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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)

Director: Nathan Hertz
Stars: Allison Hayes and William Hudson

When The Amazing Colossal Man did so well at the box office in 1957 for Bert I Gordon, it was surely no surprise to find other filmmakers promptly cashing in on its success with similar films. The one I remember most fondly from my youth was Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, made a year later by Woolner Brothers (no, not Warner Brothers), with a female lead, clad in appropriately draped bedsheets to keep her modest. Made for $88,000, it grossed well over five times that, enough to prompt sequel discussions, in colour and with a much higher budget, but it never got past the script stage. Unfortunately it isn't that great a film. Perhaps my fond memory of it was enhanced by the poster, which is one of the greatest and most subtly sexual movie posters ever made. The artist was Reynold Brown, who was reponsible for many great exploitation posters such as Creature from the Black Lagoon, I Was a Teenage Werewolf and This Island Earth.

While the poster and the title advertise this as a monster movie, it takes a long while for Allison Hayes to grow to her huge and stunningly inconsistent size. For the most part it's a movie about normal sized monsters, of the cheating variety. 'Harry, what would your wife say?' asks Honey Parker of her boyfriend Harry Archer as we begin. His wife, to whom he's returned after a brief separation, entirely so he can get his hands on some of her fifty million bucks, says 'Aaah!' but not why you think. There's a science fiction component here: 'a strange red fireball' comes out of the sky while she's driving down Route 66 and lands in front of her, like Rover from The Prisoner. A giant emerges to reach for the diamond around her neck. It simply isn't Nancy Archer's day: she has to deal both with a cheating lowlife husband and a giant from outer space. Of course not a soul believes her because they know that she's spent time in a private sanitarium.

Allison Hayes was a regular in genre pictures of the fifties and sixties, not just horror movies like The Undead, Zombies of Mora Tau and The Crawling Hand, but also westerns, films noir and spy flicks. The poster for this film is an undoubted highlight of her career but the character itself was unfortunately not quite what it should have been. As Nancy Archer, she's a rich woman dealing with her love for a man who doesn't deserve it, shamelessly cavorting with mercenary blonde Honey Parker in a small town where everyone surely knew everyone else. In another film she'd have shot him dead or conjured up the forces of evil to take care of him, but here she flounders around until she's contaminated by alien radiation and she becomes the fifty foot woman of the title. Only now does she feel safe in dealing with Harry, by reversing the iconic shot from King Kong, the giant woman reaching through the window for the normal sized gorilla.
Initially the story builds neatly as a B movie melodrama and it had all the potential to become a feminist landmark, but it loses its way. While Archer flounces around with her feelings instead of doing something about them, Yvette Vickers has no such restraint as Honey Parker. She's a sleazy piece of work from moment one, cuddling up with another woman's husband in public and needling him to bump her off for the money. She does it blisteringly well: she's a dynamo and she knows how to walk the walk and talk the talk, sashaying and pressuring in equal measure. No wonder Stephen King ranked her as one of his matinée idols. Like Hayes, she made a number of genre pictures: Reform School Girl and I, Mobster preceded this one, and Attack of the Giant Leeches would arrive in 1959, a year after being a Playmate of the Month. The pair work well as opposites: one wishywashy and emotional, the other ruthless and determined.

The script should have had them face off against each other for more than just a single lopsided, albeit satisfying, scene. Hayes and Vickers both had the looks and the acting chops to make it a battle to relish over an hour and a bit of running time. Sure, the alien radiation could have given Hayes the edge but the battle should have been raging for a long while before that ever became a factor. Instead they fail to even connect, possibly not even sharing a scene until the finalé, so we're stuck with Harry instead as the connection between the two. William Hudson is capable as Harry Archer, but nothing more. We don't like him, for sure, but he doesn't have the charisma to make us truly despise him as we should. 'You're all I have,' his wife tells him, in her mansion with her devoted butler and world famous Star of India diamond. Everything should have been there for us to hate him with a passion, like a great wrestling heel, but he's too inconsequential.

In fact the easiest male character to focus on is Sheriff Dubbitt's deputy Charlie, played by Frank Chase in his last year in the movie business. Credited in less than half his movies, this was still his 25th of 26 pictures, and he's as much a bundle of dim witted energy as Hayes is a bundle of nerves. A small town cop in every way, Charlie is still much more noticeable than his boss, who is simply in the picture, and more than any of the male actors up to the lead. William Hudson is here presumably because he'd played the doctor in The Amazing Colossal Man, as it can never hurt to steal some of the cast from the movie you're ripping off. Yet even when about to murder his wife with an overdose, we're still thinking about Deputy Charlie dancing with Honey down at Tony's Bar and Grill. Other actors like Ray Gordon or Otto Waldis do exactly as they're expected but nothing more. It's sad when the small town deputy dominates the male cast.

What surprised me most was how much buildup this story had before the fit hits the shan. There is suspense, this monster movie being far more carefully plotted than most, but there are no real surprises. It's pulp stuff, right down to the spaceship the sheriff and the butler end up on, with its glass fishbowls with suspended diamonds. How the thirty foot bald, translucent, alien giant fits in this normal sized spaceship I have no idea, with or without his crusader costume, but scale is off consistently here. The story really is a deadly B movie melodrama with a dollop of sci-fi until the very end, when the giant Nancy wakes up and tears off the roof to wreak violent revenge on her husband. It's satisfying to urge on the monster for good reason, not only because the good guys are so annoying. The ending is the wish fulfilment fantasy for victimised women that the whole of the movie should have been. If only it had been as good as the poster.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Navy Blues (1929)

Director: Clarence Brown
Stars: William Haines, Anita Page, Karl Dane and J C Nugent

For his first sound film, William Haines returned yet again to a military setting, which always felt strange to me, especially given the surreal ongoing saga that is 'don't ask, don't tell'. It isn't only that Haines was gay, it was that he was obviously gay. In real life he continually incensed studio executives by refusing to deny his homosexuality, going so far as to live openly in a committed gay relationship with his partner, Jimmie Shields, a fifty year relationship that lasted his lifetime and cost him his movie career. On screen he isn't stereotypical or flamboyant, but he exhibits so many quintessentially gay mannerisms that it never ceased to amaze me how often his studio put him into uniform. In 1926 it was Tell It to the Marines, in 1928 West Point, now in 1929 Navy Blues. He even ended his screen career on Poverty Row with another military role in 1934's The Marines are Coming. Of course, on screen he was officially a ladies' man, so realism be damned.

His previous picture was Speedway, released earlier in 1929, and it's fascinating to compare his last silent movie with the first he made with sound, not least because the three main actors in many ways reprise the same parts they played in that film. Haines is Jack Kelly, the practical joker of his particular battleship, yet another opportunity for him to chase the ladies, antagonise the men and run through the inevitable story arc once more in ways that would cause his arrest today. If a real sailor acted like this they would spend most of their time in the brig. To be fair, he's a lot more sympathetic here than he was in Speedway, his inevitable fall from grace is a lot less powerful or direct and his just as inevitable redemption is more believable and worthy, but that doesn't mean that Kelly ends up fundamentally different from any of the other characters Haines had played over the previous decade or so.

Most of his jokes are unsurprisingly perpetrated on his friend, Sven Swanson, yet another chance for Karl Dane to haul out the tough but dumb Swede persona that he had been wearing for even longer than Haines had been playing practical jokers. Dane gets more screen time here than he did in Speedway, especially early on, but that merely helps to highlight just how thick his Danish accent was, the primary reason for the collapse of his career. Many actors lost their careers with the advent of sound, because they didn't speak English, because they didn't sound as audiences expected or because they weren't intelligible to a wide audience. Dane fits in the latter category, an English speaking foreigner who couldn't have pulled off a major part without substantial voice training. However this film suggests that he could have stayed on screen as was, merely in much smaller roles, similar to this one where his 6' 3½" bulk is more important than his voice.

Dane's decline was so tragic that he became one of the most referenced examples in Hollywood history. He had found fame in The Big Parade in 1925 and major roles in La Bohème, The Scarlet Letter and Son of the Sheik brought him to a salary of $1,500 a week, but in less than a decade he would be penniless and dead by his own hand, unable to persuade MGM to give him even $5 a day as an extra or carpenter. His Danish accent may have been the catalyst for his decline, but the stories don't include the many other factors that contributed. He worked through a nervous breakdown and suffered from a bout of pneumonia, a relationship with a crazy Russian dancer and the loss of all his mining investments to fraud. A return to vaudeville failed and even menial jobs didn't work out, including the famous hot dog stand that wasn't really in front of the gates of MGM. When a pickpocket took his last $18, he locked his door and shot himself dead.
Perhaps the most tragic thing about Dane's story is that it doesn't seem unlikely for a character he might play. So often he was the big man that everyone else took advantage of, whether that be his gold rush partner in The Trail of '98 who manoeuvred him into doing both their jobs or his shipmate here fleecing him of his dance partner and his pay. Dane played big and dumb, Haines played small and bright, even though he was six feet tall, a sort of prototype for the fast talking con man that Lee Tracy would soon master in the precodes. Sure enough, it's Dane's character who's matched with Anita Page's at a Ladies Uplift Society dinner dance that the crew attend, but it's Haines who leaves with her in yet another astounding display of insolent insubordination. He manhandles her emotions unashamedly during his ship's leave. Caught up in a whirl, Allie Brown leaves her family for him, only for him to put her up in a hotel and go back on board ship.

Anita Page was so frequently a romantic interest for Haines that he proposed to her for real in 1932, during the shooting of Are You Listening? It wasn't serious, of course, but it demonstrates how close they were as friends that when Louis B Mayer piled on the pressure for him to enter into a lavender marriage, that he chose her to ask. I wonder if Mayer was a contributing factor to her declining his proposal, given that 1932 was also the year that her own MGM contract lapsed, apparently because she rejected Mayer's sexual advances. Like Haines and Dane, she's given a much more substantial part here than in Speedway, one that leads her round a rollercoaster of an ethical story arc, from a virtuous daughter to a taxi dancer, or paid dance partner, a common precode metaphor for prostitute, then finally back to reconciliation with her family in the finalé. While Haines's character finds redemption, for a change he shares it with his leading lady.

I'd call the plot a simple one, but compared to Speedway it's deep. However nobody watches a William Haines movie to be enlightened, they come to watch his schtick. Audiences must have liked what they saw because this slightly more sympathetic version of his usual routine sped him on the way to even greater success. A year later he was the biggest male box-office draw in all of Hollywood, something that must have stuck in Louis B Mayer's craw. He shares the film better than usual here too, giving Dane and especially Page opportunities to shine. Dane gets to fight on a few occasions, one brief scene in the lobby of the Garden Cabaret being a gem. He knocks out the doorman and pulls down a chandelier to use as a prop in knocking out plenty more. Page carries the dramatic side of the picture, though she's not as sympathetic as she should be. All in all, it's a great step back up after Speedway for all concerned, but still not enough.

Speedway (1929)

Director: Harry Beaumont
Stars: William Haines, Anita Page, Ernest Torrence and Karl Dane

Speedway is an unfortunate movie. As a piece of entertainment, it fails on every level except the acting, the cast members trotting out their standard routines yet again without anything new to keep it fresh. Only one plays against type, the rest so in character that we often feel like we're watching stock footage. Yet it maintains a great deal of historic value, both to race fans and film fans. Race fans will appreciate that it's set at the Indianapolis racetrack, with the cooperation of the Indianapolis Speedway Association and the participation of some of the racers. Much of the end of the film is comprised of footage from the Indy 500 in 1929. Film fans will see this not only as the last silent movie William Haines made, but as something of a who's who of silent stars, almost all of whom were closing in on the end of their careers, though for very different reasons. Only one of these silent legends became known as a sound era actor.

Haines was capable enough, as can plainly be seen in his first sound film, Navy Blues, released later the same year. The public certainly thought so too, as he was the top male box-office draw of 1930. His career ended simply because he refused to leave his lover, Jimmie Shields, when Louis B Mayer, the most important man in Hollywood and Haines's boss at MGM, ordered him to do so. Haines and Shields remained together for over fifty years, Joan Crawford calling them 'the happiest married couple in Hollywood', but his final film was The Marines are Coming in 1934. Blacklisted from the screen, he became instead the most notable interior decorator to the stars. More traditionally, the career of Karl Dane, his foil in so many movies and the butt of his pranks both here and in Navy Blues, ended because of his thick Danish accent. Rasmus Karl Therkelsen Gottlieb became Karl Dane in Hollywood just as I'd have become Charlie English.
It's these two we see first, Haines apparently driving through the streets in a racecar to wow the crowds but in reality being towed by Dane to the Indianapolis racetrack. Haines isn't even the driver, he's just the mechanic, but, 'according to Bill Whipple's impression of Bill Whipple,' the intertitle suggests, 'nobody had anything on Bill Whipple but Bill Whipple.' If I'd had no context at all, I'd still have known that Bill Whipple would be played by William Haines, that's how close it is to his formula of frivolous arrogance. Dane is Dugan, another employee of Jim MacDonald, played by Ernest Torrence. MacDonald is a sympathetic character, perhaps the only one in the film, both as a father figure to the orphaned Whipple and as the underdog of the picture, given that he's raced in every Indy 500 since it began but is zero for seventeen thus far. This is his last attempt to win it because his heart won't hold out too much longer.

Torrence is the one actor playing against type. A veteran silent actor, he was best known for villainous roles, not least opposite Richard Barthelmess in Tol'able David and as Captain Hook in the 1924 version of Peter Pan. His career ended in the most emphatic way possible in 1933 when he died after surgery to remove gallstones, otherwise he'd have done fine in the sound era. He played Moriarty to Clive Brook's Holmes in 1932 and his last role, a year later, was as Claudette Colbert's father in I Cover the Waterfront. Quality didn't necessarily mean a successful transition though, as leading lady Anita Page discovered. The year she made this film she was known as 'the girl with the most beautiful face in Hollywood' and she received 10,000 fan letters per week, numbers behind only Greta Garbo's. Yet, as she told it, this merely led to sexual advances from Louis B Mayer and his right hand man, Irving Thalberg, so her contract was cancelled in 1932.

Neither Torrence nor Page get much to do here, though both get more than Dane. All of them are only really in the picture as props for Haines, who runs roughshod over all of them, as he tended to do. It's hard to describe to modern audiences what Haines did. Simply suggesting he was one of the first wisecracking leads doesn't cover it because it was the sheer degree to which he went that characterised him most. Perhaps the best comparison today would be to one of Jim Carrey's caricatures, but he was more realistic, while being just as intensely annoying. His idea of a chat up line is, 'What a break for you! You met me!' His romantic style falls into the modern definition of 'stalker', both mentally and physically. He sticks to the woman he chooses like chewing gum on their boot and, if she frees herself of him briefly, he has no compunction in lying down in the road ahead of her car, pretending death, so he can reattach himself when she rescues him.
What kept these antics from being unbearable is that his story arc always involved him falling seriously from grace, then finding redemption at the end of the picture. Speedway provides him with a less emphatic redemption than normal, but the script is notably more slight than similar films he made around this time. The stunts he pulls provide mild repercussions early, like when he climbs into another woman's car to chat her up, only to leave when he discovers she's the daughter of a policeman, but those repercussions build until he's shamelessly manipulated by the villain into betraying those he cares about, only to be promptly thrust into the shame corner when his talents are no longer required. That leaves us with a sentimental and unbelievable Indy 500 to finish off the film, with an even more sentimental and unbelievable ending. Then again, we're only shown two teams so a suspenseful race was never on the cards.

MacDonald's competition on the track comes in the form of another great Hollywood villain, John Miljan, who is on very safe territory here as the villainous Lou Renny, so villainous that we want to hiss at him as we would at Dick Dastardly. Miljan was the only major cast member to survive more than a few years in the sound era and was coincidentally the most experienced with sound, having narrated the trailer to The Jazz Singer in 1927, thus predating Al Jolson's groundbreaking words in that film. He would still be in demand in the late fifties after over two hundred movies, his last role being the chief in The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold in 1958. With Haines utterly dominant, the script almost forgets Miljan, even though the young lady that Whipple sets his sights on, Pat Bonner, is supposedly Renny's fiancée. By the time he actually does anything, that plot strand has disappeared utterly, making us wonder if we heard right to begin with.
It's stunning to watch all these silent legends sidelined so ruthlessly. It isn't just Page, Torrence, Dane and Miljan, but others too. Eugenie Besserer is MacDonald's wife, surprisingly briefly given that her screen career stretched as far back as playing Auntie Em in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1910. Like her screen husband here, death soon ended her career. Polly Moran is almost as underused, though she had been one of Mack Sennett's most consistent comediennes for a decade and a half. She got a surprising lease of life in the early sound era, teaming up with Marie Dressler, but then lapsed out of fashion and into bit parts as the thirties ran on. All we get is Haines, as in your face as he ever was, but less funny and more annoying. Even when Pat gets him up in the air for some aerobatic retribution, she loses a wing and he ends up saving the day with the only parachute. Without believable redemption, Haines can be unbearable.

And with even Haines fans potentially giving up on this clunker, the only reason for them to stay with the film is the race footage. It is fascinating to watch professional motor racing this old, as it bears very little resemblance to anything seen today, not least because the cars are tall and thin with big wheels far out from the body. They look dangerous, even before we see the crashes, so it's not surprising to find that one driver, Bill Spence, died during the race and the winner, Ray Keech, died sixteen days later in a 200 mile race at Altoona. Through synchronised sound, we're treated to plenty of engine noise to accompany the race footage, but modern technology like on car cameras has spoiled us and so we're hardly immersed in the race. The camera does venture onto the track, capably but never consistently. Unfortunately, with the story so disappointing and most of the stars so underused, it's a shame that we have to wait so long for the race.

Monday, 27 June 2011

A Feather in Her Hat (1935)

Director: Alfred Santell
Stars: Pauline Lord, Basil Rathbone, Louis Hayward, Billie Burke and Wendy Barrie

One of those thirties movies so eager to advertise that it was sourced from literature that its title card is the book, A Feather in Her Hat ended up as little more than a curiosity and a filmography filler. The lead is Pauline Lord, a stage actress I'd never heard of who only appeared in two films: this and Mrs Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, released a year earlier, suggesting that while she may have picked her roles well on stage, she didn't manage it with film. I was more interested in the rest of the cast though, especially her immediate support. This is the only one of the seven movies Basil Rathbone made in 1935 that I haven't yet seen, a great year for him with a Garbo picture, two Dickens adaptations and a gloriously villainous turn in Captain Blood, among others. Louis Hayward, Billie Burke and Wendy Barrie round out the major names in major roles, and much further down the credits is a young David Niven, earning only his second credit in six films.

In Hyde Park, London, in 1925, a man complains to a crowd about how nobody has any money in the Depression. Capt Randolph Courtney is talked into addressing them too, but as well spoken as he is, he only gets through a few rambling insults before the drink in him knocks him out flat. He's Rathbone, of course, and he's a little fond of the bottle. He's rescued by Clarissa Phelps of Clarissa's Corner Shop, to which she takes him after the crowd disperses, mostly because of his speech about how any child can move up in the world just through the powers of dedication and education. Sure enough, after ten years of his help, her son Richard does just that. Unlike the 11 year old Richard, this version is well spoken and well dressed. He's even a playwright. And here, as he turns 21, he and we are both shocked by a number of surprises that come completely out of nowhere in a very capable way. The writing here is massively inconsistent, but often great.

Apparently his name is really Richard Orland, or something like that. She isn't his mother; that was an actress she won't name. She gives him a bank book with a thousand pounds of balance. And she asks him to leave. In fact he must leave, because she's done her part and that was the agreement. I really wasn't expecting this turn of events and neither was Capt Courtney. While Clarissa stays mum, the captain helps young Richard to track down his real family, discovering through her old correspondence that she used to work as a maid for an actress called Julia Trent, whose husband was an explorer who was lost in the Arctic. Now she's Julia Trent Anders and it's her house in which Richard rents a room and we meet the rest of the key members of the cast. Julia is as dizzy as you would expect for any character played by Billie Burke; and Pauline Anders, her stepdaughter, is a live wire, energetically portrayed by an excellent Wendy Barrie.

For his part, Louis Hayward exhibits plenty of sophistication, three years before he would play the Saint. It's a curiosity that two of the three well spoken Englishmen in this film were South African, both Rathbone and Hayward born in Johannesburg. Only David Niven was English. To extend that notion, none of these Englishwomen were English either, whether well spoken or not. Wendy Barrie was born in Hong Kong, though of English heritage. Burke was American, but belonged to a high enough circle to hide her accent. Pauline Lord was American too, as was the admirable Cockney slip of a girl who competes with Barrie for Richard's attentions. She's Nydia Westman, and with Lord she was my discovery here, though I have seen her before in Bulldog Drummond movies. Remarkably given this international array of talent, the English setting is thoroughly believable, as is the central conflict between landed and working classes.
I found the film to be very awkward as a whole, though I was fascinated throughout. Mostly I was enthralled by the excellent acting, not only by those I watched to see but those I hadn't heard of. Pauline Lord does excellent work as Clarissa Phelps, with a H in front of every word she can find, making me wonder what could have been if she'd have decided to stay on the screen. Originally the part was aimed at Ruth Chatterton, who would not have been as good. Wendy Barrie shines. Her costumes should have swamped her role entirely but they don't. Nydia Westman refuses to leave our attention, even though she's by definition a drab and inconsequential character when compared to the rest. Billie Burke sparkles and warbles, but not in any way we don't expect. On the male side of the cast, Hayward does a solid job as Richard, capably embracing the mystery at the centre of his existence, namely who he really is.

Unfortunately the writing is truly schizophrenic, perhaps highlighted best by the fact that the mystery we wonder most about is the background of Rathbone's character. He doesn't get the time to develop Capt Courtney fully, but we're fascinated nonetheless. He plays older than his 43 years, obviously of the upper classes and just as obviously fallen, but not so far that he isn't an admirable fish out of water. He walks with a cane and a stagger and he's rarely without a glass or a bottle in his hand, but he never appears as drunk as his first scene. Yet while we discover who Richard really is, we don't get the same revelation for the captain. Strangely, for a film that revolves around a character who writes for a living, it's full of promise that the writing can't quite keep a focus on. It keeps our interest and on occasion keeps us engrossed, but it's hard to grasp quite where it's going at any point.

There's the mystery of who Richard really is and who his mother really is. There are two vaguely romantic subplots: Clarissa and Capt Courtney, then Richard and either Pauline Anders or Emily Judson, two lovely girls from completely different classes. There are plot changes that come out of the blue, beyond the revelations of Richard's 21st birthday. At one point he's involved in a cab accident in the fog, prompting the clash of his two lives. Clarissa's health is an undercurrent throughout the film that we mostly ignore until it's too big to do so. There's also the return to the stage of Julia Trent, in a play that Richard writes for her. The film only runs 72 minutes but these myriad plots make us wonder which we should focus on. The script wonders too, as the finalé apparently aims to but forgetfully fails to tidy up all loose ends. Whether that's the fault of I A R Wylie's source novel or Lawrence Hazard's adaptation, it's still a serious but fascinating failure.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

The Son-Daughter (1932)

Director: Clarence Brown
Stars: Helen Hayes and Ramon Novarro

A century or so ago a western fascination with the Orient arose, almost as if the creative minds at the time suddenly noticed that there was an entire other race of people mingling with them on a daily basis. So up sprang the yellow peril pulps, inscrutable detective tales and tragic Oriental dramas, which pretended at tolerance but often found themselves the most racist of all. Here's a great example: to explore a quintessentially Chinese quandary are a host of westerners whose names fail to inspire confidence. It was adapted by John Goodrich and Claudine West from a play by George M Scarborough and David Belasco, with dialogue by Leon Gordon. The cast similarly shuns able ethnic actors of the day, like Anna May Wong or Sessue Hayakawa, for westerners, whether used to yellowface, like Lewis Stone, Warner Oland and H B Warner, or not, such as Helen Hayes, First Lady of the American Theater, and Ramon Navarro, son of a Mexican dentist.

During a popular rebellion against the Manchu dynasty, we find ourselves among sympathisers in San Francisco 'while Imperial hatchet men, hirelings of the tyrant, watched and sprang from furtive corners.' One prominent sympathiser, Sin Kai, is tasked with bribing American sailors to smuggle weapons back to China. He's played by the ever respectable H B Warner, one of the few westerners who could almost get away with acting in yellowface, most famously in Lost Horizon. His nemesis is Fen Sha, the Sea Crab, who has become the richest gambler in Chinatown partly by selling out his countrymen to the Emperor's envoy. He's Warner Oland, who despite being Swedish had played eastern roles as far back as Mandarin's Gold in 1919 and he would continue to do so throughout his career. This stereotypical villain role came after three turns as a more surprisingly believable villain, Fu Manchu, and three of his sixteen outings as Charlie Chan.
I had some vague expectation that The Son-Daughter was a well regarded film of the time that had merely aged terribly. What I found with Oland's early scenes is that it's a pulp adventure in delusion about being a work of art. After watching the Sea Crab open fire on the plotters, then torture them with an inane grin on his face, I couldn't take it seriously, and that's before we get to the leads. Trust me, while I could never buy Oland as Oriental, he's leagues ahead of what we see in the early scenes with Helen Hayes, Lewis Stone and Ramon Navarro. Hayes is Lian Wha, known as Star Blossom, and she sounds about as Chinese as I do. Lewis Stone is her father, the unfortunately named Dr Dong Tong, and he is much like Lewis Stone usually is, whatever race he's playing. Ramon Novarro looks painfully like Peter Sellers as university student Tom Lee, especially as he's so adoring of Star Blossom from afar that he walks into lamp posts.

The courtship between these two is so giddy and overblown that it's acutely painful to see. Their first actual meeting, after many slipped notes, sets us in motion with neither Hayes nor Navarro able to shed their accents. Tom Lee is supposed to be native born Chinese, whose father sent him to college in the US to prepare for the new China, yet he sounds like the Mexican American that he was. Hayes does a far better job than Katharine Hepburn, Luise Rainer or Renée Adorée in yellowface, and she does improve as the film runs on, but to begin with she's embarrassing, as stereotypically fragile an Oriental flower as could be conjured up in nightmare. The best thing about their love is that it's doomed. Sin Kai comes to Dong Tong to ask for $25,000, a quarter of the $100,000 he needs to continue to bribe the smugglers. He doesn't have it, so he's asked to give his daughter up for betrothal to a rich merchant as any true patriot would.

And so to the conveniences, which riddle this script like holes in Swiss cheese. Dong Tong sells Lian Wha to the highest bidder, who is of course the dastardly Sea Crab. Useless Star Blossom magically transforms during the betrothal auction into a dangerous and courageous enemy to the Emperor. Sin Kai tells Dong Tong that the son of Prince Chun is in the city and of course that's Tom Lee. One more scene and his father is dead in a hail of Manchurian bullets. He must go home to take up his father's fight, but he doesn't. Sin Kai is captured by the bitter Fang Fou Hy, the Sea Crab's superior, the Emperor's envoy, and brings him to the Sea Crab's lair. Facing torture to give up Prince Chun he commits suicide with a poison Dong Tong has secreted under his fingernail. For some reason, H B Warner is replaced with a wax head just for a moment so Fang Fou Hy can throw tea in his face to prove his death.
And I'll give up here. I love pulp literature and I have a fondness for politically incorrect yellow peril stories, so I should be the target audience for something like this. Yet what in print can be an exotic tale of high adventure tends to become an offensive embarrassment on screen. Most of it is that that our imaginations can picture Fu Manchu however we like and we naturally go for authentic ethnicity. On film that's impossible, because Hollywood made insane casting decisions like rejecting the magnificently talented Chinese American actress Anna May Wong because she was too Chinese to play Chinese. So we get Helen Hayes and Ramon Navarro, H B Warner and Warner Oland, Lewis Stone and Ralph Morgan, even Louise Closser Hale as Toy Yah, confidante to Lian Wha and servant to Dr Dong Tong. Even imagining a better storyline with these actors becomes a painful concept, and the one we have is painful to begin with.

Not everything is bad here: the marriage procession is capable and the costumes are interesting. However this was an MGM film, the richest of the studios, and this is hardly the peak of their set design. Mostly it just goes horribly wrong. The music is as overblown as the story, which is worst of all. Writer George Scarborough filed a lawsuit against MGM over alterations to the play it was based on. It's not clear how that turned out, but the film's script doesn't fail at odd points, it fails consistently throughout. The casting is terrible, only Warner Oland winning out as the Sea Crab and then only through authenticity as a pulp villain not a Chinese gambler. The only fight scene is poorly handled. The romance is embarrassing. The tragedy is wasted. Even Clarence Brown's direction is uninspired though capable. I've found his films inconsistent: for every Flesh and the Devil or A Free Soul, there's an underwhelming star vehicle like Anna Christie or Chained.

The most interesting things I can relay about The Son-Daughter are things you wouldn't see if you watched the film. Apparently the crew used special lighting techniques to make Chinatown appear drab at night but gaudy by day, though I didn't notice this while watching. Instead it's a little exotic throughout with some elevation during the marriage procession. Just as with most Hollywood productions centered around Oriental themes, many genuine ethnic actors were cast as extras, probably with the aim of making the background look realistic even if the foreground didn't. There were many here and a full four hundred of them went on strike until they could be served the sort of food they expected. The lesson is that it's more interesting to read about The Son-Daughter than to watch it. You'd be honestly better off watching Warner Oland as Charlie Chan, Peter Lorre as Mr Moto or even Boris Karloff as Mr Wong.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Star Trek (2009)

Director: J J Abrams
Stars: John Cho, Ben Cross, Bruce Greenwood, Simon Pegg, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Winona Ryder, Zoë Saldana, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, Eric Bana and Leonard Nimoy

The J J Abrams reboot of Star Trek is a bright and shiny affair from moment one. It isn't just the action and the explosions, it's the light and the colour of it all too. The spectacle sucks us in but a brief moment when a crew member explodes into space suggests quality because, admirably, the sound disappears when we're outside. It reminds us to search for substance in this summer blockbuster, which has also been called a great film. It's still in the IMDb Top 250 two years on, but then so is Avatar which, as far as sci-fi blockbusters go, had precisely nothing beyond the bright and shiny. We wonder for a while as substitute captain Kirk orders an evacuation of the USS Kelvin, only to remain to fight off Capt Nero and his Romulans single handed while his wife gives birth in a corridor. The key is that the Capt Kirk we know is the baby being born not the man at the helm. I'm amazed mom doesn't say, 'He's dead, Jim' when inevitability arrives.

Next are introductions. The young James Tiberius Kirk runs his guardian's vintage car off a cliff trying to outrun a robot cop on a hoverbike, while Spock declines acceptance into the Vulcan Academy of Science when they suggest that his human mother was a disadvantage. He goes to Starfleet Academy instead. Uhura is already there, as Kirk discovers when she walks into an Iowa bar and he hits on her. She's under Capt Pike, who dares young Jim to do better than his father, a man who was a starship captain for only twelve minutes but who still saved eight hundred lives, including Jim's and his mother's. These introductions bode well, given that they're required to both introduce new characters to a new audience and re-establish those that many of us already know from a generation or two of background, while still throwing in some cool geeky details for hardcore fans to notice. The inclusion of Pike as mentor was a neat touch.

Star Trek has been around for a long time and has become the bedrock of popular science fiction on the screen. To highlight that, I turned forty this year but I wasn't even born when the original series aired on NBC. I did grow up watching the show though, then the next show and the films and people like me are going to watch this one with the aim of finding out how the characters we already know are introduced to the next generation, pun not intended. Everyone except Nurse Chapel arrives eventually, as the script contorts itself every which way it can to ensure that they do. Somehow a serious attack on the Federation from the future encompasses only the original series characters plus a single new villain, Capt Nero. To hint that there are plot conveniences is the understatement of the year, but half the fun here is watching to see how they do it. It's like a magic trick. We know we're being fooled but we want to try to figure out how.
Bones shows up next, on the shuttle Jim takes after he decides to sign up for officer training. Karl Urban does the best job of connecting to the original character, believable as a young DeForest Kelley, but the rest didn't do too badly. Chris Pine naturally gets most opportunity, but while Kirk was always unconventional, Pine plays him a little more maverick than I expected. He's certainly the focal point. Zachary Quinto was the most disappointing for me as Spock, though I wonder if this was inevitable because of the way his character was written. His story arc here relates to a struggle to determine whether he wants his human side or his Vulcan side to dominate. He goes for the Vulcan but he's obviously too human for it to work. There's potential for him to be great in the inevitable second film but he wasn't here. In fact when Leonard Nimoy turns up at a rather surprising moment, it only serves to underline Quinto's inadequacies.

Eventually there's the new bright and shiny flagship USS Enterprise, ever a character of its own. Pike is in charge, with Spock as his first officer. It's there we meet Sulu and seventeen year old Chekov, both already at their customary posts but very green. John Cho and Anton Yelchin have fun with their roles and make themselves noticed, growing as characters as the story runs on. Uhura and Bones are there too, quickly promoted as superiors die or their particular skills are needed. All fit what we might visualise as embryonic versions of the characters we know, but Zoë Saldana plays Uhura a little differently. She's a strong woman and a sex symbol, neither of which are surprising, but she doesn't seem remotely like a young Nichelle Nichols. Scotty is the last to arrive, halfway through the film after it jumps the shark. Simon Pegg gets least to do, as a deus ex machina to get Jim back onto the Enterprise, but he impresses from moment one.

I wasn't kidding about the film jumping the shark but it seems to revel in it, perhaps because of what it's trying to do. There's an important thing to know here, one that I wasn't aware of before watching. This is a reboot to an established franchise, like so many other films nowadays, but it isn't the usual safe and pointless remake. It boldly goes where nobody quite expected it to go, unafraid to change fundamentals, and had I been more of a fan than I am I'd have noticed that from the opening scene. For half the film, I didn't buy into the suspense, because this is the past and I knew which characters would be alive in the future. Yet when Capt Nero destroys the entire planet of Vulcan, I was shocked into realising that this is not the Star Trek we know. This is an alternate universe Star Trek, one in which sacred cows are slain and we can't be sure of what might happen next. The suspense returns because the future is suddenly open.
There's an underlying theme of cheating in the story, beginning with the famous Kobayashi Maru test which Kirk passes by reprogramming the simulation in his version of the Gordian knot. Here, Spock is the original programmer and they meet for the first time in front of Starfleet Academy to argue about the ethics of what was done. It's all about cheating and that theme returns over and over again. I can't help but see the entire film as a cheat, a deliberate one from scriptwriters who were firmly on Kirk's side of that argument. They know where they want their story to end up and they are utterly willing to cheat in every way possible to ensure that it gets there. I don't necessarily like everything they did but I can't help but admire how bold Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman were to attempt this. Given what director J J Abrams has been doing with Fringe over the last season, also with Nimoy, I can't help but see comparisons.

I don't buy into this version of Star Trek being a great film. It's certainly leagues ahead of Avatar but it has obvious flaws beyond any geek discussion about how beloved characters were treated. The overblown choral music and some floating platform set design are clichés. The stunts are over the top. Plot conveniences are omnipresent and at some points blatant. The central plot is inevitably underdeveloped with a new franchise in mind and so many characters to re-introduce. Yet I think it succeeds for the most part. It's thoughtful as well as dynamic, as any Star Trek story should be. Its two hours whiz by in a flash, with plenty of action. There are fun new gadgets like retractable parachutes, most of the expected catchphrases and some fun references: we watch Jim in bed with a girl with green skin, there's a running joke about Uhura's first name and the red shirt arrives exactly when we expect him. It definitely bodes well for the 2012 sequel.

Monday, 20 June 2011

The Cyclops (1957)

Director: Bert I Gordon
Stars: James Craig, Gloria Talbott, Lon Chaney and Tom Drake

Back in the fifties, if you wanted giants you watched movies by Bert I Gordon, whose initials were tellingly BIG. He started off big with prehistoric monsters in 1955's King Dinosaur, then followed up with giant grasshoppers in Beginning of the End in 1957. The Cyclops was when he first used a giant human being, the title character who is 25 feet tall, but it really underlined his career, as his second of six films in two years, which also included The Amazing Colossal Man and War of the Colossal Beast. He'd return to giants often in his films, whether human or not, with pictures like Earth vs The Spider, Village of the Giants and The Food of the Gods. Only occasionally would he go the other way, shrinking characters in Attack of the Puppet People, but rarest of all were attempts to leave everybody the size they should be. It's almost like Mr BIG, as Forrest Ackerman called him, just didn't want to see anyone normal sized.

The Cyclops is fun even during the opening credits, as each page is hammered onto the screen with its own crescendo. When the music dies down, we find ourselves in the Mexican town of Guayjorm, where an American lady, Susan Winter, is still looking for her fiancé, Bruce Barton, after his plane crashed three years earlier. She's played by Gloria Talbott, who initially looks a little unfortunately like Roddy McDowall playing a nun. Later she's more reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn, which is never a bad comparison to make for an actress. Her trip is hindered by the governor, who doesn't want adventurers exploring the local mountains, and that's who he sees in her party of four. None of the rest believe that Barton could still be alive, even his friend Russ Bradford, a toxicologist played by James Craig. He got top billing, though he's trying a little too hard to be a cheap Clark Gable in Clark Kent glasses. He likes Susan too, big time.

The others in the party are Lee Brand, the pilot, and Marty Melville, who's exploring for uranium deposits. Tom Drake is solid as Brand, who seems good at his job, though he's a little fond of the bottle and he apparently can't get a job anywhere else, having already failed in the oil business in Texas. After all this was 1957: four decades or so later and he could have become president. Melville's the real live wire, in the form of Lon Chaney Jr, appearing again without the Jr. He's a selfish and arrogant man, quick with his fists but a coward at heart. He's dumb enough to knock the pilot out during their flight, so down they go, conveniently in a location where Melville finds his uranium, but unfortunately in an area populated by giant creatures whose cells divide every 22 seconds thus stimulating constant growth. You won't be surprised to find that, having been stuck here for three years, Bruce Barton has become the 25 foot tall cyclops.
At least the first monsters we see are composited well, a giant lizard crawling behind a rock and a giant hawk catching a giant rat. That won't last. When our newcomers discover the inevitable monster battle, the combatants, a giant iguana and a giant gila monster, are half transparent, utterly ridiculous. While the cyclops may look a little ridiculous, not a real cyclops but a giant with a deformed face that has left only one eye visible, he's added into the frame well. However by this point we're at the caves in Bronson Canyon, a popular spot to shoot Hollywood films since the silent days, but one that bad movie fans can't help but recognise as Ro-Man's HQ in Robot Monster. However many movies use that very same cave entrance, which in 1957 alone also included Attack of the Crab Monsters and The Brain from Planet Arous, I never fail to see Ro-Man's bubble machine and that doesn't help the credibility of the picture I'm watching.

Duncan Parkin gets a thankless job as Barton, the Cyclops of the title. It's not the mask he has to wear, as cheap as it is, because it's actually quite memorable. It's the fact that he's stuck playing the character like a retarded kid without the power of speech, mumbling unintelligibly, no better than Tor Johnson in The Beast of Yucca Flats. He's a walking, talking monster, except the walking and talking are problematic. He does get to wrestle a giant snake at one point, but as we can see the tape wrapped round its mouth to make it less dangerous, the suspense is utterly lost. Parkin only ever worked for Gordon, starting out as a stagehand in Beginning of the End, progressing to the monster role in both The Cyclops and War of the Colossal Beast, the latter under the name Dean Parkin. I wonder if he ever wanted a part where he could talk and actually interact with the characters outside of the magic of special effects. We may never know.

Fortunately his fiancée from his normal sized life, Susan Winter, is a sassy lead, one who mounts this expedition to find him and runs it capably. Sure, she gets a few scream scenes but she's far from the usual born victim that women tended to be in films like this. Gloria Talbott wasn't used to horror and science fiction, but she proved willing and able to return to them, first for Daughter of Dr Jekyll, which ran with The Cyclops as a double bill, and then for I Married a Monster from Outer Space a year later. While James Craig gets the manly lead role and the top credit, he isn't really in charge at any point. He always defers to the lady, which is somewhat refreshing to see in what was often a sexist genre, even back in the fifties, where women showed up only to be either victims, eye candy or both. Seeing this soon after The Black Scorpion assured me that it wasn't always the case. Sometime women could be strong and capable, but still scream.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Tarantula (1955)

Director: Jack Arnold
Stars: John Agar, Mara Corday and Leo G Carroll

Having Jack Arnold's name on a creature feature in the fifties meant that it was going to be a cut above the rest. He'd made It Came fom Outer Space in 1953, which was an above average alien movie for the time, followed it up with Creature from the Black Lagoon and its first sequel, and then, if any doubt still remained as to his credentials, hammered the point home with Tarantula and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Just as you think he'd be stuck in monster movies, he proved a versatility to be admired by making notable film noir with Man in the Shadow, comedy with The Mouse That Roared and even bad seed material like High School Confidential! It would seem that he could do no wrong, but he did that too with Monster on the Campus. Even the best had a bad day once in a while, but with the record he had he could have made a dozen flops and still be a legendary director of pictures that looked bigger and more expensive than they were.

We begin with a man staggering out of the desert in striped pyjamas and what looks like an ape mask to die in front of the camera. It's either the sort of reality show I might actually watch or it's a fifties sci-fi B movie. He made it near enough to the highway for folks to find him. He might be biologist Eric Jacobs but he's not quite recognisable, so Sheriff Jack Andrews wants Doc Hastings to take a look at him to see. Hastings says it isn't. Prof Gerald Deemer disagrees, explaining that it's the disease Hastings thinks it is, but also that it ran its course in days instead of years, unlike any other known case in history. The doc doesn't buy it and so we're set for our story. Well, that and the animals we see in Deemer's lab. He's been injecting them with Nutrient Type 3Y which is making them grow: he has a guinea pig the size of a large dog and a tarantula that's larger still. He also has a deformed assistant who attacks him and inadvertently sets the creature free.

Well, what more do you need to know? We have a mad scientist with a pet monkey who thinks it might be a bright idea to turn tarantulas into giant monsters. He's already lost his assistant to a mysterious disease. A second man with the same disease tries to murder him and manages to wreck half the lab in the process, injecting him with his own formula too. With its tank smashed, the giant spider moseys on out into the Arizona desert to terrorise the local community, or what little of it there is: Deemer's lab is twenty miles out into nowhere for a reason. To save the day we have a clean cut small town doc and a beautiful biologist who arrives a little late to be the lab assistant of Dr Jacobs, late himself in a different sense of the word. There's a sheriff and a small town reporter. All the usual ingredients are here, but this is a Universal picture, the studio that invented the monster movie. They knew their formula well.
They cast their movie well too. Leo G Carroll lends a capable air to his mad scientist, making Prof Deemer less clichéd and less mad than expected. He has a valid aim, to head off food shortages he sees as imminent given the growing population of the planet. There are two billion already, he tells us, and that's going to climb, all the way to three and a half by the year 2000. It's scary when a mad scientist in a fifties B movie makes predictions that hindsight shows were notably underestimated. There were two billion people in 1920, reaching six by the turn of the century. Carroll was a major character actor for decades before he made this film and he'd go on to further successes, both in film and on television, such as The Man from UNCLE, which is where I first saw him. Whether you know him best as Alexander Waverly or for his roles in six Hitchcock films, this is certainly a change of pace for him. He gets some cool facial make up too.

As Dr Matt Hastings, John Agar is the epitome of the clean cut heroic lead of the fifties, following on from his lead role in Jack Arnold's Revenge of the Creature, earlier the same year, which set him on a firm career path. When this film was made, leading men needed to be level headed in every situation, calm and polite beyond all recognition, the imaginary sort who you would allow to take your daughter to the drive in and trust not to misbehave. Agar looks the part, sounds the part and that's why he ended up playing such characters for years. Unfortunately once Arnold wasn't helming his films, their quality sank quickly: 1956 saw him in The Mole People, 1957 in The Brain from Planet Arous, 1958 in Attack of the Puppet People. Perhaps his worst was 1959's Invisible Invaders, but there are quite a few to fight out that battle. This thankfully sits at the other end of his filmography, with the John Ford westerns he started out in.
Leading lady Mara Corday doesn't get much to do here except look pretty, which was hardly a stretch for her, a Playboy Playmate of the Month. She was a busy girl in the fifties, appearing in no less than 27 pictures in a mere eight years, but she'd retire in 1958 to raise a family. While Agar was emphasising his career path here, Corday was finding hers. Having been tormented by a giant tarantula, she would go on to face other huge creatures in The Giant Claw and The Black Scorpion, though the humungous flying turkey puppet in The Giant Claw can't remotely compare with the real tarantula Arnold put to use here. She returned to the screen decades later to play small roles in Clint Eastwood movies, just as he had played a small part in one of hers, this one. Here he leads a squadron of jets from Sands Air Force Base loaded up with rockets and napalm. Does he fire six rockets or only five? Let's just say he literally gets the last word.

Tarantula is a solid B movie throughout, simple but definitive, helping to establish a template for the hundreds more that followed in its wake over the next few years as a new wave of monster movies took the industry by storm. There's little to complain about, beyond the size of the role Mara Corday is given, but then this was 1955, when a woman's place was emphatically in the home, so she did well to be a capable and professional scientist. Prof Deemer doesn't protest the way a similar boss did three years later in The Strange World of Planet X. Of course the biggest star is the tarantula itself, not just in size but in presence, realistic because it was a real spider, guided over the landscape with air jets and shot with trick photography, effects that hold their own against similar creature features of the day. To see a better use of a giant spider, you could only go to The Incredible Shrinking Man, another Jack Arnold picture. He was that definitive.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Stage Fright (1950)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Wilding, Richard Todd and Alistair Sim

When I started watching Alfred Hitchcock seriously, I hit his filmography hard and quickly racked up forty of his pictures. It quickly got to the point where there were precious few left to discover except the very earliest ones. From The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934, I missed precisely 3 of 38, and I've found myself stuck there for years. Now, courtesy of TCM, I'm about to cross two of those off my list: 1950's Stage Fright and 1953's I Confess, leaving only Under Capricorn still to find. Why I Confess is so obscure I have no idea, but the others are the two films Hitch made back in the UK, long after his move to the US to make Rebecca. Consequently Stage Fright stars many of the great English scene stealers of the time: Alistair Sim, Sybil Thorndike, André Morell, Miles Malleson, Joyce Grenfell, Irene Handl, even Kay Walsh, who had divorced David Lean the previous year. Lionel Jeffries is omitted from that list only as this was his big screen debut.

Only the two leads are international: a rather strange combination of Jane Wyman and Marlene Dietrich. It's the latter we see first, opening the story in true Hitchcock style as Charlotte Inwood by stumbling into her boyfriend's house covered in blood and swearing that he's dead, 'he' being her husband, David. These opening scenes, which unfold in flashback as the boyfriend, Jonathan Cooper, tells all to his friend (and wannabe girlfriend), Eve Gill, are Hitchcockian in more than content and style, but I can't explain why without providing a spoiler. If you want to find out why, you'll need to track down the film too, but suffice it to say that he played a trick on his audience, who were not particularly happy to be tricked back in 1950. That may be another reason why Stage Fright is hard to come by today but modern audiences are likely to take it in stride. This little trick set the stage, pun not intended, for many more such cinematic tricks in the future.

What it all boils down to is that Jonathan Cooper is in a very dubious position. Charlotte Inwood is obviously already in trouble, as befits the blood on her dress and the corpse in her front room, but Jonathan goes to sort it all out, just as she expects him to, by staging a break in, that sort of thing. Unfortunately the maid shows up at just the wrong moment and he runs. He's succeeded only in shifting suspicion away from Charlotte onto himself, something he promptly underlines in no uncertain terms by running away from the police when they arrive to question him. Then again, he does have her blood stained dress in his pocket. So all he can do is have Eve Gill hide him, just as he expects her to, while she investigates Charlotte's apparent guilt. That's a lot of assumption to build a plot but such is the power of love and, sure enough, Jonathan does what Charlotte expects and Eve does what Jonathan expects, and that's where our story comes from.
What's patently obvious here is that the title of the film doesn't just refer to the fact that the lead characters are performers. Sure, Jonathan locates Eve at RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where both are students, and Charlotte Inwood is a professional performer, but none of the characters stop acting when they leave the stage. That's most obvious as Eve goes undercover as Charlotte's maid, but it's a constant throughout. Jonathan acts for Eve's benefit, Eve acts for Charlotte, Charlotte acts for the police. It's all as if the whole is a play but we're watching actors not characters who haven't been let in on the script yet. In fact, it could be that Commodore Gill, Eve's father, is the playwright who remains a step ahead of the rest of us all along. He's played by Alistair Sim, who steals his first scene effortlessly with the aid of an accordion, and continues to do so throughout. He deconstructs everything, a sort of writer/critic/actor hybrid.

Late in the film Dietrich and Wyman walk down a hallway together backstage and the impression is totally that Dietrich is the woman and Wyman is the girl. Wyman had plenty of experience, in life and on screen, given that she'd already divorced third husband Ronald Reagan and had won an Oscar the previous year for Johnny Belinda. Yet she was still only 33 and looked it, making it hard to see Eve Gill as anything but a naive young girl in love, rather than a naive young girl in love who can move mountains to save the man she's in love with. For her part, Dietrich was 49 and costumed exclusively in Christian Dior, as she demanded. As Dietrich often did, she looked like she'd been everywhere and done everything, but was still young enough to look great. Dior demanded a screen credit. Paramount demanded a 25% discount. Everyone got exactly what they wanted and the result is that Wyman has difficulty registering when Dietrich is on screen.
Dietrich is very noticeable, though her part is much smaller than those of her fellow leads, with Wyman racking up most screen time by far. Dietrich said that, 'She looks too much like a victim to play a heroine, and God knows she couldn't play a woman of mystery: that was my part. Miss Wyman looks like a mystery nobody has bothered to solve.' Certainly Eve Gill is a transparent character who merely thinks that she has mystique, while Charlotte Inwood is mystique without ever having to try. She's set up as the villain of the piece from the very first scene but it's never quite that simple. Dietrich capably keeps us on the hook as to whether she's guilty, innocent or somewhere in between. Wyman does everything apparently right, but just doesn't engage well. A strange choice to play an English actress, she succeeds well as the innocent but dedicated girl but is much less convincing as the actress taking on roles as circumstances require.

Similarly, Michael Wilding, as the real leading man, private detective Wilfred 'Ordinary' Smith, is just as capable but bland, even though whatever he did in Under Capricorn a year earlier must have impressed Hitch enough to cast him again. The man caught up in the intrigue of the story, Jonathan Cooper, is nothing much to write home about either, even though he's played by solid leading man Richard Todd, also riding high after The Hasty Heart the previous year, which saw him receive his sole Oscar nomination. Instead of the leads, this film belongs to the character actors, of which there are many. After all, when your father is played by Alastair Sim and your mother by Sybil Thorndike, you have to do a heck of a lot to make yourself remotely visible and Wyman doesn't seem to want to do that. Sim and Thorndike are both very watchable indeed, as are Kay Walsh as a mercenary maid and Joyce Grenfell outrageously running a shooting gallery.

Quite why Stage Fright is forgotten today, I have no idea. American audiences didn't enjoy the trick Hitchcock played on them, but the French critics of the time, who had a particular fondness for Hitch, didn't have a problem with what he did. Given that Rashomon was released to huge acclaim the same year, emphatically for the trickery of its plot, it's hard to believe too much in that as the cause. It was made in England with predominantly English actors, but America has never had much of a problem with that. It came right before the beginning of his greatest period, which began the following year with Strangers on a Train, but it doesn't disappoint. Historically, it has note, as the debut of his daughter Patricia, but she doesn't do much more than Hitch in his traditional cameo. For me, the biggest problem was the lack of prominence from the leads. It's a film about character and that's all in the supporting players. I don't mind that. Maybe others do.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

Director: Jim O'Connolly
Stars: James Franciscus, Gila Golan and Richard Carlson

'He who takes from Gwangi, the evil one, is cursed.' So says the blind woman in black as the pirate gypsy dude takes the struggling sack from the dying man. That's our setup as we reach the opening credits and it's a pretty good one, painted in Technicolor and filmed in Dynamation. The Valley of Gwangi has a history, one three and a half decades old by the time it was finished. Originally a project of Willis H O'Brien, the original master of stop motion animation, it was finally brought to life by his most prominent protégé, Ray Harryhausen. O'Brien saw it as a follow up to his masterpiece, King Kong, following the same formula but transplanting it to a different setting, with cowboys taking on dinosaurs. Some footage was shot and ended up in the original version of Mighty Joe Young, but it took 36 years to finally reach the screen, at this point set 'somewhere south of the Rio Grande at the turn of the century.' To make it authentic they shot it in Spain.

It all looks good, as the Breckenridge Wild West Show parades through town. We get to see it in action too, in an awesome arena, complete with an Indian attack on a covered wagon, with guns and corpses galore. They even set the wagon on fire. T J Breckenridge has the finalé: she rides a gorgeous horse called Omar up a long set of winding steps and has it leap into a flaming vat of green water. These guys put on a show, but the locals don't care. They stay away in droves, so when Tuck Kirby, T J's former fiancé, shows up to buy the horse, he almost has a chance, even if he bailed on her years earlier. His horse looks even better than Omar, even though it's acquired for him by a local kid called Lope, bizarrely providing an English child actor with the opportunity to make his only big screen appearance as a Mexican. If Willis O'Brien had lived long enough to make his The Valley of Gwangi, it may not have looked better.
The acting is capable too. James Franciscus making a suitably sleazy cowboy, the earliest I've ever seen him, just before Marooned and Beneath the Planet of the Apes. T J, on the other hand, is fiery and continental in the form of Gila Golan. She was born in German-occupied Poland, was adopted by a Roman Catholic couple and sent to school in France, only to emigrate to Israel and become Miss Israel in 1960. She'd changed her name already from Zusia Sobetzcki to Miriam Goldberg but changed it again to compete. She's very pleasing to the eyes, with a sort of Diana Rigg look and a continental flair. She was dubbed here because of the strength of her accent. In the hands of Ray Harryhausen, the stop motion work is solid too, even if it takes a while to arrive and isn't his best work. One glaring problem that may not be his fault is that the colour keeps on changing: his creatures go from grey to flesh coloured to bright blue, depending on the scene.

How do we go from a Wild West show in Mexico to the sort of story that requires the talents of Ray Harryhausen? Well, by means of a hidden valley, of course, one that the locals believe is a cursed land and the creatures are corralled into by high mountains. The first such creature we see is a miniature one, a tiny prehistoric horse called an eohippus that escaped from the valley through a tiny passageway within the rocks. It's the eohippus that brings most of our characters together. T J, who has it, calls it El Diablo and has trained it to dance on horseback. She plans to use it to bring back the customers to her show. English paleontologist Prof Bromley is out in the desert with its footprints in a fossilised human bone, hoping to validate his theory of humanoids and push the dawn of man back millions of years. Tia Zorina, the local blind gypsy leader, only aims to return it to the valley to keep her land and people from being cursed.
It's when El Diablo brings the various characters together that the story really begins, in the Forbidden Valley with a host of stop motion dinosaurs. As they find their way in, they're attacked by a pterodactyl, chase an ornithomimus, which is killed by an allosaurus, which then attacks them. They run away but the Prof stays behind, to be saved by a styracosaurus. After a long wait to see one animated monster, we're suddenly presented with a barrage of them. The allosaurus, of course, is Gwangi, which means 'lizard' in Spanish, and it's Gwangi who gets most attention and screen time, from his initial appearance to a grand finalé inside a vast Catholic cathedral. In between, there are a number of scenes, including a complicated roping, which proved to be one of Harryhausen's most ambitious and time consuming; and an exhibition and escape, which saw this allosaurus fight an elephant. Of course there's glorious chaos. That's why we're here.

The premise is a solid one, rooted in the stop motion adventure stories of the past and presaging a good deal of the modern interest in the weird west, but it doesn't spark too often. The highlight is certainly Harryhausen's animation, as everyone else takes a back seat the moment they have to share the screen with monsters. Unfortunately beyond the excellent initial concept, spawned from the Prof Challenger stories of Arthur Conan Doyle and filtered through the imagination of Willis O'Brien, it becomes derivative quickly. The back story with Tuck and T J is mild and poorly explored, the subplot with the gypsies is mostly ignored and Prof Bromley loses purpose quickly as his theory is shot. Pretty much everything else is ruthlessly stolen from the best stop motion movie of them all, King Kong. What's left is the dinosaurs, Harryhausen's last work with them. On that front this is always worth a watch, because even lesser Harryhausen is still Harryhausen.

Dinosaurus! (1960)

Director: Irvin S Yeaworth Jr
Stars: Ward Ramsey, Paul Lukather, Kristina Hanson and Alan Roberts

Irvin S Yeaworth Jr has an interesting filmography. Almost entirely remembered today for making The Blob with Steve McQueen in 1958, he directed six films all told, though his first wasn't really his, as he was responsible only for the new footage that expanded a 1945 church backed scare movie called Twice Convicted into a new 1956 picture with the seemingly cut short title of The Flaming Teenage. Then it was The Blob, a huge success which paved the way for more B movies: 4D Man and Dinosaurus! Finally he returned to Christian scare movies, releasing a pair of them in 1967: The Gospel Blimp and Way Out. The former deals with spreading the message of Jesus by blimp, complete with bible drops; while the latter deals with heroin addiction, told from the point of view of an addict. Both the first and last of his films are available today from Something Weird Video, which provides a pretty good idea of the sort of material they contain.

This one opens like an ambitious B movie, shot in colour and in CinemaScope, on location on the 'tropical paradise' of St Croix in the Virgin Islands, which we first see in widescreen underwater footage. Unfortunately that's all the CinemaScope that TCM screened, so I'm stuck with pan and scan. It was also apparently intended to star Steve McQueen, but he had been difficult to work with on The Blob so Yeaworth didn't even bother to hire him. What it turns out to be is a film for kids, less comparable to The Blob and more to Son of Godzilla. The star is nominally Ward Ramsey, a new actor to film who appears somewhat like a cheap B movie Cary Grant. However, given the tone the story takes, the audience who would find this film most magnetic are young enough to focus instead on Alan Roberts, certainly the most watchable actor in the film but one who would be about to turn twelve when Dinosaurus! premiered. He retired in 1962 at fourteen.

As befits a story pitched at kids, it's a pretty threadbare outline of a plot that could easily have been a Saturday morning cartoon. Bart Thompson, cast from the standard hero mould, gets to blow things up for a living. If I understood things right, he's expanding the harbour on an exotic island by setting off underwater explosions off the coast. He's good at his job, of course, but he's not too good at putting up the required warning signs, so his girlfriend Betty Piper, cut from the cloth of the cute and sassy but non-working perpetual victim, heads to shore in her speedboat in a gap between explosions. We can see why she's popular: as soon as Bart gets to her boat to tell her to get out of the blast zone, she strips down to a bathing suit and dives into the water. She's aiming to retrieve the cooler that the last blast knocked into the water, but she faints in shock at the sight of an underwater monster instead. Of course she looks good in wet hair and a towel.

Given the title of the film, technically meaningless but probably the best thing about the picture, you'll surely be shocked to discover that the underwater monster is a dinosaur, frozen solid in unnaturally cold water. Actually there are two dinosaurs, a tyrannosaurus and a brontosaurus, or at least that's what I think they were aiming at. 'Boy, this is terrific!' cries young Julio, as Bart's men bring the frozen monsters up to the surface. Julio is the endearing local boy who serves as the link between all the characters. He constantly hangs out with the working party, especially Dumpy, the big jovial bulldozer driver who is trying so hard to be Alan Hale that it hurts. His guardian is the villain of the piece, Mike Hacker, a surprising name for a foreign villain who looks rather like a sophisticated Torgo with a white suit and two stupid henchmen. What's more, and here's where the tone is totally betrayed, Julio befriends the brontosaurus and the neanderthal.
Yes, there's a neanderthal too. Hacker finds him first, washed up on the beach in the wake of the dinosaurs, because of another of Thompson's mistakes. He makes a lot of those. He tells Betty that he wouldn't trust Hacker as far as he could throw him, immediately after entrusting him with a message to the Smithsonian about the creatures he's found. Then he brings the beasts up onto shore before the Smithsonian can send anyone down to do it properly (even if the message had got through). He takes Betty out for dinner instead of watching his new prizes thaw out. He even tasks T J O'Leary, your run of the mill drunken Irishman, with guarding them. This enables Hacker to wander around unnoticed, and find then stash the frozen neanderthal. It also means that the drunkard is the only one around when the dinosaurs get hit by lightning in the inevitable storm, wake up and wander off. Amazingly T J gets carried off instead of eaten, but let's not nitpick.

There are precisely no surprises in this movie and every plot detail is telegraphed, but in a way that would be gloriously suspenseful to kids young enough to believe everything they see. How young they would need to be to buy into some of the events that unfold here I really don't know, but it's pretty young. This is the sort of movie where the heroine can trip over a tree root, get picked up by a tyrannosaurus and be rescued by a caveman who whacks its foot with an axe and sticks his hands out to catch her. It's the sort of movie where Julio can join a fight between a brontosaurus and a T Rex by throwing rocks at the latter. The brontosaurus is his friend, you see, who gives him rides. Yes, the caveman rescues him too. The ending presages the iconic battle at the end of Aliens, so there is imagination at play here, though not much. This isn't The Land That Time Forgot. This is the Saturday morning cartoon version, remember.

In fact some of the writing demonstrates an acute lack of imagination. For instance, Hacker is blackmailing the local barmaid, because that's what villains do to cute island señoritas, but this one is sensitively named Chica. Names aren't this film's strong point: she works at the island cantina, which is called, you guessed it, Island Cantina. Perhaps the most clever moment is when O'Leary, the drunken Irish guard, falls asleep on watch while reading a Rip Van Winkle comic book. The only moment of true honesty is when Hacker breaks a bottle on the bar to prepare to fight Bart, only to cut himself. It's something that should happen almost every time such a scene crops up but somehow never does. That's what I'm going to remember this film for, that and the antics of Gregg Martell as the neanderthal. He looks pretty believable in the role, somewhat like a midget Lou Ferrigno, but his antics are too wild to be mere fantasy.
Martell plays it deadpan throughout, as do the rest of the cast. It's the sincerity of actors like him and Alan Roberts that make this picture joyous instead of awful. The highlight of the entire film for me is without doubt when Julio first encounters the living brontosaurus. 'Remember, you're a friendly vegetarian like it says on the cereal box,' he tells it. The dialogue is jaw droppingly bad but young Roberts delivers it with such sincerity that it's both touching and hilarious all at once. Martell gets a few scenes that come close too, stealing routines from the Marx Brothers. It's the scenes with both of them that go the furthest down this road though. Julio finds the caveman in Betty's mother's kitchen and, taking the whole thing in stride, shows him where the food is, then teaches him how to eat with a fork. 'No, caveman! It's not right to kill!' he shouts as the bad guys show up. So he uses a pie. No, I'm not kidding. Even Alan Roberts can't avoid laughing at points.

We have to look for this sort of magic because the traditional sort just isn't here. The stop motion animation is capable, hardly Harryhausen quality but worth watching nonetheless. The dinosaurs are far cuter than they deserve to be though: a T Rex is not supposed to grin. The rear projection work is terrible though, down at the level of the writing. Fortunately the acting is capable and, as I mentioned, sincere. Ward Ramsey, the star, debuted in this film, then made thirteen more, but he was only credited in two of the last nine. Maybe by then he took the hint and retired. Leading lady Kristina Hanson was appearing in her first movie too, building on an episode of Bachelor Father the year before. She only made one more film though, no less than nineteen years later, called Over the Edge, instead going back to her day job as a sixth grade teacher. The romance is best explained by highlighting that she gets more screentime with the caveman than her lead.

Fred Engelberg, who plays the villainous Hacker, was on his last film, though he only made four. Wayne C Treadway, a chubbier Alan Hale as Dumpy, was on his last film too, though it was his first credit in fourteen movies. He's capable but without Hale's character. Luci Blaine, who plays Chica, is perhaps better than any of them, but this was the only picture she made. Only two of the cast were really experienced. Paul Lukather, who plays Bart's sidekick Chuck, was a mainstay in film and television for decades, becoming a notable voice actor in the eighties and expanding successfully into video games in the nineties. Gregg Martell was a veteran extra by this point, in over fifty movies thus far, a dozen of which I've seen. I didn't recognise him though because he mostly landed uncredited bit parts. These are perhaps the sort of people you'd expect to be in a kids' film masquerading as a B movie to sell tickets. Be warned: watch it before you turn seven.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

The Catered Affair (1956)

Director: Richard Brooks
Stars: Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Debbie Reynolds and Barry Fitzgerald

Sometimes the stars align and all the names come out at the same time. The Catered Affair is a film I hadn't even heard of, but it's a gem and it has a major list of names behind it. It's directed by Richard Brooks, a year after he made Blackboard Jungle. The story is by Paddy Chayefsky, a writer's writer who won his first of an eventual three Oscars for the previous year's Marty; and it was adapted by Gore Vidal, his first script for the big screen. It's glorious writing, that came from a surprising source: originally it was a play, not on stage but for television, broadcast as an entry in the Philco Television Playhouse. As I was growing up, 'TV movie' was a euphemism for second rate, a cheap reminder of the real thing with names that used to be important. That often wasn't the case in the fifties, when the only thing not to compare favourably with the big screen was the budgets. Even a film as important as 12 Angry Men started out as a live teleplay on Studio One.

The story, which uses a snap wedding to magnificently build a host of characters, is brought to life by a stellar cast. Cabby Tom Hurley is Ernest Borgnine, who had just won his own Oscar for Marty, a character not far removed from this one socially. He's a reliable but unimaginative man and while I've always got the impression that Borgnine is highly intelligent, he's always so good at playing stolid. Bette Davis is a more surprising choice as his dowdy wife Agnes, fresh from a part as Queen Elizabeth I in The Virgin Queen. I knew little about most of her fifties films before seeing them but they trump her earlier work for sheer versatility. Going from a historic queen of England to a working class Bronx housewife is rare and admirable, but before Elizabeth she was the washed up Hollywood actress Margaret Elliott trying to rekindle her career in The Star and after Aggie she would be a librarian fighting censorship in Storm Center. She was versatility.

It's Aggie that calls for the catered affair of the title, but not for a while and it isn't her wedding. It's Tom and Aggie's daughter Jane who's getting married, but she springs the news on them at breakfast and that's the first point Bette's Bronx accent slips. Up to then it doesn't even seem to be Bette Davis, more like someone trying to be Bette Davis, because she plays it so well. Jane doesn't just spring the wedding, she springs the date too: next Tuesday, because they want to take advantage of the loan of a car to go on honeymoon, one reason why Jane and her fiancé, Ralph Halloran, only want a plain, simple ceremony, no wedding reception, no nothing. Tom's on board, especially as he needs $4,000 of the $4,400 he's saved over the years to finally buy his own cab. He and a partner have been waiting for a decade for a medallion to come up because there are so few available. Aggie's on board too, but if she really was, there wouldn't be a movie.
What's so great here is that the film really isn't about Jane and Ralph, as they're just the trigger for Aggie to realise through her daughter just what she's done with her life. It doesn't take much gentle pressure, from Ralph's parents or her brother Jack, to bring into prominence a whole host of regrets, and so she decides to give Jane what she didn't give herself: the catered affair of the title, a big wedding with all the trimmings that she can remember when the bad days come. That phrase is repeated like a mantra: 'when the bad days come', suggesting that that's where Aggie is at this point in time and she's only just acknowledged it. The picture is really about Tom and Aggie coming to some strong realisations and acting on them, taking their marriage off pause and defining their future together. You know, the sort of thing that newlyweds should but rarely do, because at that point it's all love and roses and blissful improvisation.

Debbie Reynolds was surprisingly the only actor to win an award for this film, from the National Board of Review as Best Supporting Actress. It's surprising because the story drives her rather than the other way around. Perhaps it's because her character is life in a microcosm: she knows what she wants, but she quickly gives in to the pressures around her just to make everyone else happy, only to regret the decision and put her foot down in the end. Her subplot is a subtle one about growing up. Certainly Reynolds and Rod Taylor, who plays her fiancé, are overshadowed throughout. That's hardly surprising. Not only are her parents played by Borgnine and Davis, but Uncle Jack lives with them and he's played by Barry Fitzgerald, perhaps the most effortless scene stealer of them all. Yet again he gives a performance that would have stolen the show in any other company, twisting the truth outrageously, doing nothing but taking credit for everything.

Fitzgerald knew all the tricks at this point, close to the end of his career. He made two further pictures before dying of a heart attack, back home in Dublin, at the ripe old age of 73. He only made 44 films, and he was certainly stealing scenes from the best in the earliest I've seen: from Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in 1938's Bringing Up Baby. By this point in his career, he'd stolen them from pretty much everyone else in Hollywood too, perhaps most notably from John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara in The Quiet Man and from Bing Crosby in Going My Way, so neatly that he received Oscar nominations both for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for the same role, a feat that prompted the Academy to change their rules to avoid a reoccurence. He's a joy here, yet another Irish rogue with a glint in his eye who equates 'wedding' with 'party' and who plays the age old game of emotional blackmail like a champion.
It took Bette Davis to successfully counter Fitzgerald's scene stealing, though it took work. Aggie is perhaps the busiest character I've ever seen Bette play. She's busy all the time, as befits the sort of character that doesn't often get covered in classic Hollywood. The Hurleys aren't rich, but they're not mired in poverty either. We're used to seeing the perfect wife manage the house with a maid and a housekeeper and we're used to seeing the working class wife struggle and fail to get by without enough to manage. Aggie is closer to the latter than the former but she does fine through strength of character and hard work. Her husband works, her daughter works and her son is about to join the army. She works as hard as any of them, without even thinking about it, so hard that the scene where she has to sit still and listen to Ralph's parents is uncomfortable and somehow unnatural. It's like watching a kid with ADHD try not to move.

There's so much to praise here that it's difficult to focus, though the quality of the writing shines through above everything else. It's the ground on which everything else here is built, from the deep characterisations of all the main cast and many of the smaller roles, all the way down to Jane's friend Alice Scanlon, who can't afford to be her matron of honour. Davis is stunning, but Borgnine, Fitzgerald and Reynolds are excellent too, with nobody else being less than solid. The cinematography is subtle, doing nothing flash but doing a great job at contrasting spaces: from the vast ballroom Aggie wants to rent for Jane's wedding breakfast to their claustrophobic home that would be cosy just for two but sleeps five. Cinematographer John Alton is known primarily for his films noir, but made five varied movies for Richard Brooks late in his career. Here he's yet another of the stars who aligned to make this gem, which deserves to be better remembered.