Friday 29 July 2011

The Black Scorpion (1957)

Director: Edward Ludwig
Stars: Richard Denning, Mara Corday, Carlos Rivas and Mario Navarro
Celebrating the 50's Monster Mash blogathon organised by Nathanael Hood at Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear.

Mara Corday made two very different monster movies in 1957: The Giant Claw for Columbia and The Black Scorpion for Warner Brothers. The former saw her take on what has often been called the most ludicrous monster ever to disgrace a creature feature, La Carcagne, something like a zombie chicken version of Big Bird with a mohawk. Imagine how bad that description could look like at battleship size and then take my word that the actual creature looks worse. On the other hand, the latter saw her face off instead against effects supervised by Willis O'Brien, the original master of stop motion animation, though he wasn't working with apes or dinosaurs for a change. To assist him is Pete Peterson, who had cut his teeth on Mighty Joe Young, O'Brien's previous film. He would work with him again on Behemoth, the Sea Monster. When we see the the creature's ugly drooling face head on it's truly awful, but the animation is enjoyable throughout.

The film starts as it means to go on with the destruction of wide swathes of Mexico through a volcanic eruption and a subsequent earthquake. Driving to the remote village of San Lorenzo to take a look are Dr Henry 'Hank' Scott and Dr Artur Ramos. Scott is a geologist played by Richard Denning, a couple of years after Creature with the Atom Brain and three since Creature from the Black Lagoon. Ramos is Carlos Rivas, Texan born but of Mexican heritage and so believable as Dr Scott's local equivalent, a professor of geology from Mexico City. He's certainly much better here than in The Madmen of Mandoras, which later became They Saved Hitler's Brain. What the pair find, a couple of miles south of the village, is weird damage, certainly not natural. A police car that preceded them in by a couple of hours is mangled and its occupants gone. They find a baby in its crib. They find the corpse of Sgt Baker, propped up in a corner with an empty gun.

The padre in San Lorenzo talks of a demon bull that the townsfolk are afraid of. People are dying all over, steers too. He doesn't believe it, or at least so he says, but his congregation do. Heading up towards the crater, against the will of the army, Scott and Ramos find Teresa Alvarez, thrown from her horse and in need of rescue, but who otherwise seems to be capable enough. She's played by Mara Corday, who obviously relishes a role she can get her teeth into. Teresa is a real go getter, especially when compared to her equivalent part in Tarantula. She's run a ranch up on the hills ever since her father died and she has enough firm leadership and respect from her men to call them back to work during such a time of chaos. She does switch into a stereotypical naysayer mode on occasion but it means an intriguing character balance: half of her is as tough as her father; the other half is a sappy romantic lead. The two halves fight it out throughout.
Surely Corday's best genre role, Teresa Alvarez isn't everything she should be but she's much more dynamic than usual. Corday does a solid job in good company. Denning was a capable and experienced leading man, close to the end of a prolific career with 85 movies behind him in only two decades and only five more to come. He doesn't dominate here, because the scorpions lead the way but he keeps our attention on the side of humanity. Carlos Rivas is a decent sidekick but while he plays well off Denning he gets little opportunity to shine otherwise. Carlos Múzquiz gets little screen time but still impresses as the very matter of fact Dr Velazco. Unfortunately there's also a child actor in the film, the powerfully sincere Mario Navarro as Juanito, who latches onto Hank at the Alvarez ranch and proves a capable stowaway who's impossible to shake loose. He's seven and a half but he can ride and shoot and who knows what else. He's annoying.

The first scorpion we see is at the Alvarez ranch too, broken out of obsidian by Dr Ramos. It's only a little thing but amazingly it comes out alive. After this, it doesn't take long for us to see his giant kin, as the title promises. There's much to praise. The creatures aren't man made here like in Tarantula or of mysterious alien origin like The Giant Claw; instead they escape from vast underground tunnels opened to the surface by the volcano. There are many of them, not just one, though the Black Scorpion of the title is bigger and more dominant than the rest. Willis O'Brien and his assistant give them a great finishing move too, a powerful stab downward with the stinger, which can't help but elicit a positive reaction from the audience. 'Scorpion! Finish him! Fatality!' The disasters keep on adding up too, these rural Mexicans having a tough time of it: first a volcano, then an earthquake, ensuing giant scorpions, even a cattle stampede. Then to finish the scorpions off Dr Velazco in Mexico City wants to take them down with poison gas.
The story is better than many of its competitors and I don't just mean The Giant Claw. It's hardly groundbreaking stuff, let me be clear, but scriptwriters David Duncan and Robert Blees, working from Paul Yawitz's story, know what they're doing and they do it capably enough. I can certainly see myself coming back to this one a lot more often than most of these creature features, but to be fair the biggest reason would be Willis O'Brien's animation work, which really dominates the film. Not all the effects are solid: the scorpions look awful in facial close ups and the budget ran out before everything could be completed, so a few scenes have the giant scorpions appear in silhouette form because only the backing had been completed at that time. Fortunately much of the work had been done and there are two setpieces in particular to praise, plus a shorter scene in which an army of scorpions take on a toy train.

The first is a very traditional one, staged underground inside a huge cave in the volcano, into which Drs Scott and Ramos descend to investigate. They find old school stop motion animation, scenes that could easily have been shot thirty years earlier for more classic movies. There's that army of scorpions again, plus a giant tick and a thirty foot worm that I thought was a caterpillar. The critters fight each other too in odd prehistoric battles, one on one, two on one, whatever. These scenes are awesome fun, though the rear projection is far from pristine and there's Juanito to deal with as a stowaway, an annoying distraction from a gloriously retro war of the monsters. The second comes at the finalé, inside a large stadium in Mexico City. It's a gladiatorial orgy of monster violence with the black scorpion taking on all comers, including a helicopter. This stop motion work is joyous and it makes me smile just to remember it. It's what this genre was about.

Sunday 10 July 2011

Alfred (or the Story of a Wonder Fish) (2011)

Directors: Aaron Hobson, Jean-Charles Lehuby and Mathieu Rigot
Stars: Sarah Marie Curtis, Aaron Hobson and Michael Sullivan

My favourite No Festival Required screening of the year is always the selection of short films shown at the Phoenix Art Museum. Here's Selection 2011.
The only live action fiction in Selection 2011, Alfred rambles along like a beat poem but leaves us thoroughly engaged in a quirky story. It begins with a burp and gets cruder, foul language being punctuation in this short, but the mumbling narrative means we don't quite catch it all anyway. This was annoying for a while but gradually I realised how appropriate it was. It feels like a story told to you by a drunkard late one night in a noisy bar. You don't catch every word, not that every word was probably even spoken, but you always catch enough to get the gist. The fast pace and editing helps this impression too, as does the surreal nature of the story which is never fully explained. Quite why Jack wanders around with his fish in a bowl we don't really know but it doesn't matter. The whole thing is just as gloriously absurd, but it's consistent enough that we grin throughout rather than wonder what the director was smoking.

Jack's fish is named Alfred, as you might imagine from the title, and the story explains how he saved Jack's life. I won't spoil how, but it's just a punchline to a joke detailed enough to become its own story. The other players are Jenna, a young runaway, and her twisted but unnamed dad who is chasing her to bring her home. She meets Jack, who whisks her away and the rest of the story writes itself, if you happen to have the mind of a Terry Gilliam. Fortunately the imagination isn't just in the situation comedy but in the way it's shot too. We don't merely see our barefoot runaway dance around Alfred's fishbowl in the forecourt of a gas station to the accompaniment of a banjo picking attendant, we see it from the fish's perspective too, a wonderful touch indeed. I'd love to see Alfred again, though only a teaser seems to be online. While it began flawed and abrasive, it grew in magnetism and it remains fondly in my memory a couple of weeks on.

Millhaven (2010)

Director: Bartek Kulas
My favourite No Festival Required screening of the year is always the selection of short films shown at the Phoenix Art Museum. Here's Selection 2011.
I'm well acquainted with The Curse of Millhaven, a song by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds from their 1995 album Murder Ballads, which follows nine tracks about murder and mayhem in myriad forms with a cover of Bob Dylan's Death is Not the End. I once gave a copy to my stepdaughter for Christmas in a subtle attempt to transition her from the fake alternative music ClearChannel radio fed her to real alternative music that was even more subversive. I wrote a poem based on one of the other songs on the album too, fashioning my own story around its tempo and title. Obviously the material inspires creativity, as this Polish animated short takes one of the songs and brings it to vivid life, as much through an amazing cover version as the glorious animation that accompanies it. Director Bartek Kulas knew the song from Kinga Preis's version, only for it to return to him in another by Katarzyna Groniec, which contains far more nuance and playfulness.

The story concerns a girl called Lottie who has been presiding over a reign of terror in the town of Millhaven. She's the curse of the song's title, though she's only fourteen, and she's eventually hoisted by her own petard, only to remain unapologetic in an asylum. Cave's song is a galloping narrative ballad, but Groniec's version is acutely sinister, not only in the way she builds a superb performance along with the story she sings, going from deceptive sweetness to outright lunacy through pitch and depth, but through Roman Kołakowski's translation, not direct but more of an interpretation. It misses out entire verses of the original song but adds freakish descriptive colour, swapping lines like 'twenty cops burst through my door without even phoning' for 'I was just brushing the blood out of my hair when in barged a bunch of cops'. No wonder hearing Groniec's cover drew Kulas to animate the material. It invited such a treatment.

Kulas's animation is as filled with haunting textures as the music and it grows with the story as well as Groniec's voice and the deep piano that stalks her. His Lottie is an ethereal marionette whose hair is almost as long as she is and almost as much of a character, but the way she moves depends on the point in the lyrics. He combines Christ poses with hypnotic stares to accompany the religious hints Kołakowski introduced in his translation. She plays to the camera like her dark work is a performance piece of art, like she's a Flamenco dancer, a guitar strummer or a kung fu fighter. The flies and spiders that crawl over the inside of the screen ensure the piece seethes. Kulas shot everything in halftone monochromes for which he'd been seeking a use for years and he overlaid a texture that suggests only a subtle barrier between Lottie and us. By far the best piece in Selection 2011, this is a masterpiece of a song and an animation. My wife plays it often.

Millhaven can be viewed at the director's website.

The Grandma's Village (2007)

Director: Dragana Zarevska
My favourite No Festival Required screening of the year is always the selection of short films shown at the Phoenix Art Museum. Here's Selection 2011.
Unfortunately the longest piece in Selection 2011 was the least interesting to me, not because of it the story it told but because it didn't seem able to find a focus. The title refers to the village of Babino in Macedonia (Yugoslav Macedonia not Greek Macedonia), which is populated entirely by grandmas, fifteen of them, who live in relative solitude. The only descriptions that I've managed to find online suggest that filmmaker Dragana Zarevska aimed at a cinematic poem in honour of these women, but if so, it's in free verse. She did capture some character, both of the grandmas and the town itself, but a generous eighteen minutes of running time didn't leave me with either a consistent message or tone. For a while it seemed to be a sinister piece, with talk of witches and curses, footage of a stalking black cat and sped up reenactments of stories. Yet the women seem normal and characterful. Why the suggestion otherwise?

There are some good scenes. I enjoyed the ones where Zarevska sat down on a wall with a trio of grannies who simply talked, not about anything in particular but just to talk. What we get out of this is a good deal of character and humour, these old women in their isolated village able to make the young filmmaker laugh. Unfortunately this is as inconsistent within the film as a whole as anything else within it, some scenes engaging, others apparently superfluous. What I found most engrossing were the textures of an old village, from the architecture, which is worn, to the techniques these grannies use in their everyday lives. It was interesting to watch people in this modern day creating and dying fabric and dusting a mule. It was also fascinating to see the culture clash evident as they discover what a modern video camera can do. These scenes of different worlds connecting could easily have been the focus of the film. Sadly they weren't.

111° Longitude (2009)

Directors: Yuri Makino and Cindy Stilwell

My favourite No Festival Required screening of the year is always the selection of short films shown at the Phoenix Art Museum. Here's Selection 2011.
From a technical perspective, 111° Longitude is an interesting piece. Made by two female friends and filmmakers who met at film school in New York City, they each tell about themselves while the stills and footage they shot is combined through split screen to highlight the similarities and the differences in their lives at different points on the 111th meridian: Cindy Stilwell in Montana and Yuri Makino in Arizona. There's complexity that I'd like to explore through further viewings but one time through was still enough to highlight a few things, not least that the comparisons being drawn aren't between snow and tumbleweeds but between transience and permanence. What I got out of the film was a surprising conclusion: namely how much transience is easy and consistent, while permanence is so different that it becomes difficult how to decide on it. That's a grand challenge to explore in a nine minute short.

For a while, Makino and Stilwell talk about movement and the visuals we see highlight how much consistency transience really has. We see trains, overpasses and hotels, which look precisely the same regardless where they are, something neatly highlighted by a clever illusion of motion between the two halves of the split screen. Was it Stevie Wonder who always stayed in the same hotel chain, as the layout of the rooms is identical? The message seems to be that transience is comfortable because you don't have to commit. Permanence is another matter. Makino suggests that Tucson is a place where people go to hide or heal or start over. It's somewhere to settle and while there are many similarities drawn between the two locations, there's a major gap between them that highlights how serious permanence is. Beautifully shot, well composed and compared, I feel like there's more depth here to discover. I'd like a second run through to find out.

So Who am I Anyway? (2011)

Director: Lisa Wegner

My favourite No Festival Required screening of the year is always the selection of short films shown at the Phoenix Art Museum. Here's Selection 2011.
While the theme of Selection 2011 turned out to be self, it did so predominantly through factual filmmaking, five of the seven shorts selected this year being documentaries. Of those five, this one was the most obviously oriented around self because the only person we see is director Lisa Wegner, over and over again, in a very personal experiment that aims to capture on film who she really is. Apparently made in response to negative comments people had made about her, she chose to examine the truth behind them and did so by positioning a camera to capture her as she entered or left a room, presumably in her own house. It's an intriguing visual experiment, especially for a visual artist, because of the levels of meaning that it opens up. I was fascinated more by how I reacted to the finished piece than in the conclusions it drew. At the end of the day it was hardly surprising to find that Wegner is everything we see, not just one anything.

What was surprising is how much complexity came out of such a simple setup. Initially she looks into the camera, emotes into it in apparently unscripted ways. We see individual moments, good and bad. She doesn't speak but there's commentary both in the text overlay and in the choice of music that plays in the background, backing up her mood swings amazingly well. We see growth, reinvention and change, yet those were always going to be transient. What fascinated me was the relationship between Wegner, a filmmaker, and her camera. For a while it seems blisteringly honest as she lets the camera peel away the layers that protect her from the world. As it runs on, we wonder how much the camera captures her and how much it shapes her, as well as how she uses it. She's an artist, after all. Do filmmakers need a script to get a point across? It says plenty that I'm still thinking about what these ten rivetting minutes really meant two weeks later.

So Who am I Anyway? can be viewed for free on YouTube.

Louis Lee (2006)

Director: Steve Weiss

My favourite No Festival Required screening of the year is always the selection of short films shown at the Phoenix Art Museum. Here's Selection 2011.
At Selection 2011, film programmer Steve Weiss suggested that the theme of this year's films was self. He doesn't consciously pick a theme, it just emerges gradually from his choices, but having programmed these wonderful selections of shorts at the Phoenix Art Museum for many years, it's only appropriate that this year's eventual theme would allow him to include one of his own shorts, the first of his films I've ever seen. It's a short documentary, almost entirely visual, put together as a tribute to the work of Phoenix native Louis Lee in creating a rock garden which looks unlike any rock garden you've seen. The work took decades, probably because there was no end goal, just a creativity let loose to do what it would that ended only with Lee's death in 2006. While the camerawork is inconsistent, possibly shot at different times and with different equipment, it ably provides us with a vision of why this rock garden is worthy of capture on film.

I can certainly see why it has captured so much interest. It's insanely ornate but very organic, reminding in many ways of an outsider artist's take on Antoni Gaudí. Watching the camera roll through the garden reminded me of walking through the streets and parks of Barcelona, seeing art everywhere, occasionally structured but more often somehow grown. There's no common structural design here, just rocks arranged in different ways to meet different locational needs, combined with pots, trinkets and statues. Nothing is consistent except the overriding vision of taking all this stuff and creating something artistic with it. The film feels much the same way, with the roaming camerawork mixed with ethnic music and some clips from interviews Steve Gompf made with Lee in 1994. The last one worked particularly well, bringing a sense of humour to the piece that the audience reacted to. So what else haven't you shown us yet, Steve?

Louis Lee can be viewed at YouTube.

The Performers (2011)

Director: Bob Miller
My favourite No Festival Required screening of the year is always the selection of short films shown at the Phoenix Art Museum. Here's Selection 2011.
Bob Miller's website describes him as a photographer and a visual journalist and both those arts are capably showcased here in a short piece about dancers at the BalletMet Columbus, shot as a project in multimedia storytelling at Syracuse University but also available to view at Vimeo. We listen to sound clips from interviews with dancers, quick and pithy comments that occasionally overlap, combining to provide an common impression, one that the visuals aim to bolster. There is no direct connection between the two; we have no idea who is speaking and who we're looking at. Everyone is just a nameless dancer, but that's appropriate given the comments about leaving their bodies and becoming the characters that they portray. We don't need to have their names on screen and we don't need to know who is speaking. We only need to understand the moments that they speak to.

While the piece is short, less than six minutes even when you factor in the credits, it's composed thoughtfully, very much a piece of two halves. The first half speaks to capturing the moment, so the visuals are still photographs, artfully shot with as much attention to colour as to composition. As the comments speak to escape, transformation, living in the moment, everything remains still and exotic. Then halfway through, just as a dancer speaks about coming back to reality, the film does that and returns to what we expect a film to do: move. Sure enough, the comments begin to address movement and we see a range of visuals tied to that, showing us what a human body can do. No wonder these dancers feel so alive while practicing their art, whether on stage or not. It's more than performance, it's who they are. They're dancers who dance because it's how they connect to the universe. That's what the film succeeds in showing us.

The Performers can be viewed at Vimeo.

Five Guns West (1955)

Director: Roger Corman
Stars: John Lund and Dorothy Malone

How better to follow up a western by William Castle than with one by Roger Corman, but even earlier in his career. This was only Corman's second film as a director, after Swamp Women. Yet while Swamp Women and Five Guns West aren't movie classics, they're both intriguing pointers to the qualities that Corman would soon bring to the B movie world. For instance, this is poor as a western but fascinating as a prototype for the wartime caper movie. While I was impressed by The Secret Invasion, a 1968 wartime caper movie directed by Corman and written by R Wright Campbell, I assumed that it simply exploited the previous year's The Dirty Dozen, which set the stage for so many such films. Yet it would seem that its real source was another wartime caper movie, 1955's Five Guns West, directed by Corman and written by R Wright Campbell, who even appears in this one too to highlight how involved he was with the picture.

The only real difference is in the choice of war. The concept is just as you'd expect in all those World War II movies: a military officer gathers together a collection of surprising characters to send on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. You won't find any Nazis here though, as Five Guns West is set in the days when 'strange dark figures rode under the flag of the confederacy'. The military officer is a Confederate captain and the men he assembles are the sort of outlaws you'd expect in the old west, all of whom he pardons so as to send into battle because the South was desperate for capable men in a losing war. The mission is simple, to bring back Stephan Jethro, a traitor who has defected to the Union with $30,000; but tough, as it involves making a hard four day ride in three days, avoiding Indians, crossing Union lines and holding up a stage escorted by the Union army. In another day, it's just what you'd expect Kelly's Heroes to do.

As Corman's films tended to be, it's ambitious for a low budget picture. I'm talking here about pictures he directed, because there was often a recognisable touch of philosophy, literacy and sense of history in the films he directed personally that you won't find in pictures like Dinocroc vs Supergator that he only touched as an executive producer. So with writer Campbell, he bands together five very different men with very different goals, fleshes out their characters and provides them with story arcs. Unfortunately the characters end up more interesting than the action they're placed into. It's very much a three act play and the first act is successful far beyond the other two, setting the stage and introducing the players. Once they have something to do, our level of interest wanes as the second and third acts prove unsatisfying for different reasons: guts and budget respectively.
The five outlaws pressed into service are played by Corman regulars for the most part, only John Lund making his sole appearance for Corman here. He had been an established B movie leading man for well over a decade, making him a logical choice for Govern Sturges, the professional highwayman and murderer who quickly dominates the group. He's strong and quiet, reminiscent of a less iconic Charles Bronson. Strangely, Lund's most remembered role today is probably the supporting one he had in High Society a year after this film. With Sturges quiet, it falls to Touch Connors to be colourful and he plays gambler Hale Clinton as a cut rate Maverick, even though Maverick wouldn't appear on screens for another couple of years. He's a troublemaker, who shot and killed an unarmed man after an argument over cards. Connors was the male lead in Swamp Women, his first of four Corman movies in two years. He wouldn't play Mannix until 1967.

The Candy brothers bring the team up to four. Young Billy Candy is played by Jonathan Haze, a long term Corman collaborator who appeared in Monster from the Ocean Floor and The Fast and the Furious, pictures Corman produced before he even started directing, and most of his credits would end up being for Corman. He's restless, crazy and a little dumb, giving Haze opportunity to chew up the scenery on occasion. He'd shot two law officers in a failed attempt to spring his brother Johnny from prison, where he'd been locked up for murder. Johnny is a sharpshooter, as quiet as Sturges but not as strong, probably mostly because the Bob Campbell who plays him is also the R Wright Campbell who wrote the picture. He's a better writer than actor and he knew it. He wrote the Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces as well as a number of Corman films, including The Masque of the Red Death, The Secret Invasion and well, Teenage Cave Man.

That leaves Paul Birch as J C Haggard, handed twenty years of hard labour for illegally driving cattle to New Orleans, a run that ended with the deaths of seven men. Unlike the others, he's obviously a decent man, who only wants to get on with his life without all the craziness that war brought. He's a grizzled oldtimer with a requisite deep voice, though he's not as cantankerous as many actors who specialised in such characters tended to be. Birch may be best known as the original Marlboro Man, but he was a film veteran before he joined Corman's stock company and began to get roles of more substance than he got as an uncredited musician singing with the Plainsmen. He would make plenty of Corman films over the next couple of years, from The Beast with a Million Eyes to Day the World Ended via Apache Woman, but he'd quit after a physical confrontation with Corman during Not of This Earth in 1957, his part completed by a double.
If this all sounds a little testosterone fuelled, you'd be right, as there's plenty of opportunity for an exploration of group dynamics. Who will team up with who? Who's going to fight who? Who's going to end up with the gold? This keeps us interested for a while but hardly for 78 minutes and the fights are poorly choreographed to boot. Fortunately there is a woman in the picture, though only one and it takes a full half hour for her to arrive. She's Shalee, in the lovely form of Dorothy Malone, who mans a stage post with her drunken uncle Mike, stranded when the surrounding town died. She's tough and quick with a gun, the same year she made The Fast and the Furious and five other pictures. How's that for a B movie pin up girl? Well, a year later she'd win an Oscar for playing a nymphomaniac in Written on the Wind. That was a Douglas Sirk soap, pointing to the most famous role she would have: a long run on Peyton Place beginning in 1964.

Unfortunately, while Dorothy Malone does a fine job as Shalee, it mostly isn't the one we need. Sure, she gets to snoop around a little and get into trouble, but she's really there to stir up the men. After all, just as we don't see a woman in the picture until she shows up, neither do these characters and they're not working to screen time. These men were all serving time in prison before being acquired by the army and sent on their mission. Who knows how long it had been since any of them had even seen a woman, let alone been allowed to do anything with one. Yet along comes Shalee, one woman to their five men. This second act should be blistering with sexual tension but it isn't and I'm not sure where the blame lies. Malone had all it took to do that and Campbell sets up a couple of scenes to take advantage of it, but it's half hearted and shied away from. It feels like Campbell and Corman simply didn't want to go there, which is a shame.

After the second act, a waiting game centered around Shalee's staging post, disappoints in its lack of sexual tension, the third act disappoints in its lack of action. Eventually the stage arrives, accompanied by Union soldiers led by James B Sikking in his screen debut. He gets a couple of lines before they kill him, but strangely he wouldn't return to film until 1964's The Strangler, and he wouldn't appear on TV until an episode of Assignment: Underwater in 1961. Hill Street Blues wouldn't show up until 1981, but he's recognisable here 26 years earlier. There's violence and gunplay and revelation, but it's unsatisfying, stilted and slow. Everything gets resolved, but we really don't care too much, partly because the revelations are unsurprising but partly because there's no real imagination at play with the guns. There is one scene of genuine tension, where Johnny gets under the stage post and shoots up through the floor, but that's it.

It all made me wonder just what Corman and Campbell aimed at. They set up the component parts of a fascinating western but completely failed to deliver on those fronts. It became routine, without anything to make it stand out among a substantial crowd until we put it into perspective in movie history, something that Corman's name invites. Could it have been that Campbell was really the originator of the wartime caper flick, merely too early and too independently to spark anything? Only when someone else caught on, could he then build on it in The Secret Invasion. That reminds of the complex Jurassic Park/Carnosaur situation, where Carnosaur the movie was a ripoff of Jurassic Park the movie, but both scripts were sourced from books, where Jurassic Park the book was a ripoff of Carnosaur the book. Maybe when Campbell wrote The Secret Invasion, his ripoff was merely credit returning to where credit was due.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

Cave of Outlaws (1951)

Director: William Castle
Stars: Macdonald Carey and Alexis Smith

I couldn't resist Cave of Outlaws for a host of different reasons, not least that it isn't available on DVD but Netflix are streaming it anyway. It's a real genre hybrid for a start, taking elements of mystery, romance, comedy and suspense and mixing them all up within the framework of a western. It's a Technicolor picture from 1951, so it looks a little otherworldly, especially given that the many underground sequences are shot on location inside the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. It's directed by William Castle and is the earliest of his films I've seen thus far within his obscure middle period, after entries in crime series such as the Whistler and the Crime Doctor but before his famous horror titles. It's also set in the Arizona territory in 1880, in the equivalent of which I currently live, and prominently features the famous frontier company of Wells Fargo, for whom I currently work. These are only the most obvious reasons why it's an interesting film today.

It wasn't that important in 1951 though and it obviously wasn't an expensive production. While the sets and Alexis Smith's costumes are worth looking at, this was made for Universal who were known for such things on a much grander scale than this. The acting is decent, but a few scenes needed a second take that never came. The stars are recognisable but not major: Macdonald Carey in the lead, Alexis Smith as the leading lady and Edgar Buchanan and Victor Jory backing them up. You may know these folks from television, but not at this point as the roles they would become best known for were still in the future. Carey began Days of Our Lives in 1965, literally as he provided the famous opening words. Buchanan had started Petticoat Junction two years earlier and would remain with it for its entire run. Smith's TV work was notable much later. She played a recurring character on Dallas and was nominated for a primetime Emmy for Cheers.

Carey is hardly a standard hero, as he begins the film freshly released from prison. He was guilty too, as we saw during the prologue when his eighteen year old self took part in a violent train robbery that left many men dead. The heist itself is successful and they make off with the Wells Fargo payroll of gold, but a posse is close on their heels. Pete Carver leads the gang into a colossal cave system, but he's the only one who gets to walk out. The posse follows them in and shoots the rest dead. The payroll followed the corpse of Pete's dad down a vast and inaccessible drop, so when he's released from Kansas State Prison fifteen years later, we can expect him to be a lot of things, from bitter to driven, but we don't expect him to be the hero of the film. 'He's grown up to be a tough one,' the governor tells a Wells Fargo detective, 'smart and tough'. Carey plays it quiet though, like a low budget Gary Cooper, so we keep our minds open anyway.
Having set itself up as a gold hunting western, Cave of Outlaws proves that it has a funny bone as Carver arrives back in what is now a booming copper town called Copper Bend. Everyone is interested in him. 'How do you know it's Pete Carver?' asks one local. 'I seen him with my own eyes,' replies another. 'Ever seen him before?' 'No...' You see, though fifteen years have passed and everyone knows the gold is in the cave, nobody has found it yet and they all expect Carver to quickly become a rich man. Some beat him up for his dough. Many aim to become his friend sharpish. Others want to exploit his fame or extend him credit because they expect him to be able to pay those bills soon enough. Even the doc who cleans him up after he's mugged drops hints that the town needs a hospital bad. The main characters all have their own interests in him and the gold too: Dobbs, Elizabeth Trent and Ben Cross.

Dobbs is the Wells Fargo detective, the only man in town who seems to have any patience. He sits back with his eyes open, waiting to see what unfolds. Edgar Buchanan is a great choice for the role, suitably old enough to be the voice of patient experience yet young and bright eyed enough to be up to the task at hand. He's been looking for this gold for twelve years. Ben Cross is the local bad guy, as you'd expect in the form of perennial screen villain Victor Jory. He owns the town, having acquired all the copper rights in the area through fair means or foul. He wants Carver to help him find the gold, without Dobbs noticing, pay his debts which all end up owed to him, and then get the hell out of town. Elizabeth Trent wants him, as her husband ran the local paper, the Copper Bend Clarion, but disappeared a year earlier and she's out of business until someone can bankroll its reopening, which Carver promptly does on credit.
You can almost write the story from there, because while the mix of genres ensures that it's an interesting ride, each of those genres unfolds exactly as you expect. You can be sure that Carver is after the gold, but not for the reasons we're led to expect. You can be sure he's interested in Liz Trent, a presumed widow in some ostentatious 1880 dresses, and you can be just as sure that Ben Cross is interested in her too. You can also be sure that Liz's husband is going to show up at some point in the story, alive or dead, just so he won't end up as a loose end. You can be sure that the gold is going to be a consistent MacGuffin that drives most of the characters, all the way until the end of the film. You can be sure that there's going to be brawling, a couple of gunfights and a showdown in the caves. You can even be sure that the plate glass windows at the Clarion are going to get people thrown through them. None of these things will surprise.

What does surprise is how sparkly the dialogue gets, as there are some blistering lines. At one point Liz ends Carver's fierce kiss and he asks, 'What's the matter? My credit's good everywhere else.' The romance is surprising too, not only because this is a Production Code era film and the lady is technically married at the time, but because Pete and Liz share far more arguments than they do kisses. The attention to detail is surprising too, as the writing is more consistent than I would have expected for a 75 minute B movie. I liked the cute scene that has Carver and Dobbs watch a couple of kids play acting as the Bandit of the Cave and the Wells Fargo agent. The cat and mouse game Carver and Dobbs play is intriguing, as they're ostensibly on opposite sides but frequently work together. I was surprised that the name of Dobbs didn't carry more reference though: this western about gold came only three years after The Treasure of the Sierre Madre.

The acting is capable without ever being stunning. Edgar Buchanan is the best of the bunch as Dobbs, the only character who doesn't jump to conclusions. Liz Trent spends most of the picture doing that, so Alexis Smith ends up mostly as the means by which her costumes move. Victor Jory played villains so often that he could do so in his sleep, which he does here. Few others get much of a look in, though Houseley Stevenson makes the most of his brief role as Cooley, Liz's printer, who rejoins the paper as it reopens for love and loyalty rather than pay. Russ Tamblyn is the young Carver but grows up too soon and I didn't even recognise Lee Marvin as the conductor who gets a couple of throwing knives to the back during the train heist. So the Carlsbad Caverns steal the film, eerily shot by Irving Glassberg. It's the caves that stand out most here, with the unusual mix of genres notable too in the best mid-period William Castle that I've seen yet.

Tuesday 5 July 2011

Kongo (1932)

Director: William Cowen
Stars: Walter Huston, Lupe Velez, Conrad Nagel and Virginia Bruce

Kongo is a glorious anomaly. Not only was it a remake that returned its story to its roots and did it exactly as it was intended, it was a remake of a Lon Chaney movie that surpassed the original. I'm not aware of another instance where anyone ever outdid Chaney and doubt anyone ever did but circumstances were on Walter Huston's side here, as he was working in the precode era and so had a lot more artistic freedom than Chaney did back in the silent days. The mere four years between the two versions were vast, given the changes Hollywood had gone through. It helps that Huston didn't really take Chaney's place either, Chaney took his, as Huston originated the role on Broadway in 1926 in a play by Chester DeVonde and Kilbourn Gordon. The play was Kongo, while the loosely adapted 1928 screen adaptation was West of Zanzibar. By 1932, when the story was revisited under its original name, Chaney was dead and Huston was a star.

West of Zanzibar is a great film, one of a number of great films Chaney made for regular director Tod Browning and he excelled once more in the lead role of Dead Legs Phroso, but it's not quite up to the level of his many masterpieces, perhaps because some of its scenes were excised for release. Hollywood was already converting to sound in 1928, though Chaney resisted that trend fearing that the air of mystery he generated so well wouldn't translate successfully if audiences heard him, so West of Zanzibar is silent. By 1932, the staginess of the early talkies had vanished as the studios mastered the technology, and while Kongo is mostly shot in and around the jungle hut of Deadlegs Flint, it carries as authentic a feel as any jungle picture I've seen. The sets were built for Red Dust, with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, but they work perfectly here too, darkest Africa never appearing quite so dark and reeking of sweat from moment one.

The switch to sound also marked the beginning of the precode era, a time of unbridled artistic freedom that lasted until the Production Code was enforced in 1934, which promptly muzzled Hollywood's output for three decades. Kongo is a prime example of what the studios could get away with within that brief period that could never have been revisited later. In fact, it's hard to imagine anyone remaking this one even today, because those who would stoop to the levels of brutality it exhibits wouldn't be able to capture the underlying soul and humanity of the story. It also benefits from release at a time when parts of the world map were still marked 'unexplored' and setting stories in such exotic climes could seem entirely believable whether they had any authenticity or not. It's notable that this film never feels racist, even though it centres around a brutal white ivory trader in the heart of Africa amidst a whole host of primitive natives.
Deadlegs Flint got his nickname for a reason: he's a cripple with knife slashes over his cheeks. He has a necklace and a slight waistcoat, but underneath is nothing but sweat, which permeates this film so palpably that it's almost a member of the cast. Scantily clad Lupe Velez is so slippery that it's astounding that her outfit doesn't fall off. Flint is wheelchair bound but he lives in attic space accessible only by climbing a rope. He carries a whip to back up his statement that 'I'm the law here.' He has a pet monkey that sits on his lap and sleeps with him. He has a hat with a skull on top of it to make him appear important to the natives. They all glisten with sweat too, topless black men who carry blazing torches and wear headdresses, war paint and necklaces of teeth. Their leader is a wizened cripple whom they carry about. Flint does magic tricks with fire to impress them, when sugar cubes aren't enough, and to reassert his dominance.

I mention all this detail because it provides a texture that is unmatched in cinema, engrossingly exotic. The only thing as omnipresent as the sweat is the sound of the drums. This is nowhere we've seen before, intoxicating swamp country with alligators and salamanders and a way of life we can only imagine. Perhaps most importantly, Flint has become part of this world, not just by being tough enough to survive in it, as Gable and Harlow were in Red Dust, but by becoming an intrinsic part of the scenery. He's not just Deadlegs Flint, he's Big Boss Flint and King Flint. He's infiltrated himself into the mythology of the natives. Just as Flint was surely influenced by Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, so the film itself was surely influenced by the Congo river and the descriptions Conrad used in his story. One I don't remember precisely compared jungle humidity to walking through an emptied fishtank. That returns to me every time I watch Kongo.

As much as he reeks of sweat, Flint also reeks of vengeance. He burns for revenge against 'the man who stole my wife, the man who kicked my spine in, the man who sneered.' He measures the passage of time only against what Gregg Whitehall did to him and what he'll do to redress the balance. Everything is part of his plan: his presence here in the jungle, his elevation to god status over the superstitious natives, the eighty mile juju circle he's enforced around him that no other trader can enter without his permission. Thus has he existed for so long with little white company: only a pair of assistants, the cowardly Cookie Harris and a big tattooed brute called Hogan, and a sex slave maid named Tula, Lupe Velez infinitely more exotic here than she ever was as the Mexican Spitfire. Having already proven his brutality in many ways, this plan proves his diabolical patience.

You see, Whitehall has a daughter, who grew up in a convent, and it's through her that he plans to get to her father. Viewers of precodes generally tend to be shocked, not at the content of the films which is tame compared to today, but that such content could be in films so old. Used only to code-era Hollywood films, precodes are glimpses into a time when the cinematic rules they're used to simply didn't apply. Kongo is a film that makes precode fans gasp with astonishment, as Deadlegs Flint descends to depths that seem utterly out of place in black and white yet are all the more powerful for it. So Flint has Hogan kidnap Ann Whitehall from the convent to establish instead in a Zanzibar brothel. After a time, he has her brought into the juju circle, where he has her eat scraps from the floor and drink tainted water. He keeps her drunk and bedraggled. When she comes down with malignant black fever, he gives her brandy to feed her delirium.
This is all astounding to watch, all the more because Ann Whitehall is played by Virginia Bruce, an elegant classic Hollywood leading lady, one of the original Goldwyn Girls who had just wed silent legend John Gilbert. Seeing her tormented and degraded here is as shocking as realising that the Jennifer Connolly doing lesbian sex shows in Requiem for a Dream is the same Jennifer Connolly that made Labyrinth. They reach the same depths, as when Ann Whitehall talks back to Flint, he throws her in a room and has Hogan rape her, but the realisation that this is 1932 is world shaking. Early hints at Flint's brutality, such as when he shoots a native for overhearing a conversation then has him hung up as a warning to all blacks, aren't preparation enough. Yet it all plays consistently with the tone of the film. Like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, Flint has found a kinship with the jungle and descended into a savage and aggressive brutality.

The natives are superstitious souls who Flint feeds with cheap carnival tricks, like decapitating Tula and having her severed head speak, but they're already one with the jungle setting. White men don't manage so well unless they embrace that the way Flint and Tula have. When another white man arrives, twitching and swaying like he has an army of ants all over him, we see what happens if they fight it. He's both a doctor and a dope addict. 'My name's Kingsland and I'm a mess,' is his introduction. Flint has him work on his crippled legs to relieve his pain in return for byang root, the drug that he's addicted to, but Ann brings him out of that dependence. He finds purpose in her salvation, but this story doesn't let anything be that simple. Tula hooks him again with her seductive powers and when he stops Flint twisting her tongue with wire in punishment, Flint cuts him, ties him up and dumps him in the swamp for the leeches to bleed clean.

And so the story runs until the blisteringly brutal ending, which I won't spoil but is as much a kick in the gut as any twist in any movie. The ramifications of it are soul destroying and yet there's a chance for as much redemption as anyone who's seen a Lon Chaney story arc can expect. It all fits the same themes of cruelty and sacrifice that Chaney mined so well and so often that it isn't surprising to watch him tell the same story in West of Zanzibar, but Walter Huston owns the role. Watching him ratchet up the intensity level to degrees that Chaney never considered, I'm always stunned at what he achieved here, but he was a star in the precode days for a reason, deep and versatile in his explorations of morality. He's vibrant, brutal, driven. When Kingsland operates on him without anaesthetic, he just lies there and chomps his cigar. When Ann asks him, 'How did the Almighty ever allow a man like you on this earth?' he's already been led him to face that too.

He has able support, not only from Velez and Bruce, but from Conrad Nagel as Dr Kingsland, who deliberately and appropriately overacts when he's stoned. The overdone acting fits the material in ways that is rarely the case. Bruce overacts too, but she's playing a woman deliberately driven to the depths who nonetheless manages to keep something human inside and must concentrate to keep it there. Velez is purest exotica, a gorgeous vision of a primitive beast, as are the natives whose voodoo religion expects them to burn widows alive as the moon rises. Such atmosphere is rare and in my opinion, has never been matched. The textures are such that we feel the rain, the swamp, the sweat, the addiction, the death drums, the masks, the animal magnetism, even the pidgin English. Cinema never got closer to the worlds that Robert E Howard conjured up for the pulps and even the precodes outdid this perhaps only with Freaks. Even then it's a close call.

Monday 4 July 2011

Midnight Alibi (1934)

Director: Alan Crosland
Star: Richard Barthelmess

Richard Barthelmess is one of the forgotten greats of Hollywood and while he made a few more films, including a late and great turn as Rita Hayworth's screen husband in Howard Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings, Midnight Alibi effectively marked the end of a great career, because Warner Brothers did not renew his contract. Throughout the precode era, he had enjoyed a fixed annual salary and the ability to choose his own material. With such freedom, he served as the screen's preeminent social conscience, making powerful message films railing against the corruption of government, society and business like The Finger Points, Son of the Gods and Heroes for Sale, along with cinematic visions as powerful as The Dawn Patrol and The Last Flight. None of that meant much to Warner Brothers, who felt it financially imperative that they shed expensive contracts like his or Ruth Chatterton's. When they came up for renewal, they simply didn't renew them.

That's fair enough, though sad for us in hindsight. What isn't fair is that they gave Barthelmess such a half baked sendoff after a unique career. Based on a Damon Runyan story called The Old Doll's House, Midnight Alibi is a scant 58 minutes short and it doesn't feel remotely as cared for as any previous Barthelmess picture. It feels like a vaguely ignored afterthought, what the music industry calls 'contractual obligations', one that rambles across what seems like every genre in the book in a vain hope to find one that sticks. It really shouldn't be worth watching and you can be sure that it fails on a grand scale, but there's still much for us to see because Barthelmess is an almost constant presence and there's Helen Chandler to look forward to as well, another unjustly forgotten name who gifted precode audiences with a string of magnificent performances that go well beyond her turn as Mina in the Béla Lugosi version of Dracula.

It begins as a thriller, Barthelmess playing Lance McGowan, some sort of crime boss who returns from abroad on the noon boat. His importance can be gauged through everyone in town knowing of his return, from senators to drunks who put their heads through doors for ten bucks. He's calm though, carrying himself with purpose, but politely chatting up a fellow passenger, Joan Morley, who he met on the boat. His men tell him that Angie the Ox is the head honcho now, running his illegal empire from the Hummingbird Club. It isn't surprising to find that Joan is Angie's kid sister. So McGowan starts taking on the Ox by showing up at his underground gambling halls, exuding so much presence that the folks running the games let him win, even when he rolls dice under a hat. Eventually, of course, he ends up at the Hummingbird, though he's been warned not to. The ensuing battle leaves him leaping over the wall to the Old Doll's House next door to escape.

And here all the momentum the film has built is promptly stopped in its tracks. Thus far it's sped along with a dynamic lead, a morally ambiguous antihero with a suitable mob. There's conflict everywhere you look, with hints of turf war and dangerous romance. It's dynamic and powerful. Well, it was. Now we leave that entirely behind so that Abigail Ardsley, the Old Doll who has lived alone in this house for decades, tells him a story about her youth because he looks like someone she loved long ago. We experience this story in flashback, with Helen Chandler turning eighteen as her ethereal younger self and Barthelmess as her father's clerk, Robert Anders. The pair are in love and want to marry, but her father won't have any of it. After discovering them mid-kiss, he casts Robert out and, when he comes back that night to ask her to elope, he shoots him dead. That's this film all over: every time a story begins it promptly ends again.

Barthelmess reminds a little of Brando in the first half and Patrick MacGoohan in the second. He's much better as the tough guy, because he had a serious presence to him that commanded our attention, even though he was hardly what you'd expect in a dynamic leading man. He was short, though a little taller than Cagney or Robinson, but wasn't as striking as either. Lillian Gish thought he had the most beautiful face of any Hollywood actor, but somehow he appeared both inconsequential and utterly deserving of our attention. He's too soft in the romantic scenes here, in which Helen Chandler dominates. She had a nervous sort of energy about her that makes it difficult to watch anyone else when she's on screen, even when playing opposite someone else with the same sort of magnetism. She's wonderful here, but she and Barthelmess were both better in The Last Flight.

Having changed from a thriller to a historical drama, now it becomes a romance as we return to the Lance and Joan subplot, but compared to Helen Chandler Ann Dvorak isn't much to look at and she's too melodramatic for us to care. Lance McGowan decides to be both tough and soppy. He goes back to Angie's place unarmed on a dangerous mission to forge a future and he goes back to the Old Doll to take her a dog. After all, she never talked to her father again and her door stayed unlocked for 45 years until he walked through it, so he wants her to have some company. Actually he brings her a bunch of dogs so she can pick one. She chooses a wire haired terrier, because it is 1934 after all. He calls it Skippy, which was the real name of Asta, to which name it changed after The Thin Man, which was released about six weeks earlier than this film. And then it becomes a melodrama, a courtroom story and of course a folk tale with a happy ending.

This film has everything, but most of it isn't that substantial. The story is riddled with holes, not something Damon Runyon was known for so perhaps we can blame Warren Duff's screenplay, or the restrictions of length the film was subjected to. At less than an hour, it can't even effectively explore one story, let alone half a dozen. What we can watch are the actors who give it what life it has, not just Barthelmess and Chandler but Helen Lowell, who plays the Old Doll. Already 68, this was surprisingly close to the beginning of her screen career rather than the end. She'd made five silent films between 1919 and 1924 but proceeded to hit 1934 with a vengeance, making no less than seven in that year alone. She'd make another nineteen before she died in 1937. She's well worth watching. While the explanation of the title is hardly surprising by the time it arrives, it's a touching moment that she carries well.

At the end of the day, the film is more important for what it represents than what it contains. It's the last film Richard Barthelmess made under his First National contract, which had transferred to Warner Brothers when they bought that company. Without the control that contract gave him, he made a couple of B movies then retired to live off his real estate investments. He returned for Only Angels Have Wings and three more pictures in the early forties, but that was it for a career that had flourished for a decade and a half. Fortunately he made a lot of movies in that time and we can look back at many of them, including three famous pictures. It was when D W Griffith cast him in two great leading roles opposite Lillian Gish, in 1919's Broken Blossoms and 1920's Way Down East, that he became a star. A third film, Tol'able David, made for his own production company, cemented a stellar career which didn't founder until here. This was the end of an era.

Sunday 3 July 2011

Sing and Like It (1934)

Director: William A Seiter
Stars: Zasu Pitts, Pert Kelton, Edward Everett Horton, Nat Pendleton and Ned Sparks

Sing and Like It is a great example of just why Hollywood had a golden age. People mistakenly assume that the golden age meant an abundance of classic films that people can still watch and admire today. Such pictures do exist but the golden age was much more. It came at a time when everyone went to the movies and they didn't just see one film, they saw an A picture, a B movie, a cartoon, a newsreel, a whole bunch of stuff all on the same bill. The industry was dominated by the major studios who cranked out pictures in vast numbers to fill these slots, some only taking a week to make. The point is that many of these routine programmers, like Sing and Like It, that had no expectations beyond persuading a few more punters into a few more theatres, should really suck. The realisation that they rarely did begins a real understanding of the golden age.

The reason Sing and Like It doesn't suck is because the people who made it, both in front of and behind the camera, were talented people and there were many more talented people waiting in the wings to take over if they faltered. It's the consistent depth of that talent across such a huge volume of pictures that made the golden age. There weren't actually as many truly great movies as people remember, but the routine stuff was so much better than the routine stuff of today. In many instances, the routine stuff is actually better than the good stuff of today. As produced by Merian C Cooper, a year after King Kong, and shot by reliable comedy director William A Seiter, this one focuses on five actors, four of which are favourites of mine: the delightfully ditzy Zasu Pitts; the grand ditherer, Edward Everett Horton; the gloriously dry Ned Sparks; and, in a bigger part than usual, ever lovable Nat Pendleton. The fifth is sardonic vaudevillian Pert Kelton.

Pendleton, so frequently just one of the gang backing up Cagney, Robinson, Bogart or whoever, finally gets a gang of his own. He's T Fenimore 'Fenny' Sylvester, a name that surely destined him to either run the show or have it run him. Here he's very much in charge, aiming to expand his kidnapping racket to cracking safes, but he's still a big kid at heart with a strong attachment to his mother. This leads him to finance a musical show, of all things, because he hears Annie Snodgrass singing about her mother and he's instantly and memorably smitten. She's practicing with the Union Bank Little Theatre Players, while he's robbing her employer, but he has to take a break to discover who the angel was whose voice is drifting upstairs to him. He makes her sing Your Mother again, in front of his rogues gallery of hoods and there are no dry eyes in the house. The catch is that only his are tears of joy; his men are notably suffering.
In the precode era, a few genres dominated the screen and musicals and gangster flicks were two of the key ones, so it's only natural that RKO would merge the two together in a comedy that sends up the whole thing. Pendleton was a natural to head up the gangster half and Zasu Pitts is an inspired choice to lampoon the musicals. She plays Annie Snodgrass with delightful snobbery, a bank employee in Drafts and Collections who 'doesn't think of anything but her art any more.' I have no idea which keys she sings in but I know it's more than one and her lyrics couldn't be any more schmaltzy. 'Who taught you wrong from right,' she trills in a quavery voice, 'while holding you so tight? Who misses you tonight? Your mother!' It's an awful performance in the best ways and having Pendleton all doe eyed over it is comedy gold. Never mind that his moll, Ruby, aches to be back on stage and he doesn't like the idea, he has to gift Annie Snodgrass to the world.

This is fluff, pure and simple, but it's elevated by the cast. Zasu Pitts made a number of serious films in the silent era, especially for Erich von Stroheim, but she was always a comedienne and talkies gave her opportunities to use her memorable voice that silent pictures never could. Nat Pendleton was an Olympic wrestler who played as many dumb oxen in the thirties as Karl Dane did in the twenties, but he did so in a quintessentially American way, playing cops, gangsters or wrestlers who could always be relied on to be taken advantage of, from the very best films to the very worst (think The Thin Man at one end and Swing Your Lady at the other). Pendleton gets more opportunity here than Pitts, because for the most part if she's on screen she's singing Your Mother yet again, a song that's hilarious to hear once but painful to hear again. Sylvester failing to understand that is a running joke but the joke is on us.

There are no star turns here, as each member of the ensemble cast gets their moment in the spotlight, even down to the bit part players. The thing to realise is that the cast were all known as character actors for a reason. None of them dominate the story, not only because the script doesn't aim for them to but because that isn't who they are. They're the folks who we watch in other people's movies and want to see more of, only to find that when they get their own movies they can't carry them on their own. So here, none of them are tasked with more than what they do best: building characters out of scraps of situation, then bouncing dialogue off each other with panache. That works right down to John Qualen's brief spot as Annie's boyfriend, Oswald, who with few lines and little screen time paints a complex portrait of their relationship. He'll obviously be there for her whatever, though she sees him and her as secondary to her art.
Best of all is Ned Sparks as Fenny's right hand man, Toots McGuire, whose dry wit takes full advantage of the script but goes far beyond it. His talent was to wring the highest comedic value out of the shortest lines. 'Let it go,' he says to his boss and it's genius. 'Goody,' he mutters and it carries blistering depth. Often he doesn't even have to open his mouth to be funny. On the other hand, Edward Everett Horton always made the most of his lines and the more words the better. He's perfect for the role of Adam Frink, the best show producer in town. 'Did you ever hear such a voice?' Fenny asks him about Annie. 'Not emanating from a human throat,' he replies. His futile attempts to say no to the gangster are glorious. Inevitably, Frink is caught up as helplessly in the plot as Annie, with Sylvester's love of his mother driving the whole thing and with Oswald and Toots hanging in there to pick up the inevitable pieces.

It's Ruby who shakes it up. Unhappy that she isn't the star of the show, she persuades Fenny to make her Annie's understudy, with the firm intention of stealing the lead through any nefarious means necessary. When Fenny decides to stage a publicity stunt by kidnapping Annie, Ruby has her kidnapped from the kidnappers, and by that point the story is rolling along with a life of its own. Like the rest, she's gifted with clever dialogue. 'From now on we're sisters under the skin,' she informs Annie, 'and you're already under mine.' In fact every combination of the five leads works delightfully. Toots translates everyone else's dialogue to Fenny who can only understand underworld slang. Fenny effortlessly and constantly annoys Frink. Ruby plays Fenny and plays up to Annie. Frink attempts in vain to give stage directions to his leading lady who doesn't have a clue but believes she's a consummate professional.

And I can't keep away from the writing. Adapted from a story by Aben Kandel by Marion Dix and Laird Doyle, just another couple of Hollywood scriptwriters, this was never meant to be anything special, just another routine programmer aimed to fill a scheduling slot. Yet it contains sparkling dialogue that makes the running time a swift 72 minutes; and it includes subtle commentary like the characters who write their reviews based on the reaction of the esteemed critic Abercrombie Hancock rather than the show itself, a neat take on The Emperor's New Clothes. Sure, there are flaws. There are far too many renditions of Your Mother and far too little else for Zasu Pitts to do. With so many cast members to focus on, we end up focusing on none of them. But if made today this would be an Annie Snodgrass of a picture, a clunker that expected a $50m budget. In 1934 it was a Toots McGuire, without any expectations at all but with all the talent in the world.

Saturday 2 July 2011

Smarty (1934)

Director: William A Seiter
Stars: Joan Blondell, Warren William, Edward Everett Horton, Frank McHugh and Claire Dodd

Based on a play by F Hugh Herbert, this is one of those films that highlights just how far we have changed as a society in such a short time. If you can believe this, the message behind Smarty is not just that domestic abuse is fine and dandy but it's actually the key to a successful marriage. Happiness can be found by husbands not being afraid to slap their wives when they deserve it and wives understanding that it's needed to keep them in line. Oh, and it's a comedy. Can you imagine the outcry if such a film was released today? Well Warner Bros snuck this one in as the shadow of the Production Code was descending, a mere month and a half before far more than wife slapping would become beyond the pale. Don't be mistaken that the code aimed to protect women though. It crippled female characters on screen by removing what code administrators saw as moral depravity and placing women back in the kitchen where they belonged.

Regardless of the message, Smarty has a female lead who is strong and dynamic, precisely the sort of character who would promptly disappear from Hollywood movies when enforcement of the code began on 1st July, 1934. She's Vicki Wallace and she's celebrating her birthday as the film begins. As you might expect in the hands of Joan Blondell, Vicki is fascinating to watch but she's also utterly unfuriating, her hobbies apparently being to wind up her husband every way she can and to ruthlessly manoeuvre everything to her own benefit. Her husband Tony is played by Warren William and it's truly shocking to see him wrapped around someone else's finger. This may be a Warren William picture, but Joan Blondell is bizarrely playing the Warren William part. I'm sure that's the point. While William is unjustly forgotten today, audiences of the time knew and loved the bad boy of the precodes and would have understood exactly what was going on.

For a start, even though Tony is a thoughtful husband and has a pleasant birthday evening all planned out, Vicki invites Vernon Thorpe over to play bridge, knowing full well that her husband can't stand him. Their fourth is Nita, Thorpe's guest, and hanging around for comic relief is their neighbour, George Lancaster. We don't get to see a lot of cards, we get to see Vicki torment her husband shamelessly, winding up him up throughout until he breaks down and slaps her. The reactions are amazing. Tony is horrified at what he's done, unable to forgive himself for such a cruel act, even though he was totally driven to it. Nita enjoys it. While she doesn't excuse Tony's action, she freely admits that his wife is annoying and she explains to her date that 'a good sock in the eye is something every woman needs, once in her life'. Thorpe is appalled, which is easy to visualise given that he's played by Edward Everett Horton, who knew that reaction well.

It all makes for a surreal scene. Joan Blondell torments Warren William, even though we would expect the exact opposite. William is ashamed of his action, something we never thought we'd see. Witnessing an act of violence against a woman, another woman wittily approves while a lawyer is appalled. The only part that seems familiar is the humour, given that Frank McHugh is George Lancaster, breezing in and out of rooms and conversations just as we expect him to. Of course humour in this situation is of itself surreal. Well, while we're off balance, the story decides to keep us there, because whatever lesson Vicki and Tony should have learned from the incident is not learned and Vicki escalates instead. She demands an end to their marriage, hires Vernon Thorpe as her divorce attorney and promptly marries him as soon as she's a free woman. He's always loved her, it seems, so there's no possible conflict of interest there.
By this point, you probably won't be too surprised to find that Vicki continues being infuriating, merely tormenting Vernon instead of Tony. After waiting a year, she mixes them back together, inviting Tony over to dinner, calling him darling and pursuing him unashamedly while he keeps asking, 'How's Vernon?' in vain. Watching these shenanigans, I started keeping track of just how precode this movie was. When you think about it, it's astoundingly outrageous, with absolutely nothing viable for release a couple of months later. A wife spurs her husband into abuse so she marry her divorce lawyer, then repeats the action with him so she can leave her new husband for her old husband, who's seeing a married woman. Sure, it sounds like a random soap opera episode today, but in 1935 the Legion of Decency would have had kittens. The only way it could possibly even be released was to make it onto screens in 1934 before the code was enforced.

It ends up too strangely against type to fully work. Joan Blondell is capable in the Warren William role, not a usual place for her, but one that provides her with plenty of opportunity to dominate. William has fun being the recipient of this treatment for a change but it's not right for him. There are a few moments when the old William shines through anyway, such as when he arrives at her party and looks at her in a new, very revealing dress. He does get better as the picture runs on, especially once Vernon shows up and proves totally at unease, but it's unusual territory for him that he can't be comfortable in. Horton is a weasel of a divorce lawyer, which means he's doing his job right. It's good to see an edge on the bewilderment that didn't always get the chance to manifest itself. Claire Dodd radiates joy as a much divorced woman, though she's underused in this film. Frank McHugh, of course, could do this sort of thing in his sleep.

As to the plot, there is precedence to the violence and it's even explained in the film, as another knowing nod to the end of the precode era. The source play opened in 1927 so had no idea what was around the corner in the thirties, but the adaptation was by the playwright himself, working with Carl Erickson, who would ironically kill himself only a year later after receiving a letter from his wife asking him for a divorce. Vernon Thorpe calls Tony's slapping of Vicki 'extreme cruelty', enough on its own to guarantee divorce, which it promptly does. Without seeking justification, Tony later explains that he'd been going to the movies a lot, and discovered that girls apparently love to be hit, even with grapefruit, a reference to Jimmy Cagney and Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy. In the precodes, where men were gangsters and women were prostitutes, it was hardly the worst crime in play, but this commentary seems out of place.

This scene almost feels like an apology to the public on behalf of the filmmaking community, a reinforcement that just because actors do things on screen doesn't mean you should copy them at home. It's half hearted and inappropriate, even before it schizophrenically proceeds to push the concept that hitting women is absolutely something you should copy because your marriage would benefit from it! This inconsistency of approach seems fraudulent rather than careless, for it's carefully scripted otherwise. Both Tony and Vernon are immediately horrified by what they do, while Vicki literally asks for it and Nita is all for it too. What it really boils down to is a couple of men writing this story as if it was advice from women. Hitting your wife is fine, these female characters tell us, as long as you love her. Only if you don't is it offensive. A woman even gets the last word, reinforcing the concept. She says, 'Hit me again.' Wow.

Friday 1 July 2011

Village of the Giants (1965)

Director: Bert I Gordon
Stars: Tommy Kirk, Johnny Crawford and Ronny Howard

Bert I Gordon introduced giants to the late fifties monster movies with The Cyclops, then made them a staple with The Amazing Colossal Man and its sequel, War of the Colossal Beast. Every other filmmaker in the country followed suit, or at least it felt like they did, but he took a break for a while, from human giants at least, until 1965's Village of the Giants, a bizarre mashup of genres that mixed monster movies with beach movies, Disney movies and juvenile delinquent movies. It was loosely based on the H G Wells novel Food of the Gods, which Gordon adapted a little more faithfully in 1976. This version is so loose that Wells would probably have turned in his grave. As it turns out, it's a terrible picture, even by Mr BIG's usual standards, but the cast is one to pay attention to. Some are still notably recognisable today but back in 1965 many were household names which was, of course, entirely the point.

The story comes from two directions: the gang of rebellious youths and the child prodigy. The gang arrive by crashing their car into a telephone pole in the rain. So dangerous that they react by climbing out and boogieing on down in the mud while getting drenched, these four girls and four boys end up in one huge mud bath. They're led by Beau Bridges as Freddie, a particularly insipid and pasty white gang leader, certainly no competition for Marlon Brando or James Dean but not really in the same league as Mugs from the East Side Kids either. A downed street sign gives him the idea to go torment folks in Hainesville, only three miles away, a peaceful town in which our leads, Mike and Nancy, smooch away the night on the couch, attempting to ignore the kid cooking up chemistry experiments in his basement lab. He's Little Ronny Howard, back in his days as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, subtly named Genius and he's the real foil for Freddie.

Names are hardly a strong point for this picture. One explosion later and Genius invents Goo, a bubbly red concoction that the cat laps up and grows to humungous size in no time at all. This is why Tommy Kirk plays Mike, because he'd dealt with eccentric scientific wizards for Disney in The AbsentMinded Professor and its sequel Son of Flubber earlier in the decade, when he was a child actor. He's supposed to be the film's star but he's outshone by a giant cat, a giant dog and especially by a giant pair of ducks that shake their tail feathers at the local hop after he feeds them Goo. He's a poor leading man, reminiscent of Wil Wheaton after he lost his juvenile charm but before he gained his adult character. Thus he proudly announces to the town that they're his ducks and he has a million dollar secret. Yeah, what a great idea that was! At least his integrity is up to shrugging off attempts by one of Freddie's girls to seduce it out of him.

The hop is where everyone first meets, because there's dancing every two pages in this script and Mr BIG hired the Beau Brummels to play live for these kids. They get two songs and continue playing even when the ducks take over the floor. That's how grounded in reality this picture is. No wonder Freddie's hooligans say things like, 'This place is really groovy.' To be fair, they're talking about the local theatre, which is off season and closed, but which conveniently leaves a host of costumes and props around for them to play with. I'm sure you won't be too surprised to find that as the local youth parties on down in the square with Mike's giant ducks skewered and cooked for them, Freddie and his gang break into Genius's basement lab, obtain some Goo and dare each other into growing to giant size and becoming the monsters in this monster movie. Unfortunately they're about as monstrous as they are delinquent, which is to say not very.
Village of the Giants is purest exploitation, as if Genius had thrown everything that kids dug at the time into a couple of test tubes and brewed up a single potion to make them all deliriously happy. Unfortunately it turns out to be an unholy mess of genres, as incoherent and overdone as any three of AIP's beach movies put together, with even more booty shaking and safe for work exposed flesh. Beyond the Beau Brummels, Mike Clifford croons a number and Freddy Cannon gets to perform a song in his cardigan. Something for everyone, remember? The biggest musical name though is Toni Basil, not as a performer but as the film's choreographer and an extra who doesn't say much but may get more screen time than anyone else. She's a dancer at the hop, shimmying at scary speed in a cage and she's a dancing distraction at a key point in the story. She's unimaginatively named Red because she spends most of the film in a bikini and a red wig.

In some ways it outdoes each of the genres it steals from, but not in any satisfying way. On the beach movie front, it has a bevy of girls who are highly pleasing to the eye, though Joy Harmon's extreme coppertone makes her look like she'd eaten something orange at Willy Wonka's. As a monster movie, it has a whole teen gang of giants, but they use their newfound dominance to demand that the sheriff bring them fried chicken and impose a curfew of 9.00pm for adults. As a gang movie it's pathetic, Freddie and his followers settling for being happy that nobody will ask for their IDs or they won't get hit by their fathers any more. They have as much imagination as the folks who named the characters. Only on the Disney movie front does it really satisfy, as it maintains the Disney feel but adds the sort of edge that Disney wouldn't dare to dream of. OK, that just means double entendres, switchblades and giant cleavage, but it's something.

Anyone paying attention can see so many opportunities for that edge to be edgier. For instance, the gang grow to giant size but their clothes don't. This was 1965 so we were hardly going to get slasher style booby shots, but the opportunity to enhance the sexual tension was wasted. Having them fashion clothes out of the theatre curtains makes sense, but a giant Beau Bridges in a red toga with tassels doesn't help us buy into his supposed toughness. The most memorable scene is when giant Merrie picks up normal sized Horsey (yeah, Horsey) and dangles him from her bra. That made some of the posters, but its promise isn't met. Similarly, there's one potentially scary scene, with a giant spider in a basement, but it's the only one and it's drained of menace by bad effects and poor editing. The gang of giants are drained of menace too, not least by having them appear in slow motion in every scene. The townsfolk just look at them for the most part.

The effects could have been much better but they could have been a lot worse too. Mostly they hinder the film because Gordon was obviously aware of the limitations. For instance, the normal size folks take down Freddie at one point with the aid of a collection of hot rods and ropes, but they do so by driving around a couple of motionless poles made up to look like his legs. What this means is that Beau Bridges has to stand there like a moron, flailing around a little in slow motion, while he's taken down because it's the only way the logistics could work. The last fight scene has the same problem, a David vs Goliath battle with sling vs pipe, because the budget didn't allow for effects capable enough for Kirk and Bridges to really go at it. As we notice this though, we also realise that it wouldn't have helped. Having the money to do it right wouldn't have made the slightest difference, because the biggest flaw is the writing and it's a fatal flaw.