Apocalypse Later Empire
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Tuesday, 31 March 2009
Stars: Richard Basehart, Ned Beatty, Charlene Dallas, Burgess Meredith, Michael Murphy and Paul Sand
Ostensibly a comedy, this one doesn't actually have a lot of laughs and plays a little better as an intellectual exercise. Imagine Richard Basehart and Burgess Meredith riding a tandem together but crashing into a bush. Oh, and that's post-Rocky Meredith, not Batman-era Meredith. If that's the sort of thing you find humorous you're probably going to love this film, otherwise just forget that it's supposed to be a comedy. Meredith rocks, as he always did, and people like Ned Beatty are never difficult to watch, but this is hardly their best work.
We're at the Pewter Bank and Trust, where most of the cast work. Ned Beatty is the accountant, Julius Taggart, and he discovers that just over $100,000 has gone missing, embezzled from the bank. It's been done, rather cleverly, by the nerdy chief clerk, Richard Smedley, played by Paul Sand, who was never planning to keep the money. He was acting as the seventies equivalent of a white hat hacker, devising a system to embezzle money and putting it to the test, only to then expose the flaw and return the money. Unfortunately for him, Taggart has already found out and raised it to the people who run the bank.
Burgess Meredith is the sleazy bank chairman, Jack Stutz, and this knowledge sparks his imagination. Announcing that the bank has been embezzled would be a public relations disaster that could cause a run on the bank and even bring the place down. It would be far better for the bank's reputation that it be robbed in a more traditional manner, so he sets up a fake robbery. He, along with Taggart and the honest Emanuel Benchley, the president of the bank, turn up one dark night to rob the place of the money that isn't there because it's already been embezzled.
It's an intriguing concept but it doesn't just stop there, even though Taggart has fixed the books and the whole thing is done and dusted. When Smedley finds out about the robbery he fesses up and puts the bank officials in a whole new mess. They can't put the embezzled money back in the bank, so they're stuck with a choice between letting Smedley keep it, even though he doesn't want it, or take it themselves, even though two of the three of them are fundamentally honest. And it gets progressively more complex from there with a few more twists to take care of.
Yes, this works as an intellectual exercise far better than a comedy. It also works better as a script than a performed piece because the characters aren't really characters, merely chess pieces in a chess game. It was written for the screen, by Joseph Jacoby, who also directed, but it could have worked as a stand alone novel with more characterisation built in. Meredith is the only actor who really gets a part to sink his teeth into; Beatty is wasted; Basehart and Sand are both annoying; and the other actors don't get even screen time to make much of their parts.
Star: Anna Magnani
To say that Pier Paolo Pasolini was a controversial figure is an understatement. I first saw his name in the horror magazines and fanzines of the eighties, where people talked about video nasties, and his film Salo, or 100 Days in Sodom came up often. I haven't seen this yet, though I have now seen the trailer, and it looks completely out there. Yet Pasolini was not an exploitation film maker, however much his material might suggest it. He was an Italian neo-Realist who chose to make films about the underbelly of society.
This was his second film and Salo was still a long way into the future. However it's still a little out there from moment one, as an earthy and raucous Anna Magnani drives bonneted pigs into a wedding feast, each one representing one of the wedding party. She's the Mamma Roma of the title, a middle aged whore in the other Mamma Roma, the capital of Italy, but this wedding is her opportunity to quit: the bridegroom is her pimp, who's getting out of the business himself. So she collects up her sixteen year old son Ettore, who she has not brought up, and becomes a market fruit seller.
She's up against it in her new life, not because of any stigma tied to her former line of work because nobody seems to care, but because of who her son is becoming. While she's building a future, he seems to completely ignore the possibility of one. He hangs out with a bunch of juvenile delinquents who at least for now aren't bringing him too far into their world, and he falls for a local tramp who will apparently sleep with anyone. She uses all the power a mother can bring to bear to get him on the right track, from asking a priest to get him a job to having one of her former colleagues work on him to forget the tramp.
There are some fascinating scenes here, almost entirely driven by a wonderful performance by Anna Magnani, though Ettore Garofolo, playing a character of the same name, is effective in his film debut and is definitely a rough naturalistic actor. My favourite scenes are the ones where Mamma Roma walks through the streets, the camera backing up to keep her in frame. She carries on long conversations as she walks with a number of people, the wonderful thing being that it's always the same conversation while the people she talks to change as she walks.
The use of the church is interesting too, and no doubt the main reason for the controversy that the film generated, albeit it not a patch on the controversy that Salo would stir up. Mamma Roma goes to church regularly, seemingly ignoring what she's done for the last thirty years, and plans some highly immoral actions right there in the pew. Yet she's very clearly the heroine here, albeit a flawed and human one, and while we may not agree with all her approaches to life she's the only character in the film that garners our sympathy. She cares for her son but it's difficult for us to follow suit. Yet we feel her pain as he resists the paths she tries to walk him down, all the while knowing that as much as she cares, she's hardly been the best mother.
The amazing Anna Magnani is definitely the main reason to watch this film, but it has a resonance to it that can only be attributed to Pasolini as writer and director. This is my first experience of his work but I'm mightily impressed. I have problems with a lot of realist films, as I sometimes struggle to fin a reason to care about them, but the ones that I've become fond of are the ones that resonate and make me feel that instead of just watching a slice of life, they make me feel I've lived it along with the characters.
Monday, 30 March 2009
Stars: Clara Bow, Charles Rogers, Richard Arlen and Jobyna Ralston
It's about time I saw this film, which holds a couple of unique places in motion picture history. It was the first film to win an Oscar for Best Picture, though technically there were two winners in the 1929 awards: Wings won 'Best Picture, Production', while Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans won 'Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production'. These two films are also the only silent winners, leaving Wings the only silent on the standard lists you're likely to see of Oscar winners. It's also an aviation picture, the granddaddy of all the aviation pictures that for a while during the thirties appeared to be everywhere. It was a genre all to itself in those days, as made very clear by the number of aviation pulps there were on the stands.
We're quickly introduced to our main characters, who all live in the same small but unnamed town. It's 1917 and we watch what the title card tell us is 'youth and the dreams of youth'. What this boils down to is that a couple of young men are in love with the same woman, who surprisingly, given that this is a Clara Bow film, is not played by Clara Bow. She's Sylvia Lewis, played by another very capable young actress, Jobyna Ralston, best known for replacing Mildred Davis as the on screen Mrs Harold Lloyd after Davis left the screen to become the real thing.
This pair of young men are from different backgrounds: David Armstrong is the son of the richest family in town, while Jack Powell is middle class, rich enough to be able to tinker around with his own car but not in the same league as his rival. David is played by Richard Arlen, who won out in real life because Ralston married him the year this film was made. Jack is played by Charles 'Buddy' Rogers, and he wins her photo instead through persistence, even though Sylvia has inscribed it on the back with her love to David to take with him to the war. Naturally he doesn't even notice the inscription.
He doesn't notice Mary Preston either, though she's his next door neighbour, she's played by the It Girl herself, Clara Bow, and she's head over heels in love with him. When Jack and David sign up as airmen and travel off to the war in Europe to become fast friends and flying colleagues in the 39th Squadron, he almost forgets to even say goodbye to her, so much does he take her for granted. He does leave her in charge of the Shooting Star, his highly customised car, though and she puts that driving skill to use by following them to Europe as an ambulance driver in the Women's Motor Corps of America.
They almost cross paths a few times, the most obvious being at Mervale when the action kicks in big time. There's a huge German Gotha plane flying over to bomb the town into pieces, given that it's full of Allied servicemen, and Jack and David go up to take him on. The air scenes throughout the film are decent, especially given that this is 1927, but the destruction of Mervale is awe inspiring. Mary arrives in town in her ambulance right after everyone has vacated the streets only to find once the battle is over that Jack was in one of the planes above her.
They don't meet until Paris though, with Jack and David on leave and getting incredibly drunk at the Folies Bergeres. In fact Jack gets so drunk he doesn't even recognise her and a misunderstanding of circumstances sees her sent back home in disgrace. The way this scene is set up is very clever indeed, with Jack high on special effects bubbles and Mary trying to win her man from a local rival by virtue of a sparkly dancer's dress, but it's all really calculated to achieve one thing above all others: to get Clara Bow as close to naked as could be in 1927. She has a surprisingly small role all things considered but it's bigger than Ralston's and she makes her presence known.
The romantic melodrama is really there to draw in a particular audience and while it does find resolution, it's hardly an emphatic one. Similarly there's a comedic element, but it's mostly restricted to one character, a Dutchman called Herman Schwimpf, who has 'Stars and Stripes Forever' tattooed onto his arm with an American flag that waves as he jiggles his muscles. These are all very much extras, as this is an action film first and foremost and we have plenty of action to experience on the battlefields of Europe as the film reaches its finale.
The American airmen have long battled German ace Count von Kellerman and his flying circus, who was the adversary on Jack and David's first dawn patrol, and he's there too for the grand reckoning as the Allies make their big push. Director William Wellman did pull out all the stops when it came to the action, which is plentiful and exciting, but it would soon be trumped by succeeding aviation films of the thirties, which also benefitted from being less melodramatic while continuing to be based on stories by John Monk Saunders, who won his only Oscar for possibly the most consistent of them, 1930's The Dawn Patrol.
Buddy Rogers is the most obvious of the actors and he's the most effective on the ground, reminding very much of Ramon Novarro. However Richard Arlen is far more effective in the cockpit, though how much of that is because he was actually a pilot during the war is up for debate as he apparently never saw action. While this is an epic film, running over two hours in length, there's very little opportunity for any of the supporting actors to get much of a look in, though a young Gary Cooper steals a scene early on as the first cadet at aviation school that Jack and David run across. He was far from a star at this point in time, having to settle for the third credit in the 'and' category, which itself came after the four leads. In many ways though, this scene is the one that set his real career into motion.
Stars: Terry Moore, Frank Lovejoy, Lee Marvin and Keenan Wynn
Shack Out on 101 (originally Shack Up on 101) is a film written and directed by Edward Dein and starring Terry Moore and Frank Lovejoy. I'm watching for the supporting cast though: Lee Marvin and Keenan Wynn and they're wonderful to watch from moment one, bouncing off each other joyously with insults done exactly as they should have been done. The shack is a greasy spoon on the California coast where most of the characters work: Wynn is the owner, a man named George; Moore is Kotty, the waitress that everyone lusts after; and Marvin is Leo, the cook and cleaner, who everyone calls Slob. Lovejoy is the other key character, Prof Sam Bastion, Kotty's boyfriend who works at some sort of top secret nuclear laboratory nearby.
And here's where the real story kicks in. This is 1955 and all the unspoken words have to do with cold war, nuclear secrets and Russian spies. Life in this greasy spoon appears on the surface to be the standard sort of thing: beyond everyone lusting after Kotty, they talk about what they did in the war, argue about their muscles and try on scuba diving gear for a trip to Acapulco. Yet there's something sinister going on underneath the surface and there's a lot of people involved. It doesn't take long for us to discover that Slob and Sam and others are tied up together in some mysterious subterfuge and there's an even more mysterious man called Mr Gregory behind it all.
The film isn't as coherent as it could be, but it's made with passion and drive and it's hard to ignore it. The cast are excellent, especially Marvin and Wynn, who may well have improvised some of their scenes together. I may be wrong but get the impression that they knew each very well and knew precisely how to generate sparks off each other. Frank Lovejoy knew the territory well having played the lead a few years earlier in I Was a Communist for the FBI, but Terry Moore outshines him without too much trouble. While she can't compete with Marvin and Wynn in the acting stakes, she's a fine and capable lead and she's really the point of the film.
Kotty isn't perfect but she's a good girl who believes in her country and does nothing but try to live her own life, but she finds herself in the middle of something big that she doesn't understand. She serves very well as Everyman, whoever the female version of Joe Q Public is, and if a mere greasy spoon waitress can unwittingly be right at the heart of a attempt to bring down the nation, then so can you and me and any other one of us. Such was the paranoia spun in the fifties, and this is a great example of how it was propagated.
Some of it is done well, some not so well, some wonderfully. In its way it's the same sort of out of control mess as the situation that Kotty finds herself in: it's fun to watch but it would suck to be in. Writing in 2009 from the perspective of a whole new world, it's easy to see but hard to feel the fear, uncertainty and doubt bleeding out of the screen that a real Kotty would have felt back then in the Cold War. I wonder how close it hit in the paranoid cold war world of 1955. It would seem to have hit pretty close.
Sunday, 29 March 2009
Stars: John Wayne, Sigrid Gurie and Charles Coburn
The title may suggest a western, which would be hardly surprising given that the lead is John Wayne. However this is 1940, wartime for much of Europe and not far from it for the United States, and the Duke was working for Republic Pictures. We see his fellow stars first, at a radio broadcast called We the People, our first hint that this is a propaganda picture, albeit a subtle one. We the People is introducing a number of refugee doctors forced out of Europe who need somewhere to go. They're prize catches, given that they are often high powered names willing to work for nothing but the cost of living and a place to stay.
One of them is Dr Karl Braun of Vienna, a world renowned specialist, and he and his daughter Leni are quickly requested by telegram to head clear across the continent to a small dustbowl town in North Dakota called Ashville Forks. Naturally it's the Duke doing the requesting, naturally Leni is a beautiful young lady and naturally it doesn't take long for the romance to kick in. Leni was gay when Vienna was gay and she plays Brahms like a kiss, so it can't be too surprising to find that the dustbowl is hardly what she expected. They're tired enough to stay the night, especially after doing the rounds of the emergency patients before they even see their new home, but they want out first thing in the morning.
John Wayne is John Phillips, a good all-American man and the unofficial leader of his community. He's a good part of the reason that the Brauns stay in Ashville Forks, though Dr Braun's inner drive to heal people isn't to be discounted either. Still, the town is in terrible shape, not just because of their lack of a resident doctor but because Mother Nature has it in form them too. The wind howls, the dust flies every which where and the tumbleweeds bounce around like there's no tomorrow. The townsfolk are good people and they're hard workers; Phillips's knowledge and leadership has helped the farmers to survive as long as they have. Yet there's precious little rain, the storms get worse and the government has effectively written off their land.
So off they go to Oregon where they're promised good land that they can own and farm. Of course, Phillips gets to lead the trek, which is a long 1,500 miles of rough terrain, through mountains and through desert. Now the folks from Ashville Forks are refugees themselves and the Brauns becomes the experts who can offer their own advice and direction. By this time John Phillips and Leni Braun are engaged to be married, but the romantic subplot isn't as straight forward as it might seem. In Leni's heart is a former fiancé called Eric, a man who enabled the Braun's escape from the Nazis and saved their lives in the process, but who is supposedly dead. A letter proves otherwise and we find a love triangle, but anyone who doesn't expect the Duke to win all these battles is nuts.
Wayne is pretty good here though he falters a little on the long speeches. This is early in his A list career, a year after Stagecoach made his career, and he was very much on the rise. He's believable as the leader of his community, as the romantic lead and as the role he treasured most: as the epitome of the hard working American, the image of his country. There's not a heck of a lot for him to do though and the film runs through its short length without much passion. Sigrid Gurie is a capable love interest and Trevor Bardette is a capable naysayer. It's the doctors who shine brightest though: Charles Coburn is excellent as Dr Braun, the humble refugee living well below the standards he's used to, but he's outshone by Spencer Charters as the irascible vet who is effectively Wayne's sidekick in the way that Walter Brennan so often was. It's a routine film but a decent enough one.
Saturday, 28 March 2009
Star: Raymond Massey
A London film from the Korda brothers, Alexander produced and Victor designed the sets, as always. It's more surprising that the film was directed by famed cinematographer William Cameron Menzies, who would stamp his authority onto the history of film three years later when he photographed Gone with the Wind. Ned Mann is the man behind the special effects, always a fascinating field so early as this. Charles Crichton is an editor, eight full years before he became a director himself.
The big name though is H G Wells, not merely the author of the source novel of the same name but an active consultant and the author of the screenplay. Given his unparalleled importance in the science fiction world, this is something not to be ignored. Every science fiction fan worth his salt, who doesn't just watch Star Trek and the Sci-Fi Channel but actually reads classic science fiction, will eventually come to the knowledge that all but the most modern cutting edge science fiction owes its existence to two men: H G Wells and Jules Verne. Their importance cannot be underestimated and Things to Come is a valuable link between this literary giant and the world of cinema.
The film was made in 1936 but we begin four years into the future of the initial audience, in Everytown in 1940, which is at once nowhere and everywhere in England. It's Christmas and everyone is doing what you'd expect: singing carols, buying turkeys or going to pantomimes. The front pages tell another story though: there's a war storm brewing. Some want to ignore it, after all it's all happening over the channel in Europe. Others don't think it can be ignored, and that if we don't end war, war will end us. There's talk about progress, how the toys are so much more complex than in grandpa's day and how war actually stimulates technical advancement rather than hindering it.
And of course war arrives, and it comes quickly and powerfully, with great devastation. It's a human story though, where war is the enemy. That's made very clear through a few passionate outbursts before it begins, but even more obvious soon after the start. Raymond Massey, playing an English pilot called John Cabal, shoots down one of the enemy who has been spreading poison gas. He saves him from the wreckage of the plane, only for him to give his gas mask to a little girl about to succumb. He's aware of the joke: he's probably killed her parents but now he dies to save her. The suggestion of course is that war is the villain, not the people fighting it.
In reality, war started in 1939 and was over by 1945. In Things to Come, it's not so quick a process: it begins in 1940 and continues on and on. By 1966, there's not a lot left. Civilisation has regressed into barbarism and decades of war have brought the world to barbarism. The war continues, though the original reasons are forgotten, and now there's a new enemy: the wandering sickness which turns its victims into what we would now consider zombies. First they're fevered and non-responsive, then they wander around slowly with their arms outstretched. I hadn't realised Wells had pioneered zombies along with everything else. The wandering sickness is everywhere by 1966, and is finally ended only by 1970 when all the wanderers have been shot before they can spread their disease any further.
And without internal disease to fight, the war can continue in earnest. Everytown now has a charismatic chief played by Ralph Richardson, who is fighting the hill people for supremacy in a world much shrunk from the previous one. This world is small and regressed, both socially and technologically, with no education and no real hope. There are doctors and scientists but they lack tools and equipment. There are mechanics who have vehicles in abundance but the lack of petrol means that they can't use them. We're in a precursor of Mad Max: in an effectively agrarian culture, people ride around on horseback or walk on foot, with only a few petrol hoarders able to do more. It's well realised and carefully thought out though the teeth are too good and the accents too cultured.
The fliers despair of ever being able to fly again, but then into Everytown flies John Cabal in a neat little flying machine, far more sophisticated than the biplanes the heathens can't even get into the air any more. He's a much older John Cabal and an even wiser one, with much more control even than his younger self. He's a representative of something called Wings Across the World, an organisation of engineers and mechanics who have pledged to save the world from itself. They abhor independent sovereign states and see them as obsolete concepts to be done away with. They've developed the technology to be able to do it too.
Victory is quickly and peacefully theirs, as you might expect from the utopian portion of this vision, and we watch the building of a new world until we see a whole new Everytown in 2036, a full century into the future of the audience watching on original release. It's a marvel of efficiency, huge in scale and impressive in technology. It's also generally peaceful, even though there is dissent and disagreement and neo-luddites who want an end to progress. In 2036, John Cabal's grandson Oswald runs the place, as forward looking as his grandfather, and these neo-luddites want to destroy the space gun that will fire a couple of daring souls around the moon.
They're not even going to attempt to land, highlighting how much futurism is an imperfect science. Wells got so much right but he envisaged world peace before anyone could leave its surface and think about our nearest neighbour in space. I'm writing in 2009, mere months away from the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's landing on the moon, yet world peace is as much a dream now as it was in 1936. The conquest of the moon is only one thing that Wells got wrong. Even in this future world of 2036 when the roads roll and children don't even know what sneezing is, nobody has invented digital technology.
All this is easy to forgive because it's extrapolation and guesswork, however educated it might be and however accurate it might get. Wells consistently worked out how the future would happen better than almost anybody else, so I ain't gonna bitch. However there are flaws here that aren't ignorable. There's a lot of enthusiastic acting and preachy dialogue that has dated considerably, more so than the modelwork which is primitive compared to modern equivalents but wonderful for the time. The double exposure photography is excellent and stands up today. I'm very quickly annoyed by bad rear projection and filmmakers of the calibre of Alfred Hitchcock are prime offenders. This work, decades earlier is superb.
While most of the film comes directly from Wells, it was obviously influenced by Fritz Lang's Metropolis: the angles, the contrasts, the movements, even the typefaces. Certainly the passage of time, depicted by marching men and their shadows or the shadows of years, rings a lot of bells, as does the scale of the post-war scenes. I've seen Metropolis once, in a TCM broadcast that swapped the footage lost to time for production photographs. Now that much of that missing footage has miraculously resurfaced in Brazil, hopefully we won't have to wait too much longer to see this massively influential film as it was originally meant to be seen, instead of experiencing it second hand through films like this one that constituted its first generation of influences.
Monday, 23 March 2009
Stars: George Sanders, Lucille Ball, Charles Coburn and Boris Karloff
Consolidating information from various sources, this was made as Lured but changed partway through its theatrical run to Personal Column, only to become known to film fans and historians under its original title. It's an American film set in London but based on a 1939 French film called Pièges, Robert Siodmak's last film in France before heading to Hollywood. More than anything else it's has a bizarre and intriguing cast: George Sanders, Lucille Ball and Boris Karloff, to name just three.
It's a murder mystery in which the killer preys on beautiful young girls he meets through classified ads in the personal columns. He's a strange one too who sends poems to the police prior to each murder, speaking to the beauty of death. He's doing pretty well at what he does with him meeting his seventh victim off the bus at the beginning of the film, with the police running round in circles failing to find a lead. These aren't Keystone Kops either, the investigation is led by capable Insp Harley Temple, played by capable Charles Coburn, and we get thrown straight into the forensic investigation, always refreshing and unfairly surprising to see done well in old movies. They pay attention to the type, the watermark, the ribbon, the postmarks, the works. They even put cryptographers and psychologists, on the tasks, even literary experts.
Unfortunately it doesn't get them anywhere at all and the killer picks up victim number eight, a taxi dancer at the Broadway Palladium called Lucy Barnard. Lucky for the police, Lucy has a friend and colleague who comes to them when she hits the headlines. She's Sandra Carpenter, an American in London for a show, which closed after four days leaving her working as a taxi dancer. Now she gets to be the bait in the trap for a killer, as Insp Temple realises she's young and beautiful enough to be a viable target but sharp enough to help catch him. As you might expect she's Lucille Ball, and while she gets a couple of well timed comedic lines, it's far more of a serious role and she does a solid job.
And you'll be wondering where George Sanders and Boris Karloff come in. Well Sanders is his usual suave and sophisticated self as a rich nightclub owner, though he's even more of a womaniser than he generally tended to be. It doesn't take him long to latch onto young Miss Carpenter, leading his previous girlfriend to tell him, 'You're incorrigible.' His response is: 'Of course I am, I'm an unmitigated cad,' and if you've seen a single George Sanders film you can hear that line in your head. He's excellent and there isn't enough of him, both attributes also applicable to Cedric Hardwicke, Joseph Calleia and George Zucco in a rare role as a good guy, the cop assigned to protect our heroine.
And to Karloff. Karloff only gets about five minutes to strut his stuff but he utterly steals the show. He's a dress designer who she meets when answering personal ads, but he's a complete lunatic, his mind almost entirely lost in his past, and in his hands those five minutes are a delightful and surreal experience. The actors, as much as the characters they play, shift absolutely to supporting mode while in his company. The part precluded more screen time but luckily he was a prolific man and there are more than 150 films out there for me to track down and work through.
As to the story itself, it's a good one. It's cleverly put together with a few red herrings here and there and it does keep us guessing though it's not difficult for anyone paying attention to work out whodunit. Even when we know who the killer is, there's still enough tension involved in working out how he's going to be caught to keep us busy with the details. Given that it's not available on DVD and I caught it on its TCM debut no less than 62 years after its original release, it falls comfortably into the category of lost gem. Now I need to find the French original.
Star: Tom Poston
'Zotz!' says William Castle to the Columbia lady who holds her torch aloft as always before we begin. 'What's Zotz?' she replies. Well, unlike many of his gimmick movies, Mr Castle doesn't tell us and we have to find out for ourselves. There's no Vincent Price to be seen, so we have to settle for Tom Poston instead. He's a typical absent-minded professor, Prof Jonathan Jones by name, and we meet him at home in Saracen Valley, CA, doing his morning exercises, drinking his straight sauerkraut juice and picking up his etymological journal from the mailman. He's a character, for sure.
His niece Cynthia gets a letter in the same delivery, from her boyfriend Eddie Prentiss, who is on an archaeological dig in Ukrenistan or some similarly pronounced imaginary country. His party has apparently found the ruins they were looking for and he's sent her a present from the site: a charm bracelet, and the charm is an ancient coin that was attached to the right hand of a giant stone idol. It has an inscription and of course we wouldn't have a story if Prof Jones wasn't one of the ten men in the world who can recognise the ancient dead language it's written in. He can translate it too, which he soon does and as I'm sure you'll be stunned to discover, this triggers our plot.
It isn't very big and there aren't too many symbols on it but they must be in some sort of five thousand year old shorthand because they translate to a whole slew of instructions. They talk of the dreaded threefold power that will be granted to whoever reads the inscription. It also gives details of the three strands of the power: the power of the pointing finger which instils the sudden pain, the power of retarded movement invoked by merely uttering the name of the god Zotz, and finally the mixing of the two which invokes a silent death. It even provides the caveats: the powers are only retained when the coin is physically present, and they transfer for a brief time to whoever takes possession of the coin.
Naturally comedic mayhem ensues, especially when his niece goes out on a date with the son of his rival for promotion at the university and takes the coin with her. Luckily he has an accomplice to help him, the gorgeous new professor of modern languages, Prof Virginia Fenster, who he met under bizarre circumstances as he acquired the power of Zotz. Uttering the name of that god while translating the coin caused a sudden storm, and as she was passing his house was struck by lightning, which stripped her naked and left her knocking on his door for help. This would appear to me to be a completely new power which would be even better to have than the other three, but apparently it's just coincidence.
This gorgeous young lady was completely new to me. She's Julia Meade and I'm stunned that she only made four films, three from 1959 to 1962 and another in 1990, with this the highest credited role she had on screen. She's an utter feast for the eyes when naked in the rain, not that we actually see anything untoward because this is 1962, but is later unfortunately encumbered by a some terrible sixties hairdos, presumably wigs stuck on top of her own far more appropriate and becoming short hair. She acquits herself very elegantly otherwise in talented company, even though these later scenes only hint at her initial and much younger looking presence.
Tom Poston is the lead, who reminds a lot of Ray Milland, which is a compliment even though he's not in the same class. I've seen him before but didn't recognise him; my better half knew him well though as the neighbour from Mork and Mindy. I've seen Jim Backus many times but somehow never seem to remember him. Best known probably as the voice of Mr Magoo, he was a versatile and prolific actor, who here plays Jones's competition for promotion, Prof Horatio Kellgore. He's agreeably disagreeable. Most recognisable to my eyes are the dean and his wife. Dean Updike is Cecil Kellaway and his wife is Margaret Dumont, more than a couple of decades after playing foil to Groucho Marx.
This was a change of pace for William Castle after a string of horror pictures, one of which is included here as a drive in movie. That's Homicidal, made a year earlier, which fits well with House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts and Mr Sardonicus but less well with this one. That said, this works better for me as a kooky American fantasy comedy than much better known films like The AbsentMinded Professor and The Shaggy Dog. It's hardly the most intelligent fantasy out there but it didn't seem dumbed down for kids the way those did. Maybe I'm more tuned into William Castle's (or screenwriter Ray Russell's) twisted sense of humour than the more conventional humour of the others. Maybe it's that there are no kids here, Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran being an able pair but one that inevitably lowers the intellectual level of the film. It's fun and that's what William Castle always provided.
Sunday, 22 March 2009
Stars: Terry-Thomas, George Cole, Brenda de Banzie and Bernard Bresslaw
I was surprised to find the opening scene of a 1959 comedy involves a ramraid on a high street store. I thought that was an invention of the 1980s. Anyway it's yet another botched attempt by Fingers and his gang. They're comprised of yet another stunning batch of British talent, which seems to have been everywhere all at once in the sixties. Fingers himself is a young George Cole, channelling Peter Sellers, full of great ideas that never seem to seem to work yet remaining as optimistic as ever, even in the face of a foil as sharp as he is inept.
And as fun as Cole and his gang are, which is pretty fun given that they're made up of people like Sid James and Bernard Bresslaw, that foil utterly steals the show. He's Terry-Thomas and for a change he isn't playing his usual rich idiot that everyone can take for a ride. He's still rich, as a tricky and very shady businessman called Billy Gordon, but he's far from stupid. He's successfully hoodwinked his wife into thinking that he hasn't had money for years, leaving her to live frugally while he pampers his secretary with jewellery and furs. He's successfully deterred Fingers and his gang from robbing him a number of times.
And when Fingers kidnaps his wife instead of his daughter to hold for ransom, he's over the moon. He's wanted her gone for years and is utterly unwilling to pay anything at all to get her back. In fact when they threaten to cut her up and scatter her all over the Great North Road, he actively encourages them to do so, calling it a bachelor's dream. And when Mrs Gordon overhears all of this from the room she's being kept in, she decides to throw her lot in with the crooks. She takes over the gang to get her revenge on her husband by fleecing him dry.
Once again there's a host of talent on show here: not just Terry-Thomas, in one of the best roles I've seen him play, but Sid James, Bernard Bresslaw, George Cole, John Le Mesurier, Nicholas Parsons and Terry Scott, among others. He spends half the film utterly in charge and the other half utterly floundering. I hadn't heard of Brenda De Banzie, who plays Lucy Gordon, Billy's wife, but she acquits herself wonderfully in such esteemed company. It turns out she had a few high career spots including a Tony nomination for The Entertainer on Broadway.
This is as frenetic and lunatic as The Naked Truth and fits very well with it as a double bill. Both were also directed by Mario Zampi, who made a number of British comedies during the forties and fifties. It's also as willing to play loose with reality and run on pantomime logic. If you can forgive that, it's a gem. If you can't, well it's still a gem because Terry-Thomas is a sheer delight, whatever else you think about the film. Bernard Bresslaw is a little too dumb ('£10,000? How much is that?'), Sid James a little too willing to stay with George Cole, Nicholas Parsons and Vera Day too underused.
But Too Many Crooks remains yet another great example of how comedies can be made to sparkle without swearing, violence and nudity. I'm no Mormon reactionary and thoroughly enjoy all these things in their place (as a fan of exploitation cinema, I could hardly think otherwise), but there's a part of me that's overjoyed that I can still turn to the classic British comedies of the sixties for riotous humour that I could watch with my wife, my mother and my granddaughter, even all at once.
Stars: Terry-Thomas, Peter Sellers, Peggy Mount, Shirley Eaton and Dennis Price
You know this has to be a very dark British comedy when it opens with a whole slew of people committing or attempting suicide immediately after Dennis Price leaves their homes with a knowing shake of the head and a subtle smile. We soon see the details on the front page of the paper: 'Brilliant Scientist Found Shot', 'Minister Collapses in Commons', 'Famous Authoress in Miracle Escape', 'Explosion Rocks Model's Flat'. Price is Nigel Dennis, the publisher of a scandal sheet called The Naked Truth, also the British title of the film (in the States, it was bowdlerised into Your Past is Showing).
Then we see his business model in action. He goes to see his prospective celebrity clients and explains just how much he knows about things they'd rather not have made public knowledge. He even has copies of the magazine printed up and ready to go so they can see it all in black and white. He makes it clear that there's no need to appeal to his better nature because he doesn't have one and explains the way it works. The price (no pun intended) for silence is $10,000: 'pay up in a fortnight or I'll publish in a month'.
Unfortunately for Nigel Dennis, this is a business model full of risk and sooner or later his clients are going to fight back. We soon meet a bunch of them, all played by faces well known to me and who soon find numerous comedic ways to interact. There's Flora Ransom, played by the great stage actress Peggy Mount, who is an award-winning writer of murder mysteries, even though she seems a little inept. She has a hidden past, and one failed suicide attempt later finds herself eager to test out the plot to The Great Trunk Murders on Mr Dennis.
She ends up in cahoots with three others. There's Shirley Eaton as Melissa Right, a model with a string of boyfriends even though she's engaged to a Texan millionaire. There's Wee Sonny MacGregor, the star of an embarrassing TV variety show called Here's to You, though he's also secretly the landlord of a lot of dubious slum property. When you discover that he's a master of disguise, quick to realise that he can happily bump off Mr Dennis in one of his many other personas, you won't be surprised to find that he's played by Peter Sellers, who ended up in disguises in most of his films. Finally there's the philandering Lord Mayley, played by no less a great comedic aristocrat than Terry-Thomas.
The concept is hilarious and the film lives up to the concept, raising laughs throughout. It's notably clumsy compared to the best Ealing comedies but it wins out through sheer riotous lunatic joy and the fact that the cast is impeccable: pulling Peggy Mount off the stage was a coup and adding in names of the calibre of Sellers, Price and Terry-Thomas can't help but ensure success. Backing them up are other names like Shirley Eaton, Joan Sims, Miles Malleson, Georgina Cookson and more. I couldn't put names to everyone in the cast but I recognised many of them.
The lunacy wins out, however lunatic it gets and however much the truncheons flop and the filing cabinets seem to be lighter than air. Beyond a couple of poor rear projection shots that are still better in black and white than later Hitchcock shots would be in colour, the only real downside is Bill Edwards as a Texan millionaire. I'm used to American actors making bad attempts at English accents; well, here's the reverse. Bill Edwards was Canadian born and unfortunately can't quite manage a Texan accent. This one's for fans of Arsenic and Old Lace more than those Ealing greats with Alec Guinness, but it can't help but raise the day.
Friday, 20 March 2009
Stars: Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle and Mabel Normand
Another Fatty Arbuckle/Mabel Normand Keystone short, this one sees them as a married couple yet again, one a bit richer than usual with a butler and maid to push around. They start the evening, 'their usual evening' we're told, with them having difficulty getting dressed, such are the perils of being I rich, I suppose. Here a collar, there a bow tie, here a lost collar stud, there a difficult fastening. They manage it just in time for Jack to arrive. Jack is an old schoolfriend of Mabel's, it would seem, and he arrives complete with an old photo of her, from 'his sweetheart'. They're all touchy feely and Fatty is more than a little suspicious of both their motives.
He's a doctor (the sign outside their door reads 'EJ Watson, MD'), and one well enough to be seen as a target by crooks. He throws one out of his house early on, as he discovers him in his fraud: he had pretended to be lame just to get into the house but was really interested in Fatty's safe. So after an evening of suspicion and lobsters (the working title was Love and Lobsters, because they're the two lynchpins of the story), we're all set for whatever night time shenanigans the Keystone folks can cook up for us.
I'm not as fond of the Fatty Arbuckle shorts as some. Most of the time he got by being the big guy who acted like a little kid and while the novelty is amusing, for me it didn't last very long. This two reeler is thankfully a lot more accomplished. Here he's a professional man in lavish surroundings and he actually gets a chance to act. There are a number of scenes here where he impresses just with facial movements. While there's plenty of slapstick here with getting thrown out of windows and the traditional silent gun that never runs out of bullets, it's really a pretty subtle piece with a lot of clever acting and a surprisingly mature plot setup. There' no simple chronological plot progression here.
Beyond Fatty and Mabel, Jack is played by William Jefferson and Al St John is credited as 'acrobatic burglar', something that very much describes what his part called for and which anyone who's ever seen him knows he's perfect for. I've seen a lot of Fatty Arbuckle movies and this is probably my new favourite, one which he didn't just act in, he also wrote and directed.
Saturday, 14 March 2009
Stars: Dack Rambo and Rebecca Dianna Smith
The sun is shining through the Spanish moss and Dack Rambo, the man with the single most awesome action movie name in Hollywood history (though he was born Norman), ought to be pretty happy for himself. He's back Stateside after two years in Vietnam, and he's marrying a beautiful woman at a mansion in the Louisiana bayou. Life ought to be fine for David and Jill Webb as they head off for their first night together as a married couple, but with a movie title like Nightmare Honeymoon you can be pretty sure that happiness isn't going to last too long.
Initially the threat comes from Jill's family. Apparently there's a centuries old tradition that has the happy couple trying to escape from the rest of the family, who chase them and camp outside their room to sing all night. It doesn't help that he's a yankee and they're a good old Cajun family, but through various carefully orchestrated shenanigans and a lucky turn off the road they manage to become the first couple in the history of the tradition to actually get away from their pursuers.
Then the threat switches to a couple of nutjob hitmen who come into town to kill the Big Lebowski himself, David Huddleston, who owns the place they're temporarily hiding out at. His name is Mr Carroll and he dies pretty quickly but he's completely overshadowed by Lee the wild eyed hitman, overplayed with relish by John Beck, Moonpie from the original Rollerball. He seems totally caught up in the lack of justice in the world and the fact that nobody cares any more, but he's still a nutjob hitman shouting 'Do you want to live forever?' at his victims.
Now David is a Vietnam vet but he doesn't seem to be too great in the action stakes. Unlike the other Rambo who would probably just roar at the sky and kill the hitmen with a handy bazooka someone left lying around, this Rambo's character gets noticed by the bad guys when he tries to look inconspicuous, gets caught when he tries to escape and then gets knocked unconscious when he tries to save his bride. Admittedly he has that bride to protect as well as himself and there are two of these crazy hitmen pointing guns at them but he doesn't seem to have much of a clue. He's no mental giant either as he completely fails to notice that Jill is so far into shock that she's almost catatonic, because she was raped during the twenty minutes he was out like a light. He even tries to get it on with her in the car and when she recoils, runs away and finally tells him what happened, he gets to emote 'My God!' as effectively as William Shatner.
By the time they get to their hotel in New Orleans, it's storming out and no different in. As you can imagine Jill is in a precarious mental condition, though she does seem to have a good deal of inner strength and she refuses to go to either a doctor or the cops. David is a man of action but finds himself utterly inconsequential in this situation. He can't protect his wife because the deed is done and so he flounders around blaming himself until he falls asleep next to her. When he wakes up Jill has wandered off into the French Quarter on her own, making him feel about useless as tits on a boar.
So he hatches a plan to get all macho and demonstrative and make a difference, like that's ever going to happen, especially given that Jill is obviously wondering how the heck he managed to get back from Vietnam in one piece. The hitmen had let slip a few convenient clues about who the victim was and why he was being targetted, so David looks up the man who hired them in the Yellow Pages and attempts to convince him that he's Carroll's nephew. He wants to find Lee and Sandy, those wacky hitmen, and hit them in return. With them dead he can feel a whole lot better and he blindly expects his wife to feel a whole lot better too.
Of course nothing quite works out how he expects, mostly because he's a moron. His story is shot from moment one because Carroll didn't have any siblings. When it becomes obvious that the bad guys know precisely who, what and where he is, he gets them to define his next steps so that he can walk straight into a trap of their choosing. He even does so at night in a white suit and I actually looked to see if there was a target painted on his chest too. There might as well have been. Anyway he may be out there in the dark with a gun, but Jill walks straight into the hands of Lee the wild eyed hitman to trigger that trap before even David can.
No, this is not intelligent stuff and I'm not even sure why it's sitting there in TCM's cult programming tier, TCM Underground. Maybe it's because Elliot Silverstein, a director more prolific on TV than cinema screens, also made such cult favourites as Cat Ballou, A Man Called Horse and The Car. This one is just a pretty dumb seventies programmer full of actors you'll recognise and wonder where you know them from best. After seeing one name on the opening credits, I looked up the cast list on IMDb and then watched out for the sheriff and his deputy.
Unfortunately the sheriff turned out to be played by Richard O'Brien (II) rather than Richard O'Brien (I), the one who would fit happily in any cult programming tier; and I couldn't find the deputy, who was apparently played by the original Star Trek's Chekov, Walter Koenig. Perhaps the IMDb credits are just wrong, especially as they are out of order from how the film presents them, Koenig isn't credited on the print I saw and at least one character's name is definitely incorrect: Roy Jenson plays Sandy not Bandy.
John Beck is the best reason to watch this film, even though he could easily have won the Best Overactor award that year with his bug eyes and twitches. He's just plain old fun to watch and by the time we get to the finale, I half expected Jill to run to him instead of her idiot husband, whether he's a psycho nutjob rapist hitman or not. She's not a bad character either, as contradictory as such a victim should be and with hidden depths that remain believable. The actress is Rebecca Dianna Smith, who didn't do much else, it seems: IMDb only lists her in an episode of Laverne and Shirley and one more film, Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York, released two years after this with her playing opposite Roy Scheider. He went straight on to Jaws. I wonder where she went.
Monday, 9 March 2009
Stars: Dorothy McGuire, Joan Blondell, James Dunn, Lloyd Nolan, James Gleason, Ted Donaldson and Peggy Ann Garner
Elia Kazan was a massively important director and it surprised to find that he only ever directed twenty features. This was the first and while I've heard about it often as a memorable drama that people fall in love with, it opens like a textbook of how to generate nostalgia. We're in Brooklyn, as you might expect from the title, in a poor neighbourhood and anyone who really lived there at the time would be sucked into these details. Of course, as we're set in the early 1900s, that's now likely to be their kids or grandkids that may have heard the stories.
I don't know if this is remotely accurate but it feels like it is. We open on a Saturday and the street is packed and the windows are all open. The kids have plenty of clever little tricks and they use them too, to acquire all sorts of trash to hawk at Carney's Junk Yard for pennies. There are games going on, using whatever props might be to hand, even if that's as simple as just cracks on the pavement. There's music everywhere and it's surprising how many of the tunes are still recognisable. There's all sorts of merriment and drama and work too, and wherever it's going on people crowd around filling an 'all human life is here' type scenario. It's only half that picture though: the poor half.
We're focused on the Nolans, who seem to be getting by somehow even though they're living off pennies, literally, but it's a hard struggle. There are four of them living in a small apartment and they're a memorable bunch, defined superbly as characters. Katie Nolan rules the roost: a proud mother who never has a dull moment. If she's not cooking, she's making the beds or darning socks, or washing the stairs to bring in extra money to help her kids get the sort of opportunities she never had. She never stops moving because she's driven and she's perfectly played by Dorothy McGuire, who gets the depth here that she never got as the mom in all those many Disney movies. Those roles didn't need the acting that this one did but she more than met the challenge.
Her husband is Johnny Nolan, who's close to being a professional pipe dreamer and he knows it, always promising things that he couldn't ever deliver. He's a singer and a waiter, or both at once, and while he brings his wages home to his wife he has an unfortunate habit of spending all his tip money on drink. He has a good heart though and a way about him that lifts everyone around him. As it's mentioned at one point, he says hello to everyone like he's giving away something. Because he keeps coming in and out of the story, he's really a supporting actor but in the hands of James Dunn, he won a well deserved Oscar, partly because it would appear that he was playing himself.
The kids are Francie and Neeley and they're well adjusted good kids, even if they're still only partway through the process of growing up and don't understand everything that goes on around them. They're not perfect but they're the sort of kids anyone would want to have for their own, free range kids too that aren't protected from the world by well meaning do gooders but by common sense and guts. Neeley is capable and good hearted and always hungry, well played by twelve year old Ted Donaldson. He doesn't get half the screen time his sister gets though.
Francie is superbly brought to life by Peggy Ann Garner who was thirteen at the time and she won a special Oscar for being the outstanding child actress of 1945. She has a brain in her head and a heart in her chest and both are powerful and full of promise. She's her father's daughter, full of imagination but far more grounded. Much of the film here is in seeing how she grows up, keeping the best of her father but acquiring the best of her mother. There are scenes here where the world just rushes in on Francie, she flounders under the weight of it but comes out on top. It's a deep role to play but she succeeds so much better than most lauded child actors ever did in their signature films. She's what the title is really talking about, though the film is only part of Betty Smith's source novel, which has more literal and metaphorical trees over a much longer timeframe.
There's able support from established actors. Beyond McGuire and Dunn, there are some very talented named lending a hand, not least Joan Blondell as Katie's sister Sissy, who is a very different character but just as capable in her own ways. This comes a decade or more after her heyday in the thirties but she's even more striking here, turning everyone's eye. James Gleason is his usual excellent self as a good hearted bar owner and Lloyd Nolan is a politely hesitant good New York City cop.
It's the story though that shines brightest, providing a solid framework for all these actors to fully develop all these characters and giving them plenty of opportunity to do so. It also gave Elia Kazan the opportunity to start off his directorial career in no uncertain terms. It's a very sentimental story, in fact there's almost no let up from the sentimentality, but unlike most movies it's appropriate and handled appropriately.
So much of the story is set up in the scene itself and then explored on the faces of the characters and their simple ad often innocent words. Katie and Johnny are troubled but there are no violent outbursts and stormy arguments full of pointless vitriol. Nobody throws anything or tries to deflect the issues away by causing a disturbance; Johnny isn't even a violent drunk. These are people trying to make the most of what they have given the limitations of who, what and where they are. That simplicity and honesty gives it power. I can understand why so many people fall in love with the film: it teaches so much without ever preaching, and it draws in its audience because there's likely to be something for most to relate to. This is my first time through, but it would appear to be a film to grow with. Kids should certainly still watch it today, sixty some years on.
Sunday, 8 March 2009
Star: José Mojica Marins
There's some sort of bizarre ritual going on. The drums are beating in some sort of voodoo rhythm, a host of scantily clad skanks in too much makeup are gyrating like Christina Aguilera's backing dancers had been zombiefied and some other folks in distorted masks and body suits grunt and cringe. Yes, this is a Coffin Joe movie and it would appear that this ritual is to bring him back from mere ashes to his more familiar self, cape and black hat and long fingernails.
It all goes on too long, and then following an artistic opening credit sequence, Joe pontificates about life and death and the cosmos and that all goes on too long too. Very much the creative force behind his films, regardless what other names might ever appear (Marcelo Motta is the credited director here), I don't think anyone ever told him no so he got to leave in everything he felt like, whether it should have remained in or not. Long and rambling pontifications laid over a backdrop of strangely shaped revolving balls on strings really doesn't cut it.
Eventually we begin an actual story though, not before time, and we find that he's running a strange inn called Hospedaria dos Prazeres. The help are all new, in fact he's busy hiring them when we first see the place, no experience necessary. All the customers are new too and are a little surprised to find that their rooms are already reserved and he doesn't need to see their IDs. Some of them don't even have to speak. Their names just appear in his guestbook and he just gives them keys. Some he turns away, telling them that there are no rooms, yet more arrive And throughout all of it, there's a rainstorm going on with bad fake lightning and Joe's eyes are everywhere watching everything that's going on.
They're an interesting bunch: gamblers, crooks, businessmen, drunk drivers, loving couples, not so loving couples arguing about how to get rid of their unwanted product of their affair, mysterious folks travelling alone, even a biker gang that seems full of hippies rather than bikers. They all get a single room to share, all thirty or so of them, which makes it a happy place for the characters who just want a drunken orgy but a dangerous one for the actors to film in. Just moving too quickly in such a crowded space could cause injury, as they must have been wrapped around the lights.
Anyway, the film progresses on and on with precisely no variance. The gamblers keep gambling, the lovers keep loving, the partiers keep partying, the businessmen keep signing things. And in the lobby, Joe stands there and looks sinister and passes out cryptic comment after cryptic comment like 'There is no redemption for those who want to be blinder than the blind one having his sight to see.' Perhaps this suffers in translation but I have a feeling not. Eventually he teleports into everyone's room, apparently simultaneously, to stare at everyone and show us and them both what's really going on.
It would appear that this is an inn for the recently departed. I wondered that as we progressed: was this place Hell itself, somewhere where people go to die or somewhere that they go after that's already happened. The use of a wavery and warped Auld Lang Syne gives us that answer. The whole soundtrack is strange and exotic but this recognisable tune in and amongst the unrecognisable experimental electronic warbles is somehow the strangest. And it's the strangeness that is the only saving grace here: a beating heart superimposed over a clock, the burning cloth hanging in front of the camera, the continual repetition of scenes, Joe himself and the various critters that die when he looks at them, all the way up to the bleeding skull.
This is definitely old school cult film: a twisted and exploitative Brazilian take on a old story (previously filmed decades earlier as Outward Bound and Between Two Worlds, though this is no straight remake and the story itself is much older than that), with precisely nothing worth speaking of beyond the cumulative effect of the whole piece. By any conventional standards it's truly awful, whether you're looking at the acting, the direction, the editing, the writing, the effects, the soundtrack. Yet it's somehow hypnotic, never boring even though it really should be, and definitely something that you know you've seen. You may not know what but you're probably going to remember it, talk about it to others and try to find it to watch again. As strange and exploitative as the title suggests.
Friday, 6 March 2009
Stars: Katharine Hepburn, Walter Huston, Aline McMahon, Akim Tamiroff and Turhan Bey
Oh dear, I didn't want to watch this one. I have huge respect for Katharine Hepburn as an actress, but there are points in her career where she played parts that she shouldn't have played. I still shudder at the memory of her playing Mary, Queen of Scots in Mary of Scotland or mountain girl Trigger Hicks in Spitfire. This would appear to be another such example and while we're happily saved from the experience for at least ten minutes it inevitably arrives and we get Katharine Hepburn as Jade Tan, wife of a Chinese village farmer. Yeah, you can imagine. The filmmakers tried, I'll give them that, so her yellowface makeup is actually much better than that of the rest of the cast, but she's as much a Chinese woman as I am.
We're in the valley of Ling in the summer of 1937, a peaceful place in rural China where what seems like half the MGM roster are attempting and failing dismally to be Chinese. Henry Travers and Walter Huston and Agnes Moorehead, all superb actors, are as out of place as Jackie Chan would be playing James Bond. It isn't just how they look and how they sound but what they say. This is based on a novel by Pearl S Buck and attempts to portray the simple language of simple farmers but instead makes them sound too often like idiots. There are some real oriental actors in the film, don't get me wrong, but they don't have any of the major parts, thus putting us into some utterly bizarre situations as viewers.
Here's how the first utter gem arises. The Second World War hasn't yet started but the Japanese are already attacking and burning Chinese cities. So Chinese students present slideshows to the peasants so that they might understand what is going on. Of course nobody pays any attention because these peasants are simple folk who haven't ever travelled beyond the hills. They have no real conception of most things because they've never seen them and they believe that what they've been shown on film is all make believe. The only ones who have a clue what's going on are the students who are fighting a losing battle to pass on their knowledge.
And so we find ourselves watching these Chinese students raid a store owned by a Chinese merchant called Wu Lien, because he sells Japanese goods, and burn these goods in the street. They call him traitor and collaborator and a disgrace to the Chinese people. Yet the Chinese students seem to be played by Japanese actors and the Chinese merchant is played by Akim Tamiroff, another fine actor but unmistakably Russian. And on it goes, as the Japanese invade and the horrors of war are brought home to the valley of Ling: Americans and Russians and Mexicans playing the Chinese. We even have Japanese actors pretending to be Chinese and talking about the evil dwarves coming from over the sea; and Chinese actors pretending to be sadistic Japanese rapists and murderers.
It's all insane and the only way anyone can enjoy this movie is to look past this insanity and I can't. For those who can, the actors do try and they have plenty of opportunity to do so in a story that has a lot of angles to it, all about change. Everyone's view of life has to change for a number of reasons and in a number of ways. As we begin, the valley of Ling is a male chauvinist dream where women are there to walk behind the men and do precisely what they're told. They aren't allowed to read or have their own opinions. Men feel it beneath them to even talk to their daughters in law. The old are revered and the young are nothing. With war in their village they have to re-evaluate what women can do just as they have to re-evaluate what the rest of the world is.
Beyond that it's a unsubtle propaganda piece as much as it attempts to frame such a story in a more artistic and literate way than the norm. The Chinese are all wonderful people, the Japanese are all evil monsters. It's not all bad. It's an MGM film so there was serious money thrown at it, meaning excellent sets. There are some well written and well directed scenes, such as the buildup to the rape of Orchid Tan. There's some good cinematography and use of shadows and silhouettes and reflections.
There are also plenty of opportunities for powerful acting and the names involved are certainly able; Agnes Moorehead and Akim Tamiroff in particular acquit themselves well, especially in scenes after the destruction comes, but some of the best acting is on the faces of some of the Chinese children. Mostly though the good stuff is only there if you're really willing to search for it and forgive much in the search. Mostly it's an endurance test. Towards the end I found that I could look past the insane casting and be drawn into the story, which is stirring and emotional. I just couldn't do that and see this as Chinese too. By this point I watched it as a universal story. On those grounds it isn't too bad.
Stars: Moira Shearer, Robert Rounseville and Robert Helpmann
Today there's so much talk about intellectual property that it's easy to get the impression that it's unethical to ever base anything on something that someone else has created. Well, here's great proof that that's complete nonsense. It's a classic of English cinema: written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were already hugely established as a powerful double act after such classics as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus, among others. It also reunited them with Moira Shearer, who had been so spectacular three years earlier in The Red Shoes.
Yet it's based on a French opera, a classic in its own right, called The Tales of Hoffmann, written by Jacques Offenbach and first performed in Paris in 1881. The opera itself, as the title might suggest, was based on three short stories by the German poet and writer E T A Hoffmann, written between 1814 and 1818: Der Sandmann, Rat Krespel and Das verlorene Spiegelbild. So what we have is a English film based on a French opera based on German short stories with a gap of seventy full years between each version. This is operatic in style and entirely sung but is staged cinematically rather than being merely a filmed record of a stage production, even though the opening credits are accompanied by an orchestra tuning up.
The three stories are separate but linked through interpretation and a framing story featuring the poet himself. Hoffmann is in love with a dancer called Stella, currently appearing in a three act ballet called The Enchanted Dragonfly. She is in love with him also, but he has a rival for her affections in the sinister Lindorf. The actors are capable as actors but are really here for their singing or dancing talents, usually the latter as most of them are dubbed by uncredited others. For instance, Stella is Moira Shearer, a professional dancer returning to the screen for the first time after The Red Shoes, and who performs a striking opening dance with Edmond Audran in amazing costumes tight fitting enough to not leave much to the imagination.
Hoffmann himself is played by the only male actor in the film to actually sing his own part, opera singer Robert Rounseville. Lindorf is Robert Helpmann, a noted stage dancer who gave his name to Australia's annual entertainment awards and who is best known on screen for a couple of memorable roles in children's films: the Mad Hatter in the 1972 English version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Here he looks amazingly like Boris Karloff, though naturally he's a little smaller. Partly it's through the characters he plays but mostly in the way he stands and how his eyes flare. I'm sure this was a deliberate influence.
Hoffmann travels through the stories as himself, telling of the three lost loves of his life. All are personifications of Stella and his love for each is threatened by evil in the form of characters that are personifications of Lindorf. Helpmann appears in each but Shearer only in the first. This one is interesting but a little overlong to someone like me who enjoys some opera and some ballet but is left cold by most of it. She's Olympia, an innocent puppet created by a genius scientist called Spalanzani. Hoffmann falls for Olympia after Coppelius, the evil Lindorf character in this section, sells him magic spectacles that, when worn, make the puppets appear alive. After the glasses break during a dance she is cruelly and spectacularly destroyed.
The second features smouldering and exotic Ludmilla Tchérina as Giulietta who appears to be nothing but a trap for Hoffman set by her satanic master, Dappertutto, a collector of souls. This is the section that features the famous Barcarolle, which is certainly the most striking music in the opera, but apparently not originally composed for it, having been added after his death from one of his earlier and lesser works. Hoffmann loses his shadow and presuably his soul for love hof Giuletta, but through a duel with a previous victim wins his freedom and escapes.
The third, which is officially the second but they apparently get shuffled all the time on stage, takes place on a Greek Island where Hoffman is reunited with Antonia, who he loves. In this segment she's played by Anne Ayars, who like Rounseville sings her own part. She's the daughter of a famous opera singer, now deceased, and she's inherited her mother's talents, though because she's sick her father has forbidden her to sing. Enter Dr Miracle, who promises to heal her but of course merely prods her into singing herself to death.
I'm not sold on the music or the dancing, though they certainly add to the amazing sets and costumes that provide a perfect backdrop for these stories. Most of the credit here presumably belongs to Hein Heckroth, a German designer who had worked to great effect with Powell and Pressburger before, notably in The Red Shoes. He designed the sets here and some of the costumes. To my mind these designs are the biggest triumph of the film, which makes the fact that they comprised both the Oscar nominations the film received hardly surprising. The dark stories of Hoffmann come next and I'll have to seek out them out on Project Gutenberg. The direction is more than capable and the acting really isn't bad, especially given that the cast are comprised of people who are singers and dancers first and actors second.
Technically it's flawed but partly deliberately, I would think. Having seen many of their other films, I'm sure that Powell and Pressburger could have made the effects far more realistic, but they presumably chose not to do so here in favour of more theatrical effects. On that front I think they did a great job, though part of me wishes that I couldn't see through them quite so easily. Less forgiveable is the fact that the voice work is not particularly well synched to the actors. Apparently the whole film was shot without sound, with the soundtrack dubbed in later and with the exception of Anne Ayars, who sang her own part, nobody looks like they're really singing, however great they look otherwise. It isn't just that the voices often don't match the movements of the actors' mouths but more that the obvious power generated is generally utterly unreflected in their body movements.
This would appear to be a better visual experience than an auditory one. I was tempted to turn the sound off and pretend that it was a silent movie. That seems bizarre to say when watching an opera but it's not so far fetched. After all nobody speaks in the film, everything is sung an not necessarily easy to follow even though its done in English translation. The stories are really mostly interpreted though dance and dance is entirely visual. A few sections, notably the ending that unites all four faces of Stella on the same screen through cinematic trickery, are entirely without vocals. It's these such scenes that work best for me. I wonder if that's understandable or whether it's more akin to heresy.
Stars: Daniel L Haynes and Nina Mae McKinney
Here's an oddity. It's a film from MGM, the largest of the studios, from way back in the day (you can tell because Cedric Gibbons is the only credited name as Art Director), directed by no less a name than King Vidor, who received an Oscar nomination for his work. It was his first sound film. Yet it opens with a whole host of black characters actually played by black actors. There's nobody white in sight and nobody in blackface. What's even more bizarre, but very welcome, is that they seem to be treated in a pretty fair light. Sure, these are poor black sharecroppers and there's no attempt made to make them saints, but there isn't a single talented actor pretending to be a lazy and retarded porter and that's always refreshing.
It's a human story, one set in a different world. Sure, we open in a cotton field and the first word spoken is 'Mammy', but these are good people working hard for their living. They're the Johnsons and they're picking the last of the cotton crop for the year, which Zeke takes into Greenville to sell. They're good Christian folk, in fact Pappy Johnson is a parson so he gets to marry a couple who already have eleven kids but thought it was about time they got around to it. They're all also musical,from Mammy singing her little ones to sleep to the kids tap dancing on carts and everyone either singing or playing an instrument.
Unfortunately with a hundred dollars in his pocket, Zeke gets trapped by a hoochie mama dancer who pretends to be his baby while happily suckering him into a crooked game of dice. With all his money gone, which of course isn't his to begin with, Zeke is in big trouble and as he tries to get it back from the hustler, ends up shooting his younger brother. He comes home, full of remorse, and his father helps him to see the light. Eventually he becomes a preacher himself and we find ourselves in the second half of the film for revival meetings and large scale baptisms.
The music is the main reason I fell into this one: it's everywhere and done very nicely indeed. I remember watching the James Whale version of Show Boat and finding that the black singers, Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel, were hugely enjoyable while the white singers were annoying as all get out. There was simply no comparison. Here, we have a whole film full of black singers and musicians but without any of the distracting white folk. This is what thirties musicals should have been full of: I don't even know if this could count as a musical, because of how it's constructed, but it has more music than most musicals I've seen. The instruments come out early: banjo, organ, kazoo, whatever they can find, and there are lots of wonderful voices being used at what seems like every opportune moment.
The downside, of course, is that if you take the music away, there's not a heck of a lot left. The story is a pretty simple one but it develops well and the world it's set in is refreshing to see. There are no white actors in the entire film, so it's a completely self contained world, something reasonably easy to do because of segregation. Zeke's wild ride is a fascinating one to watch, though it's not consistently believable throughout.
These actors, from the leads on down, are far better singers and dancers than they are actors. Daniel Haynes has a great deep voice but he's no great actor. He's better on that front during the second half than the first, but it's not surprising that this film was nominated for King Vidor's direction not for his acting. Better as an actor, though she often overdoes it, is Nina Mae McKinney, who plays the hoochie mama, Chick. She's better in the second half too, but she moves really well in the first as the enticing temptress. She continues that tempting through the film too, in different ways, and she's good at it.
There's even an actor here that I know, though I don't know her as an actor. Missy Rose, the young lady that has Zeke's heart whenever Chick isn't stealing it away, is played by a young Victoria Spivey. I know her as a blues musician, often singing the sort of blues that are obviously all about sex but don't actually mention it once. She'd already recorded Black Snake Blues by the time she made this film. She's no worse than the rest of the cast as an actor but no better either. It's a shame she didn't get more opportunity to sing.
Tuesday, 3 March 2009
Stars: Monte Blue and Raquel Torres
Sounding like a pulp adventure, this is really an indictment of western exploitation of the natives in the South Seas, wrapped up in a highly melodramatic storyline. It's a film from the end of the silent era that won an Oscar in 1928 for cinematography, and which unlike some of its competitors (such as F W Murnau's 4 Devils) has fortunately survived to this day. Based on a novel by Frederick O'Brien, it claims to be filmed in 'the natural locations', the coral atolls of Polynesia, but was really shot in Tahiti. It has a couple of firsts to its name though: it's the first MGM film to be introduced by a roaring lion and it counts as MGM's first sound picture, though it's really a silent. Douglas Shearer synchronised music and sound effects. I didn't catch any speech though.
Our lead is Monte Blue, a leading man in the silents whose long career continued into the serials and westerns of the forties and fifties. He's Dr Matthew Lloyd and when we first meet him he seems to be a bitter drunk willing to stoop as low as a bad joke to get a free drink, but that's only partly true. He still cares enough to leap out of the bar when one of the local pearl divers is brought to shore with a collapsed lung and spend all night trying to save the man. He's certainly bitter and cynical, but it would seem with good reason: the local trader, named Sebastian, is exploiting these locals to a large degree: he has them diving too often and pays for their pearls with trinkets.
We're shown the dangers of pearl diving: not just the obvious perils of the deep like sharks, octopi and razor sharp clams, but the unseen ones too, the burst veins and collapsed lungs caused by the frequent dives and great and sudden changes in pressure. We soon see plenty of other dangers, because Sebastian has it in for Dr Lloyd, especially after he belts him one and knocks him into the sea. Soon a boat arrives, all its men dead of the bubonic plague and Sebastian has him lashed to the wheel and set adrift. He frees himself but only once out at sea and one typhoon later he's shipwrecked on the island of the Mehevi tribe who have never seen a white man before.
Of course they see him as a god and celebrate his arrival with a great feast. Here's where we get to see some footage more akin to a documentary, which is shot very effectively indeed. We see the natives walking or leaping up palm trees to harvest coconuts, catching giant turtles and octopi from the sea and putting the feast together. There's some clever use of editing to speed up time, used to great effect when the natives generate fire or peel breadfruit. We even see a little native dancing, which isn't plentiful but lively, especially in the form of Kekelafaufaupaopao, which apparently translates as 'Man with legs like exploding eggs'. Is this 1928 humour or a real translation? Who knows.
With the Mehevi tribe, Dr Lloyd finds himself again, which is hardly surprising given that it's an island paradise and the natives think he's a god, though he almost loses himself to greed when he realises the cheap and plentiful supply of pearls. Of course he falls for one of the beautiful dancers, Fayaway, who is naturally the daughter of the chief and while she's initially tapau, or a virgin bride of the temple, Lloyd saves the life of her little brother, and is allowed to look upon her with love. In the bizarre logic of early Hollywood, she's also beautiful but not Polynesian in the slightest. She's Raquel Torres, born in Sonora, Mexico, and this was the first film in a brief but successful career. I've seen her before in the early Boris Karloff film, The Sea Bat, and with the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup.
The South Seas were notably exotic in 1928 and so the setting for no end of pulp adventure stories. Hollywood paid attention and so early American cinema is full of such films. It was a time when any story could be believable if it was set in such a location, up to and including King Kong. This isn't quite as fantastic but it's certainly outrageous melodrama. It looks great and it plays out nicely to anyone of a pulp mindset, with Blue and Torres fine in their roles and with a very neat villainous performance in the silent style by Robert Anderson as the trader Sebastian.
Monday, 2 March 2009
Star: William H Macy
I was a William H Macy fan long before I ever saw Fargo or Mystery Men: they just cemented my opinion of how great an actor he is. Then I saw Edmond and was stunned. He isn't just a great actor, he's one of the best we have today. Now every time I see one of his films I record it and find another side to his versatility. He doesn't look like a star in the slightest but he seems to be able to carry the lead, whatever it might happen to be. I wonder a lot whether these films were specifically written for him or not. He has a habit of making us think that.
Here he's Bernie Lootz, the cooler of the title. He works at the Golden Shangri La, a Las Vegas casino run by Shelly Kaplow, turning winners into losers, and he's very good at what he does. He does that simply by being himself, a jinx who brings bad luck to himself and everyone around him. In fact, the reason he works there is because he's into Kaplow for $100,000 of gambling debts and he's now five days away from his five year stint of jinxing the customers. That's what's left of his debt recovery plan after Kaplow takes a baseball bat to his right leg. Unfortunately he falls in love and his powers as a jinx vanish.
Macy is excellent as Bernie, because he can play the various levels of this part. He begins as a man who knows that he brings everything down and is fully resigned to living in that world. He doesn't know what good luck is because it disappears the moment he appears. Yet the good luck finally finds its way to him in the form of Natalie Belisario, a waitress at the Shangri La and it rocks his safe little world of loss. He begins to believe that there's something in his future except being a cooler, he begins to believe that he can win at something. There's a light that literally grows in his eyes as he finds that belief.
Yet there's another level. Bernie, on the way up from way down, runs into his son in a diner. His son is a conman and an ass, together with a pregnant girlfriend who isn't pregnant, and through his inadvised con tricks proceeds to knock Bernie back down again. Worse still, Kaplow isn't going to let his prize cooler get switched around just because he's fallen in love. He's old school in every way. After all, he believes in luck which is why he hires coolers. At heart this film is all about luck and Bernie is its personification. Lady Luck and whatever her opposite is called are characters in this film, whether we see them or not. So Bernie is forever down yet going up but going down while he's going up: he's like a whole batch of sine waves running in tandem.
It's another amazing Macy performance, but he's not the only one here to watch. I'm no huge
Stars: Myrna Loy, Tyrone Power and George Brent
And still the films from 1939 keep coming and this one's yet another Oscar winner too. Sometimes it seems that every film released in 1939 either won an Oscar, was only nominated for Oscar or was absolutely cheated out of both nomination and win because it was Hollywood's greatest year, yaddah yaddah yaddah. This fits the first two categories: it garnered one win and five nominations, but none of them were in the major categories. It won for special effects and was nominated for art direction, editing, cinematography, music and sound. That would appear to be surprising, given the cast involved here.
We meet George Brent first. He's a painter called Tom Ransome, though a languid one who's spent seven years sitting on his porch in the Indian state of Ranchipur instead of finishing his painting of the Maharajah he's been commissioned to complete. He's a real person though, grounded and decent, however much his reputation talks of women and drink. He's also the link between the many other people that we meet in the story. He knows everyone, it seems, even those who arrive as guests.
We meet a whole host of characters, of the varied sort you might expect to meet in 1938 India if you keep away from most of the locals, which is what most foreigners somehow managed to do. A young Tyrone Power is an Sikh major and dedicated surgeon called Rama Safti. Marjorie Rambeau plays an inveterate snob of a missionary trying to hang out with the important people, utterly ignore the lesser people and palm her daughter off on Ransome. Brenda Joyce is that minx of a daughter, who just wants out to see the world and falls for him, possibly just to achieve that end. To Henry Travers and Jane Darwell are a down to earth priest and his wife who run the missionary school.
Before long we end up at the Sish Mahal palace which some of these characters would die to get into and to which others just get invited. However those wannabees would be shocked at how free of snobbery the place is. Here's where we (and Tom Ransome) meet Lord and Lady Esketh, a fascinating pairing of Myrna Loy with Nigel Bruce. Lord Esketh is an unpleasant coward and his Lady is happy to sleep with anyone she can find as long as it isn't him. Best of all are the Maharajah and Maharani, who are joyous characters, as you might expect given the actors playing them: H B Warner and Maria Ouspenskaya. Her potent Russian accent is utterly out of place in an Indian palace but other than that she's a joy.
And around these characters weaves a melodramatic story that isn't worth a heck of a lot. While Fern Simon throws herself at Tom Ransome, his old flame, now Lady Esketh, throws herself at Major Safti. His Lordship is ill, but still keeping a track of who she may be sleeping with. And none of this matters at all. Luckily there's that Oscar win for special effects, which we wonder about for a while and then realise it was utterly earned. We don't just have plenty of rain, once it arrives, but an earthquake to boot, one that takes out the dam that sits conveniently just above the town, thus causing a major flood. Plague isn't far behind and fire too. The destruction is massive and the loss of life great and Mother Nature quickly and ably shows us how small all the people are in this film. The question of course is whether those small people realise it too, which generally they do.
The story isn't far off being a waste of time but somehow it draws us in. Mostly I think it's because the acting is solid if not spectacular. After all the spectacle here belongs to the work of Nature and the special effects team and there's not much room left for scene stealing. Myrna Loy is the biggest name and she does an excellent job in a role that is notably unlike her usual parts. She's a good person, but one who doesn't find her true self until circumstances force her into it. This is my fiftieth Myrna Loy and I don't recall ever seeing her act with her body as much as she does here.
Tyrone Power is a decent Rama Safti but he fades into the background a little too easily. George Brent, as the glue between everything here, is superb. He was always great at flouting convention without offering disrespect and that's a fine line to walk. He walks it well throughout this film. Brenda Joyce is as doe eyed as she's supposed to be and it's the character that's frequently annoying rather than the actress. Nigel Bruce could always bluster with the best of them but does so with a notably nasty streak here. I think it's Maria Ouspenkaya who will stay with me most though, even though her accent is utterly wrong. She plays an intelligent and principled woman with power, concern and decency. She wields her authority wonderfully.
Stars: Bette Davis and Franchot Tone
Here's one that's eluded me for a long time. Before Bette Davis had her famous five year run of Oscar nominations (1939-1943), she found recognition twice: as a write in candidate in 1935 for Of Human Bondage and as an official nomination in 1936 for Dangerous, which brought her the first of two wins. She was a blistering presence on the screen in the thirties, because she was trying to prove that she was a real actress worth more than the gun moll and cheap floozy roles that Warner Brothers kept casting her in.
She's playing a real actress too, however fictional. She's Joyce Heath, apparently one of the great stage actresses of the day but one who has sunk to the point where she's not even employable because she's seen in the industry as a jinx. We first meet her in the street, where she even denies who she really is to someone who recognises her. Talking about her with his group of friends, we hear all sorts of glowing reviews. She's 'vitally tempestuous.' She's 'too brilliant, too startling for a star.' She's also the reason why one of them, Don Bellows, gave up on his future career on Wall Street and became an architect. Merely watching her on stage, from the back of the theatre, imbued him with the urge to create.
However they also hear about why she's no longer employed. Apparently a co-star died on stage, then bad things began to happen to everyone else she appeared with: divorces, deaths, injuries, nothing good. So she descended the career ladder from the top to the bottom, finding solace only at the bottom of a bottle. It's at the bottom of a bottle that Don Bellows finds her, after escaping from a dull party and ending up in Jerry's Joint, where Joyce Heath is getting drunk on cheap gin at a table on her own. He takes her home to attempt to sober her up and get her back on her feet, but of course as the title would suggest, that's a dangerous thing to do, especially for someone engaged to be married.
Davis gives a powerful performance, which is as unsurprising as unsurprising can be. Personally I don't think it quite touches her work a year earlier in Of Human Bondage, but it's powerful stuff and the win isn't an unfair one. Bette Davis thought that she won in compensation for not being nominated for Of Human Bondage (she was a write-in candidate) and that Katharine Hepburn should have won for Alice Adams. I watched Alice Adams on Kate's 100th birthday and thought she gave a wonderful performance as a character that wasn't worth a damn in a film I despised. I wouldn't want to be responsible for picking between Hepburn and Davis for that Oscar, but I'd take Dangerous over Alice Adams any day of the week.
Don Bellows is played by Franchot Tone, who received his sole nomination himself in the same year but for Mutiny on the Bounty rather than this film. That's not surprising, not because he's bad because he's far from it, but because the role he has is not a surprising one for him and one that hardly stretches his talents. Mostly he provides the buffer for Bette Davis to act against, and when he's not there Alison Skipworth does the same thing as his housekeeper. The other name here is Margaret Lindsay as Gail Armitage, Bellows's fiancée, and she's fine as always but only there as a plot convenience.
This film has a place in Hollywood legend beyond the acting and the Oscar: it's apparently the real beginning of the legendary Bette Davis/Joan Crawford rivalry that lasted until their deaths and generated such sparks in films like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Apparently Davis fell for Tone while making this film but he was already engaged to Crawford. The rivalry was already there but here is where it became the thing of legend.