hurt Herod far more than any love—but it's an interesting note on which to close. [DVD]

Thursday, November 16, 2017

WHEN KNIGHTHOOD WAS IN FLOWER (1922)

Mary Tudor, the sister of Henry VIII, is present at a tournament to see brave soldier Charles Brandon win at jousting against the powerful Duke of Buckingham. Sparks fly between the two, but Mary feels like she is "for sale" with the King is attempting to marry her off to diplomatic advantage. At court, an envoy of King Louis XII of France arrives asking for Mary's hand, a match that Henry feels would be to great advantage. Mary, however, seeing a portrait of the aging monarch, throws a fit, yelling, "Would you marry me to this withered wreck of a king?" That night, she sends for Brandon and the two head out for a romantic walk through town, followed by the suspicious Buckingham. They head to an infamous soothsayer who tells her, "You will be Queen of France until you are made happy by a death." On the street, in a brouhaha (planned, I think, by Buckingham) bandits set upon them; Brandon kills one of them and, even though he saved Mary, he is charged with murder. The King excuses him, but in order to get out of the marriage to Louis, Mary and Brandon sneak away from the castle. Eventually, they are tracked down in a tavern where Mary, dressed as a man, has acquitted herself nicely in a brawl. The two are separated and Mary finally agrees to marry Louis as long as Henry promises her that 1) Brandon will have his freedom, and 2) she can have her own pick for a second husband. He agrees, she marries, and sure enough, the soothsayer's prediction comes true.

This silent film was a big deal when it came out; it was the first movie to cost a million dollars to make, had elaborate sets and costumes, and was a big hit. You really have to put yourself in the mindset of a 1920s moviegoer to be impressed with this film, as these kinds of production values quickly became the Hollywood norm. This is not a movie I would pick to introduce a novice to the pleasures of the silent cinema—for one thing, at two hours, it's way too long and drags quite a bit in the last third—but it's enjoyable viewing for film buffs. Its main strength is Marion Davies as Mary; her acting here seems much more natural than that of other stars of the day like Mary Pickford or Lillian Gish. Her light performance carries the film through some rough patches. Lyn Harding is very good as Henry VIII in a sprightly performance that may have inspired Charles Laughton a few years later (THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII). The romantic lead, Forest Stanley as Brandon, is not particularly attractive or charismatic, so the instant sparks don't seem real, but he and Davies (pictured) do work up some chemistry. The title seems like a misnomer, as no one in the cast dresses as, or is referred to as, a knight. An interesting specimen from a bygone day. [TCM]

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

PLEASURE CRUISE (1933)

A fun, naughty shot sets the tone for this pre-Code comedy: we see a reclining nude figure from the back; a voice says, "Turn around!" and we discover we are seeing a painting being carried into an auction parlor. Playboy and failed novelist Roland Young, fallen on hard times, is forced to liquidate his estate. He plans to release his fiancée, working girl Genevieve Tobin, from her promise, but she insists that the two can make it in her small apartment on her salary. For a time, their marriage works, but a year later, he's becomes a bored househusband and is getting jealous of all the masculine attention he imagines his wife gets in the business world. Fed up with their sniping at each other, Tobin calls for a "marriage vacation," or at least separate vacations.  She books a pleasure cruise to get away, and Young sneaks his way onto the ship as a barber's assistant, hoping to keep an eye on her while keeping out of sight. Of course, complications ensue: flirty Una O'Connor keeps finding Young in her cabin (because it's next to Tobin’s cabin, he spies on her from there) and thinks he's hot for her; when Young sees men hit on Tobin, he starts spreading rumors about the presence of her brutish ex-husband to dissuade them. Eventually, handsome Ralph Forbes hooks up with Tobin and cannot be scared off. During a costume ball, Forbes shows up dressed as Romeo and makes plans some late-night activity with Tobin in her cabin; Young overhears them, so he goes to great lengths to block her cabin door so Forbes can't visit. But Young, splashing on some of Forbes' cologne, does visit his wife's darkened room and makes love to her, with her assuming he is Forbes. Who will get the last laugh here?

This is both amusing and a little edgy, and in its day must have seemed rather smutty, since the implication is that Tobin fully expects Forbes for a midnight visit and, though we don't see any activity, we must assume that she makes love to Young, thinking he is Forbes. But [SPOILER], in the coda of the film, perhaps as a sop to moralistic censor boards, Tobin claims she knew he was on the ship all along. I think the real story is that she didn't know, but figures it out the next morning and plays along to allay her husband's jealousy. At any rate, this was quite enjoyable, mostly due to Young's sly performance, though his character is not especially likeable. Actually, no one is, so it's difficult to root for anyone. But this does not turn into melodrama so it doesn't really matter. The costume ball has an odd scene: someone comes dressed as Ghandi, and I can't tell if the intent is to mock or admire. It's nice to see Una O'Connor (pictured with Young) play something besides a screaming harridan, and Herbert Mundin has some fun as Young's fellow barber. The plot seems to have been pinched from a play by Molnar which was made into a movie with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne as THE GUARDSMAN. [TCM]

Friday, November 10, 2017

SATELLITE IN THE SKY (1956)

The British are in the middle of Operation Stardust, the first manned trip past the upper stratosphere. After a series of failed experiments, they think they are finally ready for the real thing. The crew, all of whom have female troubles, consists of Commander Michael Haydon (Kieron Moore), who is being hassled by Kim, a female reporter (Lois Maxwell) who thinks it's more important to fix things on Earth before running off into space; Jimmy, the communications man whose girlfriend has to fill in at a modeling job the night before the shoot instead of spending the night with him; and Lefty, the co-pilot whose wife is tired of being neglected. The point of the mission seems to simply be to show that such a flight can be done, but what the crew doesn't know until the last minute is that they are to release and explode the experimental Tritonium bomb in space, to show the world that with the existence of such a powerful weapon, any future warfare is futile. The bomb’s inventor, Prof. Merrity (Donald Wolfit) accompanies the crew, posing as a meteorologist until the rocket takes off. Also after takeoff, the men discover that the reporter has stowed away on the ship. Eventually they jettison the rocket, but after the countdown to explosion begins, it winds up attaching itself to the ship and they know of no way to get it loose.

Some sci-fi films are criticized for not doing enough with characterization; this one does perhaps too much. For long stretches, it has more soap-operish melodrama than sci-fi adventure or speculation. Still, it musters up some innocent 50s B-movie charm; for example, the idea that a bomb explosion (set off where it will actually cause no material damage) would somehow make the world abhor war, when the actual horrors of Hiroshima couldn't accomplish that. The sets are fine, though some of the special effects are lacking. Kieron Moore (the lighthouse keeper in DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, a scientist in CRACK IN THE WORLD) makes for a generally likeable hero. Sadly, the women (especially Thea Gregory as the frustrated wife) mostly come off as annoying harpies. Maxwell went on to fame as Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond movies through 1985. A watchable if not essential film in the 50s SF canon. [DVD]

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

THE LIGHT THAT FAILED (1939)

A windswept coastline in England, 1865. Young Dick Heldar and his friend Maisie are playing with guns (!) when Maisie accidentally fires toward Dick, resulting in him getting a gunpowder burn near his eye—it's painful but not debilitating. This is to be their last summer together as she's sent off to school, but both vow to grow up and become great artists. Years later, Heldar (Ronald Colman) is a newspaper illustrator and he's in the Sudan with his war correspondent buddy Torpenhow (Walter Huston). While saving Torpenhow's life from a spear attack, he sustains a head wound near the same eye that was injured years ago. After recuperating in Port Said, he is called back to London with news that his war paintings are going over gung ho with the public. This acclaim goes to his head and he devotes himself to selling popular illustration work rather than the classier paintings he is capable of. At the zoo, he runs into Maisie who has become an artist, though a struggling one. Both Maisie and Torpenhow (who lives across the hall from Heldar) urge him to work toward finer things, but he can't give up the easy money he makes. Maisie leaves for Paris and soon Heldar has taken up with a cheap Cockney bargirl and probably part-time prostitute named Bessie (Ida Lupino); she's actually in love with Torpenhow but Heldar scotches that. As he works on what he assumes will be his masterpiece, a portrait of Bessie as the personification of melancholy, he begins a slow descent into blindness due to his war wound. But the worst is yet to come when Bessie, horrified at the portrait, defaces it; he, now completely blind, still thinks it could be his masterpiece, but his friends know it won't.

Based on a Rudyard Kipling novel—though it reminded me more of Somerset Maugham—this film, which was well thought of in its time, has become a dated period piece, the kind of stuffy, slow-moving movie that I imagine young people who don't watch black & white movies think all classic movies are like. I hold Colman (pictured with Lupino) at fault; I generally find him stiff and sluggish, and when his character is supposed to be stiff and sluggish (as in CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR or THE LATE GEORGE APLEY), he's good.  I think he gives his best performance in LOST HORIZON where his natural stiffness works well playing a man who becomes somewhat heroic despite himself. But here, Colman makes Heldar a drip, someone whom I don't want to watch a movie about. The supporting cast is better, especially Huston and Lupino. I was quite restless through the last half, but the beautifully shot final scene almost made it worth my time. This film doesn’t crop up a lot, but I don’t think that's a loss to film history. [TCM]

Sunday, November 05, 2017

ALL I DESIRE (1953)

In the early 1900s, Naomi (Barbara Stanwyck) deserts her husband and three children, leaving their small Midwestern town of Riverdale for the bright lights of Broadway. Ten years later, she's a middle-aged mid-level vaudeville performer who never made the big time, though the folks back home, particularly her teenage daughter Lily, think of her as a distinguished actress. As her current season winds down, Naomi gets a letter from Lily, now a high school senior who has decided to follow in Mom's footsteps. She has the lead role in the school play and she asks Naomi to return to Riverdale to see her and to attend her graduation. Naomi's not sure how she'll be received, but she decides to go. In Riverdale, her husband Henry (Richard Carlson), the school principal, seems to be in a semi-serious relationship with Sara, the drama teacher (Maureen O’Sullivan)—I was never sure if Henry and Naomi were officially divorced or not. Also still in town is Dutch (Lyle Bettger), the outdoorsman with whom Naomi had a much-gossiped-about fling years ago. Arriving without advance notice, Naomi is greeted enthusiastically by Lily but more warily by Henry and the other two children: Ted, who has no memories of her, and the oldest girl Joyce, who still holds quite a grudge against her for leaving. When word gets around that Naomi is in town, the audience for Lily's play is standing room only. Naomi decides to stay for graduation and eventually, Henry begins to thaw towards Naomi, but not Joyce, and when Dutch suddenly enters the picture, violence—emotional and physical—follows.

This is the first collaboration between director Douglas Sirk and producer Ross Hunter at Universal who together went on to make classic melodramas like MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION and ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS. There's not much in this one that makes it stand out from the crowd: it's shot in rather drab black & white, the action is predictable, and the acting is not much better than adequate—even Stanwyck seems to be going through the motions, and she and Carlson (picured above) have little chemistry. Still, it has its moments: its one surprising element is the violent climax between Stanwyck and Bettger, though even that is spoiled by an ending that wraps things up too neatly and too quickly. There are good performances from Lori Nelson as Lily, Billy Gray (Bud on Father Knows Best) as Ted, Richard Long as Lily's boyfriend, and Lotte Stein as the family maid who seems to the only person in town happy to see Naomi again. Interesting as an early example of the Sirk style—apparently he was forced by Ross Hunter to give the film a happy ending which the novel it was based on did not have. [TCM]

Thursday, November 02, 2017

MADAME BUTTERFLY (1932)

In 1930s Japan, Cho-Cho San (Sylvia Sidney), whose name means "butterfly," is forced to train as a geisha to help out her struggling family. Her first night on the job at Goro's Tea House, she is admired by the upper class Yamodori who plans to propose marriage, but visting American navy officer Pinkerton (Cary Grant) gets to her first. In Japan, such women are "married" by contract, and automatically divorced if the husband leaves, so Pinkerton basically decides to take her as his wife as long as he's stationed in Japan, despite having a serious girlfriend back home. They have an idyllic life together until Pinkerton is sent back to the States. On his last night, he breaks the news to her, but sings her a love song and promises to return in the spring. Three springs later, Cho-Cho San has a son and still hopes for Pinkerton's return; this spring, he does return, and stops by just long enough to introduce his American wife. She doesn't tell him about their son, but after he leaves, she arranges for her son to live with her family and commits suicide.

I've never seen the famous opera (nor read the original story) this film is based on, but I'm familiar with the plot, and this feels like a Reader's Digest abridgment. Though it's nearly 90 minutes long, and is paced well, nothing much seems to happen. Neither of the main characters is really fleshed out much, which is a particular problem with Pinkerton; he's played by the young Cary Grant and, though he acts in what most would consider a despicable manner toward his Japanese wife, he seems completely clueless about the pain he has caused her. He doesn't come off as mean or hateful, just like a man who has committed a social faux pas that is barely worth pondering. It all feels like a situation comedy but without the comedy—though there is some comic relief in the form of Charles Ruggles as Grant's buddy. Sidney has to struggle with a Hollywood stereotype of an accent—though I did like the throwaway line that she was taught a "high-class Brooklyn accent" by a scholar. Interesting but not essential. [DVD]

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

THE GHOST BREAKERS (1940)

A huge storm has broken out over Manhattan, causing widespread power outages. Radio commentator Laurence Lawrence (Bob Hope) has just pissed off Frenchy, a local mobster, because of a smart remark he made on his show, so Larry heads over to Frenchy's hotel to apologize, taking a gun loaned to him by his valet Alex (Willie Best) for protection. Staying on the same floor is Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard) who is about to sail to Cuba to claim her estate, a supposedly haunted castle on Black Island. A seemingly benign man named Parada (Paul Lukas) tries to talk her out of going, offering to buy the land, but she is warned by a Cuban named Ramon (Anthony Quinn) not to sell. In the hallway, Larry's gun goes off accidentally and at the same moment, someone shoots and kills Ramon—Larry thinks it was his fault so he hides in Mary's streamer trunk to avoid the police. Of course, he hits it off with Mary and winds up accompanying her to Cuba even though he finds out from Alex that the gun he had was not responsible for Ramon's death. In Havana, they meet up with Geoff (Richard Carlson), an old friend of Mary's who counsels her to sell the castle, and the cast is now complete for a night of spooky hijinks on Black Island where they see a zombie, a ghost, huge cobwebs, strange sounds, the apparent resurrection of Ramon, and discover that there may be a treasure hidden somewhere on the estate.

As horror-comedies go, this is one of the best, though modern audiences may find it difficult to get past the demeaning stereotypes embodied in the African-American Willie Best—it must be said that, though his performance feels quite dated, he has very good comic chemistry with Hope. Hope was in his prime in the 40s, though if he's not your cup of tea, avoid this because he’s in practically every scene. The first 15 minutes, set in New York, are actually more fun than the haunted house proceedings in Cuba, partly because it's a very different sequence than you're likely to find in most ghost movies; my favorite line in the movie occurs early on, when, during the storm, Hope quips, "Basil Rathbone must be giving a party." I suspect this was intended by Paramount as an unofficial sequel to Hope & Goddard's earlier spooky film THE CAT AND THE CANARY. Both are fun, though this one has more energy. The movie feels like it just stops rather than ends logically—a few loose threads are left loose, like the island's resident zombie (Noble Johnson) and the apparently real ghost of an ancestor that Hope and Best see in the castle (the castle set, BTW, is very cool). Lukas and Carlson are mostly wasted in parts that feel like they were bigger in an earlier screenplay draft and got cut down. But overall, this is fun, and you could do worse than a double feature of this and CANARY for Halloween viewing. [DVD]

Monday, October 30, 2017

BEHEMOTH THE SEA MONSTER (1959)

aka THE GIANT BEHEMOTH

This film, like many 50s SF movies, begins with characters in a state of anxiety over the atomic bomb. In this case, a group of scientists in England (led by American Steve Karnes) have discovered that, in areas of the ocean where nuclear weapons testing has occurred, plankton have become radioactive, which, because of their place in the food chain, means that other marine animals are also taking on radioactivity. Meanwhile on the coast of Cornwall, a fisherman, ready to call it a day, sends his grown daughter Jean back to their home to start dinner while he cleans up. Just as she's out of hearing range, the fisherman looks up and, seeing something huge and awful in the sea, starts screaming. When Dad doesn't show up for dinner, and he's not even been lollygagging at the pub, Jean gets handsome fisherman John to help her look for him. They find him back on the beach, dying, his skin badly burned. With his last words, he says he saw a burning from the sea, then says, “…behemoth!” The next day, hundreds of dead fish wash up on the shore, and John unwisely touches a glowing blob of organic material that burns his hand. When dead fish are reported all along the Cornwall coast, Karnes and Prof. Bickford investigate and discover that at least one dead fish tests as being completely radioactive. At sea, Karnes spots what looks like a giant glowing creature but it disappears quickly. A missing steamship is found beached and torn up on the shore, with all passengers missing, and a small village is destroyed one night, with a huge footprint left in the ground. All the evidence leads Karnes and Bickford to assume the creature they're looking for is a dinosaur, somehow revived or reconstituted, and they get the help of an eccentric paleontologist named Sampson, who realizes that his life-long wish o see a living prehistoric animal may be about to come true. Unfortunately, his first sighting, from a helicopter, is also his last as the behemoth (as good a name as any) swats him out of the air to a watery death. The monster, which is not only huge and powerful but also emits strong waves of deadly radioactivity, lumbers toward London and the Thames. Bad news for ships, Londoners, and London Bridge, unless our heroes can figure out a way to kill the beast that won't also spread radioactivity throughout London.

This plays out a lot like a British version of 1953's THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, another atom bomb-related sea monster movie. They both have the same director (Eugene Lourie) and both have special effects supervised by legends—Ray Harryhausen for FATHOMS, Willis O'Brien, who worked on the granddaddy of giant monster movies, KING KONG, for BEHEMOTH. This movie, with a lower budget, suffers in comparison, but it's still worth a viewing. The early glimpses of the monster are disappointing, but once he gets his ass above the water, he's fairly impressive. The acting from the leads (the American Gene Evans and the British Andre Morrell) is serviceable, and I rather like the fact that the movie stymies at least one expectation: despite seeming to be setting up Jean and John as a central romantic couple (or Jean as an object of lust for Karnes), they both vanish from the film fairly early on. Jack MacGowran, known for his stage work in the plays of Samuel Beckett, gives a goofy spin to the paleontologist, though like the young couple, he's not around for long. The American title, The Giant Behemoth, is rather silly, like calling it The Huge Gigantic Giant. Fairly fun, on the higher end of atomic era monster movies. [Amazon Streaming]