Monday, 22 February 2021

The Feather Fairy (1985)

Director: Juraj Jakubisko
Writers: Ľubímor Feldek and Juraj Jakubisko
Stars: Giulietta Masina, Petra Vancíková, Tobias Hoesl, Sona Valentová, Pavol Mikulik, Milada Ondrasíková, Valérie Kaplanová and Eva Horká

Index: 2021 Centennials.

One of the unwritten rules of cinema is that, if you want to see a fairy tale on film done properly, you go to Europe, travel east and keep on going. There are many good countries where you could stop to see good fairy tales, but most of them are on the other side of where the Iron Curtain used to be. This one is a multinational production that’s nominally Czechoslovakian and primarily in the Slovak language. I’m guessing that my grey market copy was taped from an Italian TV channel, because the few sections in Italiano are not subtitled but all the Slovak is. It doesn’t matter that much, because it’s clear what’s going on, except that I find myself a bit in the dark about the circus troupe that’s our focus as the film begins and which returns to the story later. It’s easy to see why they would be watching it in Italy, though, because the one cast member I recognise is the one I’m watching for. That’s Giulietta Masina, the magical clown of European cinema, who would have been a hundred years old today.

This is a late film for her, but she’s just as much fun to watch here in 1985 as she was in La Strada and Nights of Cabiria in the fifties or Juliet of the Spirits in the sixties. Apparently she was talked into doing this by her husband, the director Federico Fellini, who was a friend of this film’s director, Juraj Jakubisko. I’m very happy that she agreed to do it, because she remains a bundle of energy at 64 years young and her quirky charm is utterly perfect for a fairy tale. However, I also enjoyed the eastern actors, none of whom I had seen before. Most of them are women, because that’s just how this story rolls, with only one male character of real substance. That is another worthy aspect of eastern fairy tales, where female characters can be anything, rather than merely the two opposites the Disney adaptations polarise: the beautiful young peasant girl or princess and the ugly and evil stepmother or crone. Those clichés are here too, though with some serious caveats, and they’re not all there are to be found either because there’s also Perinbaba.

Friday, 19 February 2021

Klondike Kate (1943)

Director: William Castle
Writers: M. Coates Webster, based on a story by Houston Branch and M. Coates Webster, suggested by the life of Kate Rockwell Matson, the original “Klondike Kate”
Stars: Ann Savage, Tom Neal, Glenda Farrell, Constance Worth, Sheldon Leonard, Lester Allen and George Cleveland

Index: 2021 Centennials.

The obvious film to review to celebrate what would have been Ann Savage’s one hundredth birthday is Detour, the highly regarded low budget film noir from Edgar G. Ulmer and PRC, released in 1945, in which she blackmails Tom Neal. However, as that’s the film that everyone else will be mentioning, I’m going to go back two further years to take a look at Savage’s first leading role, which also tasks her with acting opposite Tom Neal, under the direction of the great William Castle. It’s a biopic, of sorts, merely “suggested by the life of Kate Rockwell Matson”, the real lady behind the titular nickname, which means that it’s about as historically accurate as Klondyke Kate, the song by Suzi Quatro. What’s odd is that, unlike most heavily fictionalised Hollywood biopics, this one was written during the life of its subject, who lived until 1957, and it was apparently Kate herself who personally chose Ann Savage, then an up and coming actor at Columbia, to portray her in this picture.

We can tell how accurate it’s going to be as a biopic from the fact that they correctly name its subject in the opening credits but not in the film itself. The lady who would become known as Klondike Kate was born Kathleen Eloisa Rockwell, later adding a succession of surnames from three marriages. She was born in Junction City, Kansas in 1876, to parents who divorced when she was five, and she spent much of her youth travelling with her mother to places as farflung as Valparaiso, Chile. She became a chorus girl in New York City but soon followed a theatre troupe to Spokane, Washington, in which she’d previously lived, and it was while there that she heard rumours about the Gold Rush in the Klondike. She may or may not have got past the Mounties disguised as a boy, but she arrived in Alaska in 1899 and proved a big success in Dawson City, dancing her Flame Dance at the Palace Grande Theatre. This saw her trail two hundred feet of chiffon that she twisted into the illusion of fire. She made a fortune, sometimes over $750 per night.

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Happy Go Lovely (1951)

Director: Bruce Humberstone
Writer: Val Guest, based on a film story by F. Dammann and Dr. H. Rosenfeld
Stars: David Niven, Vera-Ellen and Cesar Romero

Index: 2021 Centennials.

While this is precisely the sort of film that rarely appeals to me, I had an absolute blast with it, and I’m trying to figure out why. It’s a musical but, like 42nd Street or Singin’ in the Rain, the song and dance routines all make sense within the wider plot. It’s a romance, but a touching one that happens by accident while neither half is looking, even though that accident is the core of the entire script. In fact, it’s a romcom, but one that benefits from a lively set of performances, including by our centenarian, the dancer Vera-Ellen, who is the female lead here rather than a prominent supporting actress. It’s set in Edinburgh, the cultural and geographic elements used sparingly but capably, even if some of the stock footage is obvious. And it’s a fantastic opportunity for me to see a few faces at a much earlier point in their careers than I’m used to. So I guess it’s the template for the sort of musical romcom that I’m likely to enjoy. Now, how do I plug that into Google to get realistic results?

I think it also helps that it’s a comedy of errors but not a love triangle, written by a talented, genre-hopping writer who had already become a talented genre-hopping director. He’s Val Guest—the Val is for Valmond—and, while I know him primarily for his work in the horror and science fiction genres, often for Hammer, films like The Abominable Snowman, The Day the Earth Caught Fire and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, his filmography is as full of comedies, war movies and musicals. His handling of comedy here is surprising light but with a firm attention to detail, which only gets better as the picture runs on. For a start, everything is layered so that these situations build, as they ought to do in comedies of errors, but there’s a fantastic little detail that surrounds it all that’s the icing on the cake. Not only does one minor assumption on the part of a chorus girl kickstart the whole thing into motion, but all that motion is utterly unnecessary, as we learn at the end that that very chorus girl had the solution being sought all along. That’s glorious.

Monday, 1 February 2021

Clash by Night (1963)

Director: Montgomery Tully
Writers: Maurice J. Wilson and Montgomery Tully, based on the novel Clash by Night by Rupert Croft-Cooke
Stars: Terence Logsdon, Jennifer Jayne, Harry Fowler, Alan Wheatley and Peter Sallis

Index: 2021 Centennials.

Before you ask, this particular Clash by Night is entirely unrelated to the RKO film noir of the same name from 1952, with Barbara Stanwyck in the lead, and the 1941 Clifford Odets play on which that was based. This Clash by Night is British, made by Eternal Films at MGM’s studios in Borehamwood, on the outskirts of London, and distributed in the UK in 1963 by Grand National Pictures. When Allied Artists brought it to the States a year later, it was wisely renamed to Escape by Night to help avoid confusion. Its original title comes from its source novel, by Rupert Croft-Cooke, published only a year earlier, and the author’s background does a lot to shape our understanding of the script. I’ll come back to explain why later but, for now, I’ll just point out that I’m watching for Peter Sallis, who would have been a hundred years old today. I know him for The Last of the Summer Wine, but you may know him far better for voicing a claymation curmudgeon called Wallace, he with a canine companion named Gromit.

Sallis doesn’t have a large part in Clash by Night, but it’s a quirky and memorable one, as the wildcard in a bevy of unusual jailbirds thrown together into an equally unusual situation. There are half a dozen of them, handcuffed in pairs on a bus that’s about to take them all to prison. Terence Longdon has the the leading role of Martin Lord, sentenced to five years for killing a man, even if he did so in his own house while defending his own wife from sexual assault; she let a stranger in to use the telephone. He’s handcuffed to Doug Roberts, a talkative thief played by Harry Fowler, who’s been handed 21 more months; he’s been through this routine before. Sallis is seated right behind them as we learn all this, but he’s the last to be introduced, because Mawsley, the experienced guard on this bus, builds up to him as he passes key notes on to his assistant, Danny Watts, before they set off. This is Danny’s first transport duty and that makes it easy for Mawsley to let us in on who everyone is and how everything works too.

Sunday, 31 January 2021

The Mole People (1956)

Director: Virgil Vogel
Writers: Laszlo Gorog
Stars: John Agar, Cynthia Patrick and Hugh Beaumont

Index: 2021 Centennials.

I have to admit that The Mole People surprised me. Sure, some of that was because I had memories of watching this colour Universal monster movie, memories which turned out to be of something else entirely that I can’t figure out, as this is emphatically black and white. A large part is because of how it unfolds, because, while it’s often the poorly researched B-movie nonsense I expected, with a heck of a lot of ancient Egyptian iconography populating a supposedly Sumerian story, but there’s actually a lot of thought given to science in something I’d classify more as fantasy than science fiction. Most of all, though, it was the introduction that surprised me, because I’m used to the “scientists” gushing forth in them about whatever subject is to come having even fewer credentials for that role than the actors playing the parts they were paid to interpret. Maybe I’ve seen too many pseudo-educational flicks by showmen like Dwain Esper and Kroger Babb and far too much Criswell. But this introduction is by someone who’s really a big deal.

His name is Frank C. Baxter and he’s introduced as the Professor of English at the University of Southern California that he actually was. His spiel is pure Forteana, explaining to us that we know so much about the surface of our world and that we’ve reached out to the stars but we know very little about what might be hiding beneath our feet. “What’s inside this globe?” he asks us, launching into swift explanations of Victorian Hollow Earth theories by people like Cyrus Teed and John Cleves Symmes, Jr. The former suggested that we don’t live on the surface of our planet at all but inside it, with the heavens a giant sphere, the sun a gigantic battery and the stars mere refractions of its light. The latter believed that there are five concentric spheres inside our planet, each habitable and lit by the one above, with light getting in through giant holes at each of the poles, surely entranceways for us to visit our subterranean brethren within our Hollow Earth. These theories are pseudoscientific nonsense, of course, but Baxter is no pseudoscientist.

Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Scandal Sheet (1952)

Director: Phil Karlson
Writers: Ted Sherdeman, Eugene Ling & James Poe, from the novel The Dark Page by Samuel Fuller
Stars: Broderick Crawford, Donna Reed and John Derek

Index: 2021 Centennials.

Any opportunity to review a Sam Fuller picture, I will happily take without hesitation, and, while Scandal Sheet isn’t either directed or written by Fuller, it is based on his novel, The Dark Page, published in 1944. It’s also a story about newspapers, something that he knew very well, having been part of the news industry since the age of twelve. He became a crime reporter at the New York Evening Graphic at seventeen and his film set in that world, Park Row, is possibly my favourite of all his movies; it was certainly his. Oddly, it was also released in 1952, though that was coincidental; he’d sold the rights to The Dark Page to Howard Hawks during the war and had even written a treatment of it as it wound its way slowly towards the screen. A young John Derek on the ascendant played the lead initially aimed at John Payne, playing a reporter who’s very sharp but not very principled, mostly due to his being mentored by his editor, in the form not of Orson Welles, as planned, but Broderick Crawford, Derek’s screen father in All the King’s Men.

The relationship arc between these two is one good reason to watch this movie, as it’s the only one that allows me to look past such an observant character as Steve McCleary, ace newshound for the New York Express, having a notable blindspot when it comes to his mentor, Mark Chapman. However, I’m watching in January 2021 not for Derek or Crawford but for Donna Reed, the other star who got prominent billing on the poster, because the 27th would have been her one hundredth birthday. This isn’t her best role or her best known, let alone her best regarded, but it is an appropriate one, given that Julie Allison is both McCleary’s love interest and his (and our) moral compass through this film, as well as an accomplished journalist in her own right. That sort of combo worked well for the future Golden Globe-winning star of The Donna Reed Show, which, only six years on, would become the first family-oriented sitcom to revolve around a capable woman instead of a capable man.

Thursday, 21 January 2021

Gang War (1958)

Director: Gene Fowler, Jr.
Writer: Louis Vittes, from the novel The Hoods Take Over by Ovid Demaris
Stars: Charles Bronson, Kent Taylor, Jennifer Holden and John Doucette

Index: 2021 Centennials.

21st January marks the centennial of character actor John Doucette and it took me a long while to figure out what I could review in his memory. The problem is that he was such an effective character actor, stealing moments and scenes out from under the leads, often as a tough guy, whether sheriff or villain, that he was rarely given a lead of his own, even with credits in a hundred and forty films and even more TV shows. Eventually, I tracked down this picture, a relatively straightforward gangster flick released by 20th Century Fox in 1958. He’s not the lead here, either, that honour going to a young Charles Bronson, who was newly ascended to top billing himself. Doucette is fourth billed, after Kent Taylor and Jennifer Holden, but he dominates the entire film, because he’s the gangster that it’s all about, Maxie Meadows. This is his story just as much as it’s Bronson’s, even if his character has less depth and substance, and it’s easier for him to make his presence known in emphatic fashion.

We’re in Los Angeles and, to highlight what the City of Angels was like at this point, we’re treated to a montage of mayhem right at the start. Machine guns unloading their rounds directly at the audience! Cars screaming round corners at high speed! Barber shops exploding in the night! Even the title explodes onto the screen at us in military capitals: “GANG WAR”. And when our story begins, Louis Vittes’s script, adapted from Ovid Demaris’s novel, The Hoods Take Over, gets right down to business. Slick Connors slaps down his girl, Marsha, because she doesn’t like him becoming a stool pigeon. He’s turning state’s evidence against Joe Reno so that, when the syndicate moves in, he’ll become Mr. Big. “Glad to know you while you’re still alive,” she tells him, with prescience, because he leaves her apartment to find Joe and Bernard “The Axe” Duncan outside, waiting to murder him in cold blood. Which they do. Slick betrays himself to be a coward, but Joe isn’t. He takes care of business and that’s Leonard P. Geer’s uncredited performance over.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Fort Massacre (1958)

Director: Joseph M. Newman
Writers: Martin M. Goldsmith
Stars: Joel McCrea, Forrest Tucker, Susan Cabot, John Russell and George N. Neise

Index: 2021 Centennials.

Fort Massacre is an odd movie in a lot of ways, not least because it’s well worth seeking out but it’s frustrating to watch. There’s a lot that’s wrong with it, but it takes root in your brain and stays with you, because it also does quite a lot very right indeed. The lead is Joel McCrea, playing very much against type as the story’s bad guy, though oddly he’s also one of the good guys; the explanation of that sentence would count as a good synopsis of the film. There are other easily recognisable character actors here too, like Forrest Tucker and a very young Denver Pyle, but I’m watching for John Russell, who would have been a hundred years old on 3rd January, 2021 and he’s arguably the best thing about the film. He’s one of four highlighted co-stars and he’s the only one with a story arc, as his character is just as important to this story as McCrea’s, important enough that he literally gets the last word. His story arc both goes in the right direction and in the direction of right, making him our moral compass in a complex situation.

As you might imagine, this is a western, set entirely in the deserts of the southwest, and we begin on 28th July, 1879. Capt. Cole had command of C Troop, Second Regiment, Sixth Cavalry, but Capt. Cole is dead, along with half his men, after the troop was attacked by seventy Apache braves. His lieutenant survived but was seriously injured and he dies shortly into the film, having done nothing but fall off his horse, another corpse to bury. That leaves Sgt. Vinson in charge, as the only officer left alive. They’re somewhere in the southwestern corner of New Mexico and he figures that means about a hundred miles or so east of Fort Crain and safety. Their first task is to find the regiment’s main column that’s escorting a wagon train. It’s probably fair to say at this point that they never do, because this isn’t that sort of story. As expansive as the desert is, this really isn’t about what’s out there, whatever that may be, as this is a psychological western and the real story takes place inside the heads of Sgt. Vinson and Pvt. Robert W. Travis.

Thursday, 31 December 2020

Terror Train (1980)

Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Writer: T. Y. Drake
Stars: Ben Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Hart Bochner and David Copperfield

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Slasher movies had been around for a long while by the time Terror Train came along in 1980, but they were becoming a huge deal. Halloween had kicked off the genre’s classic era in 1978, courtesy in large part of its lead actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who cemented her stature as the leading scream queen of the day with The Fog, Prom Night and this film, all in 1980. The election of Ronald Reagan the same year brought a conservative backlash against what they saw as a growing epidemic of violence on screen, and the studios got quickly on board, releasing over a hundred slashers between 1978 and 1984. This one was shot independently in Canada for $3.5m, but picked up for distribution by 20th Century Fox, who contributed another $5m worth of marketing. While it isn’t the best of the slashers, it’s a particularly interesting one for a few reasons, including the fact that the majority of the film takes place on a moving steam train booked on New Year’s Eve as a celebration for Alana, who’s graduating early, making them a captive audience.

The primary one is that there’s an underlying theme of illusion, emphasised through the surprise presence of David Copperfield as a magician hired to perform at the party. We’ve probably all watched half a dozen slasher movies in which the identity of the killer is so obvious that we’ve shouted it at the screen, even though the line up of victims to be never pay any attention to us. Here, it’s a deliberately played theme. The killer doesn’t wear a single iconic mask to slap on the movie’s poster, instead consistently adopting the costume of the previous victim at every point. The task at hand for each of the potential victims on board the Terror Train is to see through the particular illusion shown them when the killer, whose identity we know from the very first scene, appears to them in a new disguise. If they can, then maybe they’ll have a chance at survival, though this is one heck of a party and most of them are drunk before they even get off the bus that takes them to the train.

Friday, 25 December 2020

Christmas Evil (1980)

Director: Lewis Jackson
Writer: Lewis Jackson
Stars: Brandon Maggart, Jeffrey DeMunn and Dianne Hull

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

There are so many Christmas horror movies out there (and others that may not be horror but are just as traumatising) that I may well write a book on just them, but I still needed to pick one for A Horror Movie Calendar. I avoided Black Christmas, as that’s too easy a choice and plumped for this one, which John Waters has described as “the greatest Christmas movie ever made”. As flawed as it is, it’s actually a surprisingly inventive look at Christmas and what the holiday means, wrapped up in slasher clothing. One thing I really like about it is that it seems to unfold in a world where there are no days that aren’t holidays, which is social commentary in itself. We watch Harry Stadling get out of bed in his Santa pyjamas, practice his Santa laugh and check his Santa belly as he hums a carol or three, in an apartment decorated like a greeting card. He works at a toy factory and Frank has him cover his late shift so he can take his wife out of town for the holidays. It’s so obviously Christmas, we’re shocked to discover that it’s really Thanksgiving.

Harry rings his brother Phil to tell him that he won’t make it over for Thanksgiving dinner. He’s busy watching Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the announcer pointing out that it’s his first appearance of the season. That prompts Harry to shift into overdrive with his preparation for Christmas and a quick montage highlights that he’s not alone. The stores promptly put out their Christmas displays, Christmas trees go up in public squares and, no doubt, on the 1980 equivalent of Facebook, people would moan about how soon this is all happening. Heck, we haven’t even got to Halloween yet and everything’s suddenly Christmas. In Harry’s world, Thanksgiving and Halloween don’t exist, because the Christmas season lasts for all twelve months of the year. To Harry, the day after his Christmas-themed Thanksgiving is his work’s Christmas party and the day after that is Christmas Eve. And, we know from the intro, which took place on Christmas Eve in 1947 when Harry was a child, that’s a gigantic #C54245 Christmas Red flag.