Tuesday, December 30, 2008

MY YEAR IN CLASSIC MOVIES:

Below is my list of the 10 classic movies I saw for the first time this year which were either among the best or most interesting (not necessarily the same):

BLONDE ICE (1948)--Delirious nonsensical Poverty Row film noir with no stars but a ton of action involving bad people acting badly. Almost as good as DETOUR (which I reviewed this year, but had seen before).

THE BLUE LIGHT (1932)--Not the best of the German Mountain movies, but one that stays in the mind due to its imagery.

CRAIG'S WIFE (1936) and HARRIET CRAIG (1950)--Two versions of the same story, with enough differences in the plot points and performaces to make them both worth watching; Rosalind Russell ('36) and Joan Crawford ('50) are both excellent.

CULT OF THE COBRA (1956)--B-thriller about a woman who can turn into a cobra hunting down some GIs who desecrated a cult ceremony. Bland and ultimately disappointing, but different enough to make it worth a viewing, especially in its first 15 minutes.

THE DRAGON PAINTER (1919)--A wonderful way to discover the early career of Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa in a fairy-tale-ish parable about love and art.

THE GHOST TRAIN (1941)--British B-comedy/thriller about train passangers stranded at a haunted station which isn't all that funny but has atmosphere to burn.

THE GUV'NOR (1935)--Another charming George Arliss comedy. The man is due for a critical revival.

HUMORESQUE (1946)--One of those movies I'd avoided, a romantic melodrama of the kind I have to be in the right mood for, but I enjoyed it immensely, with Joan Crawford giving what may be her best performance just before tipping into camp in the 50's, and John Garfield almost as good as her violin-playing lover.

I WAS AN ADVENTURESS (1940)--Not a great movie, but a fun novelty, with Erich von Stroheim in a rare comic role as a con man (with his partners Peter Lorre and Vera Zorina) out to fleece the idle rich. Essentially a B-movie version of Lubitsch's classic TROUBLE IN PARADISE.

MAN HUNT (1941)--Walter Pidgeon muffs his chance to kill Hitler and goes on the run from nasty Nazi George Sanders. Not at all realistic, but a solid example of a pre-WWII Hollywood spy thriller.

I also kinda liked the Lana Turner 60's paranoid drug flick THE BIG CUBE and some of the other movies that Warner Home Video put out in their "Camp Classics" series of boxed sets. I liked discovering 2 50's actors who should have had bigger careers, Don Murray (THE BACHELOR PARTY, HATFUL OF RAIN) and Anthony Franciosa (STORY ON PAGE ONE and w/Murray in HATFUL). I discovered the difference between Deanna Durbin (OK) and Sonja Henie (not so much). I was very happy to finally be able to see TOBACCO ROAD, which led me to read the original book, and finally I loved an early James Mason thriller THE UPTURNED GLASS, which just missed making the top 10.
FOOLISH WIVES (1922)

Three Russian con artists pose as aristocrats, rent a villa near Monte Carlo, and use counterfeit money to gamble. The two women, Olga and Vera, pretend to be countesses and Sergius (Erich von Stroheim) poses as their cousin, the Count Karamzin. He is on the prowl for a rich woman to fleece and finds one in Helen, the young and restless wife of the staid and older (and newly arrived) American ambassador to Monaco. Karamzin is free to show her the sights, take her on boating trips, and help her out in the casinos. He even contrives to get her stuck with him overnight during a storm when they take refuge in an old woman's house in the marshes, but a monk who has also come in out of the rain winds up in the same room with them, putting the kibosh on that plan. As he ups the seduction attempts, he also carries on a lackluster affair with his plain-looking maid, whom he has promised to marry, and has designs on Marietta, the mentally handicapped daughter of his counterfeiter. Eventually Karamzin gets Helen alone in his villa and tells her he needs 90,000 francs to settle a debt of honor; she offers him the money, but the maid, overhearing them, sets the house on fire before throwing herself into the sea. When the count leaps to safety before Helen, he is disgraced and runs off in the night to sneak inside Marietta's window, apparently with rape on his mind. But the next morning, the counterfeiter drags Karamzin's dead body out of his house and stuffs it down the sewer. In the end, Helen appears to learn a "Wizard of Oz" lesson, to be happy with her stuffy old husband and not to seek exotic thrills outside of her own back yard.

This is one of the many movies Erich von Stroheim directed which were drastically edited down by studio bosses from several hours (over 6 in this case) to a more commercial running time. Most of the original cut is lost, but Kino's restoration, which comes in at around 2-1/2 hours, still manages to feel both too long (many individual scenes could be edited down a bit) and incomplete (we don't know what happens in the counterfeiter's house at the end, and the character of Vera seems totally unnecessary). Stills from his silents show Stroheim looking quite wicked and decadent, but here, his character is essentially a weak and desperate man trying to project both a charming and bullying persona, as needed. He actually comes off more like a naughty boy than a sinister lothario. Some of the acting is in the exaggerated silent style of the era, though Stroheim and Maude George as Olga are less mannered than the rest. This was the first movie which cost over a million dollars to make, mostly due to its sets, with Monte Carlo reconstructed faithfully, and many scenes are striking, such as the midnight storm and a water carnival. In an amusing self-referential joke, throughout the film, Helen is seen reading a book called "Foolish Wives" by Erich von Stroheim. [DVD]

Saturday, December 27, 2008

THE CHEATERS (1945)

This odd little film plays out like a Christmas spin on MY MAN GODFREY. The family of rich businessman Eugene Pallette (at left) is in financial trouble, partly due to the spendthrift ways of his wife (Billie Burke). They're hoping Pallette's even richer sick uncle will die soon and leave them his money. Well, he does die, but instead he leaves his five million dollars to a woman he doesn't even know: a former child actress named Watson whom he saw back in 1915 play the part of Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin. If she can't be found "in a reasonable amount of time," the money will go to Pallette, so he bribes the attorney into allowing only one week for the search. Meanwhile, to impress the visiting fiancé of one of the daughters, the family decides to take a charity case into their home over Christmas week: a homeless man (Joseph Schildkraut) who was once a well-known actor. He overhears their scheme and offers to use his theatre connections to find Watson so that the family can keep her out of the way during the search. They find her (Ona Munson) and take her into their home, pretending that they've discovered she's a long-lost cousin. When news of the search hits the papers, the family retreats to an isolated mountain lodge to wait out the holiday week, but eventually the truth comes out. Will the family do the right thing?

The best thing about this film is its physical production; it's a A-looking movie produced by B-studio Republic Pictures and the elaborate sets give it a big-studio gloss. The actors are also bigger names than Republic typically had at its beck and call, though most of them were aging actors who had seen better days (Schildkraut would have a comeback a decade later as Otto Frank in stage and screen versions of The Diary of Anne Frank). The problem is the writing; the screenplay could have used another draft or two, especially in character development. One daughter (Ann Gillis) is built up as a kind of sly, whimsical type in contrast to the engaged daughter (Ruth Terry) who is more cold-blooded, but nothing is done with that potentially interesting tension. Old pros Pallette (who was the father in GODFREY) and Burke are fine, though their choice to underplay their underwritten parts takes some of the fun out of the proceedings. Schildkraut is good, but his character remains a cipher, not in a mysterious angel/ghost way, but in a way that suggests the writers didn't know what to do with him. There is solid support from Raymond Walborn, Norma Varden, and eternal butler Robert Grieg who unfortunately vanishes halfway through the film. There is some nice holiday atmosphere throughout, from the opening snowfall to Schildkraut's brief reenactment of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" at the climax. TCM host Robert Osborne introduced this as "the best Christmas movie you've never heard of," and as I am familiar with almost every Christmas-themed Hollywood feature film ever made, he may be right, and I am grateful for the chance to have seen it, but it's not a gem I'll want to revisit often. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS (1955)

Back in the mid-60’s, I remember this made-for-TV opera being run every year at Christmas, usually on a Sunday afternoon, but despite my love of all things Christmas, I never got around to watching it. Since then, I’ve learned that the opera was first aired live in 1951 and re-staged, in live performance and in reruns, through the 60's. Recently a kinescope of the 1955 live telecast was issued on DVD. The plot is simple and seemingly classic, though as far as I know, it originated with the opera's writer, Gian Carlo Menotti. On the night of the Nativity, a poor lame boy named Amahl gets in trouble with his mother; he's an idle dreamer who makes up wild stories all the time, so his mother doesn't believe him when he says that wonderful things are happening in the night skies. But of course, there really is a magical star shining in the sky, and later that night, the Three Kings stop by looking for shelter on their way to visit the Christ child. Nearby shepherds provide food and entertainment, but the mother resents the fact that the Kings are taking gold as a gift for some newborn infant, while her poor crippled son has nothing. After she's caught trying to steal some gold, Melchior offers it to her outright, but when she learns more about what Christ has come for, she instead wishes she had a gift to send. When Amahl offers to send his crutch, since the child may need it someday, he is miraculously cured and heads off with the Kings to see the newborn child. I am not an opera fan, and though this work was popular in its day, I would have had trouble following the action if it weren't for the subtitles available on the DVD. Some of the songs are close to show tunes, especially a cute bit in which Amahl keeps trying to tell his disbelieving mom that three kings are at the front door, but the operatic tones keep getting in the way of clear comprehension. I have a similarly hard time judging performance here, since the acting is not, and is not meant to be, naturalistic, but the 12-year-old boy playing Amahl, Bill McIver, is excellent, and Rosemary Kuhlmann is fine as the mother. There have been a few picture book adaptations of this over the years, but I think the material is ripe for adaptation as a non-musical film or play. [DVD]

Monday, December 22, 2008

THE CHRISTMAS CHOIR (2008)

My viewing pick for this year's Christmas TV-movie is the Hallmark Channel's The Christmas Choir. It claims to be based on a true story, but the cliches and coincidences run so thick, I imagine this is more fiction than fact. Jason Gedrick (pictured) is a workaholic accountant who, though not quite a Scrooge, has let his work life affect his personal life: his girlfriend has just broken up with him and his secretary is getting fed up with all the extra hours. One night, while nursing his broken heart at a downtown bar, he is befriended by a homeless guy (Tyrone Benskin); when the two head off to a nearby shelter together, they bond over their love of music. Gedrick, goaded by the earthy nun who runs the shelter (Rhea Perlman), finds a new meaning to his life: he organizes a "Christmas Choir" of homeless men to sing in the subways, so they can collect a little money to make their holidays a little better. Of course, all the predicted obstacles (uh-oh, no permit; uh-oh, what to do about that pesky alcoholic singer) and some more outrageous than predictable (would you believe a major fire at the shelter, right on Christmas Eve?) occur, but the performances make it work--I even got a little teary at one point. What I wasn't as crazy about was the "While You Were Sleeping" romance between Gedrick and subway token taker Marianne Farley. The handsome Gedrick is very good but Farley lacks any oomph. You're always in good hands with Perlman, a total pro. This is one I might consider watching again.

Friday, December 19, 2008

THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR (1937)

This is the third movie version of this story, originally a play and filmed once as a silent in 1919 and once in the early sound days, in 1929, by Tod Browning (DRACULA). I reviewed the '29 version several years ago, but the primitiveness of the filming and the awkward direction distracted me from enjoying the narrative. This film, though obviously a B-enterprise, is a bit more enjoyable as it doesn't have the slack pacing and technical problems that marred the '29 version. In British-run Calcutta, an Englishman named Leith has been murdered and no one who knew the man is talking, so his friend (Henry Daniell) gets Scotland Yard involved. The visiting inspector (Lewis Stone) plots with Daniell to hold a seance, with the batty Madame LaGrange (Dame May Whitty) attempting to contact the dead man's spirit, in the hope that the killer will snap and confess. Among the participants, many of whom had grudges against Leith, are a Hindu professor (Lal Chand Mehra), the son of the local governor (Thomas Beck), his girlfriend (Madge Evans), a doctor (Charles Trowbridge), and a snotty young woman (Heather Thatcher) who may have had a special relationship with Leith. At the seance (shot in total blackness), Daniell is knifed to death, though no one can find the murder weapon. The participants are questioned, secrets are revealed, and a second seance is held, which leads to the killer's exposure. Old pros Whitty and Stone are fine, and the plot holds the attention. I especially liked getting some insight into Whitty's own self-consciousness about her mystical abilities--she seems to sincerely believe that she has some, but she also admits to resorting to theatrical trickery now and then. The scene in which she calls out desperately, alone in the room, for help from Laughing Eyes, her spirit contact, is nicely played. Also with Elissa Landi and Ralph Forbes. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

THE UPTURNED GLASS (1947)

James Mason has been giving a series of university lectures about the psychology of crime; this time, he uses a case study to show how a perfectly sane and rational person could commit murder. As he tells the story, we see it in flashback, and the rational man is Mason himself, a brain surgeon who successfully operates on a young girl to restore her sight and falls in love with the girl's mother (Rosamund John). Though they are both married, they have a brief, furtive affair before deciding they must break it off. A short time later, John winds up dead in what is judged to be an accidental fall from a window at her home. However, Mason picks up on small clues which indicate that John's sister-in-law, Pamela Kellino, may have had something to do with the death, so he gets close to her so that he can engineer a similar death for her. When Mason does finally force Kellino out the window, the narrative takes a breathtaking turn (I would say an M. Night Shyamalan trick, but it's pulled off much more fairly and logically than most of his are). I don't want to reveal it here but suffice to say that there is another tense and well-played half-hour to the movie. The young Mason occasionally looks like Gregory Peck, and the movie itself feels kin to other early psychological thrillers like Hitchcock's Spellbound. There are plotholes galore, but they are easily overlooked, and the ending manages to be both satisfying and, the more you dwell on it, rich in ambiguity. A little gem, available in a good print on a DVD from MPI called Classic British Thrillers. [DVD]

Sunday, December 14, 2008

NORTHWEST RANGERS (1942)

Warners wasn’t the only studio to do B-level remakes of earlier A-level films. This MGM second feature is a variation on the oft-told story of boyhood pals who take different life paths and wind up on opposite sides of the law. It's an official remake of MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, though lots of other movies have used that inspiration unofficially. Instead of a gangster-ridden big city, the buddies grow up in the Yukon, where they are orphaned after an Indian attack. Mountie sergeant Jack Holt takes them both in; Jim grows up wanting to follow in Holt's footsteps, but Blackie, when still a snot-nosed kid, tries his hand at John Carradine's saloon and gambling club. He loses big but catches the fever and takes off for parts unknown. Years later, Jim (William Lundigan) is a clean-cut Mountie still living with his dad when gambling dandy Blackie (James Craig, pictured above) comes back to town. At the local club, Craig (with the help of his friend Keenan Wynn) catches Carradine cheating, gets the best of him, and wins ownership of the club, which of course makes Carradine an enemy for life. Patricia Dane, a singer at the saloon, cozies up to Craig, but soon finds herself attracted to Lundigan. The old friends still get along, but problems arise when Craig brawls with deadbeat Grant Withers; Withers is accidentally killed, Lundigan's investigation comes to naught, and Carradine blackmails Craig, getting the saloon back. Then he threatens to get Lundigan in trouble for covering up evidence which implicated Craig. As in the original movie, Craig sacrifices himself for Lundigan's honor. If you read this blog regularly, you know Lundigan and Craig are two of my favorite B-movie leads, so I found this to be a fun way to spend an hour, even if the storyline is predictable. Dana is too bland as the leading lady (and luckily winds up with little to do), but it was fun to see 11-year-old Darryl Hickman as the young Blackie. Hugh Beaumont (TV's Ward Cleaver) has a small role. [TCM]

Friday, December 12, 2008

WICKED, WICKED (1973)

(100% Weird alert!!!) At a large seaside hotel, there's been a rash of lovely blond women skipping out on their bills. But when house dick David Bailey starts investigating, he finds out that these women are actually missing, and foul play by some hotel employee is suspected. A stab is made at presenting a handful of suspects, including Edd Byrnes as a beach bum who works part-time as a waiter, but we learn very quickly that the psycho killer is young handyman Randolph Roberts, who was abused by both his blond mother and a later blond mother-figure. By chance, Bailey's ex-wife, Tiffany Bolling, shows up as a lounge singer doing a gig at the hotel, and when she puts on a blond wig, she attracts the attention of Roberts. In the finale, we find out that Roberts, an amateur embalmer, has been cutting up his victims and sewing their parts back together, and of course he plans to do the same with Bolling, until Bailey and the cops arrive in the nick of time.

This is basically a retread of PSYCHO that plays out like a TV-movie, with one big gimmick: it was filmed in "Duo-Vision," which means the entire film is in split-screen. This doesn't come off as badly as one might think. Sometimes, we get the point of view of the killer on one side and the would-be victim on the other. Sometimes we get a person relating a flashback on one side while what really happened is played out on the other. (Its best use, however, comes as a visual joke during a sex scene.) The problem with the gimmick is that it isn't needed; the style doesn't seem organic to the tale, as though Duo-Vision was randomly applied to the script for the heck of it. However, the real problem with the film is the acting, which is mostly weak. Bailey overacts; Bolling, a Playboy model, underacts and is terrible (though she did eke out a career as a B-movie star); Scott Brady, as a cop, is totally forgettable. Arthur O'Connell is OK as the handyman's boss, and Madeline Sherwood (Sally Field's Mother Superior on The Flying Nun) does a decent job as an eccentric older lady in danger of being kicked out the hotel until Roberts comes to her aid. Roberts comes off the best, doing a less neurotic variation on Norman Bates. Poor Edd Byrnes (77 Sunset Strip's Kookie) is around just long enough to be a red herring before he gets in an accident and spends the rest of the movie in a coma. Overall, this movie was better than most of the reviews out there indicate—and it's certainly better than the bomb rating that Leonard Maltin gives it—but don't lose sleep if you never catch it. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

UNNATURAL (aka ALRAUNE) (1952)

This odd little gothic melodrama, with science-fiction overtones out of Frankenstein, is based on a German novel from 1911 about a woman conceived through artificial insemination, a method which was apparently considered scandalous back then, and perhaps still had the taint of "unholiness" about it in the 50's when this film, the fifth version on record, was made. It helps to know a little fascinating background first: "Alraune" is the German word for "mandrake," a root, shaped like a human being, which was believed to grow beneath a gallows, seeded from the semen of hanged men. In this story, disgraced professor Erich von Stroheim has "created" a daughter through artificial insemination, from an executed criminal and a prostitute, an act thought of by his former colleagues as a "crime against nature." As a young woman, Alraune (Hildegarde Knef) is lovely but amoral, and has been kicked out of a convent school for possessing pornography and being a bad influence on the other girls. Stroheim's nephew (Karl Boehm, of PEEPING TOM), a decadent, gambling student, first sees her looking like a nymph lolling by a pond and falls for her, as do his buddies. One by one, she drives most of them to bad ends (one wastes away, one dies in a duel, etc.). Stroheim decides he wants her all to himself (never mind that she was raised to believe he was her father), but when she thinks she can find true happiness running off with Boehm, her "creator" shoots her dead.

The plot is sheer pulp thriller, though the way the film is shot, there aren't all that many thrills. This is a talky movie, and the bad English dubbing doesn't help (no German language option was available on the DVD), nor does the somewhat damaged print. The film's strengths are in its visuals; the whole thing has a dreamy Gothic aura, the sets are evocative, and the camerawork has an occasional off-kilter look that makes it seem more modern than the 50's. At least two important plot points are disappointingly conveyed in writing rather than action. Knef is fine, though too old for the part; she is supposed to still need a governess but looks at least 30. In the very last shot, Knef's dead body appears to morph into a mandrake root, though I assume that is creative poetic license rather than true narrative closure. The whole idea that she was "created" wouldn't really carry much water today, so this doesn't work as science fiction, but as a kind of Gothic Hawthorne or Le Fanu tale, it's worth seeing. [DVD]

Saturday, December 06, 2008

BILLY LIAR (1963)

Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) is a young 20-something guy, a clerk at an undertaker's firm, living with his parents in a working-class town in England. He does a number of strange things to escape his drab life; primarily, he lives a fantasy life as a ruler of a kingdom called Ambrosia, but he also steals calendars from his work place for no apparent reason, is engaged to at least two women, occasionally walks around town as though he's blind or crippled, and has convinced himself that he's in line for a big show biz job in London writing for a famous comedian. He does have some talent (we find out that he and a friend have written a "Twist" song which gets performed at a local dance hall), but he has no practical ambition. He's pals with a true free-spirit named Liz (Julie Christie), and at the climax of the film, we think she's finally talked him into leaving with her for London, but the lure of comfort, bland and unsatisfying as it is, may be too much for him.

This film came near the end of the "Angry Young Man" cycle of British films, and though it shares with those films a bleak view of everyday life, there is little anger here, except the anger of Billy's father toward his son for not making a useful life of his own. Courtenay goes a long way toward making the character of Billy likable, and overall the movie's mood is not a downbeat one, but neither is it very comic. I guess realistic is more like it, and that may be why it doesn't quite work for me. It keeps feeling like it's going to take a turn one way or the other, but never really does, so Billy winds up at the end almost exactly where he was at the beginning. The fantasy scenes are fun (and sometimes surprisingly elaborate for what looks like a relatively low-budget film), and today a viewer might make the assumption that Billy was a high-functioning autistic. Christie is quite good in her breakthrough role, and Mona Washbourne and Ethel Griffies are fine as Billy's mother and grandmother. A fantasy scene of Billy machine-gunning people put me in mind of the later IF..., a more interesting movie about young people and fantasies. The print on the Criterion DVD is in great shape. [DVD]

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

THE HOWARDS OF VIRGINIA (1940)

In the same year that Cary Grant did such a great job in the romantic comedy THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, he made one of his rare career missteps in this period drama set during the Revolutionary War era. It follows the arc of the birth of America through the story of two families, the Howards, working class tobacco farmers, and the Peytons, upper class landowners. Cary Grant is Matt Howard, the hard working son, who just happens to be friends with young Thomas Jefferson (yes, improbably *the* Thomas Jefferson, played even more improbably by baby-faced Richard Carlson), who gussies Grant up and gets him a job as a surveyor for the aristocratic snob Fleetwood Peyton (Cedric Hardwicke). When Hardwicke finds out about that Grant is just "white trash," he wants to get rid of him, but Grant has fallen for Hardwicke's sister, Martha Scott, and she for him; they get married and go back to Grant's roughneck home village where Scott slowly begins the process of assimilation. Over the next several years, they have children and become such a respectable family that Grant wins election to the Virginia House of Burgesses. However, between his lawmaking duties and his growing involvement in the fight for independence, which irritates Scott's Royalist family, Grant's relationship with his wife and sons becomes strained. We see (ever so briefly) the Boston Tea Party, and there are scenes with Lafayette and George Washington, and finally a family reconciliation. Grant supposedly thought this was his weakest film role; though he does seem a bit uncomfortable in the beginning, I think the real problem is the screenplay. Based on a long novel, this wanted to be a Gone With the Wind for the American Revolution, and, though it tries to cram lots of stuff into its two hours, most situations and characters aren't developed enough for us to care about them. Carlson as Jefferson comes off worse than Grant does; the cast also includes Tom Drake, Ann Revere, and Paul Kelly. It's not a terrible film, but it might make a good sleeping aid for an insomniac. [TCM]