Friday, December 31, 2004

My Year in Movies--2004 (Part 2)

The best "classic" movies that I saw for the first time and wrote up on my blog this year, in alphabetical order:

THE AMAZING MR. X (1948/June): A Poverty Row thriller that transcends its low budget with thick atmosphere and surprisingly good writing. Lynn Bari is a rich widow who meets up with exotic medium Turhan Bey; is he scamming her or befriending her? It turns out to be a little of both. On DVD.

BORN TO KILL (1947/Jan): A brutal film noir from Robert Wise with sharp performances by Lawrence Tierney as a psychopath and Claire Trevor as the woman who is both repelled and excited by him. Their seduction scene is truly something to see.

DAYS OF GLORY (1944/Jan): *This* is how to do a WWII pro-Russia propaganda movie: good direction (from Jacques Tourneur), good actors (including Gregory Peck in his screen debut), fleshed-out characters that we care about, and atmospheric sets (most of the movie is set in the basement of a bombed-out monastery, yet it never looks or feels stagy), and all done on a relatively low budget.

KONGO (1932/Nov): Wild jungle melodrama which could almost qualify as a horror movie. John Huston is great as a crippled hunter who rules a small African village and plots to wreck vengeance on people who he feels have wronged him. This has Virginia Bruce's best performance.

THE LATE GEORGE APLEY (1947/May): Amusing satire about a snobbish Boston blueblood (Ronald Colman) who has to adjust his attitudes a bit as the modern world encroaches on his home turf.

LILLY TURNER (1933/April): Good pre-Code weepie with Ruth Chatterton giving a very "modern" performance as the beleaguered title character searching and sacrificing for love. George Brent gives one of his best performances here, and the "threesome" ending is rather astonishing for its day.

THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND (1936/Oct): Underrated British horror film with Boris Karloff in one of his first mad scientist roles as a man who can switch minds from one body to another. The romance that is shoehorned in is negligible, but the acting and atmosphere are strong. On DVD.

MIDNIGHT (1939/June): Screwball comedy with a light-as-a-feather touch, something that not all screwballs can sustain. Claudette Colbert is a poor chorus girl posing as rich to scam her way into luxury; John Barrymore (in one of his best performances) is the millionaire who uses her for his own scamming purposes; Don Ameche and Mary Astor also shine.

SON OF FURY (1942/March): Tyrone Power at his most dashing as the hero of this period melodrama. George Sanders is excellent as Power's cruel guardian. Also worth watching as it contains one of the few film performances by the near-legendary Frances Farmer.

STEEL AGAINST THE SKY (1941/Aug): No masterpiece, but a highly enjoyable Warners B-movie from their heyday. Two brothers (Lloyd Nolan and Craig Stevens) build bridges, brawl over a woman (Alexis Smith), and help each other out of rough spots. Lots of fun.

Other highlights of the year: DeMille's THE CRUSADES; Sternberg's SHANGHAI EXPRESS; Edna May Oliver in the Hildegarde Withers movies, especially PENGUIN POOL MURDER; John Barrymore in his prime in COUNSELLOR AT LAW; George Arliss in THE GREEN GODDESS; Kay Francis at her peak in MANDALAY; Wheeler and Woolsey in HIPS HIPS HOORAY; two nifty B-horror films, THE UNDYING MONSTER and DR. RENAULT'S SECRET; Fox's lovely Technicolor THE GIRL IN THE RED VELVET SWING.

As far as current movies, the highlights were few and far between: SHAUN OF THE DEAD, SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, The Coen Brothers' THE LADYKILLERS, and HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE. Though I'm glad that FAHRENHEIT 9/11 made headlines, I wish it had been a better movie. I'm one of the few people who actually liked the remake of THE STEPFORD WIVES. On DVD, I enjoyed DIE MOMMIE DIE, THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD, and SHATTERED GLASS. I discovered French director Robert Bresson, but he'll have to wait til next year to get written up here.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

My Year in Movies--2004 (Part 1)

Tomorrow, I'll list my favorites, but first, the most disappointing movies I saw this year. I think "disappointing" is a better word than "worst"; some of these *are* pretty bad, but more often, it's more precise to say that I felt let down by these:

FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE (1950/Jan): Lightweight fantasy with good actors (Clifton Webb and Edmund Gwenn) that is beat to death with a very heavy hand by all concerned--actors, writers, and director.

A ROYAL SCANDAL (1945/July): The concept of Tallulah Bankhead in a comic portrayal of Catherine the Great sounds fabulous, but very little in it works. A decent cast left at sea by dull dialogue and B-ish production values.

SONG OF RUSSIA (1943/July) and WE WHO ARE YOUNG (1940/Dec): Two Socialist propaganda pieces which forget to entertain while dishing out the dogma.

CORREGIDOR (1943/Nov): The problem with this WWII propaganda piece is the opposite of the above two movies: too much attention is paid to the dreary plot and characters and not enough to the wartime messages.

WEST OF SHANGHAI (1937/Apr): Boris Karloff is wasted in this "exotic" melodrama with a convoluted plot and mediocre cast.

Next are movies about which I feel conflicted. Most have one or two strong elements to recommend them, but don't quite come together as a satisfying whole:

UNDER CAPRICORN (1949/Mar): A Hitchcock period piece with very little suspense but with some nice use of color and interesting camerawork.

THE LAST FLIGHT (1931/July): A WWI "Lost Generation" story which is worth seeing for its Hemingwayish feel, although the actors, including Richard Barthelmess and Helen Chandler, aren't quite up to the job.

FIRST YANK INTO TOKYO (1945/Dec): Tom Neal is an American who has his physical features altered to make him look Japanese so he can sneak into Tokyo to free an atomic scientist needed to finish the A-bomb. Not a thing about the movie is believable, but it's so deliriously dumb that it's fun.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

PRINCE OF FOXES (1949)

A period adventure piece with a split personality: half glossy action fluff and half art movie. In the 1500's, Tyrone Power (always good for some glossy action) is a peasant posing as a royal loner, in the employ of Cesare Borgia (Orson Welles), an Italian politician turned warlord bent on conquering much of Italy. Power, as a diplomat whose main skill is seducing women, helps Borgia with his land-grabbing aims until he loses his heart to Wanda Hendrix, whose elderly husband (Felix Aylmer) is head of a community that Welles is after. Power winds up on the side of Hendrix, helps to fight off Welles's army, is captured and tortured, escapes, and ultimately wins out over his former employer. Welles is excellent and seems to be playing in a whole different movie from the rest of the cast (except for Everett Sloane, who is quite good as a toady who may or may not be faithful to Power). Katrina Paxinou has a small role as Power's mother. The movie is in occasionally muddy black and white which is sometimes artily effective in conveying a mood, but with the period sets and exterior shots, I think the film would have been more interesting in color. The scene where Sloane appears to be gouging out Power's eyes is memorable. The movie is worth seeing, but viewers expecting a rousing swashbuckler treat like Power's earlier MARK OF ZORRO or SON OF FURY should beware. [FMC]

Monday, December 27, 2004

WE WHO ARE YOUNG (1940)

A sad little social drama which feels like a B-movie remake of the silent classic THE CROWD. John Shelton is a young man who works in an accounting department; he sees himself as a go-getter, anxious to "lick this city," and he has worked out a multi-page production plan that he thinks will get him somewhere, though his boss (Gene Lockhart) keeps putting off reading it. Shelton marries secretary Lana Turner even though there is a company rule against such marriages, and they manage to keep it secret for a while, but when Lockhart finds out, he fires Turner. She becomes pregnant, and Shelton gets behind in loan payments, leading to the repossession of all their furniture and the loss of his job (Lockhart's mantra is "A rule broken ceases to be a rule"). The rest of the film follows Shelton on a downward spiral: getting his CPA certification but not finding a job, going on relief (which hurts his self-esteem), and finally snapping and going violent at a construction site when he begs for a job but is ignored. However, the construction boss (Jonathan Hale), seeing a little of himself in Shelton, gives him a job. When Turner is about to give birth, Shelton steals a car to get her to the hospital. The car owner decides not to press charges, Turner delivers twins, and even Lockhart has a change of heart. Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood left-winger who was one was one of the more famous victims of the blacklist, wrote this and anyone looking for evidence of socialist messages would find plenty: the word "capitalist" is flung as an insult, and the main moral of the story's last 20 minutes is that "it takes help to make it." Shelton is colorless and unattractive, and at times hard to sympathize with; Turner is good, as is Lockhart. Familiar supporting faces include Grant Mitchell, Clarence Wilson, and Charles Lane. The happy ending feels fake as political propaganda trumps art. [TCM]

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Made-for-TV Christmas 2004

In scanning the TV listings for new Christmas movies this year, two stood out to me as having some Yuletide cheer potential so I splurged and watched both. The first one, THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS EVE, has a clever premise, stolen from GROUNDHOG DAY: a man (Steven Weber), too busy on Christmas Eve attending to business to pay attention to those close to him, is hit by a giant finger (part of a store sign) and wakes up in a hospital. His nurse (Molly Shannon) tells him he has 12 chances to relive that Christmas Eve and get his priorities straight. He tries hard but keeps messing up one way or another and winds up back in his Cosmic Hospital bed with Shannon pressing him to get it right. Weber is OK, though his heart doesn't seem in it; Shannon is oddly subdued, which at first I thought might work, but by the end, I was missing her zany energy. Vincent Gale is a standout in the supporting cast as Weber's business underling. Weber's character is not especially Scroogish, which is a nice touch, but he's not developed well enough for us to see him as a person who is badly in need of ghostly rehabilitation. [USA Network]

KARROLL'S CHRISTMAS is the better film thanks to its star, Tom Everett Scott, and a great production design--lots of gauzy shots with bright colored Christmas lights galore. The plot is a nice twist on Dickens: spirits haunt a man on Christmas Eve in order to make him a better person, but they get the wrong guy. Scott, a writer of greeting cards, is having a bad holiday, mostly due to his neighbor, cranky old Wallace Shawn. The ghost of Jacob Marley and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future mistakenly appear to Scott when they were meant for Shawn. In the process of the hauntings, both Scott's and Shawn's lives are examined and Scott finds out why Shawn (the former owner of the greeting card company) is so bitter, and on Christmas Day, Scott manages to "fix" his own life and Shawn's as well. The ghosts (Larry Miller, Alanna Ubach, and Verne Troyer) are all quite good and they have fun with the updating of several traditional "Christmas Carol" bits: Jacob Marley is a Rastafarian, two of the ghosts are Jewish, and a remote control zapper is used to get through time and space. This is the first time I've see Troyer, best known as Mini-Me in the Austin Powers series, actually get much dialogue and he's good, even game enough to go along with a couple of references to his Mini-Me self. Deanna Milligan is lovely as Scott's girlfriend, and Shawn is his usual reliable self, but the handsome Scott carries the show with his essential sweetness coming through all the job, love-life, and yuletide frustrations. The last 20 minutes feel rushed, with some plot loopholes and unexplained actions, but this one might be worth having on DVD next year (Oy, those commercials!!) [A&E]

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Some Unorthodox Christmas Viewing Choices

I'm a big Christmas movie fan and generally, I'm happy settling in with such obvious choices as MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, HOLIDAY INN, or one of the many versions of A CHRISTMAS CAROL out there. But I've also kept track of films which have some tie to the holidays, even if Christmas themes are not central to the story. One of my favorite non-Christmas holiday movies is THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1941). Monty Woolley plays a famous radio commentator (based on the real Alexander Woollcott--imagine a Paul Harvey/Rush Limbaugh combo who is intellectual and sentimental on the air and a snarky snob off the air) who falls on ice while in a small town in Ohio and winds up stuck living with a family for three weeks around Christmas. He's nasty to everyone around him; Bette Davis is his secretary, who has to run interference for him. She falls in love with the local newspaper editor and wants to quit her job to stay in Ohio, but Woolley plots to keep her by getting sexy star Ann Sheridan to arrive on Christmas Eve to break up their love nest. Woolley is the whole show here, sneering and throwing tantrums and occasionally being surprisingly charming. Sheridan chews the scenery to wonderful effect, and Reginald Gardiner is nicely flamboyant as a fictionalized Noel Coward, leaving Davis to strike a balance by underacting. Some of the cultural references are dated now, but the humor is not. As many times as I've seen this (at least twice a year for the last 18 years), I still laugh out loud frequently. In addition to other fine films which are set wholly at Christmas, such as CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT and REMEMBER THE NIGHT, there are others in which some or much of the action is set during the holidays; the following are all ones I can recommend:

Two movies that are set mostly at Christmas but which are not necessarily programmed often during the holidays are BELL BOOK AND CANDLE (1958) with Kim Novak as a witch who snags James Stewart with a love spell (kind of a forerunner to the 60's TV show Bewitched) and THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940), also with Stewart, this time doing the snagging, via secret pen-pal letters, of co-worker Margaret Sullavan. Both are wonderful movies with strong supporting casts and would make perfect Christmas Eve viewing.

Other comedies with holiday settings: TRADING PLACES (1983) is one of Eddie Murphy's funniest movies, with fine support from Dan Ackroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, Denholm Elliot, Ralph Bellamy, and Don Ameche--it climaxes with a wild New Year's Eve train ride; THE THIN MAN (1934) is the first of the Nick and Nora Charles mysteries--in this one, William Powell manages to stay pretty much soused all though the holidays, and Myrna Loy is terribly tolerant; DESK SET (1957) is a late-period Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn romantic comedy with an amusing Christmas party scene; THE APARTMENT (1960) with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine is a more cynical office-romance comedy set at Christmas.

One of my favorite holiday scenes in a non-Christmas film is in AUNTIE MAME--the scene, set during the first holiday season of the Great Depression, is sad, funny, and romantic. GONE WITH THE WIND also has a brief scene at Christmas, when Ashley Wilkes gets a short holiday leave during the Civil War. Any version of LITTLE WOMEN will have a heartwarming Christmas scene, early in the film. My favorite version is the most recent one (1994, with Susan Sarandon), but the Hepburn one from 1933 is quite good as well. THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (1964) is a fully-sung musical, in French, about a star-crossed love affair, with the sad but not tragic ending occurring at Christmas.

There are several wartime films with Christmas scenes (they make for a good tearjerking atmosphere); some of the best are SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944, with Claudette Colbert), I'LL BE SEEING YOU (1945, with Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotton), THREE COMRADES (1938), THE WAR AGAINST MRS. HADLEY (1942), and THE STORY OF G.I. JOE (1945).

Some non-wartime tearjerkers: ALL MINE TO GIVE is about a family of orphans who have to split up on Christmas day; THREE GODFATHERS is a 30's Western that has Chester Morris saddled with an orphan (it was remade in the 40's with John Wayne); PEYTON PLACE (1957) has a Christmas Eve scene involving attempted rape and murder; there are sad holiday scenes in a couple of Douglas Sirk movies: IMITATION OF LIFE and ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS. There are short holiday scenes in movies as different as MY COUSIN RACHEL, NIGHT AND DAY, THE GODFATHER, and THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES. I may watch some of the above films in the next few days, but I'll also be re-watching the stories of Ebenezer Scrooge, George Bailey, and a reindeer named Rudolph.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

FLYING TIGERS (1942)

One of a number of films released in the early years of WWII intended as a mix of action and propaganda. This one, from B-studio Republic, doesn't quite match up to similar films from larger studios, but it's fairly effective. Ostensibly, it tells the story of the Flying Tigers, a real-life volunteer squadron of American fliers who were helping the Chinese fight the Japanese just before America entered WWII, but it's really mostly a uncredited remake of two earlier films: the WWI story THE DAWN PATROL (filmed twice, in 1930 and 1939) and ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS. John Wayne is the commander of the Tigers, a small, ragtag group of fliers who are basically mercenaries, being paid by the Chinese for each Japanese plane and flier they bring down. Anna Lee is the nurse who loves Wayne (it's vaguely implied that they are as good as living together); Edmund McDonald is Blackie, a disgraced pilot who is given a second chance by Wayne; Paul Kelly is a seasoned pilot who gets grounded because of failing eyesight; John Carroll is Woody, a cocky friend of Wayne's who, tired of getting shot at as a commercial pilot for Rangoon Airlines, joins up with the Tigers and makes no bones that he's in it only for the money--he does a little flirting with Lee on the side, who comes to see that he's not really such a bad guy. However, through carelessness, Carroll winds up being indirectly responsible for the deaths of McDonald and Kelly and, of course, has to redeem himself in the eyes of both Wayne and Lee by sneaking on board with Wayne on a suicide mission, ensuring that the *real* good guy will live to see another day. The bulk of the narrative takes place in late 1941, with Pearl Harbor serving as the climactic turning point. Though there is much here that was certainly intended as wartime propaganda (particularly the remarks made about the Japanese, and the graphic shots of Japanese pilots getting shot in the face), this is mostly a male-bonding soap opera. Apparently, very little of the film reflects the reality of the Flying Tigers, although the Wayne character is nicknamed "Pappy," perhaps in tribute to the real Flying Tiger Pappy Boyington, of "Baa Baa Black Sheep" fame. Many scenes are clearly done with miniatures, but they work fine, and some of the dogfight scenes are quite good. Also with Jimmie Dodd (Jimmie of Disney's Mouseketeers) and Mae Clarke. John Wayne's first war movie. [DVD]

Thursday, December 16, 2004

PARACHUTE JUMPER (1933)

A wild and wooly pre-Code action film with a bit of romance thrown in, almost as a second thought. The first five minutes feel like they belong to a whole different movie. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Frank McHugh are Marine pilots who are shot down in Nicaragua; as an extensive search goes on for them, they are living it up with women and alcohol in a small village. When they are found, they are discharged and wind up back in New York City scrounging for jobs. Fairbanks and Bette Davis (with a wildly overdone Southern accent) meet cute on a park bench; he thinks she's a hooker, but she's really an unemployed stenographer and she winds up living with our boys. Fairbanks does a brief stint as a parachute jumper, getting paid to jump out of planes for the enjoyment of paying audiences, then gets a job as chauffer to rich sex kitten Claire Dodd. She comes onto him, and they're caught in a clinch by her gangster lover (Leo Carillo). Impressed by the way Fairbanks takes the situation, Carillo hires him as a bodyguard; coincidentally, Davis also lands a job with him, as a secretary. Carillo has Fairbanks and McHugh take on some shady flights; they think they're running booze, but when Fairbanks discovers they’re really carrying dope, and that some G-men are about to catch up with them, he makes a mid-air attempt to get rid of the cargo and get Carillo busted for good measure. I was pretty sure that either Davis or McHugh would have to be sacrificed, but there's a happy ending for everyone in the last minutes of the film. Fairbanks looks dashing and all, but it feels like he's sleepwalking through the part (not exactly a challenging one). He and McHugh work well together, except for a ridiculously overdone gay-camp bit. Davis doesn't have much to do except flounce around and work her bad accent. With Walter Brennan and George Chandler in small speaking roles. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

THE GIRL IN THE RED VELVET SWING (1955)

When I was a child, I read the TV Guide cover to cover every week and practically memorized the listings, so my mom and dad could ask, "Mike, what's on TV tonight?" and I could reply with show names, times, plot descriptions, and guest stars. This movie is one I remember seeing listed quite often back in the 60's and it sounded pretty cool to me (A red velvet swing! A scandalous murder!) but it seemed to vanish from TV by the 80's and has never been released on home video, so I was excited when I saw it recently on the Fox Movie Channel. It didn't quite live up to a lifetime of expectations, but it was worth seeing. The film is a fictionalization of the love triangle between famous New York architect Stanford White (Ray Milland), Pittsburgh millionaire Harry K. Thaw (Farley Granger), and lovely model and chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit (Joan Collins), which culminated in the killing of White by Thaw, in full view of the public on the rooftop nightclub of Madison Square Garden, a building White had designed. We first see Nesbit as a very young woman with an overbearing mother (Glenda Farrell); Nesbit models for famous artist Charles Gibson and works as a chorus girl when she is noticed by both Thaw and White. Thaw is a wild, uncontrollable man who is used to getting what he wants, if only because he throws public tantrums; White is older, rich, widely respected, and married. When White's wife goes overseas for her health, White begins to dote on Nesbit, calling on her, paying her medical bills, and eventually making her his mistress, though he does fight giving in to his attraction--it seems to be seeing her in the infamous red velvet swing in his private "playroom" that makes him give in to his passions. This goes on for a while until White decides to send her away to a "boarding school" so she's out of temptation's path. Her incisive comment is that, since he can't make her his wife, he's trying to make her his daughter.

Eventually, their affair ends and Thaw begins to press his hand, albeit in a way that makes it clear that he's a bit crazy. She finally gives in and marries him, but White soon tries to renew his relationship with Nesbit. Thaw, considering White a dangerous seducer who had abused Nesbit, shoots him in the face, stands trial, and is found not guilty by reason of insanity. It is largely Nesbit's ambigious testimony that frees Thaw, but then he and his family abandon her and in the last scene, we see her ekeing out a career in vaudeville, flying out over the audience on a red velvet swing. The cast is quite good all around. This may be Joan Collins's best performance (though, to be fair, I should note that I haven't seen her in many roles--I was never a Dynasty fan), Granger does a nice job as a neurotically unbalanced jerk with too much money, and Milland gives some nuance to an underwritten role. The story's sympathies are with Nesbit and White, and the real Nesbit was still alive in 1955 and served as a technical advisor. RAGTIME, in 1981, features the story in one of its many plot threads (with Elizabeth McGovern as Nesbit) and our sympathies there are with Thaw. The real stars of this movie, however, are the set design, costumes, and color. Every scene is gorgeous and the wide Cinemascope frame is filled with lovely details. This may not be a masterpiece, but it moves along well and would make a lovely DVD package with perhaps an extra documentary that examined the real people and events. [FMC]

Monday, December 13, 2004

DEAD RINGER (1964)

This was Bette Davis's last "old-fashioned" starring role, sandwiched between her "horror hag" films WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE and HUSH HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE, and she makes the most of it in a melodrama that is very reminiscent of her 40's film A STOLEN LIFE. Davis plays twin sisters, Maggie and Edie, who meet up for the first time in 20 years at the funeral of Maggie's rich husband, Frank DeLorca. Edie, who owns a failing nightclub, had loved DeLorca but Maggie stole him away by claiming to be pregnant by him. The child supposedly died within a year, but Edie finds out that Maggie lied about the pregnancy. Tired of scraping by and about to lose her nightclub, Edie invites Maggie over to her apartment and kills her, then trades clothes and identities, leaving a signed suicide note to make it look like Edie killed herself over her financial worries. Of course, she soon realizes that stepping into the shoes of another person is a tricky business, and much suspense is generated as we watch her dealing with old friends of Maggie's. She gets by OK until she is surprised by meeting Maggie's lover (Peter Lawford), who, it turns out, killed DeLorca with Maggie's help. Lawford catches on to Edie's disguise and the last part of the film features blackmail, death, and ironic justice. The supporting cast includes Karl Malden (as Edie's boyfriend cop who almost catches on to the whole deal), Jean Hagen (as a dithery pal of Maggie's), Estelle Winwood, and George Chandler. Bert Remsen, who I'm used to seeing as a crusty old man in TV shows and Robert Altman movies, plays an almost-hunky bartender. However, the whole show here is Bette Davis, who is essentially playing herself playing the twin sisters. She does a great job using subtle differences in voice and manner to differentiate between the two sisters, also getting help from use of a double and very good split screen effects. The last half is a little sluggishly paced but Davis makes it worth staying til the end. The DVD has a decent commentary track that, like the movie, runs out of steam before the end. Directed by Paul Henreid, who was Victor Laszlo in CASABLANCA and played opposite Davis in NOW VOYAGER. [DVD]

Saturday, December 11, 2004

BEAUTY FOR THE ASKING (1939)

This second feature romantic drama is notable more for its themes and its conclusion than for its mediocre execution. Lucille Ball works at a beauty parlor but has a plan to go into business for herself with her own revolutionary cold cream formula. She has been waiting years for her beau, Patric Knowles, a cosmetics salesman, to marry her, but as the movie opens, we see him accepting a marriage proposal from the wealthy but older Frieda Inescort. Of course, Ball is upset when Knowles breaks the news to her, but it gives her the impetus to finally get her business off the ground. With the help of ad man Donald Woods, she embarks on a clever PR campaign to get investors, and the primary one winds up being Inescort, who doesn’t know about Ball's previous relationship with her new husband. The company is a success and Ball gets rich; when Inescort tells Ball that she's afraid she’s losing her husband's affections, Ball oversees a strict regimen aimed at getting Inescort fit and lovely. This twist of the former mistress giving romantic advice to the wife seems straight out of Lubitsch's pre-Code comedy THE SMILING LIEUTENTANT. Eventually, Knowles decides he's still in love with Ball, but he balks when, to assuage her guilt, Ball offers to give all of his and her profits to Inescort. The rather surprising (for the 30's) ending has Knowles rejected by both Ball and Inescort, who become good friends and remain successful business partners.

The rather fuzzy portrayal of Knowles (he never seems fully sympathetic, but never completely unsympathetic either) seemed like a writing or acting flaw until the ending when I realized it was planned that way. (BTW, he winds up marrying a minor character named Eve Harrington!!) Ball is bland, though she looks ravishing in an early scene where she does a glamour pose for Woods--she looks a bit like a plainer, unfinished Jean Harlow. Olivia de Havilland or Myrna Loy would have been much better choices for the role. The feminist theme of women working together is interesting--supposedly the story is based on the life of beauty magnate Helena Rubenstein--as is the seed of an idea about the importance of PR in the success of a product; it's basically admitted that Ball's cream is a hit because of marketing (a fabulous container) and pricing (at one point, Ball says she doesn’t mind overcharging women for it, because otherwise it wouldn't sell). The re-igniting of sparks between Knowles and Ball is abrupt and unmotivated, a fault of the script. The direction is lackluster and the movie is too short to properly develop its ideas. It was still worth watching, if only for its modern ending. [TCM]

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

FIRST YANK INTO TOKYO (1945)

This war movie, released just a month after the bombing of Hiroshima, has, I believe, the distinction of being the first movie to use the A-bomb as a plot device. Otherwise, it's a fairly standard low budget film from the war era, mixing propaganda, romance, and sacrifice with a couple of interesting though outrageous plot twists. Tom Neal (of the great B-noir DETOUR) plays an American pilot who is asked to pull off a secret-agent stunt: infiltrate a Japanese POW camp to free an atomic scientist (Marc Cramer) who has information crucial to completing the atomic bomb. The Army knows that Neal was raised in Japan, speaks Japanese, and also knows something about the "Japanese" mindset, a "reverse, corkscrew way of thinking." The first bizarre plot twist: in order to get into Japan, Neal undergoes plastic surgery so he looks Japanese. He agrees to go through with the plan, feeling he has little to lose since the love of his life, an Army nurse (Barbara Hale), was killed at Bataan. But once he's at the POW camp, with fake identity papers provided by Chinese and Korean resistance members, he finds that Hale is alive. With the help of a Korean agent (Keye Luke), Neal arranges to get Cramer and Hale out via submarine. The second odd twist: the camp commander (Richard Loo) is Neal's old college roommate; despite Neal's new face, Loo keeps thinking that there's something oddly familiar about him. This builds up some suspense in the last 15 minutes of the film as Neal finally gives himself away with an unconscious tic that Loo recognizes. Feeling that Hale could never love him with "the face of a Jap" (even though Hale, once she knows who he is, insists she still loves him), Neal arranges to stay behind with Luke and the two of them face certain death fighting off dozens of Japanese soldiers, allowing the sub to escape and allowing the Americans to drop the bomb (shown in what must have been very fresh newsreel footage). Neal's make-up, derided by some critics, isn't bad, and the performances are adequate all around. The soap-operaish plot devices, though totally unbelievable, are sort of fun and make the otherwise bland goings-on quite bearable. [TCM]

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Two Carl Theodor Dreyer silent films

MICHAEL (aka CHAINED--1924) is about an older artist (Benjamin Christensen) and his apparently platonic crush on Michael, his young model (Walter Slezak), whom he treats like a son. The boy languishes about the house, more or less happy to be the center of attention in the household until he falls for a down-on-her-luck countess who is having the artist paint her portrait. Slezak begins stealing things from the artist, including valuable artwork, to give the countess some money. It also turns out that Slezak has a bit of artistic talent himself, as only he is able to complete the countess' picture by painting her eyes, which supposedly suggests something about real love. In the end, the boy deserts Christensen and the artist pines for him for a while. On his deathbed, Christensen claims that he has known a "great love." If he means the boy, then he is as foolish as the dying Aschenbach in Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice." However, he might mean the boy's love for the countess, in which case I still think he's foolish, for I see little evidence that Slezak is capable of "great love" for anyone. But I'll admit I found the movie difficult to follow in places, mostly the long stretches in the middle where nothing much seemed to be happening, and I might have missed something. Slezak, familiar later in his Hollywood sound days for playing chubby villains or comic relief parts, is sleek and handsome as Michael. Christensen, mostly known for directing and appearing as the Devil in the silent movie HAXAN, is good as the artist. [TCM]

LEAVES FROM SATAN'S BOOK (1921) was directly inspired by Griffith's INTOLERANCE and tells four stories about the Devil's involvement in human affairs. The prologue states that Satan's punishment is to be forced to tempt humans to evil. For every person Satan is able to claim, God adds 100 years to Satan's exile, but for every person who resists, God commutes 1000 years. That's a twist on the Lucifer story that I'd never heard. The first story has Satan present during the events that lead to Christ's crucifixion; in human form, he is one of the high priests who argues for Christ's capture and he also tempts Judas into betrayal. In the next story, set during the Spanish Inquisition, a monk falls in love with a female student and Satan, as the Chief Inquisitor, tempts the monk into betraying the girl's father (who does horoscopes) and raping the daughter. The French Revolution is the setting for the third episode in which the devil takes the form of a Jacobin who tempts a servant to betray his royal family. The last, and the hardest one for me to follow, is set in 1918 during a war in Finland and also involves personal and political betrayal, with the devil as a monk urging a woman to betray her partisans; here, the human finally resists Satan's lure. Dreyer uses lots of iris-ins and iris-outs, and some tableau-type staging, but too much of the action of the narratives takes place off-screen or is told to us in the title cards, so this falls well short of the Griffith film. The print I saw on Turner Classic was tinted blue for night scenes, and during the third story, a shot of the guillotine is effectively tinted red. Helge Nissen is very good as all four Satanic incarnations. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

STATE FAIR (1933)

A basic plot description of this movie sounds unbearably corny: A rural family spends a week at the State Fair; Dad hopes his hog wins a prize, Mom hopes her pickles and mincemeat win prizes, and the son and daughter hope for some romance and excitement--and everyone gets pretty much exactly what he or she wants. In fact, the 1945 musical remake is too corny and glossy for its own good, but this version (based on a novel) works surprisingly well, largely due to fine acting all around. Will Rogers, a top box-office draw at the time, plays the father in his usual laconic fashion, with his cynical sarcasm almost totally (but not quite) absent. Louise Dresser (the crazy Duke's mother in THE SCARLET EMPRESS) plays the clucking mother at perfect pitch. Their son, Norman Foster, meets up with a sexy carnival dancer (Sally Eilers), has a brief affair, and is let down gently by the worldly but kindly woman. This being a pre-Code film, their affair is presented plainly and unapologetically as sexual in nature--it's refreshingly honest but not vulgar. The daughter, played by Janet Gaynor, another big star of the early 30's, has a boring boyfriend at home, but runs around at the fair with a dashing newspaperman (Lew Ayers). The only real suspense is generated by this pair: Will Ayers give up his freedom for a simple, down-home gal? The fair is presented as a kind of liminal place where anything can happen, and the kind of excitement that such a fair had for much of the population back then is palpable, another strength of the film, even though many scenes set at the fair are clearly shot against rear projection footage. Also with Victor Jory and Frank Craven. Norman Foster went on to direct several Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan films and some episodes of the Batman and Green Hornet TV shows of the 60's. The food prize sequence could have benefited from more development, but is rushed through to give more time to Rogers' hog's shenanigans. Light and satisfying, much better than the later musical version, despite the presence in that film of some fine Rodgers and Hammerstein songs. [FMC]

Sunday, November 28, 2004

NEW MOON (1940)

Many years ago, I watched an Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy operetta, didn’t care for it, and decided I didn't need to see anything else of that ilk, but I finally broke down during TCM's recent festival of musicals and watched this one. Surprisingly, it was painless and even rather entertaining. Eddy is a French duke who has been arrested for "singing seditious ditties" and as punishment is shipped out of France to New Orleans as a bonded servant. MacDonald is a rich lady who, on the same ship as Eddy, mistakes him for an officer and does a little flirting. Coincidentally, her estate manager buys Eddy as a house servant and their relationship, after a rocky start, develops at the same time that Eddy is planning a servant's revolt aboard the ship New Moon. In another wild coincidence, Eddy and his men wind up taking over a ship with McDonald and a bunch of mail-order brides. The ship wrecks on an island and the motley group of ladies and pirates learn to get along, as do Eddy and MacDonald. Eventually, the French attack, but news of the French Revolution gets through just in time to save the day and allow our couple to be happy ever after. The plot is silly, though I enjoyed the echoes of SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS in the island sequence, and Eddy is completely unbelievable as a dashing romantic figure, but he sings the famous "Stouthearted Men" quite nicely. MacDonald's "One Kiss" is a standout, as is their duet, "Wanting You," which is shot beautifully in the woods. With the leads being rather bland, it's left to the supporting players to add some spice to the film, which they do. Mary Boland, the nutty countess in THE WOMEN, is good as MacDonald's aunt; also shining in smaller roles are George Zucco, Grant Mitchell, and H.B. Warner. John Miljan is one of Eddy's more lively buddies, and Sara Edwards has a short but funny bit as a gossipy bitch who wants to buy Eddy from MacDonald. [TCM]

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Two Pre-Code Doctors

MEN IN WHITE (1934) has Clark Gable as a promising intern who is torn between continuing to work long hours with his mentor (Jean Hersholt) and spending more time with his socialite finacee (Myrna Loy). Gable may have served as the archetype for many of the movie doctors who came later: he's charming and handsome, and when there's a conflict between him and an older, more established doctor (in this movie, the sinister C. Henry Gordon), the younger doctor is always right. When duty calls and Gable breaks a dinner date, Loy gives him the cold shoulder and Gable finds a night of comfort in the arms of an understanding nurse (Elizabeth Allan). Later, the pregnant and single Allan falls ill, Gable cannot save her, and Loy realizes she must give him up to his career. The film is well directed, especially Allan's hospital bed death scene and Gable's confrontation with Gordon; Gable is quite good, as he usually was in his 30's movies, though it’s a shame that Loy doesn't have more to do. Wallace Ford is a frivolous intern and Otto Kruger is an older doctor whose wife is dying of TB. There's a very nice art deco hospital office that looks like it belongs in an Astaire/Rogers musical. The movie was released just a few months before the Production Code was enforced. Most sources say that the movie runs 80 minutes, but the print that TCM shows is apparently a re-release version, running 75 minutes, with at least one obvious trim; at one point, an intern says, "We should eat, drink, and make merry," and there's a cut to a woman answering a telephone, saying, "This is Mary speaking," but her line has been erased in the TCM print. One bawdy line that made it through is an intern's complaint: "That's the trouble with love--it ruins your sex life." The plight of the pregnant nurse is unclear; we have to guess from the coded language that she's pregnant, and it’s not clear at all what she dies of. [TCM]

THE SIN OF MADELON CLAUDET (1931) isn't strictly speaking a doctor movie (though Jean Hersholt once again plays a doctor), but a melodrama from the well-worn "suffering mother" genre. Helen Hayes is the title character, whom we first see as a young French girl who leaves the countryside for Paris with American Neil Hamilton; he goes back to the States to attend to family business and never returns; Hayes has a baby and tries to get farmer Alan Hale to marry her, but he doesn't want to be burdened with a child. She is befriended by older friend Lewis Stone and spends some time in decent conditions as a kept woman, but it turns out that Stone is a notorious jewel thief and when he's caught, he kills himself and she gets 10 years in jail as an accomplice. When released, she becomes a petty thief and a streetwalker, sending as much money as she can to her child, being raised in a orphanage. Years later, the son (Robert Young) is a successful doctor. Hayes, ill and aged beyond her years, has been keeping track of his progress and when their paths cross, he doesn't recognize her, though he does arrange for her to get medical attention. The story is told as a flashback by Hersholt to Young's fiancee (Karen Morley) who has been behaving like Myrna Loy, but she sees things in a new light and decides to stand by her man, even though Young still doesn't know that kindly old Hayes is his mother. It's a creaky and predictable plot, a variation of which is used in the more popular MADAME X, and its short length and episodic nature work against it, but Hayes is worth seeing. Cliff Edwards and Charles Winninger have small supporting roles, and the underrated child actor Frankie Darro is Hayes' son as a boy. [TCM]

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

CONFIDENTIAL AGENT (1945)

I'm not usually impressed with Charles Boyer but he's very good in this underrated spy thriller set in 1937 which uses the Spanish Civil War as its background, though all the action takes place in London. Boyer is a retired concert pianist who has enlisted with the Republicans in Spain against Franco's fascists; his job is to broker a deal with the British coal industry to buy a substantial amount of coal for his side, and to keep it out of the hands of the fascists (embodied here by the always slickly sinister Victor Francen) who need it badly. Upon his arrival in London, he winds up involved with young snobbish socialite Lauren Bacall, who is coincidentally the daughter of a coal company boss. At first, their relationship is rather rocky, but soon she comes to realize the importance of his mission and, impressed with his determination, she helps him to escape police, other spies, and even her own father to fulfill his duty. Bacall was barely 21 and this was only her third film (though it was released before her second film, THE BIG SLEEP); many critics were tough on her, and the performance does seem to be an overly mannered one at first, but we're meant to see the character change and grow, and I think she does a good job, though she doesn't even try to do a British accent. Boyer is just right as an idealistic man into things a little over his head. A wonderful supporting cast includes Katrina Paxinou as a Republican hotel owner who betrays her side quite viciously, Peter Lorre as her accomplice, Ian Wolfe as the slightly wacky inventor of a made-up language called Entrenationo, Wanda Hendrix as a young hotel maid, George Coulouris as a man with an artificial hand who may or may not be a suspicious character, and Dan Seymour as a odd little Hindu man who takes copious notes on the behavior of everyone around him, who also may or may not be sinister. Much of the film has a noirish feel, with most scenes occurring at night and in thick fog. It's a bit long, dragging in the middle, but it's well worth a viewing. [TCM]

Sunday, November 21, 2004

THE HOUSE ON 56th STREET (1933)

An average "long suffering heroine" melodrama from the heyday of the genre. Kay Francis is a chorus girl with two admirers: an older sugar daddy (John Halliday) and a younger but still well-off man (Gene Raymond). She agrees to marry Raymond and they live in the big house of the movie title. Halliday takes the rejection OK, but years later, when he has only a short time to live, he confronts her and asks her to return to him. She rejects him again, so he pulls out a gun and threatens to kill himself. Francis struggles with him and the gun goes off, killing Halliday. She is found guilty of manslaughter and put away for 20 years. When she gets out, her husband is dead (in WWI) and her grown daughter (Margaret Lindsay) has been told that Francis died in prison. Her mother-in-law agrees to give her a cash settlement to start a new life, but refuses to let her make contact with her daughter. Francis, whom we're told has a gambling problem, meets up with a oceangoing card sharp (Ricardo Cortez) and they pair up to fleece people, eventually getting a job in New York at a speakeasy that is opening up in the old mansion that once belonged to Francis and her husband. When Lindsay shows up and recklessly loses a lot of money, she winds up shooting Cortez. Francis is ready to take the rap, but the speakeasy boss agrees to cover things up as long as she will stay with him in the house on 56th Street forever. She agrees, escaping punishment in a pre-Code plot twist that would have been impossible a year later. The plot and acting are fine, but because the movie is so short (under 70 minutes), the first half is underdeveloped and rushed through. It is mentioned that Raymond and his rich mother were estranged at one time, but nothing is made of it, as though it were a subplot that got cut before release. Similarly, we know that Francis' father was a riverboat gambler but her gambling past is dealt with in basically one line of dialogue. It wasn't clear to me why Francis couldn't explain her way out of the manslaughter charges better--I guess because then the movie would only be 40 minutes long. Stalwart Warners comic player Frank McHugh gets co-star billing, but only has a couple of scenes early on. Francis and Cortez are the reasons to watch this; both are good doing what they do best: for Francis, wearing lovely costumes and suffering; for Cortez, being an attractive slimeball. [TCM]

Saturday, November 20, 2004

THE DAY THE FISH CAME OUT (1967)

Dr. Strangelove gone psychedelic (and a little gay). This is one of those crazy 60's movies that you watch slack-jawed, wondering, what the hell were they thinking? It's set in the near future (1972) and begins as a military plane is flying over Europe carrying two nuclear bombs and a mysterious "McGuffin" box of some very dangerous material (think Doomsday Device by way of the Mickey Spillane noir classic KISS ME DEADLY). With a crash imminent, the pilots must carefully deposit themselves and their deadly cargo via parachutes on a small Greek island. The two men (Colin Blakely and Tom Courtney), clad only in skimpy wet (and increasingly dirty) underpants, scamper about the rocky island trying to contact their NATO superiors while at the same time staying hidden from the populace--the fact that they can't come up with a semi-plausible excuse for their state of undress is ridiculous. Unknown to the pilots, a group of military men, thinking the pilots are dead, move in to reclaim the weapons; they claim to be hotel developers, which allows them to scatter all over the island in their search. They dress up in outrageously tight and colorful tourist garb and are assumed to be gay by some of the villagers, and eventually by Blakely, who doesn't realize that these are the men he's trying to contact. Meanwhile, all the activity causes unwanted attention from real tourists who come to the island by the boatload, including archeologist and half-hearted dominatrix Candice Bergen who carries on a brief fling with soldier Ian Ogilvy. The two bombs are discovered by the military, but the box is found and pried open by a shepherd and his wife who, finding only odd shiny spheres, throw the contents in the ocean (and, by accident, into the island's water supply). In the last few minutes, a coming apocalypse is signaled by the huge numbers of dead fish bobbing in the water, and the heedless islanders and tourists dance away that last moments of their lives, as a voice shrieks over a megaphone, "Pay attention, please!"--a heavy symbolic touch that reminds me of the end of some Spike Lee movies when characters go about yelling, "Wake up!!" Not surprisingly, none of this really comes together, but the costumes and wild frugging of the tourists are fun to watch for a few minutes, as are the underdressed pilots. Bergen is totally wasted, as is the usually dignified Sam Wanamaker as the head military man. Very tough to sit through; recommended only for die-hard fans of 60's cinema. [FMC]

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Two B-Westerns

LAND BEYOND THE LAW (1937)
I watched this out of curiosity about the "singing cowboy" subgenre (in this one, the musical hero is Dick Foran) and because it has Wayne Morris in a supporting role, and I wound up enjoying this much more that I thought I would. The opening is pure bliss, as Dick and his men come riding into town singing about being the Circle Bar Boys and how they're gonna raise a little playful hell. It reminded me of something out of OKLAHOMA! There's only one other major number ("Whisper While You’re Waltzing") and a short song at the very end, so the singing part did not predominate. The film is set in Bitter Creek, a frontier town in New Mexico, which is largely a lawless state. The plot starts out as something out of LADY FOR A DAY, with the bar owner (Irene Franklin) cleaning things up and changing her establishment to a cafe (spelt "cafay" on her temporary sign) because her daughter (Linda Perry), who thinks her mother runs a respectable place, is arriving for a visit. But soon, a more traditional western plot, with rustlers trying to start a range war, takes over. Foran's father is killed and Foran enlists as sheriff to right the rustlers. Cy Kendall is the main bad guy. Foran is fine, and Wayne Morris is as handsome as he's ever been. At only an hour, this B-western was well worth the time. I'll have to catch some more of these the next time TCM airs them.

VALLEY OF HUNTED MEN (1942)
This is actually a WWII spy movie done up as a western. It's one entry in a long series of B-films featuring the Three Mesquiteers, WWI buddies who work together on a ranch in Wyoming. The line-up over some fifty movies varied; here, it's Tucson Smith (Bob Steele), Stony Brooke (Tom Tyler) and Lullaby Joslin (Jimmie Dodd). Kindly German scientist Edward Van Sloan is conducting experiments to help expand the rubber crop for the Allied war effort. Some ranchers are suspicious of him, especially after three Nazi spies escape from a Canadian jail and wreck havoc in the area, trying to sabotage the experiments. There is death and disguise and heroism, along with a lesson about not being able to tell loyalty by a person's ethnic background. Jimmie Dodd was later better known as a regular on "The Mickey Mouse Club." [TCM]

Monday, November 15, 2004

REMEMBER THE DAY (1941)

A heart-warming movie with elements of GOODBYE MR. CHIPS, SUMMER OF '42, and the Andy Hardy movies. Claudette Colbert is an elderly schoolteacher who has come to a hotel in Washington to catch a glimpse of presidential candidate Dewey Roberts (Shepperd Strudwick), who was a student of hers 25 years earlier. As she waits in the lobby, she reminisces about 1916, a year that changed her life. Dewey is just a lad (Douglas Croft) at the end of his grammar school years, nursing a crush on his teacher, Colbert. Meanwhile, another teacher that Dewey idolizes (John Payne) meets Colbert and a romance develops. She goes off for the summer to a resort farm and Payne follows her, leading to a scandal, at least in the eyes of the school principal, so Payne leaves and joins the Canadian military. At Christmas, just before he is to be sent overseas to fight in WWI, Payne returns to marry Colbert, impulsively and in secret. Croft sees the two kissing and is distraught, leading to a tearful climax in which Colbert has to say goodbye to both her man and her student. The frame story, set in the present, has potential but isn't given much time to develop. Luckily, the bulk of the film works quite well, thanks to the strong performances of Colbert, Payne, and Croft. Ann Revere is a "spinster" schoolteacher who lives at the same boarding house as Colbert, and Frida Inescort has a small role as the adult Dewey's wife. Very sweet piece of Americana. [FMC]

Friday, November 12, 2004

CORREGIDOR (1943)

A Poverty Row war movie that tried to capitalize on the tragic real-life events in the Philippines in the early days of WWII. According to the book "Star Spangled Screen," the Office of War Information gave the film's studio, PRC, a great deal of help in making the film, but it doesn't show, partly because all the government help in the world couldn't overcome a lack of imagination in direction and writing, and partly because the movie isn't really a war story or even an effective war propaganda film, but is instead a run-of-the-mill romantic triangle between three army doctors. Ellisa Landi (best known as the Christian heroine of De Mille's SIGN OF THE CROSS) is a doctor who has flown out to the island of Manoi in early December of 1941 to marry her suitor (Otto Kruger); in the middle of the wedding ceremony, the Japanese bombard the island from the air and our couple winds up on Corregidor where they run into Landi's former beau, Donald Woods. There is apparently still some spark between Landi and Woods, but we have to take that on faith since their bland acting (and, to be fair, weak writing) gives us little to go on for character motivation. Moderately more interesting is the romantic subplot between nurse Wanda McKay and soldier Rick Vallin, who are less stiff in the acting department than the leads. Frank Jenks, a familiar face from dozens of 30's and 40's films, provides some strained comic relief. The contemporary audience would have known that all concerned were doomed, as the U.S. ultimately retreated and abandoned the island to the Japanese; here, Landi is evacuated on the last boat out and we assume that everyone else will die or be held as prisoners. The movie is supposed to have a stirring epilogue written by poet Alfred Noyes, but that was missing from the print I saw on the Marathon DVD--in fact, it looks like the entire last reel except for "The End" title card was gone, so this version has an incredibly uninspiring ending with soldiers in tears hearing about the retreat. There is some newsreel footage of Japanese bombers, and some poorly done scenes of hand-to-hand combat in the jungles. Kruger has an inane grin on his face all the time, so whether he's happy, sad, or in love, he just comes off as stupefied. Landi looks like a drab Katharine Hepburn and isn't much better than Kruger. Both have given decent performances elsewhere, so I have to blame the director, William Nigh. Edgar Ulmer co-wrote the screenplay. Even as a fan of B-movie war propaganda, I was sorely disappointed in this. [DVD]

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

THEY MADE ME A FUGITIVE (1947)

Good example of a British film noir. Trevor Howard plays a former RAF flier who drifts into a life of crime, joining a gang of black marketeers (headed by Griffin Jones) who use the Valhalla funeral home as a front for smuggling anything from booze to cigarettes. When Howard finds out they're also handling drugs, he decides to leave, but Jones frames him for the death of a policeman and he's sent away for 15 years. Howard manages to escape and work his way back to London to get revenge on Jones. The movie has an undertone of dark comedy, such as a scene at the funeral home when Jones whistles "Silent Night" as his gang members hide in empty coffins. One such scene turns from comic to serious: while on the run, Howard breaks into a rural home to get food and clothes, and the wife, instead of being scared, tries to get him to kill her alcoholic husband. He declines, but after he leaves, she goes through with the murder and pins it on Howard. Sally Gray plays Jones' rejected girlfriend, a chorus girl who winds up helping Howard. Sebastian Cabot can be seen in a small role as a bar owner. All the acting is fine; the older woman who plays the funeral home director is especially good--I think the actress's name is Mary Marrell, but I'm having a hard time confirming that. However, Jones is astonishing, in a role that is 180 degrees away from his usual light, upper-class characters. Here, a mean glare disfigures his usually handsome looks; he's a brutal sadist, particularly to women, and comes off just short of psychopathic. The climatic fight between Jones and Howard takes place on the funeral home rooftop, around gigantic R.I.P. letters. The ending (spoiler ahead!!) is not so predictable: Jones dies after falling from the roof, but with his dying breath, he continues to insist that Howard killed the cop, and all other witnesses are either dead or unreliable. Howard is taken away and there is a glimmer of hope when the inspector notes that they will continue to investigate the case to come up with new facts to help clear Howard, but his fate remains ambiguous. Recommended. [DVD]

Monday, November 08, 2004

SUSAN LENOX: HER FALL AND RISE (1931)

I've seen several Greta Garbo films and I just do not get her appeal, beyond her rather icy sensuality. This film begins promisingly, with the first few years of Garbo's life conveyed almost entirely by shadows against a wall. Her mother, a young unmarried woman, dies giving birth; the woman's father (Jean Hersholt) wants the baby to be left for dead, but the doctor refuses. The girl (Garbo) grows up under the thumb of the unloving Hersholt, and when he plans to marry her off to an older, drunken brute (Alan Hale) who tries to rape her, she runs away and meets up with engineer Clark Gable. The two fall quickly fall in love, but when Hersholt finds her, she runs away on a train and joins up with a circus as a coochie dancer. By the time Gable catches up with her, she has become, against her will, the kept woman of the circus owner and Gable, disgusted, leaves her. Her "fall and rise" commence as she does some serious whoring, eventually getting out of the gutter (where Gable told her she belonged) and into a penthouse as the mistress of a politician (Hale Hamilton). Once again, she and Gable meet up and once again, he misunderstands her situation and storms off. Garbo leaves Hamilton and follows Gable down to a rough Central American country, this time as a dancer (but not a whore) at a dive bar; a rich American man offers her security, but she waits for Gable, by now a drunken wreck, to come upon her one more time. Of course, the third time's the charm. This is the kind of overwrought melodrama that Marlene Dietrich and director Josef von Sternberg could do in their sleep, but Garbo and her director, Robert Z. Leonard, can't pull it off. Leonard does throw in some nice stylistic touches (the shadows, some effective camera moves) and the sets are elaborate, but Garbo never gets further than skin deep into her character. Gable is good, smoldering and using mannerisms that wore well through his career, right up to and including Rhett Butler, but the two don't set off many sparks together. Cecil Cunningham has some fun as the circus tattooed lady. Not terrible, but nothing special, except for fans of the stars. [TCM]

Saturday, November 06, 2004

KONGO (1932)

This wild and brutal jungle melodrama is close to being an archetypal pre-Code film, in manner and theme if not setting. Walter Huston plays a scarred and crippled big-game hunter who ruthlessly rules a small African village by virtue of his guns, his magic tricks, and his cohorts (who include Lupe Velez, later the Mexican Spitfire in a B-movie series of the 40's). He is confined to a wheelchair because of an encounter with another hunter (C. Henry Gordon) who had an affair with Huston's wife and crushed Huston's spine in a fight (and, according to Huston, sneered while doing so--Huston has the phrase "He sneered" on his wall). Now, Huston is putting the final touches on his long-planned revenge; he gets Virginia Bruce, Gordon's daughter (who was born of Huston's wife but apparently fathered by Gordon), out of a convent where she has been raised, has her taken to Singapore and forced into prostitution, then brought to Africa to be shown in her degraded state to Gordon. A doctor (Conrad Nagel) stumbles onto the scene, drugged out from chewing a wild leaf; Huston gets him under his thumb and forces him to operate to relieve some of the pain Huston still feels in his useless legs. Nagel falls in love with Bruce and conspires to help her escape, but Huston has other plans: once Gordon arrives, Huston will show him his miserable daughter, kill him, and let the villagers sacrifice the girl.

This is the very definition of unsavory material, but I mean that as a compliment here. The intensity of the performances, the unhealthy and grimy look of the surroundings (there's one particularly grotesque scene of Nagel stripped and plunged into a pond of leeches), and the perversity of the situation work together to give this a unique feel, matched in the early 30's only by the slightly less perverse SAFE IN HELL. Huston is powerful; it must have been tempting to go over the top with this melodramatic character, but Huston keeps a lid on his simmering performance which makes it all the more effective. Bruce is equally effective; when we first see her, she is a lovely blond angel, but when she arrives in Africa, she truly looks dissolute and diseased. The only false note is struck by Nagel, who is good when he's doped up, but is a little too sleekly Hollywoodish when sober and falling for Bruce. The climax has a nice little narrative twist which the viewer can probably guess ahead of time, but it still plays out well. Based on a Lon Chaney silent film, WEST OF ZANZIBAR. Highly recommended. [TCM]

Thursday, November 04, 2004

GIRL CRAZY (1932)

This Gershwin musical was filled with 16 tunes (including the classics "I Got Rhythm," "But Not for Me," and "Embraceable You") when it ran on Broadway and made a star out of Ethel Merman, but when RKO brought it to the screen, they got rid of all but three songs (and had George Gershwin add a new one) and turned it into a slapstick vehicle for the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. The plot of the movie (which may or may not be the same as the stage play) is negligible: a playboy (handsome juvenile Eddie Quillan) is sent out west by his father to live on a ranch in order to cure his girl-craziness, but instead he turns the place into a dude ranch resort. Woolsey and his wife (Kitty Kelly--not the celeb biographer) head out to the ranch for jobs, driven in a taxi by Wheeler and his kid sister (Mitzi Green). There is tomfoolery involving sheriffs, romance, and hypnotism, some spicy pre-Code humor, and a happy ending for all, but as in most Marx Brothers movies, the plot is strictly secondary, with music mostly relegated to a distant third place. Wheeler and Woolsey are enjoyable, and the silly new song, "You Got What Gets Me," is fun, but it's a shame the great Gershwin score was treated so shabbily. "I Got Rhythm" has some good moments, with the club audience singing along and huge cactuses swaying to the beat, but Kelly's voice is harsh and not up to the song. Mitzi Green, only 12 at the time, does some spot-on imitations of stars like Edna May Oliver and Bing Crosby singing "But Not For Me." Arline Judge and Dorothy Lee are more than acceptable as romantic interests. The last 15 minutes consists of some well done knockabout farce. This is more lively than the Garland/Rooney version in the 40's, but probably only of interest to fans of Wheeler and Woolsey--see my review of HIPS HIPS HOORAY on 7/20/04. [TCM]

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

THE JAZZ SINGER (1927)

The movie that is widely considered to be the first talkie. It wasn't really; aside from a background score, the only time synchronized sound occurs is during musical numbers (like "Toot, Toot, Tootsie" and "Mammy") some of which had a couple minutes worth of dialogue attached--the rest of the movie is silent, with title cards. However, it was the movie that proved to the Hollywood studios that talking pictures were not only feasible, but could be wildly popular. The plot concerns a Jewish boy, Jake Rabinowitz, whose father, a cantor at a synagogue, wants the boy to follow in his footsteps, but the boy, even at the young age of 13, knows he wants to sing "jazz" rather than sacred music--he already has a gig at a club under the name Ragtime Jakie. The cantor (Warner Oland) wants his son to sing "Kol Nidre" with him at a Yom Kippur service, but when the boy decides not to, the cantor gives him a whipping and the boy runs away. The adult Jakie (Al Jolson) ekes out a living singing in nightclubs (having changed his name to Jack Robin) and is discovered by singer May McAvoy. A romance keeps threatening to develop, but unless I missed something, it never really does. Jolson returns to New York years after his break with his family, about to make the big time as the star of a Broadway revue. His mother (Eugenie Besserer) is happy to see him, but Oland remains hard-hearted. The day of Jolson's Broadway opening also happens to be Yom Kippur, and with Oland on his deathbed, there's no one to sing "Kol Nidre" at the synagogue. Will Jolson stick with the show, or risk losing his big break in order to be reconciled with his father? The sentiment is piled on a bit thick, not just with the father, but also with the mother, who is torn between loyalty to her husband and wanting her son to have his wishes come true. Jolson was almost 40 when he made the movie, and looks way too old to be playing a young man getting his first break in show business. Oland is good as the cantor, and Jolson isn't bad, but Besserer engages in some of the most exaggerated silent acting I've ever seen. McAvoy, as the love interest, has little to do since the love story here is between Jolson and his parents. The best acting might be from teenager Bobby Gordon as the young Jakie. Don’t blink and you'll catch Myrna Loy in a one-line part as a chorus girl. Historically important, but not required viewing, except for die-hard Jolson fans. [TCM]

Sunday, October 31, 2004

WEREWOLF SHADOW (1972)

This Spanish horror film has been released under at least six different titles, with its most common one in the U.S. being THE WEREWOLF VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMAN, but I'm using the title on the DVD that I watched. It's the first film I've seen by Paul Naschy, who is something of a minor legend among horror connoisseurs, and, though occasionally incoherent and shot in a rather slapdash fashion, it's good enough to make me want to hunt down some other Naschy films. Director Naschy plays Waldemar Daninsky, a werewolf character who crops up in several of his movies. This one begins with Naschy, dead on a coroner's slab; the doctors know he was rumored to be a werewolf but they remove the silver bullet that killed him anyway, and sure enough, he returns to snarling life and we get our first two deaths. Naschy then goes back to his decrepit castle (where he lives with his non-wolfen sister), and gets involved with two young women who are researching the legends of the vampire Countess Wandessa. Blood dripping from a cut (a la Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY) revives the dead Vampire Woman, who looks like a creepy bride dressed in black, and a reign of terror begins until Naschy joins in to stop it. Along the way, individual plot points don't always make a lot of sense, and traditional conventions about werewolves and vampires are discarded when inconvenient. Still, the movie has several good scenes and Naschy makes for a full-blooded werewolf, and in human form, a tormented "Dark Shadows"-type of anti-hero. Some dialogue scenes even feel like they came right out of an episode of Dark Shadows. The DVD from Anchor Bay is apparently the most complete version available. The original Spanish title is LA NOCHE DE WALPURGIS. [DVD]

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Some Halloween Week Short Takes:

SHOCK (1946) is more of a psychological thriller than a horror film; a young woman (Anabel Shaw), already a bit on edge from waiting to meet her newly released POW-husband after 2 years, witnesses a murder and goes into shock. Vincent Price, the psychiatrist who is called in on her case, is the murderer (he killed his wife in a fit of rage), and when he realizes what she saw, he and his mistress (Lynn Bari) keep the woman committed and under sedation, but soon realize they'll have to kill her to keep her from talking. Competent B-movie with a nicely done dream sequence early on, and some good wicked scheming by Bari--oddly, Price actually underplays his part here in his first star-billing role, something he wouldn't do very often in the future. [FMC]

DR. CYCLOPS (1940) is a standard mad-scientist flick about a nearly-blind doctor (Albert Dekker) off in the jungles of Peru, tampering in God's domain by experimenting with, as one nearly hysterical person puts it, "the very nature of Life itself!" Actually, he's discovered a way to shrink living beings, and when a group of scientists arrive to help him, they wind up getting miniaturized and have to live by their wits to survive. Dekker is fine, looking suitably monomaniacal behind his Coke bottle glasses, but the rest of the cast is weak, particularly the deadly dull romantic leads (Thomas Coley and Janice Logan, who both left the movie business fairly quickly). What the movie has going for it is great special effects, as good and maybe better than those used 15 years later in THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. Surprisingly, for a 75 minute B-movie, it’s in Technicolor and, after a few dicey moments at the beginning, the color looks quite good and proves an asset. I was a little disappointed seeing this again, as it didn't live up to my childhood memory of it, but it's worth catching. [AMC]

THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1966) is sometimes called the movie that re-energized the Zombie sub-genre, and may have been an influence on George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). Whether or not that's true, PLAGUE is certainly one of the better Hammer efforts from the mid-60's when they seemed to be throwing anything at the screen (gorgons, reptiles, kung fu vampires) and hoping they might start a franchise. Set in late 19th century England, the story concerns a wealthy squire (John Carson) who is killing off local peasants and resurrecting them as zombies, through a voodoo-like ritual, to work for him (shades of WHITE ZOMBIE). There is a great dream sequence, tinted green, of zombies digging themselves out of their graves. The narrative structure is similar to that of Lugosi's DRACULA, with a wife of one of the zombie hunters herself turned into a zombie. The day-for-night scenes are atrocious, as they always are in 60's horror films, and the cast is only adequate (again, par for the course), but it's still worth seeing, especially for Hammer fans. [DVD]

Thursday, October 28, 2004

THE UNDYING MONSTER (1942)

When it came to horror, Fox was on the ball in 1942; in addition to the fine DR. RENAULT'S SECRET (reviewed 10/5/04), they released this little gem directed by John Brahm who went on to make two excellent, somewhat higher-budgeted horror films for Fox (THE LODGER and HANGOVER SQUARE) a couple years later. As you can probably tell from my previous reviews, I value atmosphere in horror, which I think can help a film overcome problems of low budget and weak writing. This has spooky atmosphere in spades, particularly at the beginning and end, which makes up for a draggy middle section. A Scotland Yard inspector (James Ellison) is called in to investigate a murder on the Hammond estate; a woman was mauled to death by some creature, and the master of the estate (John Howard) was hurt in the attack. There is a legend involving a Hammond man who committed suicide and a rhyming curse (something about not going around on a clear night when there's frost on the ground), and virtually every member of the household seems to know more than they let on about the legend and the attack: Was it a madman? A wild hound? A werewolf? The look, feel, and storyline all make this film feel like Fox's earlier Sherlock Holmes outing, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES.

The opening, with the camera panning about a large room to the rhythm of bells tolling midnight, sets the tone nicely. The sets (including a huge room with a multi-story stained glass window and a shadowy basement mausoleum) are effective, as is the creative camerawork by Lucien Ballard, who also worked for Josef von Sternberg and Stanley Kubrick. The acting, while not A-level, is not a liability, either. Howard and Heather Angel (as his sister) are quite good, as is Heather Thatcher as the comic relief Scotland Yard assistant (think of a louder, brassier Edna May Oliver). Bramwell Fletcher, the man driven crazy in the first few minutes of THE MUMMY, is a doctor friend of the Hammonds who seems to be hiding many secrets. Ellison makes for a drab leading man--he was mostly known for doing B-westerns--but there is reliable support from Halliwell Hobbes and Eily Malyon as creepy servants. I would say for an old-fashioned B-movie Halloween night, you couldn't do much better than watching this and DR. RENAULT'S SECRET back to back. [AMC]

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969)

I have a kind of love/hate relationship with Ray Harryhausen movies. Actually, it's more like/dislike. His effects are always wonderful, and the movies usually sound like they'll be great fun, and often they begin well, but I'm always disappointed by the end; they wind up sunk by weak writing and acting. This is no exception, but it's probably my favorite Harryhausen movie, along with JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. It's like a western version of KING KONG, with a dash of JURASSIC PARK thrown in. James Franciscus is in Mexico, attempting to get his ex-girlfriend Gila Golan to quit a decrepit Wild West show and join his (not so decrepit, one assumes), but she's got an ace up her sleeve: a living miniature prehistoric horse that she's purchasing from a group of local gypsies. The creature comes from the Forbidden Valley, and of course, everyone winds up searching the Valley for more money-making discoveries. A legendary giant dinosaur is captured and brought to the show, but as all Kong fans will figure out immediately, plans will go awry when the beast, Gwangi, gets loose and wrecks havoc in a small Mexican town. Richard Carlson is the bad guy, Lawrence Naismith is the scientist, and Freda Jackson (the old maid in BRIDES OF DRACULA) is the Maria Ouspenskaya stand-in, warning everyone early on that there are things with which we should not tamper. The dinosaur roping scene is excellent, as is the climax, with Gwangi's reign of destruction ended in a ruined cathedral. Franciscus and Carlson have more chemistry as rivals than Franciscus and Golan do as romantic partners. A bit better than its reputation suggests, but best approached with lowered expectations. [DVD]

Saturday, October 23, 2004

THE LOVES OF EDGAR ALLAN POE (1942)

This B-movie biopic (which is definitely not a horror film, but is still appropriate October viewing) isn't able to overcome its budget problems but it has its moments. Shepperd Strudwick (billed under his birth name, John Shepperd) plays Poe, who seems to have been an unhappy wretch for most of his adult life. His birth mother dies and he is adopted by the Allans; the mother (Mary Howard) is loving, but the father (Frank Conroy), who won't make Poe his legal heir, is distant and ultimately refuses to support Poe when he goes away to college. Virginia Gilmore is Poe's childhood sweetheart who winds up marrying another man (Hardie Albright) in Poe's absence. Poe stays with his aunt (Jane Darwell) while working as a writer and editor, but because he insists on fighting for extensions of copyrights, his career is derailed. He marries his cousin (Linda Darnell) and is happy for a time, but drinking and gambling soon wear him down, as does his wife's illness. The focus of the film (as announced in the title) doesn't allow for much concern for Poe's famous literary works, except for one scene that shows him reading "The Raven" to some printers. Harry Morgan (Col. Potter in MASH) is a chum of Poe's; Morton Lowery is Charles Dickens (an ally in the copyright fight); Gilbert Emery is Thomas Jefferson, president of Poe's college. The movie has a glossy look, but the writing and some of the acting betray its B status. [FMC]

Thursday, October 21, 2004

REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES (1936)

This has a reputation as one of the worst horror movies of the classic movie era, and it is pretty bad, though I found it somewhat pleasurable on a "so bad it's kinda good" level. I'd love to see what the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 guys would have done with this. A plot summary makes it sound much more exciting than it is. During WWI, a Cambodian priest leads a zombie brigade for the Allies, but refuses to give up the secret for making and controlling the zombies, so a group of British soldiers and archaeologists heads to Angkor to see what they can find. Nothing much comes of the trip, but the single-minded Armand (Dean Jagger) manages to stumble on the secret formula, creates a horde of zombies he enslaves for his own use--to get the girl of his dreams--and is eventually killed by his slaves. The single best moment is very early on, when we see the zombie soldiers in action; it's all downhill from there. Most of the movie consists of choppy dialogue scenes (we're almost always told rather than shown what's happening) that are badly set up and end awkwardly as though the director forgot to yell "Cut!" (One scene fades out as an actor is still speaking his lines.)

Jagger is pretty good, giving an eccentric but effective intensity to his role, but the rest of the acting is terrible, done almost entirely by non-professionals who didn't make many (or any) other movies. Jagger's romantic rival, Robert Noland, gives one of the worst acting performances I've seen, with Dorothy Stone as the girl coming in a close second. The story gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "plot loophole"; in the war scene, it's implied that the soldiers are actually the dead returned to life, but Jagger's zombies are just people under a strong hypnotic spell. How they get that way is unclear--it involves the smoke of some powder being wafted their way, but also some ambiguous ability on the controller's part to activate his "third eye" to bring the zombies under his power. There is one potentially interesting theme in the film: Nowland points out to Jagger that he is a soft, passive man who lets others ride roughshod over him, and suggests that Jagger needs a bit of ruthlessness in his personality. When he gains the power to "zombify," he does indeed become ruthless, but this idea doesn't really get developed. There is a long trek through a swamp done in front of rear projection--at first, it just looks miserably phony, but as it goes on and on, it takes on a sort of surreal atmosphere (I'm being generous here). The director, Victor Halperin, did the earlier low-budget WHITE ZOMBIE, which had two things that helped it transcend its grade Z budget: a creepy atmosphere and Bela Lugosi. Neither of those things are present here, although according to reference sources, it's shots of Lugosi's eyes from the previous film that we see when Jagger starts commanding his zombies. Lovers of bad Poverty Row cinema need to see this one; all others, beware! [DVD]

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

CRY OF THE BANSHEE (1970)

The American International horror flicks of the 60's and 70's are a mixed bag, but for horror fans, they are usually worth sitting through once. This one, seemingly an attempt to challenge Hammer Studios' period horror movies, is one of their better efforts. In 16th Century England, Vincent Price is a town magistrate who delights in witch hunting, even as he tells worried villagers that a supposed devil wolf roaming the area is just a mangy dog. His sons are hunky but sadistic brats who love to molest women--three women have their blouses torn open in the first fifteen minutes, making this a literal bodice-ripper of a tale! Price breaks up a meeting of witches led by Elisabeth Bergner (Olivier's Rosalind in the 1936 AS YOU LIKE IT); some are killed and Bergner puts a curse on Price's family. She conjures up a "sidhe," or banshee, a spirit that takes over Roderick (Patrick Mower), a D.H. Lawrence life-force guy who seems to be able to communicate with animals and is also bedding Price's daughter (Hilary Dwyer). After much pillage and murder, Price thinks he has escaped the curse, but there's a creepy and nicely handled final twist, which helps make up for some big plot loopholes. Quite atmospheric throughout, with lots of dimly lit castle rooms, fog, and gravestones with human faces carved on them. Bergner's craft is presented as an amalgam of Wicca, Druidism, Satanism, and voodoo; the split between the "old religion" and rationality is a theme that is brought up but mostly ignored. The credit sequence was produced by Terry Gilliam, just before his Monty Python days. An unexpectedly interesting little gem for a stormy October night. [DVD]

Saturday, October 16, 2004

THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE (1959)

On her wedding night, Beverly Garland's husband (Richard Crane) ditches her in the middle of a honeymoon train ride. Frantic, Garland can't dig up much information about him, but she does find out that his last known address is a mansion in the middle of the Bayou. The cranky old matriarch (Frieda Inescort) is no help at first, but eventually Garland finds out that Crane, who had been seriously injured in an airplane crash some months ago, recovered through the use of an unorthodox treatment (from research doctor George Macready) involving serum derived from alligators, and now Crane seems to be turning into an alligator himself, as are a couple of other research subjects at the mansion. This a straightforward B-film which looks better than most of the time because it was shot in Cinemascope, and perhaps because it was released by a major studio (Fox). The acting is fine, and even Lon Chaney Jr. does a nice job as a shambling idiot who hates gators because one tore off his hand (he's basically Cletus, the Hook-Handed and Ill-Tempered Yokel). The setting is atmospheric and the shadowy cinematography is great; the make-up is good early on, although by the climax, the complete alligator man is far more silly looking than scary. There is a strange framing device--the story is told by Garland under hypnosis; apparently she has had all memory of her past experience shocked out of her and has been living under a new identity; a psychiatrist (Bruce Bennett, who was a pretty good Tarzan in a movie serial in the 30's) has to decide if her hypnosis story is true, and whether or not she should be made aware of her previous life. OK but not essential viewing. [FMC]

Thursday, October 14, 2004

DEAD MEN WALK (1943)

One of the best "Poverty Row" movies I've ever seen, with a great October atmosphere and a fine performance by George Zucco in a dual role. The plot is essentially an uncredited rewrite of the Lugosi DRACULA, with the angry villagers of FRANKENSTEIN thrown in for good measure. We first see Zucco as Dr. Lloyd Clayton, attending the funeral of his brother Elwyn--the shot of Zucco looking down into the casket at himself, before we know what's going on, provides a nice "Twilight Zone" shock. Elwyn was the wicked brother, who spent his days searching out and studying arcane occult texts; Lloyd, the good brother, actually killed Elwyn, throwing him off a cliff during an argument, though it's never quite made clear if it was an accident (as the townsfolk assume) or on purpose. At any rate, thanks to his devil-worshipping ways, Elwyn returns from the dead as a vampire to prey on his niece (Mary Carlisle). No one believes Kate (Fern Emmett), the crazy old lady who goes around telling anyone who'll listen that Elwyn is still around and up to no good, until the niece starts suffering from the time-honored effects of Elwyn's nightly visits. Carlisle's drab boyfriend (Nedrick Young) teams up with Lloyd to fight the undead fiend. Zucco, who was doing supporting parts in A and B level movies in addition to his starriing roles in these ultra-low budget shockers, does a great job with the two roles, and there are some nice split-screen effects used. Some critics might say that Zucco is a bit campy, but since almost no one else in the movie acts much at all (especially the terrible Young), Zucco has to carry the film, and he does. Dwight Frye, playing a hunchbacked variation on his Renfield role from DRACULA, tries hard, but he looks tired and bloated before his time--I didn't even recognize him at first--and indeed he died a few months after finishing the movie. Lost of shadowy atmosphere helps, and the climax, with the two brothers duking it out in a room that's on fire while the townspeople watch from outside, is very nicely done. [DVD]

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

THE GHOUL (1934)

For many years, this film was only available in choppy, murky prints, but last year MGM put it out on DVD with a fresh print found in England. The good news is that it looks fantastic, like it was just filmed yesterday. The bad news is that this DVD makes it clear that the movie is only so-so. It's the first film which was released with an "H" (for Horror) rating in England, but it's really more an "old dark house" thriller with a vaguely supernatural atmosphere. Boris Karloff is a dying Egyptologist who believes he has the secret to eternal life. He has a rare jewel bandaged into his hand just before he dies, and is buried in a vault with a large statue of an Egyptian god. He thinks he will rise up, place the jewel in the statue's hand, and life forever. But while Karloff is on his deathbed, his servant (Ernest Thesiger) steals the jewel. After Karloff's interment, a houseful of acquaintances, relatives, and jewel-searchers converge upon the house, including Cedric Hardwicke, Ralph Richardson, Kathleen Harrison, and a bland romantic couple (Anthony Bushnell and Dorothy Hyson). Karloff does indeed rise up and goes looking for the jewel; this would seem to be a supernatural occurrence, but an unlikely "rational" solution is thrown in, in a short dialogue scene that looks like it was added at the last minute. The chief villain turns out to be Richardson, and the climax, with he and the couple stuck inside Karloff's vault when a fire breaks out, is well done. The first few minutes, as Karloff is dying, are very atmospheric and as creepy as anything in a Universal horror classic, but the rest of the movie doesn't come close to living up to that. Still, definitely worth a look. [DVD]

Monday, October 11, 2004

VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (1961)

This Irwin Allen sci-fi adventure movie became the basis for a mid-60's TV show which I fondly remember, along with "The Outer Limits" and "Johnny Quest," as fueling my interest in science fiction when I was growing up. Walter Pidgeon is commander of the Seaview, an experimental atomic submarine. While under the sea on a test run with lawmakers and a reporter on board, the Van Allen radiation belt catches fire, threatening the entire aboveground world. Pidgeon thinks his ship can fire missiles at the belt to stop the fire, and when the U.N. is too slow to approve his action, he takes off himself to give it a shot. Pidgeon is supposed to be seen as a single-minded zealot, and he does have his opponents on board (including a mysterious person who is out to sabotage the mission), but he's generally too rational and bland to be viewed as dangerous by anyone, or even particularly compelling to the viewer. The supporting cast includes Joan Fontaine, Peter Lorre, Frankie Avalon (who sings the lovely theme song!), John Litel, and Barbara Eden, though this isn't really an actor's movie and none of them get much of a chance to shine. I also recognized Howard McNear, who played Floyd the Barber on the Andy Griffith Show. The DVD print is pristine and colorful and some of the effects are good, but it's best if you don't think too much about the science involved. This had a bigger budget than the TV series, but the series was more fun. [DVD]

Saturday, October 09, 2004

THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND (1936)

An excellent if little-known horror film, one of the few that Karloff did in his native England after he hit the big time with Universal in the USA. Karloff is a scientist who has developed a method to switch the "thought content" of beings from one body to another. We see a successful experiment in which he switches the "thoughts" of a passive monkey and an aggressive monkey, and Lord Haslewood (Frank Cellier) offers him financial backing to continue his work, but during a conference of scientists, Karloff is ridiculed and Cellier reneges on his agreement. This sends Karloff over the edge and for revenge he puts Cellier's brain into the body of Karloff's crippled assistant (Donald Calthorp) and vice versa. This is roughly the halfway point in the story, and a twist follows that I don't want to reveal--suffice to say that plans go astray (as mad scientist's plans are wont to do), leading to death and destruction. There is the requisite romantic couple (John Loder and Anna Lee) who get involved, though they come off as rather bland and difficult to care about compared to the other characters. The ending is too pat for its own good, but that doesn't ruin the movie. Cellier is particularly good in what amounts to a dual role, first as the high-class Haslewood and then as Haslewood with the cripple's brain. As usual, Karloff is fine, doing one of the first of his B-movie mad scientist roles that would end up typecasting him. This one rarely shows up on cable, but is available on DVD, and would be perfect viewing for a creepy October evening. (Also known as THE MAN WHO LIVED AGAIN.) [DVD]

Thursday, October 07, 2004

A DATE WITH THE FALCON (1941) & THE FALCON'S BROTHER (1942)

These two Falcon movies, the second and fourth in the series, provide a nice contrast between the two different actors who played the character. DATE has George Sanders playing Gay Lawrence, the original Falcon, a wealthy bachelor who informally helps the police investigate crimes--I did a Google search on the character and the descriptive phrase that came up most often was "freelance troubleshooter." A scientist who was about to sell his formula for creating perfect synthetic diamonds is kidnapped and later found dead. Sanders is dragged away from his fiancee (Wendy Barrie) by Inspector O'Hara (James Gleason) to work on the case and they run into the usual hot dames, tough punks, and sticky situations. In most of the early Falcon movies, sidekick Allen Jenkins provides the comic relief, but here, much of the movie is comic, which for me works well--not all Falcon fans agree. The most amusing scene has Sanders insulting a group of cops from a car so that the cops will stop the car and he can escape the clutches of kidnappers. There's a twist involving identical twins (which I figured out ahead of time), but otherwise, as in most Falcon movies, the pleasure comes less from the plotting and more from the characters and dialogue.

Unfortunately, Sanders got tired of the series after only three films, so in the fourth one, THE FALCON'S BROTHER, Tom Conway, Sanders' real-life brother, enters as Tom Lawrence, Gay's brother, to take over. Sanders goes to meet his brother arriving on a boat from South America; a man using Conway's name is found murdered in his cabin and Sanders knows it's not really him, but he lets the cops think it is so he can go about his own investigation. It's all about Nazi spies who are using a fashion magazine's covers to communicate classified information. Sanders gets a concussion and is laid up for most of the movie, leaving his brother to do the sleuthing. In the end, Sanders sacrifices himself to stop the assassination of a Mexican diplomat and Conway decides to stay in New York to be the new Falcon. The comedy is downplayed, and Gleason and Jenkins are gone, replaced by disappointing second-string actors Cliff Clark and Don Barclay. Sanders sleepwalks through his role, obviously happy to be leaving the series, and Conway is nowhere near as debonair and slyly amusing as Sanders. One bright spot is Jane Randolph as a fashion reporter who tags along with the brothers. The later Conway movies are watchable (see my review of two of them on 5/31/02) but the earlier Sanders movies (including THE FALCON TAKES OVER, reviewed 8/29/03) are more enjoyable. [TCM]

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

DR. RENAULT'S SECRET (1941)

This is a B-movie with a little more gloss than usual courtesy Twentieth Century-Fox. The story combines thematic elements from ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (mad doctor, animal experimentation) with the style of "old dark house" thrillers like THE CAT AND THE CANARY, and is quite successful within its B-horror film parameters. Shepperd Strudwick (billed under his birth name, John Shepperd) arrives in a small French village to see his finacee (Lynne Roberts), who is living with her uncle, the research doctor of the title (George Zucco). Of course, we know from the title that Zucco will eventually display some dark side to his personality, but in the beginning, most everyone seems likeable, even Noel (J. Carrol Naish), an assistant to Zucco, who has a creepy look and manner about him that is difficult to pin down, though he seems more odd than sinister. The only character we actively do not like is ex-con Mike Mazurki, just out of jail and clearly ready to raise trouble. A drunk who had crashed in the motel room that was supposed to go to Strudwick is murdered and suspicion falls on both Naish and Mazurki. Naish has a sixth sense about animals, which we see when he avoids a car collision with a dog, but later when that dog is found dead, hanging from a tree, Naish is the main suspect. Strudwick soon discovers that Zucco has been engaging in some extreme experiments with animals, and Naish turns out to be the result of one of those experiments, an ape turned into a man. Does that mean that he's also a brutal killer? The hour-long film moves at a good clip, with an exciting climax. The sets and lighting add to the atmosphere (as does a short scene involving a hand reaching out of a secret wall passage), and the acting is more subtle than one usually finds in a mad scientist movie, with Zucco and Naish particularly good. The doctor's secret is revealed in an interesting fashion, not in direct flashback but through a narrated diary accompanied by photographs. This is one of those films I remember cropping up a lot on Chiller Theater back in the 60's but is harder to find today. Worth seeing. [FMC]

Monday, October 04, 2004

MR. SARDONICUS (1961)

A William Castle film which is essentially a period melodrama with some Gothic trappings being passed off as a horror movie. Ronald Lewis is an English doctor who is called to a European castle by an old girlfriend (Audrey Dalton) to attend to her husband, Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe). The baron is a rather cruel taskmaster who always wears a plain mask because his face is frozen in a hideous grimace; Lewis' job is to cure him. We see in flashback that the disfigurement occurred when Rolfe dug up his father's grave in order to get a winning lottery ticket out of his jacket; he thinks he became the victim of some kind of supernatural curse. Lewis does cure him, discovering that the problem is all psychological, and he leaves the castle with Dalton. In the end, Rolfe's servant (Oscar Homolka) gets revenge on Rolfe for his cruel ways. There's a campy William Castle opening in which he promises the theater audience that they will be able to vote near the end of the movie in a "Punishment Poll" as to whether or not Rolfe will suffer. The character is indeed not a nice guy--we see a serving girl getting tortured with leeches in an attempt to find a serum cure for Rolfe's disfigured face--but he doesn't quite strike me as evil, and the final punishment feels almost too cruel; after all, he's already lost his wife. Even though the audience was led to believe that their vote could affect the movie's ending, only one ending was ever shot, since Castle knew the audience would want revenge. The black and white movie looks OK, though not as lush as some of the Roger Corman/AIP movies this was competing with at the time. Solid, but it doesn't quite live up to its reputation. [DVD]

Saturday, October 02, 2004

THE OTHER (1972)

Creepy kids with a propensity for murder are nothing special in movies these days, but this was, I think, one of the earliest films to use that theme (after, of course, THE BAD SEED and THE INNOCENTS) and possibly the first to let the killing kid off scot free. Set in the past (I'm not sure why) in a small farming town, it's the story of twin 10-year-old brothers (played by real twins Chris and Martin Udvarnoky); one seems to be good and kind, well mannered and very loving to his ill, fragile mother (Diana Muldaur), while the other is spiteful and ornery, perhaps even downright evil, causing a string of deaths that appear on the surface to be tragic accidents. About halfway through the movie, there's a twist that viewers might see coming (but that I remember being shocked by when I read the Thomas Tryon novel that the film is based on) which, like in an M. Night Shyamalan movie, forces you to rethink much of what has happened before. Shyamalan uses these twists lazily, but here it's used to give some interesting psychological depth to the situation. The movie is atmospheric; even though most of it is shot in bright (if filtered and gauzy) sunshine, the darkness of the story is conveyed fully. Famous Broadway actress (and teacher) Uta Hagen is good as a grandmother who may have vaguely supernatural powers. The Unvarnoky brothers are fine but neither one made another movie. I highly recommend the book as a good October read; the movie isn't quite as good, but it's worth seeing, and I hope it gets a letterboxed DVD release soon. I suggest reading the book first. [FMC]