Tuesday, December 31, 2002

2002: My Movie-Watching Year, Part 2

I enjoy all kinds of older movies and I usually adjust my tolerance level based on the kind of film I'm watching (genre, budget, year in which it was made) and the stars involved. I can usually find something I like about most of the "classic" movies I see, even the ones that aren't so classic. I wrote about my favorites yesterday; today, here are the worst of last year's batch, with year of release and the month this year when I reviewed it:

CHRISTMAS EVE (1947/Jan): Though set at Christmas, almost nothing else about this marks it as a holiday movie. It's a boring and episodic melodrama (with some supposedly comic touches here and there) about an old lady who tries to unite her sons at Christmas in order to save her fortune. Ann Harding tries, but she is saddled with the worst old-age makeup I've ever seen.

COLLEEN (1936/Sept): 1936 was clearly a bad year for Warner Brothers' musicals. Like STAGE STRUCK (see below), this is another boring and charmless musical with Dick Powell stuck supporting a cardboard leading lady, in this case, Ruby Keeler. Keeler is OK in 42ND STREET, but not here.

KEEPING COMPANY (1940/July): A low point in Frank Morgan's career, playing a sit-comish dad meddling in his daughter's love life. Even the blandest episode of "Leave It to Beaver" is more watchable than this.

MILLION DOLLAR LEGS (1932/Aug): When W. C. Fields can't make a movie fun, something's very wrong. Its a little like DUCK SOUP except with bad writing, weak acting, and satire that never hits its mark. The presence of the terminally unfunny Jack Oakie is the final nail in the film's coffin.

NAVY BLUES (1941/Dec): Speaking of Jack Oakie (THE GREAT DICTATOR aside, how did this man sustain an acting career?) he helps to sink this terrible near-wartime musical, though Jack Haley and ridiculous plotting are also to blame. Poor Ann Sheridan tries, as does Martha Raye, but it's hopeless. The less said, the better.

PICCADILLY JIM (1936/Feb): Any movie with Robert Montgomery in a starring role is an iffy proposition for me. This is the worst I've seen from him. He is totally unable to pull off the casual charm needed to make the audience see that his obnoxious character is a likeable guy at heart. Eric Blore and Billie Burke are fine, but not enough reason to make me ever sit through this again.

STAGE STRUCK (1936/Apr): Along with COLLEEN (see above), the low point of the Warners musical, a far cry from the Gold Diggers movies. Dick Powell doesn't have enough charisma to save the proceedings, although Joan Blondell and Frank McHugh are fun. Jeanne Madden gives perhaps the worst leading-role peformance in a major studio film that I've ever seen. And despite Busby Berkeley's presence behind the camera, there are no full-fledged production numbers to take our attention away from the dreadfully boring story.

TORRID ZONE (1940/March): Two performers I usually like, James Cagney and Ann Sheridan, are wasted in this boring attempt to cross elements of RED DUST and THE FRONT PAGE. Sheridan is OK, but Cagney seems to be sleepwalking through his part. This doesn't even have the strong supporting cast that can make a weak film like this fun.

This was the year I discoverd that Ann Sheridan alone can't save a movie and that Virginia Weidler's wonderful performance in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY was apparently a fluke (based on KEEPING COMPANY, ROOKIE COP, and THE YOUNGEST PROFESSION). I finally got to see a Mr. Moto movie (so-so), and I found that I like Olivia De Havilland more than I thought I did (THE SNAKE PIT, MY LOVE CAME BACK, and THE DARK MIRROR, a movie I saw but haven't written up yet). I discovered Douglas Sirk and hope to track down more of his films in the coming year. And I continued to be charmed by Chester Morris (RED-HEADED WOMAN, FIVE CAME BACK, THE BIG HOUSE, FLIGHT FROM GLORY).

As far as recent films I saw this year, the less said, the better. GOSFORD PARK, ABOUT A BOY and FAR FROM HEAVEN were the best; SIGNS was the worst (a good first half-hour squandered by a terribly disappointing climax). On video, I caught up with FRAILTY, WITH A FRIEND LIKE HARRY, COOKIE'S FORTUNE, UNDER THE SAND, MULHOLLAND DRIVE, and FROM HELL, all of which were worth seeing. I'm looking forward to CHICAGO, THE HOURS, THE PIANIST, MAX, and SPIRITED AWAY, none of which I've seen yet. And now, on to 2003!!

Monday, December 30, 2002

2002: The Best of My Movie-Watching Year

I wrote up over 200 movies on my web log this year and as I glanced over all my reviews to pick my favorites, I easily found almost 50 that I would watch a second time, or recommend to friends. I've tried to narrow this list down to 10 that were my favorite favorites, so to speak. I've noted the year of release and the month in which my review appears on the blog

AIR FORCE (1943/May): I liked this partly because it was the only time that one of my favorite minor supporting players, John Ridgely, got a starring role, but it's also one of the better "soldiers in isolation" war movies of the WWII period.

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950/Dec): One of the first and still one of the best "heist" movies, with good writing, great acting (especially from Louis Calhern & Jean Hagen), and fine noirish direction from John Huston

BLUEBEARD'S EIGHTH WIFE (1938/March): One of my very favorite screwball comedies, despite some ludicrous plot weaknesses; Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper have great chemistry and get solid support from Edward Everett Horton and a very young David Niven. Sophisticated and witty at the beginning, slapsticky at the end, and fun all the way.

THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1936/April): Despite the outdated colonialist politics, this is a rousing "Brits in India" film with romance, action, and criminally handsome leading men (Errol Flynn and Patric Knowles). A notch below GUNGA DIN, perhaps, and just a smidge above BEAU GESTE.

CLEOPATRA (1934/Feb): Claudette Colbert was a surprise to me as a sexy and wily Cleopatra and Henry Wilcoxon is very good as Marc Antony. Heads and shoulders above the Elizabeth Taylor version of the 60's (May), although that film wasn't as bad as its reputation had led me to believe.

FORSAKING ALL OTHERS (1934/Jan): I gained new respect for Clark Gable and Joan Crawford this year, mostly due to their 30's movies, and this one presents them together, showing off good acting and fine romantic chemistry. If you like the two of them, I would also highly recommend STRANGE CARGO (1940/Nov).

HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO (1944/March): Possibly my favorite Preston Sturges comedy, with Eddie Bracken as a mild-mannered guy who has been discharged from the Marines due to hay fever; a bunch of real Marines take pity on him and stage a hero's welcome for him in his home town, leading to much farcical misunderstanding.

OSSESSIONE (1943/Nov): Luchino Visconti's take on James Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice," and more compelling and sexier than the Lana Turner/John Garfield version of a few years later. The French film L'ATALANTE (1934/June) is another surpsisingly sensuous treat.

THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934/March): This was the year I discovered the movies of Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg, and this was my favorite of them, a delirious, almost avant-garde telling of the life of Catherine the Great. The physical look of the movie, from cinematography to set design to costumes, is stunning. Watch it on DVD if you can. I also very much enjoyed two other Dietrich films this year, SONG OF SONGS and DISHONORED.

THE SWIMMER (1968/Sept): An allegorical film about a man's midlife crisis. Burt Lancaster, clad for the entire film in only a pair of swimming trunks, swims through the pools of all of his well-heeled suburban neighbors and confronts some hard truths about his past and present. Occasionally mystifying and not for all tastes, but very interesting and challenging.

I could just as easily have included any of the following in my list: THE ANIMAL KINGDOM, THE GOOD FAIRY, THEY WON'T BELIEVE ME (perhaps Robert Young's best performance ever), THE GREAT GARRICK, NORA PRENTISS, THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, SECRETS OF THE FRENCH POLICE, THE PHANTOM OF CRESTWOOD, and BLUES IN THE NIGHT. Some I liked mostly for strong supporting performances including DODSWORTH (Mary Astor), THIS LAND IS MINE (George Sanders), THE MIRACLE WOMAN (David Manners), and REMEMBER? (Lew Ayres). I enjoyed the over-the-top performance of Bette Davis in BEYOND THE FOREST, and I very much liked Paul Lukas in STRICTLY DISHONORABLE.

Two very good films I reviewed this year but that I had seen before were MANHATTAN MELODRAMA (1934/Dec) and NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH (1940/Feb). Some fun B-movie discoveries were MY LOVE CAME BACK, THEY MADE HER A SPY, and HOT RHYTHM. Tomorrow, I'll present the worst of the year, and briefly discuss the best and worst of recent movies I saw this year.

Sunday, December 29, 2002


The quintessential WWII narrative propaganda film, made by playwright Noel Coward (with some directorial help from a young David Lean) during what I assume were some of England's darkest days. Right off, the film boldly proclaims itself to be "the story of a ship," and it is indeed based on a real ship, helmed by Lord Mountbatten. In the movie, we follow the HMS Torrin from its construction through its various wartime adventures, which include surviving an attack, picking up survivors from Dunkirk, and eventually its sinking at sea. The disjointed and episodic story is told in flashback, but not straightforwardly, which causes a bit of confusion in the beginning. We start with the final bombing of the ship and a group of survivors on a small lifeboat. Three men become the focus of the film: the captain (Noel Coward), Petty Officer Hardy (Bernard Miles) and the youngest, Seaman Blake (John Mills). The story of their experiences on the ship are told in flashback, and their personal stories are flashbacks within flashbacks. Frankly, although all three men are given separate characteristics, they tend to blur together as stolid and admirable sailors who carry on with traditional British reserve. As the opening line suggests, the movie is at its strongest when it is indeed the story of the ship.

The first half is a little rough going, as we get used to the clever but complex narrative structure, but the dramatic events of the second half do build up some steam. Overall, it feels very much like Coward's earlier play and movie CAVALCADE (which won the Oscar for best picture in 1932-33); both are episodic, flag-waving celebrations of England during times of stress and change. The best scenes are all toward the end. When the ship transports the ragged survivors of Dunkirk back home, the shots of dozens of wounded men contain echoes of the famous wounded soldiers scene in GONE WITH THE WIND. In the most powerful scene, one character's wife and mother sit through an air raid, as they've become accustomed to doing, convinced that they can't really be hurt, but the tense scene does have a surprisingly tragic outcome. They get away with using some language that American films could never have used at the time ("damn," "hell," and "bastard"). The whole movie plays out an a much lower emotional pitch than a similar American WWII film would have. Among the homefront women, Celia Johnson is a standout as Coward's stalwart wife. Coward himself is the exact opposite of what you might expect given his racy drawing room comedies and the "sophisticated," effete persona he cultivated. A young Richard Attenborough can be glimpsed as a sailor who deserts his post and is dealt with compassionately by Coward. A little pedantic and slow is spots, but fairly rousing and dramatically engaging by the end.

Friday, December 27, 2002

NAVY BLUES (1929) and NAVY BLUES (1941)

The lesson today, class, is don't bother with any movie called NAVY BLUES. These movies are not related except that they are both torture to sit through, for different reasons. The first is an early talkie, the first talkie for William Haines, who in 1930 was voted top male box-office draw. In the silents, he specialized in playing smart-aleck wisecracker "juveniles" and that's the same type he plays here, although at almost 30 years of age, he had outgrown that type. He's a sailor who falls for an innocent girl (Anita Page); though he seems to genuinely love her, his plans don't include marriage. She, however, assumes otherwise and leaves her parents' home to prepare for her new life as Haines' wife. When Haines's ship leaves port, Page is left up a creek, so to speak. My attention wandered and I admit I lost the plot thread toward the end; I think, because she was too proud to go back to her folks, she was on the verge of becoming a fallen woman, but Haines returns in the nick of time, ready for marriage. In addition to being too old to play a carefree boyish sailor, Haines plays the character as an bizarre cross between a femme prankster and a heterosexual boor, and never comes off as very likeable. He does have one funny bit where he drops a napkin on the floor so he can reach down, look up a woman's skirt, and leeringly say, "Hello!" There's also an cute but too brief scene that appears to have actually been shot on an early version of a water rollercoaster. But unless you're a diehard Haines fan, there's not much here of interest.

However, the Haines movie is like GONE WITH THE WIND compared to the stultifyingly bad 1942 "musical comedy," and both of those words should be taken with grains of salt. It's not Ann Sheridan's fault; she's the best thing here, along with her sidekick Martha Raye. They play USO-type entertainers in Hawaii who get tangled up with some Navy men, Jack Oakie and Jack Haley (Haley plays Raye's ex who owes her alimony, always a fun and infinitely pliable plot point). Oakie and Haley are just terrible, wooden and unappealing throughout. Even Jack Carson, who I usually like, is wasted here, as are Jackie Gleason, John Ridgely, and Howard DaSilva. If Carson had Oakie's role, the movie might have been salvagable. The title song, co-authored by Johnny Mercer, is catchy; I was still humming it a few hours after the movie. The song provides the one high spot in the film, a production number with Sheridan (a little awkward in her dancing but still charming) and Raye, but it happens in the first ten minutes and everything else is downhill. Excruciating.

Thursday, December 26, 2002


I avoided watching this movie for a long time, but I'm very happy I finally did. Although I like mysteries and thrillers, and noir of the 40's (and the neo-noirs of the 70's and 80's), I'm not a big fan of 50's films or of the more "realistic" crime movies that sprang up in that decade. So, since I wasn't expecting much, this was a real joy to discover. The storyline is familar: an old man gets out of prison and decides to pull one last heist. He pulls a small gang together and the heist is carried off, but the forces of fate and justice conspire to bring all concerned to bad ends. In this case, the acting, writing, and direction are all top-notch, making this much more character-driven than I expected.

The focus (especially at the beginning and end) is on Sterling Hayden as a dull-witted "hooligan" with a gambling problem. The idea of a big jewlery robbery appeals to him as he plans to leave the big city (Chicago? Columbus? It seems to be set somewhere Cleveland and Lexington, Kentucky) and try to buy back the farm he grew up on. Jean Hagen is a revelation as his on-again, off-again girl. The character is tough but vulnerable, and Hagen is brave to do an emotional scene looking terrible, with mascara stains and a missing false eyelash. Sam Jaffe is the old doctor who masterminds the robbery, and James Whitmore and Marc Lawrence are good as peripheral hoodlums. The real standout in the cast in Louis Calhern (the ambassador in DUCK SOUP, and Buffalo Bill in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN) who I usually think of as playing stodgy businessmen. Here he is a big-shot lawyer in financial trouble who offers to bankroll the heist (despite being broke) and fence the jewels; he gets someone else to front the money, then plans to abscond with the haul. Calhern keeps a calm facade most of the time, but we see the sweaty desperation in his eyes, thanks to Calhern's great acting and John Huston's directing. In fact, the direction is subtle but stylish throughout. It's not exactly mainstream noir story material, but it has a sharp noir look, with lots of shadowy city streets and nighttime activity. In fact, it all seems to take place at night except for the great opening (a foggy big city dawn) and the sad closing with Hayden and Hagen thinking that maybe they've beaten fate as they arrive at the end of their road to buy the Kentucky farm. Brad Dexter (who just died this month) has a small but nice bit as a "muscle" man for Calhern, and Marilyn Monroe is good as Calhern's mistress, who calls him "Uncle" throughout, adding yet another creepy touch to the proceedings. This movie has continued to influence today's writers and directors (see THE USUAL SUSPECTS and RESERVOIR DOGS), and is pretty close to a crime-movie masterpiece.

Tuesday, December 24, 2002


Last year at this time, I wrote about a dreadful TV adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic (1954, with Fredric March). This year, I felt the need to re-visit an older version, from MGM, with Reginald Owen as Scrooge. The CAROLS with Alistair Sim (1951) and George C. Scott (for TV, 1984) are more well known and certainly both Sim and Scott make great Scrooges, but the Owen film has its own charms and shouldn't be overlooked by Scrooge fans. This one is short (around 70 minutes) and much lighter in tone than the dark 1951 film and the elaborate and occasionally heavy-handed version from 1984. I won't rehash the plot, but some differences should be pointed out. Owen plays Scrooge with much less heft than is usual; here, he seems more human and less "evil," though that could also be because the art direction is less dark and bleak. This lessens the impact of the transformation scene at the end, but Owen is still fun in the part. Most of the major setpieces from the original story are here (and much of the usual dialogue, too, about prisons and workhouses and being boiled in your own pudding), but there have been some revisions to the familiar plot. The movie opens with Scrooge's nephew engaging in some banter with the Cratchit children, who are playing sliding games down icy sidewalks; Scrooge fires Cratchit on Chrismas Eve because he playfully knocks Scrooge's hat off with a snowball; the subplot involving Scrooge's fiancee is missing completely. Gene Lockhart's real-life wife Kathleen and daughter June (later Lassie's "mom") have roles as Cratchits, and Anne Rutherford, Polly in the ANDY HARDY movies, is the Ghost of Christmas Past. As usual, Tiny Tim is a little too sweet and big-eyed, but overall, this is a well-paced and light-toned version of the classic that is sure to keep you in the Christmas mood.

Monday, December 23, 2002


The setting is Chinatown in 1911. Residents are split over the revolution that is happening back in China. Some are supporting the revolutionaries by sending money and supplies, while others, loyal to the Emperor, are taking measures to stop such aid. Lewis Stone is Dr. Dong Tong, who has already given all he can to the revolutionaries, but he is pressured to give more; there is a boatload of supplies ready to go but they need money to pay the captain and crew to take the boat to China. Stone's daughter, Helen Hayes, has fallen in love with young Tom Lee (Ramon Novarro), who we later discover is actually a revolutionary in exile (I think; this plotpoint was a bit blurry, but he's definitely a "good guy"). Stone approves of the match, but when the need to raise money becomes urgent, he decides he has to auction Hayes off as a bride to the highest bidder. She is shocked at first, but gives in to help her father. Warner Oland is a cruel Royalist who winds up buying Hayes. When she finds out that Oland is involved in some theft and murders that have affected her family, she exacts her own form of revenge.

The movie looks good, ripe with shadowy and exotic atmosphere. Virtually every major character is Chinese, but all are played by Caucasian actors. Once you get used to this, it actually works, except for Hayes; it never feels like she's really into the part, and to compensate, she overacts the general passivity of her character (until the last half when the character shows that she is made of stronger stuff). Navarro seems more vaguely "foreign" rather than Chinese, but he is handsome here and is very good, the best acting I've seen from him in a talkie. Ralph Morgan is the head of the "bad guys," H. B. Warner is the friend who pressures Stone into giving more money, and Louise Closser Hale is Hayes' mother figure. The real affront here for many modern viewers won't be the outdated use of non-Chinese actors, but the fact that Hayes is constantly apologizing to Stone for being a daughter rather than a son. I realize it's a reflection of real cultural values, but still it is bothersome when Hayes does take control near the end, she does it not as a strong woman, but as, in her words, a "son-daughter." If you can get past that, there is some old-fashioned charm and atmopshere to be had in this melodrama.

Sunday, December 22, 2002


Thanks to Todd Haynes' new movie FAR FROM HEAVEN, the glossy 50's melodramas of director Douglas Sirk are getting quite of bit of pop culture attention, this one in particular since the Haynes movie borrows so much from it, in terms of plot and visual style. Jane Wyman plays Cary, a resident in the New Englandish town of Stoningham, an upper-middle class community. Being past 40 and a widow, she seems a little disconnected from and perhaps stifled by her social circle. Her friends, including best buddy Agnes Moorehead, and her grown children (William Reynolds and Gloria Talbott) are trying to fix her up with Conrad Nagel, a perfectly respectable older man who is looking not for romance, but companionship. But Wyman winds up involved with hired landscaper Rock Hudson, who has three strikes against him as far as Wyman's friends and family are concerned: he's 15 years her junior, he's from a working-class background, and he's much more comfortable in nature than in country clubs or cocktail parties. The relationship is slow to grow, but once it does, Wyman becomes the subject of vicious gossip (mostly from the venomous Jacqueline De Wit). Her children subject her to tirades about her scandalous behavior, suggesting that she should be happy growing old in her lovely modern home, with a brand new TV set as her comfort. Wyman wavers about committing to Hudson with some typical soap opera results.

The reason to see this movie is the lovely use of color throughout: deep red (especially in the autumn leaves), icy blues, stark whites, pale violets. There is also a lot of blatant symbolism (the TV set, many scenes shot in mirrors or through windows, animals romping in nature), most of it reinforcing the dichotomy of the authenticity of nature vs. the artificiality and sterility of the suburban way of life. Moorehead gets to play a sympathetic character here for a change and she's very good. Charles Drake and Virginia Grey, minor character actors from the 30's and 40's, play friends of Hudson's, who of course are admirable and fully accepting of Wyman, in contrast to most of the townspeople. Wyman is fine, and Hudson is quite handsome and, well, healthy, though his character isn't as well developed as he could be. For a mainstream 50's movie, they are fairly open about the fact that Wyman and Hudson are having a physical relationship. The last shot, a Hallmark-card scene of a fawn in the snow framed by a huge picture window in Hudson's renovated mill (which winds up out-suburbaning Wyman's own living room) is a bit much. If you're going to see FAR FROM HEAVEN, this is required viewing first.

Thursday, December 19, 2002


A fairly minor but entertaining entry in the long-suffering-mothers genre of melodrama. The movie opens with Kay Francis as actress Stella Parish, about to open in London in her greatest triumph yet. She has carefully cultivated an air of mystery about herself in the press; she rarely socializes and is almost never photographed out of her stage makeup. As a favor to her manager and suitor (Paul Lukas), she agrees to attend an opening night party, but a shadowy figure from her past (Barton MacLane, who literally remains shadowy--we never actually see his face), shows up to threaten to expose some scandalous element from her past. She leaves London the next day, vanishing from public view, taking a passenger liner to the US. A reporter (Ian Hunter) runs into her by chance and even though Francis is in old-lady makeup and costume, he soon realizes who she is and what a story he has on his hands.

The scandal is that in her past, she was married to MacLane, and he killed a man who was flirting with her. She was charged as an accomplice and sent to prison, giving birth to a daughter behind bars. She is raising the daughter (well played by Sybil Jason) with the help of a relative (Jessie Ralph), but doesn't want the child to find out the details of her unsavory past. Hunter, while digging up the whole mess, finds himself falling in love with her and deciding to kill the story, but it leaks out anyway. And all this is just the first half of the movie! There are many more melodramatic plot turns before the relatively happy ending. Hunter, who was King Richard in the Errol Flynn ROBIN HOOD and the Christ figure in STRANGE CARGO, has a rare lead role here and pulls it off nicely, striking a balance between mercenary reporter and smitten sensitive guy. Francis's "lisp" gets in the way of the illusion that she is a great classical actress who would take London by storm, but we don't actually see much of her on stage and otherwise she's fine; the scenes of her in disguise on ship are fun. Worth watching, especially for fans of Francis and 30's "women's pictures."

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Two Wartime B-Thrillers with James Craig

The phrase "big lug" was custom-made for James Craig. He never had much of a career in big studio movies; his biggest part was probably as the farmer who makes a deal with the devil in THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER. His strength was in the realm of the B-film. He was handsome, occasionally resembling Clark Gable, though he's not a great actor, nor a great romancer. But if the role called for strong and sturdy and silent, he fits the bill. The following are two Craig movies which also happen to be, to varying degrees, WWII propaganda movies, one near the beginning of the war and one at the end.

SEVEN MILES FROM ALCATRAZ (1942): Despite weak characterizations and some wildly predictable plot twists, this was enjoyable. Craig and a buddy (Frank Jenks) break out of Alcatraz just after Pearl Harbor, partly out of a fear that the island prison makes them sitting ducks for a Japanese air invasion. The two wind up on a tiny lighthouse island and they intend to take the inhabitants (including Bonita Granville and Cliff Edwards) hostage, but soon get wrapped up with German spies carrying war secrets who are waiting for a sub. Throughout the movie, connections are made between the criminals and the Nazis, and because Craig is top-billed, you know he'll turn over a new leaf by the end. Craig doesn't have his mustache here, and he's handsomer without it. His acting even seems a little less heavy-handed than usual. Granville doesn't register much, but she doesn't have a lot to do except gradually fall for Craig. John Banner, who played Sgt. Schultz on "Hogan's Heroes," is one of the Nazis--I never would have recognized him. Frank Jenks had a little more exposure a few years later as Dennis Morgan's sailor buddy in CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT.

DANGEROUS PARTNERS (1945): This thriller is interesting for the moral ambiguity that surrounds the male and female leads, right up until the end. Signe Hasso and her husband chase down a man (Edmund Gwenn) who is going around the country collecting on wills made out to him. James Craig, a shysterish lawyer, is also on Gwenn's trail, hoping to blackmail him for a murder he suspects Gwenn of committing. Hasso and Craig join forces, both for greedy purposes. Of course, when they find out that Gwenn is not just a crook but also evil (imagine Kris Kringle as a Nazi!!), they come to a moral fork in the road. The opening scene, played out in the desert at a plane crash site, is quite atmospheric, but in terms of look and style, the rest of the movie goes downhill. In addition to Gwenn, there are some good performances from some interesting supporting players: Felix Bressart (James Stewart's friend in SHOP AROUND THE CORNER), Audrey Totter, and Warner Anderson. Hasso doesn't have much going for her here except for her Nordic looks and intense stare. The propaganda elements are lightly laid on at the end--you know that Craig and Hasso will eventually do the patriotic thing, but it takes right up til the end for them to make that decision.

Tuesday, December 17, 2002


It seems that the sole reason for the making of this movie was for Universal to get some more use out of the sets that had been built for the Technicolor remake of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA the year before. This, also in color, is a lovely looking film, but it certainly is a huge disappointment as a horror film (as which it is falsely marketed); it doesn't even really amount to much as melodrama. Boris Karloff plays the house physician to a Viennese opera company; he is hopelessly in love with a much younger singer (June Vincent). When he demands that she give up her singing career for him, she breaks off their relationship and he kills her, though to the world, it seems that she mysteriously vanishes just before she was to give an important royal command performance. Karloff keeps her body preserved in a chamber beneath his quarters at the opera house (a device that is echoed years later in the Dr. Phibes movies). Ten years later, a promising singer (Susanna Foster) is on a fast track to divahood; Karloff hears her and is convinced that Vincent's voice has returned through Foster, so he uses hypnosis to make her think she's lost her voice so she too will give up her career. Foster's boyfriend (Turhan Bey) and Vincent's loyal maid (Gale Sondergaard) try to find out what's wrong so that Foster will be able to give her own royal command performance.

The lush and colorful sets cannot stand in for all that's missing here. Except for the murder of Vincent at the beginning, the movie just isn't very scary. The plotline following Vincent's death is a bit convoluted; Karloff doesn't really ever stand a chance romantically with Foster, so his motivation for trying to silence her is a bit shaky, except for the vague and even silly idea of voice reincarnation. Karloff is fine, as usual, even with such mediocre material, but Foster and Bey are lifeless. The best performance is by Sondergaard, nicely underplaying a role that feels like it was inspired by Mrs. Danvers in REBECCA. An actress named Jane Farrar (who was also in the '43 PHANTOM) has a couple of nice moments as a bitchy diva who feels threatened by the up-and-coming Foster. There are way too many operetta excerpts, though the climax, involving an onstage performance and a deadly fire, is pulled off well.

Sunday, December 15, 2002


Marlene Dietrich in the middle of her delirious von Sternberg period, except this one was directed by Rouben Mamoulian. It doesn't have quite the visual flair that von Sternberg would have brought to the material, but the plotline and several individual scenes (particularly the opening) bring to mind films like BLONDE VENUS and THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN. Dietrich plays Lily, an innocent young orphan girl, semingly quite unaware of her good looks, who comes to the big city to live with her gruff and mercenary aunt (Alison Skipworth) who runs a bookstore, which is rendered quite wonderfully as a cluttered but oddly inviting place. She becomes infatuated with a sophisticated sculptor (Brian Aherne) who lives across the street and up a few flights. Soon, she is sneaking out of her bedroom to model nude for him, and they wind up having an affair. He finishes the statue of her, but Lionel Atwill (in his gruff Prussian mode) falls for her and manages to get her away from the artist (by convincing Aherne that he doesn't really want to give up his freedom by settling down) and the aunt (paying her to throw Dietrich out of her home so when the artist dumps her, she'll have nowhere to go except into Atwill's arms). They marry but she is miserable and winds up a prostitute, singing naughty songs in nightclubs, though from the audience, not the stage. In the end, she and the artist do wind up together, but only after she destroys her statue.

I'm sure that somewhere in all that is an allegory about art and love and the creative process, but it's not terribly clear to me. Like most of the collaborations between Dietrich and von Sternberg, the ravishing surfaces are the important elements here. We never see Dietrich naked, but we do see plenty of nude female statues, so much so that I imagine the movie wouldn't pass muster on most broadcast TV stations today. The statue of Dietrich reminds me of the Maria robot in METROPOLIS. In one startlingly erotic scene, Aherne stands facing the nearly-finished statue and kneads the clay of the shoulders while staring at the naked Dietrich. He comes *this close* to massaging the statue's explicitly carved breasts; the scene is far sexier than many if not most modern sex scenes despite the absence of physical contact. Hardie Albright (Barbara Stanwyck's commie boyfriend in RED SALUTE) plays a riding instructor who falls for Dietrich while she's married to Atwill. The look of the movie is lush, though not quite as luminous as the von Sternberg movies. Dietrich's wide-eyed innocence and timidity at the beginning (a bit over the top, perhaps) remind me of Dietrich at the beginning of SCARLET EMPRESS, and the use of nature in the first scene is reminiscent of the opening of BLONDE VENUS. Though this film doesn't seem to have the reputation some of her earlier and later films, it is interesting, sexy, and worth watching.

Friday, December 13, 2002


One of the last of the pre-Code crime-of-passion melodramas, set (unnecessarily) in Paris. Adolph Menjou plays a well-known playwright who is married to Ruth Chatterton but is having a rather public dalliance with the star of his latest play, Claire Dodd. In a well-played and well-shot opening scene, Chatterton hides in the shadows by a theater stage door and sees Menjou and Dodd proclaim their love. He tells Dodd he will ask his wife for a divorce, but when he goes home that night, he can't go through with it. Chatterton asks her lawyer about her options and decides she can't stop him from leaving (if he actually gets up the gumption to do so). So she goes to the theater and shoots Dodd dead during a rehearsal. However, a bank robber (Noel Madison) who has already killed a teller, escapes into the theater at that moment and is arrested for Dodd's murder. Menjou discovers the truth and writes in a diary about his predictions that his wife will eventually crack and confess to the crime. She does crack, though the circumstances wind up a little messier than Menjou predicted for all concerned. For an hour-long movie with a number of soap opera twists, it lags more often than it should. Chatterton is OK, but Dodd, in her few early scenes, has more personality. The supporting cast includes Douglas Dumbrille and George Barbier, and in a very small role, Jane Darwell. Noel Madison makes the most of his relatively few scenes as the bank robber, who winds up being perhaps the most interesting character in the movie.

Wednesday, December 11, 2002


The plotline of this film feels a bit tired and cliche now, but may well have been original back in '34. Nevertheless, the movie still works quite well, mainly due to the superb acting. I can't quite put my finger on why, but the acting feels very modern for its time, like it has more common with films of the 40's rather than the tail-end of the pre-Code era. The plot concerns two guys who have been friends since childhood, Blackie (Clark Gable) and Jim (William Powell), and the different paths their lives take. We first see them as kids, involved in a terrible boat fire which kills their parents. They are taken in first by a Jewish man who lost his own son in the fire and later by a Catholic priest (Leo Carillo). Jim becomes a lawyer and eventually district attorney; Blackie becomes a shady but shrewd quasi-underworld figure, making money through gambling. Eleanor (Myrna Loy) is Blackie's girl, but even though they live high off the hog, she tires of the gangster life and leaves Blackie for Jim; the scene where she is stood up by Blackie and winds up spending the night (so to speak) with Jim is a high point.

The two men have remained friends, with great respect for each other, and even the romantic entanglement doesn't break them apart. What does threaten to is when Blackie kills an informer with political connections who is trying to mess up Jim's run for governor. Jim has to try Blackie for murder, not knowing that Blackie actually comitted the murder with Jim's best interests in mind. In the last third, the movie's themes of love, ethics, and loyalty are brought to the front and provide a strong finish. All three leads are very good; in fact, aside from GONE WITH THE WIND, this might be Gable's best role ever. Both Powell and Gable were nominated for Oscars in '34, but not for this movie. Gable won for IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, and Powell was up for THE THIN MAN; both are good performances, but these overlooked ones are at least as good. Mickey Rooney has a small part in the beginning playing Blackie as a kid. Definitely one to catch, especially if you're a fan of any of the lead trio.

Friday, December 06, 2002


Ogden Nash is credited as a screenwriter on this film but I certainly don't see evidence of his wit here. A passel of good actors is mostly wasted on this soap opera with underdeveloped characterization. Joan Crawford is a dancer whose suitor is the "gentleman farmer" Melvyn Douglas. The mood in the beginning is fairly light as Crawford finally gives in to the persistent Douglas and agrees to marry him even though she does not love him. Douglas' brother, Robert Young, happens to arrive for a visit the night they announce their engagement. He expresses official family disapproval, but the marriage happens anyway and Douglas takes Crawford to live with him at the family compound. Margaret Sullavan is Young's wife and Fay Bainter is the boys' sister, a neurotic spinster who sort of runs the family. It turns out that Young never really loved Sullavan and has fallen in love with Crawford, who, of course, doesn't really love Douglas. On the night that Douglas' new house is finished, things come to a melodramatic head with a fire, injuries, and heroics. The actors are all fine, but they aren't given much to work with in terms of motivation. 20 years later, this might have been an interesting Faulkneresque drama along the lines of THE LONG HOT SUMMER (or even Crawford's QUEEN BEE), but too much is left unsaid here. Allyn Joslyn plays Crawford's manager and former romantic interest who drops out fairly early. Frank Albertson has a dopey juvenile role here even though he was clearly getting too old for that kind of part. Hattie McDaniel has basically one nice scene as Crawford's maid, then disappears. Bainter's character has the most potential, but also winds up the most ambiguously presented. One funny line has someone saying about Bainter after she's quoted the Bible, "One of these days, we're going to put her in all the hotel rooms."

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

Hercules and Tarzan

Before I'm ready to give up on the Thanksgiving theme of the last few days, I decided I needed to devote a short entry to a couple of my boyhood fantasy heroes whose movies might have been shown over the holiday weekend back in the day:

HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961)--This is one of the more well-regarded sword and sandal epics of the 60's. Mario Bava, who later made a name for himself in horror films, directed this atmospheric entry in the Hercules series. Reg Park plays the strongman who ventures into the Underworld to save the life of Princess Deianira, who is trapped in a state between life and death. Christopher Lee plays the villain, the evil Lyco, who attempts to engage in vampire-like behavior as he's been promised eternal life if he partakes of the blood of the princess. Herc has Theseus, a bleach-blond beach boy, as his sidekick; he gets into trouble because he can't leave the ladies alone. Also along for some lame comic relief is the nerdy Telemachus. While they're all aboveground, the proceedings are about par for the course for this kind of movie: bad dubbing, cheap effects (involving lots of boulder-throwing), and lots of episodic action involving Hercules getting everyone else out of hot water. But the Underworld is nicely photographed in deep shades of blue and green, even if the effects (including a very silly stone giant clearly made of cardboard) sometimes leave something to be desired. The widescreen version on DVD is 100 times better than the faded pan and scan versions one usually runs across. We never really get to see Lee get vampiric, but he looks younger, stronger, and more robustly evil than he ever did in most of his Hammer movies.

TARZAN THE APE MAN (1959)--Clearly the producers of this remake of the classic 1932 Johnny Weissmuller adventure film had a burning question to answer here: what if Tarzan had been a blond frat boy with a little baby fat on his face, but a killer surfer torso? Denny Miller, who plays Tarzan, was in fact a UCLA basketball star when MGM signed him to an acting contract. Miller is not very good here, not even managing to do very convincing vine swinging, but to be fair, he is hardly the worst thing in the movie. In fact, the word "inept" does not do this production justice. Much of the film consists of badly matched stock footage of animals in Africa, and badly tinted scenes of Weissmuller from the original film. The crocodile fight involves some footage from TARZAN AND HIS MATE that has been not only tinted but ridiculously sped up. It's difficult to pick a most ludicrous moment, but it might be Tarzan fighting a leopard that, for the most part, is clearly a giant stuffed toy (think Bela Lugosi and the rubber octopus in BRIDE OF THE MONSTER), and close-ups of its face show a very non-scary puppet. All the characters are fairly despicable, even Joanna Barnes as Jane who whines constantly about not having enough money to catch a man back in London. (Barnes played spoiled rich girl Gloria Upson in AUNTIE MAME and Jane might well be Gloria a few years after graduation.) My guilty pleasure admission: I had a bit of a crush on Miller when I was a teenager after I saw pictures of him in a book on movie Tarzans. I was glad to finally see this, but I can't in all honesty recommend it to any other living soul over the age of 12. Even the chimp is strictly B-talent.

Sunday, December 01, 2002


I approached this, the last of my Thansgiving children's fantasy movies, with some trepidation. In my memory, it was part and parcel of the "epic" 60's fantasies like JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and JACK THE GIANT KILLER. It's been my experience that when I revisit those movies, I'm always disappointed. Even when Ray Harryhausen is in charge of the special effects, I find the films drab, poorly acted, and difficult to sit through. However, this one, not a Harryhausen film, was a surprising treat. Most of the critical commentary I found on this film is negative, but I liked it more than any Harryhausen film I've seen. The effects aren't as good, that's for sure, but CAPTAIN SINDBAD has moderately better acting, more interesting sets, great color cinematography, and is just in general a great deal of fun. Guy Williams (best known as the dad on "Lost in Space") is Sindbad, returning home to marry his beloved Princess (a lovely German actress named Heidi Bruhl), but stymied by the wicked pretender to the throne, Pedro Armendariz, who is himself being assisted unwillingly by the royal wizard, Abraham Sofaer. The plot consists of Sindbad trying to lead a revolt against Armendariz, and eventually heading to a dangerous tower where the wicked king magically keeps his heart so he can be invulnerable to physical attack.

Many of the magic effects are nicely done, particularly the opening scene with the wizard conjuring up rain, thunder, and snow in his chamber. In a rather titilating scene, especially considering the young male audience at which this must have been aimed, he turns the princess into a "firebird," and she has to strip in order to undergo the transformation. When the bad king has the bird in his clutches and it turns back into a miniature naked princess, I was reminded of King Kong holding Fay Wray. Of course, for every good effect, there is a bad one: the King's disembodied heart looks like a pulsating box of Valentine's candy; an attempt to replicate a Harryhausen effect in a swordfight with a menacing Hydra-like creature fails miserably--I'm sure even as a kid, I would have groaned during this scene. The colors, especially the reds, blues, and purples, are rich and the sets, a mix of miniature and full-size, are quite effective. I also enjoyed an acrobatic and oddly sexy spider dance with a scantily clad man and woman swinging through the air, bouncing off gigantic spider webs. Other than that, there is not a lot of beefcake on display here; Williams is beefy and looks heroic, but he remains fully clothed, unlike the heroes of some of the other adventure movies of my youth. A big plus was the fact that most of the dialogue didn't appear to be post-dubbed--if it was, it was done very well. This is hardly a masterpiece, but it held my adult attention and it has now surpassed JASON as my favorite pre-70's fantasy epic.

Saturday, November 30, 2002


This is another kid's movie that I associate with being shown on TV during Thanksgivings of the past. Apparently, it was released the same week as the Pearl Harbor attack and got lost at the box office, resulting in the failure of Max Fleischer's cartoon studio, which was an attempt to rival Walt Disney, and whose previous big feature was GULLIVER'S TRAVELS. There is nothing wrong with the animation here; it's colorful and detailed, though its age shows now. The problem is that the story, though certainly age-appropriate for kids, lacks the imagination and magical touches of the Disney films. Hoppity the grasshopper returns to Bugville, a small lot of land that is home to a large cast of insects which include Mr. Bumble the bee and his daughter Honey, and assorted other flies and bugs. The land that Bugville is on is about to be torn up by humans for the construction of a skyscraper. A nasty beetle is also plotting against Bugville (and melodramatically plotting to get hold of Honey) and it's up to young Hoppity to save the day for the whole community and for his sweetheart. There are a pair of "good" humans, songwriter Dick and his wife, who remind me of the human couple in 101 DALMATIONS. Of course, there are also songs, mostly forgettable even though they are written by Hoagy Carmichael. From my current vantage point, the movie seemed slow going, and the character of Hoppity wasn't very engaging. But it's all amiable enough and would seem to still be perfectly enjoyable for the very young. At almost 90 minutes, it felt a bit long, but it did fulfill my need for holiday nostalgia.

Friday, November 29, 2002


I'm a child of the 60's and therefore a child of TV, and I have fond memories of watching children's fantasy movies over Thanksgiving weekend, sandwiched between football games and variety shows. I thought over the holiday weekend this year, I'd re-watch some of the movies I most associate with Thanksgiving viewing. This 30's all-star version of Lewis Carroll's fantasy was one of my favorites back then, even though most of the stars weren't familiar to me. This movie cropped up fairly frequently back then, but is hard to catch these days. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies, I was able to see it again with an adult eye, and while some of the magic I recall is gone, other delights remain. The movie is, I believe, fairly faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of Carroll's books--it's based on both "Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass"--and this viewing made me realize that, whatever ALICE'S charms, a strong narrative is not one of them. There's no need to rehash the plot, such as it is, in detail: Alice, a young girl, is frustrated with being kept inside on a snowy winter's day, so she falls asleep and dreams an extended visit to the land on the other side of the mirror. She has silly and surreal encounters with strange creatures and wakes up all cozy back in her overstuffed armchair, with her kitten in her arms.

This movie may well have had an influence on THE WIZARD OF OZ six years later, not just in the trajectory of the plotline (it's not a big stretch from Alice to Dorothy), but in the fantasy sets, magical effects, and elaborate costumes. The impact of having so many guest stars is blunted because most of them are under so much makeup, they are unrecognizable. You certainly can't prove by me that it's really Cary Grant under the Mock Turtle outfit; he might have just dubbed in his weepy dialogue and odd song. The same thing goes for Richard Arlen as the Cheshire Cat, Charlie Ruggles as the March Hare, and even W. C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty. The most recognizable are Edward Everett Horton as the Mad Hatter and the wonderful Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen. Other stars who pop in and out briefly include Ned Sparks, Jack Oakie, May Robson, Gary Cooper, and, in the most grotesque makeup of all, Alison Skipworth as the Duchess. As an adult who was watching largely to spot the stars, the film came off to me more like a revue of short and vaguely comic sketches that, more often than not, have no real punch line or payoff.

My favorite bits: Horton and Ruggles singing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat," which would not have been out of place in a Monty Python episode; the Duchess' freaky baby who turns into a pig; and Polly Moran as the Dodo, reciting "dry" history in order to dry off a soaking wet Alice. Charlotte Henry as Alice is serviceable but nothing more; she seems far too unflappable given all the bizarre and chaotic transformations she is witness to throughout. There is a lot of sadness and crying in the story: Alice's tears when she keeps growing and shrinking, the caterwauling pig-baby, the Mock Turtle, and the ill-fated oysters in "The Walrus and the Carpenter," which is done as a cartoon. If this had been made in the 60's, it might have been a favorite of the stoners, what with the strange creatures and the non-linear and non-logical story. The creepiest (but also funniest) thing in the movie is the talking leg of mutton at the climactic party. The movie doesn't quite have a conclusion as much as it just comes to an end, perhaps when the budget ran out! Not totally successful, but still a fascinating movie that should be seen by all classic movie fans at least once. Whether young children of the 21st century would enjoy it, next to Harry Potter and Toy Story, I cannot say.

Monday, November 25, 2002


An amiable little mystery with a bit too much comic relief and a few too many characters for its own good. Van Heflin is a private eye who becomes a suspect in the murder of Broadway starlet Mida King (Patricia Dane). Mida wasn't very nice and several people have motives for murder. Primarily, there's her mobster ex-boyfriend Stephen McNally, and her rich fiancee David (Mark Daniels) who found out she was planning to divorce him in six months to get his money. David's own jilted girl (Cecila Parker) and her big shot father (Samuel S. Hinds) are also suspects. The murder takes place in David's private train car, parked under Grand Central Station (hence the title of the movie) and a hidden elevator winds up playing a big part in the solution. There are two fairly interesting aspects to the film: 1) the whole story takes place over one night, and 2) all 10-12 folks (suspects, cops, and bystanders) go racing around Manhattan to recreate the events of the evening. Other actors include Connie Gilchrist (the Irish maid in AUNTIE MAME) in one of her biggest roles as an ex-vaudevillian in Mida's employ (she actually gets a brief song in a flashback scene), Betty Wells as Gilchrist's sexpot daughter, and Millard Mitchell (SINGIN' IN THE RAIN's studio boss) as a bumbling cop. Sam Levene is the chief inspector who is constantly and somewhat implausibly upstaged by Heflin all along the way. Things bog down a bit in the middle but the ending redeems it.

Saturday, November 23, 2002

Two miscellaneous oddities:

DON'T BET ON BLONDES (1935)--A silly trifle. Warren William plays a bookie who goes legit running an business in which he charges lots of money to insure against improbable things (I assume this is based a little on the reputation of Lloyd's of London). He insures a male model's neckline (the model doesn't care about his belly, but his neck must be in good shape) and the bellowing voice of a woman who wins prizes in "husband calling" contests. One case involves a man who doesn't want his wife to have twins, which run in his family; she winds up delivering quintuplets, so William's company doesn't have to pay! The main plot involves Guy Kibbee as an eccentric man who lives off his daughter (Claire Dodd). He insures her against marriage so he can keep living off of her while he finishes writing a Civil War history book that will show that the South actually won. William steps in with his operatives and wrecks her romances (one with Errol Flynn in a small role), but William winds up falling for her himself. Complications ensue. Short but still a bit draggy, with tons of credibility problems. Mary Treen and William Gargan also appear. Not terribly notable except for a interesting use of split-screen during a horse race scene at the beginning.

UNDER SECRET ORDERS aka MADEMOISELLE DOCTEUR (1937)--I could find almost no references to this movie in my movie guides, and it ended up being more fun to track down info about this film than it was to watch it. Originally made as a French language film, it was remade with an English-speaking cast replacing everyone except leading lady Dita Parlo, as a Mata Hari-type spy in WWI (I think--the print I saw was very murky and choppy, and based on the running times I found for the movie, it must have been missing at least 10 minutes, so following the finer plot points was nearly impossible). Erich von Stroheim plays her boss, and he gives his usual somewhat wooden but sinister performance. Speaking of wooden, John Loder, a B-movie leading man, is the good guy here, who gets taken in by Parlo, but redeems himself at the end. The last shot, a stylized firing squad scene, is the best in the otherwise unimaginative and plothole-ridden movie.

Thursday, November 21, 2002


MGM's oversized self-important musical biographies aren't usually my cup of tea--they're basically revues with a few big names here and there, and lots of starlets and up-and-comers, surrounded by an almost totally fictionalized account of a songwriter's life. This one, however, works better than most. Robert Walker plays Jerome Kern, who apparently was still alive when this movie was being shot but died before its release. We see Kern as a young man frustrated by his inability to break into the Broadway "follies" shows; producer Harry Hayden is only looking for British talent. Walker meets up with "serious" composer Van Heflin, a completely fictional character who winds up becoming mentor and best friend to Walker. Once Walker breaks through, he is happy to toil away writing popular tunes, even as Heflin remains mostly unfulfilled. The narrative line begins with the triumph of Kern's Show Boat, flashes back through his career, and ends with him watching the filming of the MGM tribute.

This is not the kind of movie usually noted for its acting, but both Walker and Heflin are good, with Walker giving a nice low-key performance. But as with all of these films, the narrative winds up being a series of articifial tableaux to take up time between songs. Some of the better production numbers: Lena Horne starts things off with a bang singing "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man of Mine," looking stunning in purple and white, and getting to play, for a few minutes, the role she should have had in MGM's 1951 SHOW BOAT remake; the always funny and deadpan Virginia O'Brien does "Life Upon the Wicked Stage"; Angela Lansbury sings in a swing; June Allyson does the comic patter number "Cleopatterer"; Van Johnson and Lucile Bremer sing and dance to "I Won't Dance"; the climax is Frank Sinatra doing a fine job with "Ol' Man River." Also appearing: Dinah Shore, Cyd Charisse, Ray McDonald, and in a small non-singing role, Mary Nash, who plays Mrs. Lord in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. Better than the average musical bio, even if it's almost certainly a total work of fiction.

Monday, November 18, 2002


This British oddity can be lumped in with BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS to show that Nazis and whimsy never quite go together. Set early in WWII (apparently before the Americans got involved) Elsa Lanchester plays a cleaning woman who is the widow of a former military man (Charles Laughton in one of the strangest cameos ever, seen only in a huge photograph that hangs in the widow's house). While cleaning up the attic, she discovers her husband's much talked about lucky charm, the Magic Eye, which supposedly once saved his life. She puts it in her pocket and doesn't give it much thought until an air raid when she miraculously survives a couple of almost direct hits. Egged on by friends, she believes the Magic Eye has made her invincible so she decides to travel to Berlin and assassinate Hitler! Posing as a deaf-mute cleaning lady, she manages to make it from London all the way to the German chancellory without passport or papers (the most unbelievable part of a movie with almost nothing believable in it!). Along the way, she makes friends with a German war hero (Gordon Oliver) who is actually a member of the Underground. She also meets up with Lord Haw-Haw (Gavin Muir), a real-life character who was sort of a British "Tokyo Rose," using radio broadcasts to hurt British morale.

I won't give away anything about the preposterous last 15 minutes of the movie except to say that by the end of this very short (barely an hour) film, I was ready to declare the "fighting Nazis with magic" genre totally dead. Lanchester is as good as she can be given the ridiculous circumstances, and there are a few nice moments. In one, when she gets to Berlin, she tries to look Hitler up in the phone book and is outraged that he's not listed. Another fun scene is when she pretends to be deaf while cleaning windows in a Nazi official's office, but instead she is carefully listening to a discussion of classified information. At one point, in a weird "fourth wall" moment, she talks directly to the camera. Quite an oddball movie; it manages to be both bizarre and banal at the same time.

Saturday, November 16, 2002


Luchino Visconti filmed this "bootleg" version of James Cain's THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE a couple of years before Hollywood got around to it. This version is too long in the middle, but it's much more interesting than the American version. Massimo Girotti plays a sexy homeless drifter who stumbles into a relationship with Clara Calamai, a young woman stuck in a dead-end (and deadening) marriage with a older man (the couple run a small inn/restaurant out in the middle of nowhere). Girotti stops by for a meal and, when he and Calamai strike sparks, connives to hang around as a hired hand. The two begin a lusty affair immediately; when she suggests getting rid of her husband, he freaks out and takes off for the city. On the train, a vagabond artist (Elio Marcuzzo) pays for his ticket and they strike up a friendship, which very definitely has homoerotic elements. They share a bed in a tense and unresolved scene and they wind up working together on the streets until Girotti runs into Calamai. He goes off with her and they actively plot to kill the husband. As in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, once the deed is done, their relationship sours, leading to betrayal, more death, and an ironic but fitting ending.

I think it's interesting that, although the cliche of woman as ball and chain is intact, the usual city/country pattern is reversed here: Girotti feels trapped out in the open spaces of the countryside helping Calamai run the inn, and feels more internal freedom in the bustling city with his male friend. Girotti is beautiful, whether stubbly or clean shaven, whether in a tank top, sweater, or bare chested. Calamai is less beautiful, but has an earthy appeal and the two have good chemistry. There is social commentary on the oppression of people in society--I'm sure it's a Marxist movie, although I wasn't paying attention to the political undercurrents. The constant use of music playing in the background of scenes is interesting. The DVD I saw didn't translate the lyrics of the songs, but I assume most of the music was being used as ironic counterpoint. At 135 minutes, it is too long, but it's worth catching, especially if you're a noir fan.

Wednesday, November 13, 2002


If this odd film were made today, it would probably be a scruffy indie film; the fact that it actually works as a mainstream and fairly glossy Hollywood movie with big stars in the leads is one of the strangest things about it. The first half is set on a brutal penal colony island in French Guyana. Clark Gable, a prisoner, has the hots for loose woman Joan Crawford. He sneaks away from work detail to visit her in her rooms and when he's caught, they both get in trouble. Meanwhile, a mysterious prisoner (Ian Hunter) appears seemingly out of nowhere. He's accepted by the men, although it's clear from early on that he's something of an otherworldly figure. He joins Gable and some other men on a break-out through a jungle (with Crawford tagging along). One by one, the men undergo spiritual conversions, seeing the error of their ways and being reconciled to their fates by Hunter before they die or disappear. Much of it plays out like a quasi-Christian "Twilight Zone" episode.

Some of the other men include Albert Dekker, Eduardo Cianelli, John Arledge, and Paul Lukas, who is quite good as the one man who won't accept Hunter and his message of redemption; his bleak speech just before he slips off into the darkness is a highlight, and helps make the movie more than just a 40's "Touched by an Angel." The jungle scenes are tense and well done, though ultimately the entire first half winds up being a bit beside the point. It doesn't take much looking between the lines to see a homoerotic relationship between and a young man and an older mentor that is handled subtly. Peter Lorre has a small role as a slimy informer. There is some rather forced Christ symbolism, but mostly the allegorical Christian elements work rather well, being mostly non-denominational, and a little creepy at times. After a slow start, a very interesting film indeed. Oh, yeah, Gable and Crawford are both fine, and Hunter is very good.

Monday, November 11, 2002


A silly, disjointed revue with a particularly weak plot: Alden College will be run by its faculty until such time as a female Alden can actually graduate and take over running the college. Gracie Allen is the Alden woman who manages the feat, albeit through cheating with the help of Bob Hope. I think Allen is supposed to be so dumb that she doesn't really know that she's cheating, but the ethics of the situation are never made clear. You can feel a desperate attempt being made to reproduce a Marx Brothers atmosphere here, and it doesn't work, remaining a parade of skits and unmemorable songs. What plot that does intrude is usually irritating.

However, there are a number of reasons why I would watch it again: a young and lovely John Payne in a clinging white T-shirt, boxers, and angel wings on his shoulders (serenading forgettable opera-style singer Florence George); Hope and Martha Raye doing a wild, slapstick number in which Hope appears to crack up a couple of times; Edward Everett Horton as a woman-hating professor who changes his ways; Jerry Colonna in a very short but very funny bit singing a song with wildly exaggerated vocal flourishes; Ben Blue doing some nice physical schtick as an inept phys ed teacher; the cute opening bit, set in a Pilgrim schoolhouse in 1738 where a choirboy suddenly breaks out in a jazz riff (he gives his name as Benny Goodman). George Burns isn't up to his best ability here, but he does get to do some of his flustered exchanges with Gracie. There's a cute number set in a campus soda fountain with lots of coeds dancing, and three Stooge-like waiters falling all over the place. Cecil Cunningham (sort of a B-movie Alice Brady/Edna May Oliver) is present, and you might glimpse Betty Grable, Jackie Coogan, and Robert Cummings. Very silly, but I had fun.

Sunday, November 10, 2002


In this B-movie series, Glenda Farrell plays Torchy Blane, a spunky blonde reporter who hounds cop Barton MacLane to get the dope on high profile crime stories, and who also manages to outwit the police and solve the crimes ahead of them. She did several films in the series, though Lola Lane and Jane Wyman also played the role.

SMART BLONDE (1937) is the first in the series, and it has a memorable fast-paced opening as Torchy, riding in a cab, races a train, then jumps out and hops on the caboose in order to get an interview with a big shot financier. He's headed to town to buy some sports and gambling assests from a local bigwig who is selling out to please his high-toned fiancee. As the two get off the train, he's shot dead and Torchy helps MacLane gather clues and suspects, and solve the crime. As often happens, about halfway through, I lost track of the mystery, but the movie remained watchable. Farrell lacks the spark that someone like Joan Blondell or Ann Sothern or even Una Merkel might have brought to the role. In "don't blink" moments, you can see Wayne Morris and Jane Wyman.

TORCHY BLANE IN CHINATOWN, from 1939, was the seventh in the series (they cranked out nine in just two years' time). Leonard Maltin doesn't like this one at all, but I enjoyed it even more than the first one, although (or maybe because) Torchy seems to be reduced to a supporting role in her own series. In this one, a group of men who were involved in the quasi-legal smuggling of Chinese jade are threatened with death by a local Tong-like family. One by one, despite police protection, each predicted death comes true. MacLane's character is constantly doing the wrong thing, but he seems to get more screen time than Farrell, who cracks the case. An interesting supporting cast, including James Stephenson, Henry O'Neill, and especially handsome Patric Knowles, helps this one rise above its own "averageness" for me. Also, I could keep track of the mystery, and I even figured it out ahead of either MacLane or Farrell (which must mean that a precocious 8-year-old could figure it out). I wouldn't call these must-see movies, but they were fun and, at around an hour each, they never bog down.

Friday, November 08, 2002


A Nazi version of THE BAD SEED! At the time, this movie might have seemed different or daring with its depiction of a child warped by indoctrination in the Nazi philosophy, but it dates rather badly, and it doesn't feel much more daring than if an Andy Hardy movie had tackled the same issue. Fredric March brings his young German nephew over to the USA to live with (and hopefully to assimilate with) his whitebread midwestern American family. The problem is that the kid (Skip Homeier) is a full-blooded Nazi at the age of twelve. Homeier struggles throughout with a trumped-up, phony sounding accent and a look that never feels very dangerous. Had the character been a little older, his bullying villainy might have been more effective. It takes a while for March to realize how Nazified the boy really is; he was brainwashed to believe that his heroic father was a traitor and a suicide when he really died in a concentration camp. Betty Field is the Jewish girlfriend of March, who tries to be understanding, and Joan Carroll is March's daughter. She's not bad; she has more to do here than she did as Margaret O'Brien's older sister in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS. Most of the household (even the German maid) wises up to the kid, and his only "ally" is Agnes Moorehead, playing another bitter spinster aunt, who resents March's upcoming marriage.

Despite pulling knives, stealing keys, and threatening some children, Homeier never really feels "evil." In fact, I kept thinking that, like the bizarre encore scene in THE BAD SEED, all he really needed was a good spanking. Even at the climax, when he attacks someone from behind and we're led to believe he might have committed murder, the resolution is way too pat and bloodless. The anti-climactic finale feels an awful lot like the heartwarming sitcom resolutions we're used to in the average family TV show. It was based on a play, and its stage origins are obvious--it could use a little more directorial style. There is a lot of propaganda about American tolerance for minorities, which rings a little hollow nowadays, and in the end, it's not a terribly compelling movie.

Thursday, November 07, 2002


This movie is apparently historically important for its weird blend of screwball comedy and Red-baiting; I've read about it frequently, but it doesn't shown very often. It's certainly no masterpiece, but I'm glad I was able to see it. The anti-Communist element would have made it more topical about 15 years later--and indeed it had a major theatrical re-release during the McCarthy era. Barbara Stanwyck plays the daughter of an Army general who plans to marry a campus radical (Hardie Albright), much to her father's dismay. When Stanwyck's aunt flies off to Mexico on vacation, the father arranges to have her shanghaied along to get her away from the commie boyfriend. While there, she gets involved with an American soldier (Robert Young) who ends up going AWOL to help her get back home. The middle of the movie becomes a kind of IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT road trip (except Young is no Gable) with the amusing Cliff Edwards along for some laughs. Ruth Donnelly is wasted in a small part as Edwards' shrewish wife. The general realizes that Young might be the one to get Stanwyck away from Albright, and he hires Young to bust up the radical protest.

The movie is amusing in places, but could have been a bit more tightly plotted. For example, I'm glad that Cliff Edwards is brought back at the finale, but it makes no sense that he's there. One of the more notorious lines occurs when Young, who has seen Stanwyck on the dance floor, declares that she can't be a Red because thinkers are dodos on the dance floor. The anti-intellectualism that pairs up thinking with Communism (which implies, of course, that red-blooded Americans can't or shouldn't think), is astoundingly stupid. It's kind of a reverse SWEPT AWAY, with the female Marxist converted by the male capitalist--though Stanwyck never really seems to be especially political at any point in the movie. Funny in spots, but sluggishly paced. Still worth seeing just for its *weirdness*.

Tuesday, November 05, 2002


This is a nifty little B-film that anticipates ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, a better movie made a year or two later. Virtually the entire film takes place in one setting, an isolated airfield in the Andes Mountains (looking a lot like California--ANGELS, with its bigger budget, gets the look much better) where a group of rough and tumble pilots, mostly disgraced ones who couldn't get better jobs in the States, engage in the dangerous job of flying supplies to miners in the mountains. Onslow Stevens is the boss, a creepy and miserly man who keeps a scrapbook of high-profile pilots who have gotten in trouble so he can offer them jobs--there is high turnover due to the dangerous flying conditions and the poor quality of the planes they use. Chester Morris is the unoffical leader of the pilots.

One day, Van Heflin arrives with his wife (Whitney Bourne); we're supposed to realize it's a mistake to bring a woman into this setting, although the tough-guy pilots are really too nice to be threatening. Still, entanglements follow as Morris falls in love with her, and so does Douglas Walton (a sort of second-string Leslie Howard-type). Heflin, a reformed drunk, starts out fine but when he realizes the situation he's stuck in, he deterioriates rapidly. Injury, death, and revenge follow. Despite the low budget, some of the flying scenes aren't bad. Morris is his usual self--if you don't already like him, this movie won't make you a fan, but if you do like him, as I do, you should catch this one the next time TCM shows it. Comparisons with ANGELS are inevitable, and this one will always come in second, but it's not bad for its type.

Sunday, November 03, 2002


This was a Broadway hit for Preston Sturges (although otherwise he had nothing to do with this film version) and the version most people are familiar with is the 50's one with Ezio Pinza and Janet Leigh, which I've never seen. This one is stagy, too long, and hampered by a static directorial style, but it does have its moments. Its primary asset is the performance of Paul Lukas as Gus, an opera singing lothario whose heart is captured by a relatively innocent Southern belle (Sidney Fox) who has been transplanted to New York City by her totally obnoxious finace, George Meeker. The film takes place over one night and the next morning, beginning just after midnight in a boarding house/speakeasy as Fox and Meeker wander in and make the acquaintance of a couple of colorful characters who frequent the place: Lukas as the womanizing singer and Lewis Stone as a retired and heavy-drinking judge. Meeker is quick to display his true colors, bullying Fox around but full of empty bluff when confronted by anyone else. He winds up in jail overnight and Fox talks Lukas into letting her stay in his room. Apparently, he plans to add her to his list of conquests (he has an entire closet filled with women's clothes), but instead he discovers a soft spot for her, an honest "babe in the woods," and he gives her his bed while he shares the judge's room. Relationships get further tangled and straightened out the next morning.

Lukas is quite good; I mostly think of him as a rather dull presence in movies like WATCH ON THE RHINE and LITTLE WOMEN, but he shines here, giving the best comic performance that John Barrymore never gave. He and Fox generate an interesting moment of heat in a long kissing and caressing scene (played standing up). Even though they have chemistry and are both likeable, and Fox and Meeker clearly don't belong together, the movie doesn't make us particularly confident that she and Lukas will ultimately be a much better match. At a little over 90 minutes, the pacing is a bit too leisurely up until the somewhat rushed ending. The look and feel of the film remind me of the later THREE MEN ON A HORSE, also based on a play, and largely set in a similar boarding house/bar establishment. Sidney Toler, best known as Charlie Chan, plays an understanding Irish cop. A memorable line from Fox: "I read in a book on psychology that nothing is immoral except--well, I plumb forgot!"

Saturday, November 02, 2002


This is sort of an American anti-Mrs. Miniver, or the process by which an anti-Mrs. Miniver person becomes a Mrs. Miniver. Fay Bainter plays Mrs. Hadley, a rich Washington widow; the first scene is set at her birthday party on Dec. 7, 1941. She has a cozy little circle of friends and relatives with her, but the news of Pearl Harbor disrupts the party. Soon, everyone else gets caught up in the war effort, but Mrs. Hadley tries to ignore every aspect of it, not to mention ignoring the dysfunctional aspects of her own family life. Gradually she alienates all of her circle, so when she throws a birthday party for her son, who is off in the Army, no one shows up.

The movie is predictable, but it's still fun to see all the friends, one by one, get on Mrs. Hadley's shit list, and of course, see her eventual transformation to patriotic and caring citizen. The only question is, will it be too late for her son and daughter to appreciate her again? Edward Arnold is her confidant and ex-beau, and Spring Byington is her rich and scatterbrained friend who has a funny scene when an air raid warden comes into her bedroom to enforce a blackout--startled, she cries, "It's just like the French Revolution!" Jean Rogers (who I'm not familiar with) and Richard Ney (the son in MRS. MINIVER and real-life husband to Greer Garson, at least briefly) are the kids, and Van Johnson has one of his earliest roles as a soldier who falls for Rogers. Bainter underplays the role nicely; she could have been a scene-stealing harridan, but she's much more subtle than that. The wartime propaganda, as usual, is *not* subtle, but the 90-minute movie moves along nicely to a satisfying climax.

Thursday, October 31, 2002


Horror films always go in cycles, but they seemed to completely vanish in the 50's; I suppose that sci-fi films became the atom-age version of horror films, but in my mind, the two are really separate genres, at least until ALIEN in 1979. So here are the rest of my favorite horror movies, mostly from the 60's and 70's.

BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)--Reviewed earlier this month; the best Hammer horror ever, even if David Peel is not the best Hammer vampire (that would have to be Christoper Lee in HORROR OF DRACULA). Colorful, creepy, with a fairly interesting twist on the usual vampire story.

CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)--A B-movie for sure, but a masterful mood piece. A car full of girls goes off a bridge and sinks in a river; Candace Hilligoss is the only survivor, but she finds herself unalterably changed by the experience. She seems to go in and out of fugue states, and ghostly figures haunt her. The dialogue and acting leave something to be desired (though Hilligoss is good), but the creepy atmosphere is built up nicely and sustained to a great climax.

ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968)--Mia Farrow as a young woman who slowly begins to suspect that she has been impregnated by Satan. The movie is most effective as a study in urban paranoia; for most of its length, we're kept in the dark as to whether or not Farrow is really being plotted against by devil worshippers, or is going mad. Ruth Gordon is wonderful as the little old lady next door who may be a ruthless Satanist.

THE OMEN (1976)--Gregory Peck and Lee Remick discover they are raising the anti-Christ. At heart, this has a lot in common with movies like FRIDAY THE 13TH where the main goal is to kill off a bunch of people in freaky ways, but the big budget, big stars, and original (at the time) plotting make it stand out. The first sequel is almost as good, but I've avoided the third one on sound advice of others.

CARRIE (1976)--A socially inept teenage girl with a religious nut case for a mother discovers she has telekinetic powers and, when some mean students plot to ruin her prom night, she strikes back for keeps. This was very early in Brian DePalma's career and I don't think he has topped himself. Scary, funny, sexy, and with one of the truly great horror movie performances, by Piper Laurie as Carrie's crazy mother. She was nominated for an Oscar and should have won. The last 15 minutes or so, from when the bucket of blood falls on Carrie's head to the credits may be the best horror movie sequence ever.

HALLOWEEN (1978)--Since no Ray Bradbury film has yet done justice to his works, this is the quintessential Halloween movie. Jamie Lee Curtis is a babysitter who is stalked on Halloween night by a seemingly invulnerable killer wearing a mask and slaughtering horny teenagers. This was the beginning of a long and tedious trend in horror movies that, unfortunately, shows no sign of letting up; still, it holds up to repeated viewings: great music, great atmosphere, good acting by Curtis and Donald Pleasance, and spectacular murder scenes.

ANGEL HEART (1987)--The convoluted plot is difficult to describe; I remember it took me three viewings to figure things out. Still, even when you're not sure what's happening, the movie is never less than compelling. Mickey Rourke is hired to find a missing war vet and winds up tangled up in voodoo, murder, and a little hot sex with Lisa Bonet that almost got the film an X rating. Another wonderful mood piece that is sustained strongly throughout, with a nicely underplayed performance by Robert DeNiro as a mysterious stranger who may be behind all the death.

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)--Do I really need to say anything? Yes, there is too much use of the F-word and the camera is too jiggly and it's hard to care about any of the characters. Still, this fake documentary about three young people who trek out into supposedly haunted woods to find the secret behind some local folklore about a dead witch is absolutely tense and scary. Like CARRIE, it has a killler finale that makes all the ambiguity and tedium that came before worthwhile (even though the ending itself is famous for being ambigious).

There are lots of others I love as well: PSYCHO, THE HAUNTING (the original, not the ludicrous remake), DEAD OF NIGHT, MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, THE TINGLER, BURNT OFFERINGS, THE OTHER (the 70's is the only era to rival the 30's for horror film greatness), but I don't have the time to comment on all of them. Tomorrow, I'll be going back to the usual mix of classic movie reviews, but it's been fun to focus on horror, and I may include more of them into the mix in the future.

Saturday, October 26, 2002


As much as I love John Carpenter's original HALLOWEEN, that movie was the death knell for my interest in horror films. After that, the average horror movie basically became an exercise in killing off as many people as possible in increasingly original and outrageous ways. That got old real fast and by the mid-80's, I had quit following the genre. But I still love to watch the older films that relied on atmosphere and understatement, leaving much to the imagination of the viewer. What follows is a list of some of my favorites from the 30's and 40's; I'll do the 60's and 70's later.

DRACULA (1931)--Yes, for most of its running time, this is a stagy, stodgy, awkwardly acted film, and not all that scary. But Lugosi's embodiment of the character of Count Dracula remains indelible. The first 15 minutes or so still work quite well, largely due to great sets, fluid camerawork, lack of music, and Lugosi's eyes. I think this was the first horror movie I ever saw, when I was 7 or 8, and it's still one I revisit at least once a year.

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)--Funny, campy, moving, and great looking. Although the original has its moments, this one is better made and better acted, and gives Ernest Thesiger the role of his lifetime. It's amazing to me how recognizable the Bride's face has become in popular culture, considering she only appears on screen for a few minutes.

WHITE ZOMBIE (1932)--One of the best looking and most atmospheric horror movies of all time, reviewed below. Avoid the older public domain tapes and stick with the restored tape and DVD.

THE BLACK CAT (1934)--Despite the title, this has nothing to do with Poe or cats (although there is a black cat getting underfoot occasionally). Karloff and Lugosi square off against each other in a fabulous art deco mansion, with a convoluted plot about war crimes, lust, revenge, and Satanism.

THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943)--Satanism would seem to be colorful material for horror movies, but there have been few memorable films made about it. This one is memorable, even though the Satanists themselves are deliberately bland and resolutely not colorful. It's an effective mood piece about a woman searching for her sister, who has vanished and who may be involved in a devil cult. I don't recall a single "scary" scene here, but the atmosphere of dread hangs heavy throughout.

THE MUMMY (1932) and its 40's sequels--The first Mummy movie, like DRACULA, works best in its first section; the opening remains a classic in letting the unseen scare us more than anything visible could. The acting and dialogue are better here than in DRACULA, and the pace is kept up nicely. As with Elsa Lanchester's BRIDE, we don't really see much of Karloff in his Mummy costume, but he is just as effective with his ancient skin and intense gaze. The sequels are B-movies with shabby sets and silly plots, but they all have their creepy moments.

SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM (1933) and NIGHT MONSTER (1942)--My favorite examples of the "old dark house" genre. I saw BLUE ROOM on Halloween night in the mid-60's and haven't seen it since, but it has stuck in my memory as a good, compact thriller about people accepting a dare to spend a night in a haunted room. NIGHT MONSTER involves a series of murders in a house where a crippled man is being cared for by a group of doctors.

CAT PEOPLE (1942)--The best Val Lewton film, notable for its use of the power of suggestion rather than explicit violence or gore. A woman falls in love, but falls victim to the idea that she turns into a panther when strong emotions like lust or jealousy overtake her. It took me years to figure out that it's really about female "frigidity."

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)--The end of the Universal horror cycle, and it works surprisingly well because a nice balance is acheived between the humor and the horror. I loved A&C when I was a kid, and I don't have much tolerance for them now, but this one still holds up, plus it's by far the best of the movies that incorporate the Big Three Universal Monsters (Frankenstein monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man).

Thursday, October 24, 2002


The first time I saw this was back in the mid-80's on the Nostalgia Channel, a cable network that showed mostly bad prints of public domain movies. It was indeed in bad shape, but the reason for its cult reputation was clear. The current DVD from the Roan Group is, visually, in spectacular shape. Aside from a couple of splices and jumps, it's been restored wonderfully. The print is so clear, you can see the actors' breath in several scenes. The sound is rather dicey, with volume rising and dropping occasionally, and some lines of dialogue are not quite clear. Still, this film has transcended its quickie (made in 11 days) B-movie nature to become a horror classic and in any shape, it makes for great October viewing. Neal (John Harron) and Madeline (Madge Bellamy) are a couple who arrive in Haiti to be married at the home of Mr. Beaumont (Robert Frazer, who does the best acting in the movie), a seemingly kind-hearted man who befriended the two in New York, but who actually has his own designs on Madeline. Beaumont enlists the aid of Murder Legrande (Bela Lugosi), master of a band of zombies who are employed at a sugar mill. At the wedding dinner, Legrande turns Madeline into a zombie. Everyone but Beaumont thinks she's dead, but after her burial, Legrande, Beaumont, and the zombies take her coffin and revive her in a zombified state. Beaumont changes his mind and wants her life given back to her, but Legrande has other plans.

This movie has been rightfully criticized for wooden acting (Bellamy is so bad, it's difficult to see much difference between her living state and her zombie state) and bad dialogue, but visually, it's an early talkie masterpiece of atmosphere. Virtually the entire film takes place at night and the night scenes are done very well, especially shots set in a crowded, jagged graveyard. The sets, some of the same ones that Universal used in its early 30's horror films, are good, particularly Legrande's mansion by the sea, which has a wonderful dark fairy tale feel. Dialogue scenes are fairly static, but at other times, the fluid camerawork is quite effective, with some nice shots done through doorways and staircase railings, and a well-used split-screen shot showing Neal and Madeline making a sort of psychic connection. The staring zombies and the screaming of vultures add to the creepy atmosphere. Lugosi is like a hammy Shakespearean actor when he delivers lines, but is effective in his Dracula-like close-ups. A movie to be seen at night, with the lights turned down.

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

DOCTOR X (1932)

I saw a black and white print of this on Chiller Theater way back in the 70's, I think, but the print I watched yesterday was in color. It looked a little faded, which is to be expected since it was shot in two-strip Technicolor in the early days of color technology; I guess the fact that it's still available in color at all is a good thing. Reds and greens predominate and add to the fairly creepy feel of the film. The Full Moon Killer has foiled the police several times, and cocky reporter Lee Tracy is determined to track him down. Evidence points to a doctor (because the killer uses a particular kind of scalpel) and possibly a cannibal (teeth marks on the victims). Suspicion surrounds Dr. Xavier's Medical Academy; no, its not a haven for mutant teenagers, just eccentric research scientists. A number of doctors who have interests in either cannibalism or the effects of the moon are under suspicion, even one (Preston Foster) who it seems could certainly not be the killer because he only has one arm and the killer strangles his victims with both arms. Xavier himself (Lionel Atwill) has a touch of the eccentric in him and is also considered a suspect, but he agrees to run some experiments designed to smoke out the real killer. Fay Wray, as Atwill's daughter, gets involved with the experiments and with reporter Tracy. Much of the film is nicely atmospheric, though there are plot lulls, and Tracy, who is mostly around for mild comic relief, grows irritating quickly--I was hoping he'd be the next victim. The opening scene is set partly in a brothel run by Mae Busch, a startling pre-Code moment. The unmasking climax is well handled. If you can tolerate Tracy, the movie is worth watching.

Monday, October 21, 2002


I finally saw this film whose reputation has grown over the years. Unfortunately, the DVD was not letterboxed or restored; in fact, it looked like a dub from a TV print. Still, it was an interesting hybrid of a movie, like a cross between THE THING and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, with a religious element that is not fully explored. Christopher Lee is Professor Saxton, an archeologist who is carting the fossils of a supposed "missing link" creature along with him on the Trans-Siberian Express. Peter Cushing is a curious doctor who butts into Lee's business and inadvertantly has a hand in allowing the fossil (which has returned to life) to escape and wreck havoc on the train. There are some interesting characters introduced, including Telly Savalas as a brutal Cossack who boards the train along the way to wreck some havoc of his own, and a sexy & mysterious woman whose sole purpose seems to be sexy & mysterious. There is also a Rasputin-ish mad monk (Angel del Pozo) who seems to shift his alliances from God to Satan, but does he? The plotting here is handled rather ineptly so I honestly don't know whether the monk is supposed to be bad or not. But these characters aren't developed very well because mostly they're around to serve as creature bait.

The missing link winds up being an extraterrestrial life force that can hop from body to body when its host dies (as in John Carpenter's version of THE THING). In a particularly outrageous plot development, Lee and Cushing discover that images of what the creature saw in prehistoric days are available for viewing through the blood of its eyes (!!). It moves the plot along nicely, but it's hard to get past the silliness of the gimmick. The abovementioned religious element involves the idea that the creature really is Satanic; even though that would not seem to be true, there is no explanation for a scene early on when the monk tries to draw a protecting cross on the fossil box, but the cross image fails to materialize. There are some effective shocks along the way, but the climax is truly worth sticking around for--it turns out that the creature can bring the dead (or at least the dead that it has killed) back to life, and in a truly creepy scene, dozens of dead bodies rise up and head for the train car where the last survivors are trapped. This movie has everything but the kitchen sink, and that's why it's fun to watch.

Saturday, October 19, 2002


With this movie, it seems like American International was trying to beat Hammer at their own game by producing a distinctly British horror film with a William Castle twist. It is in fact a notch above several Hammer (and AIP) productions of the time, but the parts are greater than the whole. Michael Gough (Alfred in the recent Batman movies) plays a crime reporter who is following the exploits of a killer who specializes in particularly bizarre methods of murder, including, in the classic opening scene, a pair of binoculars with needles that shoot through the victim's eyes to her brain. It's clear from early on that Gough himself is the killer, assisted by a young male assistant (Graham Curnow) who helps him with the upkeep of his "Black Museum," a place for the display of horrific murder and torture weapons. Gough uses a serum and hypnosis to turn Curnow into a Jekyll/Hyde monster who kills at Gough's bidding. The young man's face also becomes puffy and scarred, though it's never explained why. Other shock killings include electrocution, a guillotining in a bed, and a person dumped in a vat of acid, reduced quickly to just a skeleton. Shirley Ann Field, who played the unnerved actress in PEEPING TOM, is Curnow's girlfriend. The Castle touch is in the prologue, with a man supposedly trying to hypnotize the audience--it's sort of cheap fun, but has virtually nothing to do with the narrative. Overall, above average October fare.

Thursday, October 17, 2002


This is probably the best Hammer movie ever; though HORROR OF DRACULA comes close, this one has more interesting characters, better acting, and a colorful and stylish look. A voiceover at the beginning tells us that Dracula is dead (making mincemeat of the title), but vampires are still afoot in Transylvania. In a set-up a bit like that of Katharine Hepburn & Elizabeth Taylor's in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, the Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt) trolls the village at night looking for lovely young women to take back to the castle to satisfy the lust of her vampire son, David Peel. The "seduction" scene that plays out between Hunt and a young French schoolteacher passing through the village (Yvonne Monlaur) is well-staged; though we don't know the specifics yet, it's clear from the looks and actions of the villagers that they fear for the safety of Monlaur. However, this naive woman winds up being Hunt's downfall. The mother tells her that Peel is insane and must be kept locked up, but Monlaur meets him, finds him charming, and unlocks him (a poorly motivated scene--why on earth would she unshackle him after a minute and a half of trivial conversation?). Now the vampire is free to start collecting "brides" from the nearby girls' school.

Peter Cushing plays Van Helsing, as he did in HORROR OF DRACULA, and he's good, but taking the acting honors here are Hunt as the mother and Freda Jackson as Peel's caretaker, not a vampire herself, but a zealous assistant. The creepiest scene in the movie doesn't involve Peel, but Jackson, stretched out on the fresh grave of one of the women Peel has killed, talking through the dirt to coax the newly-created vampire to arise. Some critics have panned Peel's performance, saying he was just a too-pretty face, but I think he's fine, although the women do upstage him. The real problem with Peel (and with most of the vampires) is the artificiality of the fangs they wear. They look like wax fangs bought in a drug store at Halloween. But that's really all that's wrong here. The colors, lots of rich reds and blues and purples, are striking, and the sumptious sets are the best Hammer sets ever. Mona Washbourne, who played the beloved nanny in BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, has a small role as the mistress of the girls' school. Highly recommended for midnight viewing.

Tuesday, October 15, 2002


Edgar Wallace was a British author of crime and thriller novels; he had over 150 works published and many of them have been made into movies, mostly in England or Germany and mostly B-thrillers (IMDb shows 170 films based on his works, including KING KONG, the screenplay for which he co-wrote just before his death). This modest thriller is really more an "old dark house" police mystery rather than a horror movie, but its atmosphere is spookier and more effective than many a "legitimate" horror movie. As he's dying, Lord Selford explains his plans to be buried with the family jewels in the family crypt, in a tomb with seven locks, apparently to ensure that the treasure gets passed down properly when his son marries. After this creepy little deathbed scene, complete with a threat of afterlife revenge reminiscent of the opening of THE GHOUL, the action jumps ahead several years when Lilli Palmer gets involved with the Selford family and assorted hangers-on. She is given one of the seven keys by an old man in a nursing home who is killed before he can explain what's going on. Palmer and her friend (Gina Molo, here mostly for comic relief) get the police in on the situation. Leslie Banks, known mostly for his creepy turn as Count Zaroff in THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, is almost as creepy here as Dr. Manetta, who is clearly the mastermind behind whatever larceny is being planned. The plotlines are not always clearly delineated, but it's easy enough to keep track of the basics: damsels and cops in distress, strange servents and henchmen not to be trusted, keys to be carefully looked after. And, to help keep things light, a romance between Palmer and a Scotland Yard inspector (Romilly Lunge).

The "old dark house" elements included a cobwebbed crypt, a mysteriously missing heir who just as mysteriously turns back up, an occasional dead body, and the chamber of the title, a place where Banks has collected a variety of historical torture instruments; once you see the iron maiden demonstrated, you just know it will play a key role in the climax. There are some Hitchcockian touches, especially early on when an attempt is made to make Palmer think she's imagined the existence of the dead man in the nursing home. Banks has a pet monkey to whom he speaks Spanish and who inadvertantly helps some of the good guys out of a jam in the crypt. Cathleen Nesbitt (AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER, SEPARATE TABLES) has a small role as one of the sinister skulkers. I hadn't heard much about this film before I saw it, but I enjoyed it a great deal.