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Tuesday, 14 June 2016

The Spiral Staircase (1945)

Director: Robert Siodmak
Writers: Mel Dinelli, from the novel, Some Must Watch, by Ethel Lina White
Stars: Dorothy McGuire, George Brent and Ethel Barrymore
Ethel Lina White isn’t a name that resonates today, even for aficionados of the crime fiction which she wrote, let alone fans of film who experienced her work only through adaptation to the big screen. However, she was a Welsh novelist who was very successful in her day back in the thirties. She wrote seventeen novels, most of which fell into the crime genre; three of them were adapted into major motion pictures, though all were retitled for the screen. We may well be excused for not recognising novels like 1933’s Some Must Watch, 1936’s The Wheel Spins and 1942’s Midnight House, also released in the US as Her Heart in Her Throat. However, film fans ought to recognise what they became: The Spiral Staircase, filmed a number of times but first by Robert Siodmak in 1945; The Lady Vanishes, whose many adaptations include an oustanding one by Alfred Hitchcock in 1938; and 1945’s The Unseen, a thematic sequel to Paramount’s hit of the previous year, The Uninvited. All are well worth seeing.

I’m reviewing that original version of The Spiral Staircase, the most recent of those three films but the earliest of the source novels, as Dorothy McGuire would have been a hundred today, 14th June. She had a highly successful career, nominated for an Academy Award for Gentleman’s Agreement and worthy in films as varied as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Old Yeller and Three Coins in the Fountain. She even played the Virgin Mary in The Greatest Story Ever Told, but I chose this personal favourite to celebrate her career because she gets to lead a fantastic cast, above Elsa Lanchester and an Oscar-nominated Ethel Barrymore, all while portraying a character stricken mute because of childhood trauma. It’s a fantastic opportunity and she gives a strong performance without the benefit of dialogue that reaches superb on occasion and never fails to depict her as a delightful young lady, an appropriate target for a killer who has it in for girls with disabilities or afflictions. Because she has no voice, he literally sees her with no mouth.
And yes, we see him, early and periodically throughout, though we don’t see who he is until the grand reveal towards the end. We just see small parts of him, mostly his eye, and the camera plays up his voyeurism beginning with his murder of a young lady with apparent issues walking. It floats around in her hotel room as she opens her closet to collect her nightgown, but as she walks away, it zooms into that closet to locate the killer hiding behind her clothes, zooming all the way into his voyeuristic eye. She’s his third victim, after a girl with a scar on her face and another who was simple. It’s no stretch to imagine young Helen as his next target, as everyone apparently does, because of her psychological inability to speak. By coincidence, she’s downstairs from the murder as it happens, watching the 1914 version of The Kiss in an auditorium. It’s worth mentioning that she’s comfortable with the characters in this silent film because they can’t talk either but, the moment it ends, her terror back in the real world begins.

Most of the film unfolds at the Warren mansion, where Helen works as a companion to the bedridden Mrs Warren, the matriarch of the family who has moments of lucidity but others of apparent confusion. Ethel Barrymore is stunning in the role, another one with inherent limits as she can’t get out of bed. She steals her first scene merely by opening her eyes and she repeats that feat at a later point in the film too. It’s no wonder that she was nominated for another Academy Award (she had won two years earlier for None But the Lonely Heart), but she lost to Anne Baxter in The Razor’s Edge. She came much later than her brothers to a screen career but she was nominated four times in six years. She’s only the most prominent of an astounding female cast that also includes Elsa Lanchester as Emma Oates, her housekeeper, who’s too fond of the brandy; Sara Allgood as Nurse Barker, whom she loathes; and a young Rhonda Fleming as Blanche, her stepson’s secretary, building on her showing in Hitchcock’s Spellbound earlier in the year.
With ladies of this calibre in the cast, it’s an uphill struggle for their gentlemen colleagues to enforce their own presence. George Brent is most prominent as Prof Albert Warren, that stepson, but he’s soft spoken and in the shadow of his screen brother, Steven, played by Gordon Oliver, the one major cast member I didn’t recognise from elsewhere. He plays a really good sleazeball, trying it on with Blanche with misogynistic glee, womanising with a knowing smirk and becoming in the process the overt first choice for our serial killer; it’s notable how Albert looks over at Steven every time anyone talks about leaving. He had a smaller role in Jezebel, which co-starred Brent, and others in pictures like San Quentin and the first Blondie movie, but he never really found stardom and this arrived close to the end of his career. There’s also Kent Smith, trawling the ground in between Glenn Ford and James Garner as Dr Parry, who wants to help Helen recover her voice, and Rhys Williams as Lanchester’s husband, the everyman of the house.

While some get better opportunities than others, and the women generally many more than the men, this is a glorious textbook entry on how to build atmosphere. Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca was surely blessed with fantastic set decoration and his work is enhanced by a great score by Roy Webb that’s almost symbiotic, but he makes it look easy. His name is unjustly neglected, given that he was arguably responsible for shaping the aesthetic of film noir by bringing German expressionist techniques to his work on Stranger on the Third Floor in 1940, a year after he worked with Karl Freund on Golden Boy. We remember Val Lewton well today for the subtle horror movies he produced in the forties, and we remember his directors, but we should also remember the contributions Musuraca made to many of them, including Cat People, The Seventh Victim and Bedlam. His film noir resume includes an enviable collection of classics like Out of the Past, Clash by Night and The Hitch-Hiker.
Each of these component parts helps The Spiral Staircase towards being not just a good picture but a great one, but the script had to be up to scratch too. Mel Dinelli may have been the least qualified member of the crew, given that he hadn’t previously written a movie of any description and, in fact, wouldn’t write another for four more years, but he enhances the claustrophobia apparent in the Warren mansion through Musuraca’s camera by pitting each of the characters against each other tighter and tighter, just like the spiral hinted at in the title. He notably uses a whole slew of emotions to do this, not just fear but also love, hate, lust and envy. As a result, we feel sure that Helen is going to be the next victim too, even as we realise that the absence of extra characters hints that the killer is surely already within the household in which she works. Never mind the windows that open mysteriously to the consternation of Mrs Oates, the killer’s already inside and he’s someone to whom we’ve already been introduced.

The final piece of the puzzle is director Robert Siodmak, one of those German auteurs who fled the Nazis during the Second World War and found a career in Hollywood. Already important for his debut film, People on Sunday, made with others who would become key names in the film noir era, like Edgar G Ulmer, Billy Wilder and his own brother, Curt Siodmak, he moved on to direct cult hits like Cobra Woman and Son of Dracula before moving into film noir and helping to enforce how good the Germans were at it because they’d invented many of its techniques back in the silent era. This mash up of mystery, horror and film noir wasn’t even his first, but it built on The Suspect, starring Elsa Lanchester’s husband, Charles Laughton, and paved the way for Criss Cross and the picture that landed him an Oscar nomination, The Killers with Burt Lancaster. Put all of these names together and it would be hard not for The Spiral Staircase to be good, but it’s truly great and it plays better each time I see it.
It’s not the deepest mystery in the world, because there’s a really short list of suspects for us to evaluate; it really comes down to whether we expect the killer to be the obvious candidate or not. However, we can’t fail to be drawn into Helen’s growing despair, not by the mystery but by the Warren mansion itself, which almost usurps McGuire’s role as the lead character because of Darrell Silvera’s set decoration and Musuraca’s eye for memorably dark visuals. As focused as we are on the lovely Helen, there are shots where she’s just a set decoration herself, like one where she walks past the iron railings outside the house or another where she’s framed in a huge mirror that, through reflection and deep focus, provides fantastic views of the inside of the mansion. We’re not reliant here on old dark house trappings; there are no secret passageways or paintings with their eyes cut out. Instead, the place merely looks creepy and gets creepier as the film runs on because of what happens within it and how it’s all shot.

With so much to enjoy, it’s admirable that Dorothy McGuire, credited first above Brent and Barrymore, manages to remain a focal point throughout. She’s actually threatened a lot less than we think she is, but she’s the prospective victim throughout, stuck in a set of Kafkaesque scenarios. How can she call the authorities when she can’t speak to them? There’s a great scene where she tries exactly that and her face gradually reflects her realisation that her own trauma may become her downfall. Another has a fantasy wedding sequence she imagines as her ticket to happiness turn into nightmare when she finds herself unable to say, ‘I do.’ All of this turns everything back on her: while an insane killer is stalking her, it’s her own inability to overcome a childhood trauma that traps her and the challenge to cast off her own chains defines her. Speaking again would be a life changer but now a life saver too. Dorothy McGuire’s centennial is only one reason to watch The Spiral Staircase but, frankly, every reason is a good one.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

The Lost World (1960)

Director: Irwin Allen
Writers: Charles Bennett and Irwin Allen, from the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Stars: Michael Rennie, Jill St John, David Hedison, Claude Rains and Fernando Lamas
Irwin Allen, who would have been a hundred years old today, is a rare example of someone who is still remembered by two utterly different audiences. Anyone who grew up watching movies in the seventies knows him as the ‘Master of Disaster’, the man behind the biggest of the disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, not to mention lesser films with less catchy titles that followed in their wake, like Flood!, Cave-In! and The Night the Bridge Fell Down. However, audiences a decade older are more likely to remember him for sci-fi shows he produced for television like Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants, many of which I saw on British TV in later re-runs. The source of both of these aspects of his career, though, is really Victorian adventure fiction, as highlighted by the trio of films he directed between 1960 and 1962, his first serious efforts in the director’s chair after a few movies he created mostly out of stock footage with a few new scenes shot with major stars late in their careers.

I’ll mention these films in reverse order. Last up, in 1962, was Five Weeks in a Balloon, which was based on the novel by Jules Verne, a cornerstone of Victorian adventure. Before that, in 1961, was Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, an original story but one which could easily be mistaken for a Verne adaptation, given what it does and where it goes. It’s notable that the Seaview, a nuclear submarine at the heart of the story, was based on the real USS Nautilus, in turn named for the fictional Nautilus of Jules Verne. Kicking off the thematic trio was this picture, The Lost World, adapted in 1960 from a novel by another pivotal author in the Victorian adventure genre, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. I should emphasise that not all connections are valid. The real bottom of the sea is the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, named for HMS Challenger, the survey ship that recorded its depth, but it was no nod to Doyle’s legendary explorer, Professor Challenger, introduced in The Lost World, as the ship came forty years earlier.
What is obvious from this trio of films is that Irwin Allen was clearly a big fan of Victorian adventure fiction and he felt an urge to adapt it to the big screen. He wrote each script in collaboration with Charles Bennett, who is best known today for his early work with Alfred Hitchcock on films like The 39 Steps, Sabotage and Blackmail, the latter of which was based on his own play. Incidentally, Bennett’s final picture took him back to Victorian adventure with City Under the Sea, loosely adapted from a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. What’s also obvious is that this material fed both the sci-fi shows Allen made for television and his disaster movies. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was successfully adapted to TV and Allen pitched The Lost World for similar treatment but it wasn’t picked up, even though this film is as episodic in nature as any season of any of his shows. The final scenes of the source novel, with a live pterodactyl escaping into the skies of London presage the entire disaster movie genre, but Allen didn’t have the budget to do it.

What he did have was some star power, though I have to question some of his casting choices. Claude Rains was an accomplished actor with a range that lent him success in films as diverse as The Invisible Man, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca. I’m not buying him with ginger hair and beard as Professor Challenger though. He has the irascibility down pat and his banter with fellow scientist, Professor Summerlee, ranks as the most faithful this film gets to the original material. However, the original Challenger was an imposing physical specimen, with broad shoulders, a barrel chest and head and hands of remarkable size; Rains, at 5’ 6½’’, really doesn’t fit that bill in the slightest. It unfortunately defuses his angrier scenes and shifts them far too far towards comedy. I took a while to buy into Michael Rennie as the big game hunter, Lord John Roxton, too, but because of his soft spoken voice rather than his size. He has the composure, surety and height to be the leader of this party, but he’s a different sort of authoritative.
The best scenes are actually the early ones, as the script adheres closest to Doyle’s novel. We meet reporter Ed Malone as he tries to interview Prof Challenger on his return to London Airport from the ‘headwaters of the Amazon’. He’s belted over the head with an umbrella for his troubles and left in a large puddle. David Hedison, four years away from his most famous role as Captain Lee B Crane in Allen’s TV show, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, is clearly a better actor than Jill St John, who rescues him and whisks him over to Challenger’s presentation at the Zoological Institute that night. She’s Jennifer Holmes, who serves as the glue between the characters. When Challenger is laughed at for proclaiming that he’s seen living dinosaurs in South America, the expedition to find out for sure is financed by her father and includes Malone, whom she rescued, and Roxton, whom she aims to marry. It’s no shock to find that her own adventurous soul joins the party too, complete with younger brother, pink wardrobe and little poodle.

At least St John is easy on the eyes, because she isn’t tasked with doing much except being inappropriately independent for a girl early on and then conventionally useless once actually thrown into adventure. While her lines are too carefully delivered, she’s a surprisingly good tomboy and her sass is believable. Unfortunately, all her early promise is wasted by a script that sees her as half eye candy and half damsel in distress. To be fair, nobody is written well here, surprisingly given Bennett’s history in scriptwriting. Each and every character is a cartoon take on Doyle’s originals, not even interested in struggling to escape their one dimension. It falls to debate only to decide which is worse. Perhaps its the girly girl with her poodle but perhaps its the skeptical scientist, brash reporter or greedy coward. Maybe it’s the smouldering helicopter pilot, silent native girl or quietly tough hunter. Not one of them fails to escape their respective stereotypes and it’s fair to say that some of the actors are better than others at hiding it.
Once the company arrives on top of Challenger’s mysterious plateau by helicopter, thus marking a firm departure from the novel, the film begins to be notable for other unfortunate reasons too. I like the matte paintings a lot but they look like matte paintings. The waterfalls look amazing but they’re major landmarks and not all from this neighbourhood. The extra characters taken to the plateau clearly have no viable purpose to be there and the new romance angle is a weak one indeed. And, worst of all, but perhaps most spectacularly of all, there are the dinosaurs. Willis O’Brien, the pioneer of animating dinosaurs with stop motion techniques, had created amazing footage for the silent 1925 version of The Lost World and Allen brought him back for this version. O’Brien shot nine minutes of animated dinosaur footage with his most notable successor, Ray Harryhausen, but for Allen’s 1956 documentary, The Animal World, not this film. His talents were reduced here to sketching concept art and his animation skills were sorely missed.

At the end of the day, while Doyle’s The Lost World contains both thrilling adventure and social commentary, any film adaptation of the novel is going to be accepted or laughed at on the strength of how believable its dinosaurs are. These dinosaurs are clearly not believable by anyone over the age of four, because they’re not stop motion animations, they’re real animals in disguise. We aren’t shown a dinosaur until the 34 minute mark, around a third of the way into the film. Prof Challenger may identify a brontosaurus rubbing up against the miniature greenery, but it’s clearly a monitor lizard with stegosaurus scales on its back. Like most kids, I’d fallen in love with dinosaurs young and I wouldn’t have bought this as a brontosaurus at the age of five. A gigantic iguana wearing a pair of fake horns in a standoff with Frosty the poodle is no more ludicrous. Neither is the neon green superimposed giant spider that Malone shoots while he’s chasing a scantily clad but somewhat entirely decent young native woman.
It’s the battle of the behemoths that leaves the worst taste in the mouth though. In the red corner is the returning monitor lizard, flicking its tongue like there’s no tomorrow and roaring like a beast on heat. With Malone and Holmes evading its attentions, it has to face off against a caiman with horns and spikes added everywhere that wouldn’t fall off. As you can imagine, this disqualifies the film from the familiar disclaimer we see on any movie nowadays that features even one living creature: ‘no animals were harmed in the making of this film.’ The American Humane Association has monitored filming of Hollywood movies since 1940, including a couple of thousand productions a year, but that’s only about 70% of animal action and this film was clearly part of the exception. I can’t help but describe the monitor lizard vs caiman battle as a cockfight in lizard form, similar to the real life battles captured on African safaris by tourists with cameras, only staged here for entertainment. I doubt either animal survived their tumble off a cliff.

There really aren’t a lot of dinosaurs in this film, if we count these real life reptiles as dinosaurs. There’s no T Rex to be found, no pterodactyls, none of what readers of the novel might expect. That’s sad but explainable given that Cleopatra was already bleeding 20th Century Fox’s coffers dry three years from eventual release. What’s saddest of all is that there isn’t anything else of value to replace them. We’re given cardboard characters whose clichéd attributes are mirrored by the clichéd situations into which they’re placed. The natives are purest exotica, little more than an unwelcoming collection of facepaint, tiki statues and tribal drums. Doyle kept his adventure as scientifically sound as he could; Allen and Bennett don’t seem to know what science is. They don’t even let anyone get dirty in the jungle, even when running for their lives in white suits from giant frickin’ lizards. Almost everything was shot indoors on sets at Fox with as much dry ice as was needed to hide how fabricated everything was. It’s embarrassing.
A five year old might get a kick out of the cliffhanging nature of the piece: here a roaring dinosaur, there a carnivorous plant; here a vicious betrayal, there an honourable self sacrifice; here certain death and there a magnificent way out. Older audiences will find all of these a stretch, especially as the story had been adapted before and relatively well by Harry Hoyt in 1925 with the believable casting of Wallace Beery and Lewis Stone as Prof Challenger and Lord Roxton, as well as the glorious stop motion animation of the master, Willis O’Brien. In fact, older audiences are far more likely to thrill at the frequent sight of Jill St John’s camel toe than any of what they’re supposed to be watching. The cast is strong, Richard Haydn and Fernando Lamas both acquitting themselves well in support of Rains and Rennie; David Hedison clearly didn’t want to be in the movie but stuck it out anyway. Only Irwin Allen got any momentum out of this and that was a career in episodic shlock, forged from The Lost World and presented on ABC.

Friday, 27 May 2016

The Ghost Breakers (1940)

Director: George Marshall
Writer: Walter DeLeon, based on the play The Ghost Breaker by Paul Dickey and Charles W Goddard
Stars: Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard
This well regarded horror comedy from Paramount has a stunning cast, but most of them weren’t quite so well known at the time. It’s arguable that the leading lady was better known in 1940 than her leading man, though there’s no question that he eclipsed her soon enough. She’s Paulette Goddard, a former Ziegfeld girl who became famous in 1936 when Charlie Chaplin cast her in Modern Times. He married her the same year and they were still married, albeit separated, when she shot this film. Her leading man is Bob Hope, the winner of a prize a quarter of a century earlier for impersonating Chaplin, when Goddard was only five years old; then again, Hope was only twelve. They starred together in The Cat and the Canary in 1939 and followed up the double act here, but were about to be more famous apart: Goddard with The Great Dictator and So Proudly We Hail!, landing her an Oscar nomination, and Hope with the Road movies with Bing Crosby. He hadn’t even hosted the Academy Awards at this point, his first stint imminent in 1941.

In support are names as prominent as Paul Lukas and Anthony Quinn, two actors at opposite ends of their careers. Lukas was most of the way through his, having started out in the teens, though his biggest films were still to come: an Oscar-winning performance in Watch on the Rhine in 1943 and a memorable role as Prof Arronax in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954. Quinn was only five years into his and wouldn’t find his way into a really good lead until Viva Zapata! in 1952. He does get two roles here, but neither is much of an opportunity. And then there’s Willie Best, who would have been a hundred years old today. I don’t know if Hope really called him one of the finest talents he ever worked with, but he was certainly an accomplished performer stuck in an era when coloured actors were rarely given anything of substance to do. Best’s first six credits called him Sleep ‘n’ Eat, mirroring the screen image his studio built for him of an actor who only wanted ‘three square meals a day and a warm place to sleep.’
I chose this film to celebrate his career because it highlights his talents much better than most of the roles he was given, as well as showcasing the inherent racism of the time. Nobody thought it was inappropriate in 1940 for Bob Hope to tell him, ‘You look like a blackout in a blackout.’ Nobody felt bad in 1940 when he describes him with, ‘He always sees the darker side of everything; he was born during an eclipse.’ Nobody had second thoughts about giving him a whole conversation about spooks. Yes, both meanings of the word. Today, each of these instances is cringeworthy, but it’s notable that Best, while he’s still playing a subservient role, gets a part of substance here and at points even dominates scenes, with Hope relegated to being his straight man rather than the other way around. Sure, he’s yet another character with big eyes, sleepy voice and malformed vocabulary, not to mention the inevitable streak of cowardice, but he gets to figure things out that Hope’s heroic lead can’t because at least he’s not stupid.

He’s Alex and he works for Larry Lawrence, a radio personality who’s a sort of gossip columnist for organised crime: ‘the man who knows all the rackets and all the racketeers.’ That’s Hope, of course, and it’s one of his reports that gets him summoned to Frenchy Duval’s hotel room. When he believes he shoots a man dead in the hallway, he finds his way into the room of Mary Carter and the other half of the story. She’s inherited Castillo Maldito, a castle off the coast of Cuba, and she’s just signed the paperwork before a cruise to Havana to take it on. However, there’s a lot of pressure on her to not do so, much of which trawls old dark house clichés: the film begins with a terrific storm, during which she’s warned that no human being has survived a night in the castle, due to the ghosts who want vengeance for the treatment they got from her great-great-grandfather, a notorious slave trader. Parada brings her an anonymous offer of $50,000 for the castle. A stranger promptly rings her to suggest she say no. Strange things are afoot!
I remembered The Ghost Breakers positively, but rewatching highlights how creaky it is. The acting is decent, which isn’t surprising given the cast, and the cinematography is strong, emulating the Universal horror classics from the preceding decade. There’s one scene late in the movie where a zombie stalks Mary within Castillo Maldito and it’s wonderfully handled. Another character trying to climb out of a glass coffin is another spooky highlight. This is no horror movie though, it’s firmly a comedy first and an old dark house mystery second. The horror aspects, done in what would soon become known as the Val Lewton style, are a notable bonus! We’re here half to figure out why someone doesn’t want Mary to take ownership of her inheritance and half to laugh at the light banter of Hope, whether in partnership with Goddard, Best or anyone else. After he broadcasts his latest show, his secretary tells him, ‘You were wonderful, if you’re any judge.’ There are many clever lines of dialogue here and most aren’t racist at all.

The script was written by Walter DeLeon, adapted from the 1909 play, The Ghost Breaker by Paul Dickey and Charles W Goddard. It had been filmed twice before, firstly by Cecil B DeMille in 1914 with H B Warner and Rita Stanwood, and then in 1922 by Alfred E Green with Wallace Reid and Lila Lee. Both films, named for the play (so singular rather than plural), are lost today, leaving this version as the earliest extant. It was oddly remade as a musical in 1953 by this film’s director, George Marshall, as a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis vehicle called Scared Stiff. That’s best known today as Carmen Miranda’s final film, regarded as inferior to this in every other regard. It’s hard to see why Paramount felt it appropriate to remake it in the fifties as the haunted house setting was already passé and only the mix of horror and comedy, especially coming hot on the heels of The Cat and the Canary, gave it a fresh edge. By the fifties, the formula was firmly in the hands of Abbott and Costello, who had already done it to death, as it were.
Mostly it’s content to run along at a decent pace, with snappy lines arriving fast enough to keep us laughing and spooky scenes to keep us on our toes. Bosley Crowther, writing in The New York Times, praised its ability to make ‘an audience shriek with laughter and fright’ simultaneously. A great example of this shows up almost immediately. The power is out at Mary Carter’s hotel, caused by the storm raging outside. ‘Nice night for a murder,’ she tells a neighbour, as he lights a cigarette on candles brought up for her. He’s taken sharply aback as he’s with the mob. ‘How do you know?’ he replies. Especially so early in the film, this delivers a laugh and a thrill all at once. The same goes for the various reactions to the storm itself. Mary revels in it, throwing her window open to the elements and crying, ‘Exciting, isn’t it?’ Larry, somewhere else in town, merely quips, ‘Basil Rathbone must be giving a party!’ He’s the comedian here, throwing out 1940 pop culture references with abandon, except when he forgets and Alex takes over.

Whenever The Ghost Breakers has legs, it’s worth seeing. Sure, some of the laughs have dated as much as the racism, but it’s funny enough throughout and it often reaches laugh out loud stature. There are down points though, where the script seems distracted from its proclaimed intentions and we wonder what we’re actually watching. These slower scenes, such as many of those on the cruise to Cuba, could easily have been cut and probably should have been; this would have made a much better 75 minute movie than it is an 85 minute one. Then again, we wonder if some scenes were already cut. I wondered why Lloyd Corrigan was even in the movie; he shows up on three distinct occasions, bumping into Mary and clearly setting up some sort of angle that never gets addressed. Was he really just there to distract Anthony Quinn’s second character away? That seems like a real stretch. I expected much more at the Castillo Maldito too, but we take too long to get there and don’t spend enough time there once we do.
Somewhat surprisingly, given that this is a throwback to another time at just over three quarters of a century old, I wondered at how forward looking it actually was. How many horror comedies do we see nowadays, with plots that combine laughs and scares over a grounding of special effects that are rarely as capable as they want to be and some gratuitous exposure of female flesh? We get all that here. The effects vary considerably, from the highly effective local zombie to the poor double exposure of a ghost who climbs out of a chest and walks around, only for us to ponder as to why the chest is transparent rather than the ghost. As to female flesh, Mary realises that Larry and Alex have rowed over to her island, so she swims over to join them. While she does cover up an enticing bathing suit with a robe, it’s promptly ripped half open by a stubborn banister as she tries to escape the pursuing zombie. It’s easy to see what drew Chaplin to her: Paulette Goddard had a very nice pair of legs indeed!

And so to posterity. At the time this was a Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard picture, in many ways an otherwise unrelated sequel to the previous year’s The Cat and the Canary. Today, it’s not hard to see that they don’t get the strongest characters in the story. Larry Lawrence (‘My middle name is Lawrence too; my parents had no imagination.’) starts well but fades away once we get to Cuba. The generation of today, who didn’t grow up watching Bob Hope host the Academy Awards ceremony (19 times, just in case you didn’t keep count) or have a clue what a USO tour is, may not realise that he’s even the lead. Some might see him as the romantic interest for Paulette Goddard. Others might consider that he’s the other half of a double act with Willie Best. Many, especially once we land on Mary’s island, will find this so reminiscent of a live action Scooby Doo cartoon that they’ll translate the characters into the ones they know and love; I wonder how many will see Hope as Fred and how many Shaggy or Scooby as Best is as often each of them.
And that’s much of why I chose The Ghost Breakers to celebrate Best’s career on what would have been his hundredth birthday. The thirties and forties, not to mention the following string of decades too, were really not good for actors of colour. There were many of them and their talents were often substantial. Nobody is going to talk down Paul Robeson or Hattie McDaniel, but even given as many wide-eyed maids that the latter found herself stuck playing, she was regarded better than Stepin Fetchit, Mantan Moreland and Willie Best, to name just a trio of talented actors given consistently stereotypical roles that became more and more culturally embarrassing as years passed. Eventually, they were decried by the civil rights movement for enforcing stereotypes, even though opportunities were nonexistent. In 1934, while Best was shooting The Nitwits, he told an interviewer, ‘What’s an actor going to do? Either you do it or get out.’ He did it, making 119 movies in just over two decades. This may well be his finest role.

Friday, 13 May 2016

A Dead Calling (2006)

Director: Michael Feifer
Writer: Michael Feifer
Stars: Alexandra Holden, Sid Haig, Bill Moseley and Leslie Easterbrook
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
With Little Big Top in Sid Haig’s mind as a rare chance for him to play a lead role that had nothing to do with wackiness or thuggery, it’s hardly surprising that A Dead Calling followed soon afterwards. It was also made in 2006 and he got to avoid stereotyping once again, albeit in a supporting role in a horror movie. The casting choice was presumably due to Michael Feifer, a prolific producer who was starting to get into the writing and directing business at the time; this was his first feature as a writer and his third as a director. He went on to carve out a couple of niches for himself, odd ones when you put them next to each other: straight to video dramatisations of real serial killers with awkward titles, such as Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield, Bundy: An American Icon and Chicago Massacre: Richard Speck, and made for TV Christmas films starring dogs, like The Dog Who Saved Christmas, My Dog’s Christmas Miracle or A Christmas Wedding Tail. This is fortunately neither, which makes it a little more interesting, but it’s still notably flawed.

Our lead is Rachel Beckwith, a television journalist in New York City who reports with flair. ‘They want drama,’ she tells her guy in the news van. ‘They want a good story.’ Unfortunately she promptly becomes one of those good stories: later that night, a strange man breaks into her house and murders her fiancé, Brian. Why this happens, we’re never told, but it clearly isn’t burglary because he knows her and has followed her on television. This mysterious subplot is promptly forgotten, though we can join some dots and eventually figure out who the intruder was. What’s important for now is that she takes time off to go back to the sleepy small town of Fillmore to stay with mum and dad and recharge her batteries. Here’s where horror fans start paying attention because mum is Leslie Easterbrook and dad is Sid Haig. Only a year earlier, they had been a couple in The Devil’s Rejects, serial killer parents of Sheri Moon’s psychotic murderess, but here they’re just Marge and George, loving parents of a victim. Talk about anti-stereotyping!
Oddly, Alexandra Holden does much better with the material she’s given than either Easterbrook or Haig, though that’s probably mostly because she’s given better material. She’s the one character with real substance here and we puzzle through the first half of the movie as to whether her visions are real, making this a ghost story, or just the product of post-traumatic stress, making it a drama. Of course, the film itself is a horror movie because what she sees is another murder, this time a deliberate and bloody one, but for most of the running time, she’s the only character who’s really in a horror movie. Haig and Easterbrook are in a drama, as they’re insulated from the visions until the end and they’re only in the film to provide loving support as Rachel goes back to work for the local TV station. Both get good scenes but both still struggle because they’re not just playing roles, they’re playing parents who are playing roles, stuck in a tough situation that they’re unprepared for. They walk on eggshells for most of the film.

Stephen Javitz, her new boss, is in a drama too, because he’s caring support as well, albeit with a mildly creepy vibe because he has followed her career since she’s left town. He’s prematurely grey and comes off rather like a low budget Richard Gere playing a low budget Anderson Cooper. Actor John Burke is a regular cast member for Michael Feifer, and he’s as typecast as Sid Haig used to be, just in different jobs. Of his twenty films, at least eight have him playing newscasters, reporters or anchormen. Add in the law, at the police station or in the courtroom, and we’re already over half, before we even try to translate the remaining names into their occupations. He’s fine enough in this role, but I wonder why he plays it like he does. He seems to be aiming for too good to be true, as if he wants us to suspect that he’s more than he says he is. Perhaps the goal was to keep us guessing until the reveals begin, but I was never really sold on his performance because he seemed more interested in being a red herring than a character.
Javitz wants Rachel to start out small, with a series on local architecture, so she checks out the Sullivan House. She’s hardly on her game here because she doesn’t even turn over the clipping she found in the station’s morgue to catch the warning in the headline: the house was abandoned because Dr Frank Sullivan massacred his family there a quarter of a century earlier. She sees the murder happen, but she’s the only one there at the time and she only half believes herself. When she goes back, she chats with a journalist from the Fillmore Union-Tribune who’s investigating Sullivan, but after the doctor snaps his neck and throws him into the basement, she calls the cops to find that the Union-Tribune hasn’t existed for years and Arnie Howard is just another ghost. Fans watching for Haig and Easterbrook will also note here that Chief Murken, a refreshingly capable, decent and unstereotypical small town cop, is played by Bill Moseley, another member of The Devil’s Rejects family playing against type, almost unrecognisably in this instance.

With Haig, Moseley and Easterbrook on board, we ought to have some seriously good acting at least but it doesn’t feel that strong. Moseley is as good as ever, as a cop so on the ball that he almost becomes invisible. Haig doesn’t find his footing for a while, maybe struggling with the concept of smiling on film: he grins more in his first scene here than he does in the entirety of Little Big Top, in which he rarely left the screen. He gets a great scene late on, when George decides to get ready for action, but it takes him a while to get there. Easterbrook takes a while to find her stride too, her best moment coming late in the film with a monologue delivered to her screen daughter at a particularly crucial time. To be fair, both suffer from consistently awkward dialogue, but they’re also professionals who give it the old college try. Fortunately, Holden is decent as Rachel because the further down the cast list we go, the less able the actors become. There’s some embarrassing acting late in the picture when it’s most offputting.
I was with the story for half the film. The setup in New York is good and the follow up in Fillmore isn’t bad, even if it’s a little over-convenient; did the Sullivan House have to be the very first place she goes on day one in her new job? I liked Javitz’s potential, the angles used to shoot the creepy old building (which I’d love to own) and the way the cops were portrayed unstereotypically; Chief Murken sends Rachel straight home after the Arnie Howard incident and has his son, Deputy Dave, follow to ensure she gets there. I liked the ghost story that builds and the possibility that it could be explained psychologically too. Even when the script starts to derail into horror movie cliché, there are still some neatly freaky scenes like Arnie’s death and Sullivan’s hidden dissecting room. At this point, Feifer is still paying attention enough to explain why Chief Murken shows up at the Sullivan House without warning, so there’s effort here. It’s really a starting out film, to set up Feifer’s career as a filmmaker, rather than a later accomplished one.

And that means that there’s a lot of bad here too, especially as we explore the second half. All that neat ambiguity is thrown out of the window when the potential of the supernatural and psychological fades into the banal. The first of a couple of twists is about as unsurprising as it comes and it’s addressed clumsily to boot; the second is weak enough and arrives late enough for us to not really care. By this point, characters are either dead or unsympathetic. The best performances during the highly clichéd last act are from children playing ghosts and, while I salute them for their effort, it only highlights how weak the major actors had become (or how weak the dialogue and plot progression given to them had become; it would be difficult indeed to do some of this material justice). There are even odd bleeps littered around the soundtrack at this point that feel like interference on the sound equipment that the crew didn’t catch at the time; I paused my DVD a couple of times to see if it was outside but no, it was in the movie.
So, I get why Sid Haig picked this. From his perspective, it’s a companion piece to Little Big Top, because it’s the beginning of a new era. You could roughly break his career down into the early years in exploitation, the stereotype years playing heavies, the years away when he trained as a hypnotherapist, the triumphant return years when Tarantino and Zombie reestablished his film career and the current years that see him well regarded as a talented character actor. 2006 was the point in between those last two eras, as he was finally able to play parts that were unusual for him: an alcoholic clown and a doting father, the former a substantial lead role to boot. To the rest of us, it’s clear that Little Big Top is by far the superior of the two films. This one is half of a good movie but half of a bad one too, so it’s far less essential, its biggest claim to fame the fact that Michael Feifer, for some reason, chose to cast a trio of actors from The Devil’s Rejects firmly against type. In the long term, that’s the biggest reason to watch this.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Little Big Top (2006)

Director: Ward Roberts
Writer: Ward Roberts
Star: Sid Haig
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
Opening at Hallowe’en with Sid Haig in facepaint again, folks must have known precisely what to expect from Little Big Top in 2006 and they’d all have been completely wrong. He’d played Captain Spaulding for Rob Zombie twice, firstly in House of 1000 Corpses and then in The Devil’s Rejects, but the third time to the well was a brief animated segment in The Haunted World of El Superbeasto not this feature. And, well, that’s kind of the point. When I asked Sid to pick two films from his career for me to review at Apocalypse Later, he picked two from 2006 and it’s not too difficult to see why. My kids know him from his modern day grindhouse flicks for Quentin Tarantino and Rob Zombie and others, while I know him from older Roger Corman pictures, many under the direction of Jack Hill, shot in the Philippines and/or with Pam Grier. In between, he’d retired, fed up of being typecast as the random heavies we’ve seen him play in no end of TV shows, nine in Mission: Impossible alone, different parts for different episodes but otherwise the same.

He came back because Tarantino wrote a good part for him in Jackie Brown and he’d regretted turning down the Marcellus Wallace role in Pulp Fiction. However, he was picky and for eight years only played parts for Tarantino and Zombie. Two more horror flicks later and then this, the only time I’ve seen him play the lead in 25 features and the only straight drama of the bunch. No wonder it came quickly to his mind! He’s not only the lead, he’s the emphatic lead, nobody else with their name before the title card and few with roles that warrant even a co-starring credit. Richard Riehle, otherwise the most obvious actor in the film, underplays his role notably, as if not to steal a single moment from Haig. I’m very happy to see all of this, especially because it’s also the debut feature for Ward Roberts, a young filmmaker who I know from more recent, even more ambitious, movies for Drexel Box Productions: Lo (as an actor) and Dust Up (as writer/director). Travis Betz, who plays a clown here, did the same jobs the other way round.
So I was all over this as soon as Haig, playing an aging third generation clown called Seymour Smiles, counts his aches after leaping off a freight train in his home town of Peru, Indiana, regarded as the ‘Circus Capital of the World’. It really is, by the way. It used to be the winter headquarters for circuses like Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. It still hosts the International Circus Hall of Fame, as well as the only manufacturer of steam-powered calliopes worldwide. The Peru Amateur Circus still takes over the town for the third week of July, just as it does in this picture, and almost everyone we see is a Peru local. That means that the circus performers are real, the folk manning the circus offices are real and the lady at Broadway Liquors is no doubt real too. Roberts was even born in Peru, suggesting that his story may have grown from personal experience. I wonder if he has a circus background himself. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that he’d performed for the Peru Amateur Circus as a child.

Of course, circuses are all about making people happy (unless you’re one of the growing number of coulrophobics who freak out if they even catch sight of a clown) but that’s not what we see here. Seymour Smiles appears to be poorly named, because his face is sorely in need of a smile and it looks like it hasn’t seen one in many a year. His first stop, as he walks through Peru to his family’s boarded-up house, is for beer, cigarettes and beef jerky and it’s only the latter that gets dropped off his shopping list when money starts to run out. There’s no electricity or running water at home and he makes no attempt to get either switched on; he pees on a bush in the front yard and cooks bacon in a large fireplace. He falls asleep with lit cigarettes in his mouth and his shoes in the fire, so it’s almost surprising that he makes it through the film alive. Given that he appears to be drinking himself into oblivion, we can safely assume that he doesn’t want to make it. Why, we have no idea, but we’ve all heard the old Pagliacci joke.
If Bob hadn’t shown up, in the form of Richard Riehle, perhaps this old clown would have fallen asleep on the porch one night and never woken up. Bob wants to hire him though. He’s a legend, you see. He’s also the son of another legend, Sonny Smiles, and the grandson of a third, Miles O Smiles. Of course, you have big shoes to fill when your ancestors are clowns. Bob is the director of the Peru Amateur Circus and the sextet of clowns he has aren’t up to snuff. Seymour gets a grand out of him and complete autonomy, though it doesn’t work out quite how Bob might have expected. He hasn’t seen what we’ve seen, the slowly decaying grump shot often at a distance to emphasise how far he’s gone from what he used to be. The lively circus music that the soundtrack gifts to us is almost cruel and taunting because Seymour completely doesn’t want to know. There are only rare moments, like when he first walks into the circus arena to see a bunch of kids on the trapeze, when his face lights up and he briefly comes back to life.

If any of those Hallowe’en audiences were expecting another Captain Spaulding, they would have been sorely disappointed, but it would be easy to misinterpret the film far beyond that. For a film that features a clown teaching other clowns to be funny, there’s a shortage of laughs here. It’s no comedy, that’s for sure, but there are few light-hearted moments to be found, especially during the first half of the film. We might read it as a feelgood movie, which it sort of is, but it takes a long while to start feeling good and it gets distracted from that frequently. What it really aims to be is a character study, not only of a clown who’s forgotten why he’s a clown but of his home town too, the ‘Circus Capital of the World’, and perhaps even the industry that it recognises. Circuses used to be much bigger deals, back before pop culture made us believe that clowns are scary, so Peru may be feeling the pinch just as Seymour is. It’s no stretch to see him as representing the art of the circus needing to find itself again to be able to move forward.
Haig is everything here, not only because he gives such a deep performance but because the film seems determined to underline him at the expense of pretty much everything and everyone else. Richard Riehle and Hollis Resnik flit in and out of the story with their own dramas unseen unless they involve Seymour. Even when they do get screen time, it’s to either firm him up or pull him down; he’s always the point of their scenes rather than them. When he starts to work with Bob’s clowns, he forbids them to speak so they can’t introduce themselves; it’s his show and they’re merely minor players in it. Only later do they get opportunities, but even then they’re as much for Seymour as they are for themselves. Of the entire cast, it’s only Mel England who manages to make it out of the background because, even though he’s helping Seymour too, he really doesn’t care about circuses or clowns, just the ability to slack off work because now Seymour’s doing it. He works best as a contrast when Seymour starts to get sober.

What we get out of this picture is very much going to depend about how much we care. Our protagonist, who is rarely off screen, is an antisocial alcoholic, hardly the most enticing character. We’re given little background to help us understand why he is how he is. We just watch him refusing to do anything about it and projecting his troubles onto others around him. While Haig does a fine job of showing inner torment, that’s not enough to automatically generate sympathy. We’re more likely to support someone who wants to change than someone who’s apparently content to pickle himself from the inside out. There’s one scene where I’m not convinced he doesn’t botch a suicide attempt, by lying down on the wrong train tracks. Highly paid Hollywood scriptwriters would give Seymour hope early on, but I like the approach Roberts took of making that wait. He may lose some viewers partway through but those who stay will appreciate the depth of despair more acutely. There’s a lot of fall here without much rise.
Roberts does use some cinematic tricks to keep us engaged, such as including many shots of characters talking to the camera. They aren’t breaking the fourth wall, but they’re including us in whatever they’re doing or saying to make sure we’re aren’t going to go anywhere. While Haig gets a lot more opportunity to act than he does to talk, there’s some great dialogue here. The last third of the story carries a lot of interest generated from an apparently throwaway comment; one clown, knowing that facepaint design is traditionally inherited, suggests to Seymour that, ‘It’s kind of a bummer not being able to decide your own face.’ My favourite line comes after a staff member tells him that he’s a professional, tellingly because he had taken a long while to show it, and he replies, ‘No, ma’am. I used to be but I think I’m finally an amateur.’ It’s an important line in a number of ways, highlighting how much he’s changed because of the people around him and, as hard as it is for him to admit it, because he does care; he’d merely forgotten.

Little Big Top certainly has its flaws and some of its successes could be seen as flaws by less dedicated audiences. It takes a while to get moving and longer to get anywhere we recognise. It refuses to let us into Seymour’s background, just his present, and we get even less for anyone else, even when we think we might. Seymour watches a young lady called Jenna, who’s trying to master the backward somersault on the trapeze, often enough that we expect there to be meaning in it but there isn’t beyond him wanting someone to succeed hard enough that he eventually sets himself on the path to do it too. Seymour is also notably unlikeable for a large proportion of the film. It’s no spoiler to suggest that he does get past that but it takes him a long time to do it, maybe longer than less-indie minded audiences will want to wait. But those of us who do will appreciate Haig as a lead actor, playing someone who isn’t wild and wacky and isn’t another of those heavies that he retired to avoid. Clearly he appreciated the opportunity too.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Humboldt County (2008)

Directors: Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs
Writers: Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs
Stars: Fairuza Balk, Peter Bogdanovich, Frances Conroy, Madison Davenport, Brad Dourif, Chris Messina and Jeremy Strong
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
I’ve found it fascinating to discover what actors and filmmakers choose when I ask them to pick two films from their career for me to review at Apocalypse Later. Of all the people I’ve asked so far, though, Brad Dourif is the one whose choices I was most eager to hear. I’ve been a fan of his for years, so long that I can’t remember where I saw him first. It may have been Dune, Blue Velvet or The Exorcist III, but I know that I quickly racked up personal favourites like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Wise Blood and Sonny Boy. His career has been long and varied, including wild obscurities, Hollywood blockbusters and everything in between. Not all of these films are good ones but they’re usually interesting at the very least and his performances are things to anticipate. There are so many movies in his career worthy of being chosen for this project (and Tiffany Shepis already chose one) that I was eager to see which he’d select. This was his first pick, though I hadn’t even heard of it. He thought long and hard before choosing one of my favourites as his second.

Humboldt County is an indie drama from Embark Productions that was picked up for theatrical distribution by Magnolia in 2008, after a resonant set of screenings at SXSW, and, while it has met a variety of responses, it found a passionate core audience, making it an underground cult hit. Dourif is far from the film’s only recognisable face, with Peter Bogdanovich, Fairuza Balk and Frances Conroy all prominent in an ensemble cast. The lead, however, was brand new. He’s Jeremy Strong, no household name but an actor who has done very well for himself since his screen debut here. You’re likely to recognise his face because his nineteen films thus far include four which have been nominated for an Oscar: Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Selma and his most recent, The Big Short. He’s perfectly cast as a clueless young man, Peter Hadley, who hasn’t seen much of life as he’s been living his father’s dreams rather than his own. We first meet him as he takes his medical school final, only to find that Prof Hadley fails him. That’s dad, who’s ‘unbelievably disappointed’.
Peter seems already lost, even before he fails his exam. Sure, partly it’s because he’s been up for three days but most of it is because he has no idea who he really is. His dominant father has kept him on a dedicated path all his life and he’s done pretty well with it up until now but he’s finally hit a dead end and he has no idea what to do. So he goes to a club to see the young lady who moonlighted as his final exam patient, a part time jazz singer called Miss Bogart Truman who lives on the road. ‘Just little gigs as I come through LA,’ she explains as she strips him naked in her hotel room. He’s clueless enough to ask if she takes cheques. She laughs and does him anyway, but then drives ‘home’ and takes him with her, asleep in the front seat. He wakes up in an empty car to find her out looking at the stacks in a well shot oceanscape. ‘Is this Malibu?’ he asks. It’s the Lost Coast, she says. Welcome to the Humboldt County of the title, which is real. It’s in California, so far north that it’s almost Oregon, and it’s full of coastline, mountains and forests. And weed.

And this is how Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs, who wrote and directed the film, found an audience. The odd thing is that this is far from the usual druggie movie. It’s unashamedly pro-marijuana, but it’s no propaganda film. I’m not sure if weed is the MacGuffin of the piece or just a convenient local symbol for the freedom that the characters really crave. Perhaps it’s both. Certainly, everyone in the film seems to care about it, whether they’re the hippie types with a few plants to earn from, those trying to get rich with a big crop or the DEA who are content to burn the fields when they find them rather than seek out and arrest their owners, but it’s never the focus of the story, merely a common thread for the people in it. It seems just as important to read it as a symbol though, a badge that those who choose to opt out of conventional society adopt because it’s illegal but commonplace. This isn’t about pro-pot people vs anti-pot people, it’s about what freedom really means and who gets to define it and that runs a lot deeper than smoking weed.
I’m sure that’s one reason why Dourif chose this film. He plays Jack, the patriarch of an extended family out here in the woods who’s a sort of adoptive father to Bogart. Family here isn’t restricted to blood lines and marriages in, it’s a community spirit and those who share that spirit tend to get absorbed into the family. A bigger reason is that, to quote Danny Jacobs, ‘for the first time in a long time, he was playing a role that had a lot of him in it.’ That was important as the film needed ‘someone who could be believable as a former physics professor and a mountain man, and those are two opposite qualities that are difficult to find in people.’ Jack lives off the grid where he philosophises, plays piano and sells pot; Dourif’s career exists because he’s so good at empathising with the outsider and he even took his false teeth out to play this part. But Jack also used to teach at UCLA, leaving it ‘to get away from some stuff’; Dourif is a huge astronomy buff who brought a $40,000 telescope with him that needed its own hotel room. He anchors the film well.

The set up of the story is, of course, to throw Peter into Jack’s world and keep him from leaving until he’s learned something about living his own life rather than his father’s. With Bogart gone as quickly as she arrived, Peter has no ride out of there and so he finds himself paired off with Max, who will drive him to the bus stop after they check on irrigation, which naturally takes so long that the buses have stopped running when they’re done; he feels rather awkward alongside a man with whom he has no common ground but a shared lover. It’s Jack who starts to open his eyes, beginning when he tags along to take Charity to school and discovers that Jack and other locals financed and built the Pencil Patch because the nearest school is fifty miles away. Peter is alternately intrigued and bemused by conversations that he initially overhears but gradually becomes part of: Rosie, Jack’s partner, wants to colonise Mars, for instance, and she and others rant about personal bugbears out of the blue. Sudden outbreaks of honesty aren’t what Peter is used to.
If he isn’t used to people like Jack and Rosie, he’s really not used to people like Charity, who’s Max’s daughter. Melissa Davenport was only eleven when Humboldt County was released but she shines as a very adult and very free young lady. When we meet her, she’s out in the woods pretending to be a cat, like an eleven year old girl might, but she schools Peter quickly on more adult topics. Marijuana? ‘It’s just a plant,’ says the little girl. ‘I think it’s nicer than beer.’ Bogart? ‘My daddy and her have sex.’ Oh, and she isn’t named for the actor, she’s named for the habit of holding rather than passing to which he unwittingly gave his name. Her favourite book is The Closing of the American Mind. ‘You shouldn’t know about all this stuff,’ Peter tells her, but she just replies, ‘You’re funny.’ Davenport is clearly another burgeoning talent, having led her first film at eight. She’d already provided voices to characters in Over the Hedge and Horton Hears a Who! but she’s gone on to The Possession, A Light Beneath Their Feet and, currently, From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series.

In her way, Charity is as important a character to this film as Jack, because together they ably highlight how this isn’t just a fleeting thing. They’re two generations apart but they share the epitome of freedom, living off the grid and enjoying the life they have. Max, in between them, is the one who isn’t happy; he’s farming a huge crop in the hope that he can get rich and get out of there. It’s easy to read into him as having fallen for the sort of mainstream cultural expectations that the rest of his family have happily opted out of. It’s insightful to look at how each of the characters ends the movie, not only Peter, who gets a fantastic open-ended final scene, also notable for how much he isn’t in it. If that sounds cryptic, then watch the movie and you’ll understand. It wouldn’t surprise me to see it in a decade or two highlighted in the future equivalent of YouTube collages of great movie endings. In its way, it’s as iconic and as representative of its time as the more famous endings of Citizen Kane, Some Like It Hot or Planet of the Apes.
It’s also underpinned wonderfully by one of the best performances I’ve seen from Peter Bogdanovich as an actor, neatly subdued but perfect for the part. He doesn’t get a lot of screen time, though it’s probably more than Fairuza Balk, but what he does get resonates throughout the film as, for so long, Peter is clearly channelling his father. We see enough of Prof Hadley at the beginning to see how he would act in the situations that Peter finds himself in and, when he returns to the screen, we see we were right. He’s part of a real ensemble here, each of whom benefit from solid writing from the directors, who write for their actors as much as for their story. Balk is as resonant as Bogdanovich, with just as skimpy a role. Frances Conroy gets one magnificent monologue that’s a horrible, spiritual, wonderful ride. Brad Dourif has a powerful monologue too and many other lines and scenes to build him throughout. Davenport acts far beyond her years as Charity, the one character I’d like to have had a better ending, and Messina does well as Max too.

It’s unfair for this to be remembered as a drug film, because it’s a superb drama, not so much for its plot as for its depth of character. Gordsky and Jacobs cast well and wrote well for those actors, who together build a strong picture of Humboldt County that, after 97 minutes, feels like we’ve lived there for years. It’s enticing but also dangerous and none of the characters could honestly claim their quest for freedom as pain free. There’s a lot of elation here but there’s also a lot of heartbreak and the suggestion isn’t that one must lead to the other. I don’t think the directors really wanted to do anything more than to paint this place onto the screen in as clear a way as they could and they achieved that. We appreciate that life in Humboldt County isn’t as blissful or as horrifying as the polarised views of most would suggest. It’s neither and both and that’s what makes it so enticing. We can call out Strong, Dourif or Davenport, with justification, but really the best performance here came from Gordsky and Jacobs as scriptwriters.
But a drug film it became, because that’s the primary audience that it found. Of course, in this environment, Peter cannot ignore the marijuana that seems to be everywhere around him. Of course, his reaction to the fact that Jack and Rosie sell pot out of their house is one sourced directly from his father. Of course, that opinion changes, as he spends more time with these folk and ventures into the life. ‘Am I high?’ he asks when he samples his first joint. ‘I don’t feel high.’ This happens in front of a nice shot of the sun lighting him up from behind; it’s literally an illuminating moment. But this is about freedom not about drugs. Drugs, in different forms, cause a lot of pain here, just as they cause a lot of pleasure, and labelling this as a drug film misses that. The DEA aren’t the bad guys here; that’s reserved for the conventional lifestyle and the expectations it has. This film doesn’t tell us to get high, it tells us to be ourselves. In the end, that’s what Peter learns and that’s why the ending to the film is so beautifully ambiguous.

Important Sources:
Collin Armstrong: SXSW 2008 - interview with HUMBOLDT COUNTY writers/directors Danny Jacobs & Darren Grodsky

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Babies for Sale (1940)

Director: Charles Barton
Writer: Robert D Andrews, from a story by Robert Chapin and Joseph Carole
Stars: Rochelle Hudson, Glenn Ford and Miles Mander
It’s a hundred years since the birth of Glenn Ford and he left behind a whole string of worthy pictures to review. He won awards for Don’t Go Near the Water and Pocketful of Miracles, but most will remember him from The Big Heat, Blackboard Jungle or the original 3:10 to Yuma. He concentrated on westerns in his heyday but also found time to play Clark Kent’s father in the 1978 version of Superman and followed that up with what may be the strangest film of his career, the all-star Italian horror/sci-fi hodgepodge originally known as Stridulum but re-titled The Visitor for the American market. I picked out Babies for Sale because I’m trying to avoid the obvious and it looked particularly fascinating. It remained fascinating after I watched it too, because it seems out of place. In particular, it clearly wants to be a precode, one of those astonishingly free movies released after the advent of sound in the late twenties but before the imposition of the Production Code in 1934, but it can’t be because this was 1940 and the code was very much enforced.

And, as we can’t fail to notice as it begins, it’s a message movie with a message so overt that we’re surprised that it’s a studio picture rather than a cautionary film financed by a church group with good intentions but produced by exploitation filmmakers who skirted the censorship of the time by phrasing it as an educational piece. But no, it was made by Columbia, who made their position crystal clear in the opening text. 95% of charitable organisations dealing with adopted children are ‘honest and worthy of all support’, they explain, before adding that, ‘This picture is presented as a warning to all parents, and to all who plan to adopt children, that some unsupervised private institutions do exist where babies are sold for cash, where helpless mothers are victimized, and where foster parents may find lifelong tragedy instead of happiness.’ And yes, ‘this is the story of one such institution – and its victims.’ Fans of cautionary films everywhere know what’s coming next and, sure enough, here it is: ‘What happens in this story could happen to you.’
The film proper begins in the same vein, with Steve Burton, crusading newspaper reporter, visiting Dr John Gaines, a physician and surgeon who’s so upstanding that he doesn’t even charge some of his clients because he knows they can’t afford his services. Maybe that’s why his office is upstairs from Joe Tonelli’s grocery store, but it’s also why Burton comes to see him because he’s heard a lot of good things about the man. And, now that he’s writing a series of exposes for his paper, he wants to know about the ‘babies for sale’ that the good doctor has given speeches about. Burton is Glenn Ford, of course, who comes over as a capable newspaperman, a great deal slower and more cautious than the mile-a-minute reporters played in the thirties by Lee Tracy, Pat O’Brien or even Clark Gable, but no less sharp for that. It just means that instead of bedazzling Dr Gaines with questions, he just leans gently forward to light the man’s pipe and suggest, ‘Care to tell me about it?’

And he does, in a long spiel that feels intensely scripted but delivered by Joe de Stefani with appropriate passion anyway. Of course, it’s the message of the movie, thrown out there at the very beginning to be further underlined by the action which will unfold for a few characters. There were two million babies born in the United States the previous year. Many were put up for adoption but many thousands were sold over the counter for cash. ‘Who sold them?’ interjects Burton. ‘A few unscrupulous men and women who pose as public benefactors, operating just inside the law, making capital of the great reputation honestly earned by hundreds of men and women who really are doing something worthwhile.’ Does that sound preachy to you? Oh yeah, it sounds preachy because it is. This is a thinly disguised crusade by Dr Gaines, complete with effective soundbites (‘Human tragedy is their bread and butter’, ‘They take their profit on human heartbreak’), which promptly becomes a thinly disguised crusade by Burton on the Star Dispatch’s front page.
We aren’t even five minutes in but we’ve already been bludgeoned over the bonce by Gaines’s ‘heartbreak merchants’ and now it’s time for them to bludgeon back. An ‘unofficial committee’ of folk from leagues, homes and associations harangue Burton’s editor to publish a retraction, but when he agrees, Burton promptly quits and goes searching for the real facts behind the story. Enter one of the proud, ashamed women that Gaines told him about, walking out of the darkness into the light of the Mercy Shelter with a baby bump to see Dr Wallace Rankin, who had been one member of that ‘unofficial committee’. We know that this is a bad idea, because Rankin is played by Miles Mander, who is well known today for playing slimy villains with crisp British accents. He was a versatile actor just as able to play upstanding characters, but he was so dashed good at being a cad that we tend to automatically assume he will be one in everything. Here, he plays the epitome of that, a despicable creature masquerading in the clothes of respectability.

The young lady is Ruth Williams, played by a capable Rochelle Hudson, a major name in the thirties whose career was tailing off at this point. After no less than 85 pictures during the thirties, she made ten more by 1942 but then only four more during the rest of the forties. She was the lead here, credited above Ford, with whom she’d made two prior movies at Columbia in 1940: the similarly crusading Convicted Woman and Men without Souls. At least she had things to do while her screen career declined. In 1941, she took holidays in Mexico with her husband, Harold Thompson, the head of Disney’s storyline department, that were actually fronts for their espionage work seeking out German activity. She returned to the screen only once in the fifties, but at least that was for a title as prominent as Rebel without a Cause, where she played Natalie Wood’s mother. She wrapped up her career with three horror films in the sixties: Strait-Jacket and The Night Walker for William Castle and an anthology called Gallery of Horror.
She’s good here too, though she’s quickly outshone by an acerbic Isabel Jewell in the sort of role that Una Merkel tended to play in the thirties. They’re in similar circumstances, Edith merely a little further along the road than Ruth, their pregnancies conveniently acceptable: Ruth’s husband died in a car accident and Edith’s left her. Because this isn’t a precode, none of the many single mothers to be would dream of something as socially unacceptable as sex outside of marriage, but they all end up in the same situation. Some, like Ruth, want to keep their babies but can’t afford the process. Others, like Edith, want the babies gone quickly because they know they can’t bring them up and they don’t want to bond first. Dr Rankin can meet all needs, or so he says. What he really does is make money. The girls pay him to handle the medical side of things and they staff the Mercy Shelter too. Then they have to pay again to keep their children. But don’t pay quickly enough and they’ll be sold on to adopting couples.

If that wasn’t enough, and we see Gerda Honaker’s anguish at losing her baby to adoption, even though she’s been paying her $5 a week and working twelve hour days for months at Mercy, we’re given the Andersons to stir up our outrage. This scene plays oddly today, as it has to do with their adoption from Dr Rankin of what they assumed was a ‘perfectly healthy baby’ eight months earlier for $1,000. ‘And now it’s like that,’ says Howard Anderson, because we can’t talk in 1940 about whatever the baby has. As he doesn’t cry or talk, he could be a deaf mute or it could be something on the autistic spectrum. They want a refund, but Rankin tells them to get lost and Mrs Anderson promptly leaps in front of a train with the baby in her arms. This is a particularly brutal underline to the wickedness of Dr Rankin, but it serves well to put Burton on his trail and he shows up under the assumed name of Oscar Hanson so he can get a tour from the matron, Iris Talbot, who’s clearly in on everything that Rankin does.
There’s a lot in here for a B movie that runs a mere 65 minutes. It might seem that I’ve just outlined all that, but the quintessentially shaky voice of John Qualen as Mr Anderson leaves the film after only fifteen minutes and Burton’s tour of Mercy Shelter follows on immediately. This film begins with its definition as a crusade by Gaines and Burton, then introduces us to Ruth and her fellow ladies in trouble to demonstrate why we should care but it has more places to go yet before our heroes can orchestrate the inevitable fall from grace of the oily Dr Rankin. Even with Glenn Ford showing potential early in his career, this works best as a tragic drama. Ford was only on his sixth film, his fifth to reach the screen in only eight months after his debut in 1937, under his real name of Gwyllyn Ford, as the MC of a musical short, Night in Manhattan. Given that, he does especially well, but he has to fight for prominence with a professional cad like Miles Mander to face off against and a powerful Isabel Jewell to steal scenes left, right and centre.

In fact, the cast here is very capable for a B movie and it gets better in later scenes with Selmer Jackson and Mary Currier as a well-to-do couple, the Kingsleys, who adopt a baby from Mercy, only to get caught up in a much bigger story. They’re hardly prominent actors, when cast alongside Hudson, Ford and Mander, but they’re both solid, better vocally than physically but still able to hold their own in this company and even dominate towards the end. Jackson was a character actor who racked up almost four hundred films as a variety of authority figures. Currier had a much shorter career, lasting only a decade and a half before she retired from the screen, but she crammed 88 films into that time. I’ve seen both of them many times before without them registering, but they really did that here. To be fair, they had opportunity, this being an ensemble piece. Edith gets as much time as Ruth, who’s the lead, Talbot as much as Rankin and the Kingsleys are prominent at the end. Ford is absent for whole swathes of the film as Hudson’s co-star.
The consistent quality of the production is notable. This is clearly an overblown and somewhat inevitable B movie written at speed. It stars a mix of actors on the way in and on the way out, backed up by a host of character actors who are mostly forgotten today. It was released seven or eight years after its time, because it would have fit so much better as a precode, able to illustrate rather than merely hint at. It’s no great film and would have been seen as run of the mill at the time, except perhaps for Mrs Anderson’s suicide and baby murder, which is startling whatever the year, but it’s consistently decent because the studios knew what they were doing. This was 1940, right after Hollywood’s golden year of 1939, and they could seemingly do no wrong. It’s interesting to travel back to the golden age because it’s hard to find truly bad movies. They do exist (hello Life Returns), but they’re thin on the ground and even bad films are often watchable and enjoyable today. OK movies like this one are also usually interesting for who and what and why.

I knew little about the industry of adoption in the 1930s but perhaps assumed that society had moved on from the baby farms of the Victorian era. However, a little googling made me aware of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and Georgia Tann, the head of its Memphis branch. For decades, this was a well respected society which received community support, but in 1941, a year after Babies for Sale highlighted dubious adoptions to filmgoers, it fell under official scrutiny. Concern built throughout the decade until a 1950 state investigation revealed the sort of shenanigans that Dr Rankin got up to here. The Society was a respectable front for a babies for sale racket. Like Rankin, Tann sold off babies that were born to single mothers, who were told that their children had died, and she also sold off children placed into her care and babies sourced from state mental hospitals Her victims included Gene Tapia and Ric Flair, while Joan Crawford, Dick Powell and June Allyson adopted through her. Thank you, Babies for Sale, for making me aware.