Thursday 25 January 2024

The Song of Bernadette (1943)

Director: Henry King
Writer: George Seaton, from the novel by Franz Werfel
Stars: William Eythe, Charles Bickford, Vincent Price, Lee J. Cobb, Gladys Cooper and Jennifer Jones

Index: The First Thirty.

After eight pictures in just over three years, Vincent Price took a break from the big screen to bring a play, Gas Light, to Broadway as Angel Street, playing the lead for three years in what was a surprisingly long run for a non-musical.

If not following up with a part in the seven times Oscar nominated American film version in 1944 might seem like a lost opportunity, it’s fair to say that he did pretty well returning in this film, which landed eight nominations and three wins, including Best Actress for a very deserving Jennifer Jones.

It’s another historical film, this one an epic hagiography that lasted two and a half hours, all the better to underline how well Jones was able to endow the lead character with holiness and innocence. It’s very Hollywood innocence, but Jones bolstered the pale and beautiful waif trope with quiet and consistent strength. It’s a bravado performance and it’s easy to buy into what she’s selling.

What she’s selling, of course, is Christianity, in particular, Roman Catholicism, a persistent enemy of Hollywood. The National Legion of Decency, a powerful Catholic lobbyist group, famously warned churchgoers away from long lists of morally depraved films. This is exactly the sort of picture they hoped would be made after the imposition of the Production Code.

It’s the true story of Bernadette Soubirous, the young French peasant girl who saw visions of the Immaculate Conception in the grotto at Massabielle, outside the town of Lourdes, and followed her instructions, one of which was to wash herself in a non-existent spring, which promptly bubbled into existence and proved to have healing powers.

Monday 22 January 2024

Hudson’s Bay (1940)

Director: Irving Pichel
Writer: Lamar Trotti, based on incidents from the life of Pierre Esprit Radisson
Stars: Paul Muni, Gene Tierney, Laird Cregar, John Sutton, Virginia Field, Vincent Price and Nigel Bruce

Index: The First Thirty.

This is an odd movie because it’s Hollywood tackling history again and it feels every bit as inaccurate as ever, but, for the most part, it’s surprisingly accurate. Now, I never met Pierre Esprit Radisson, who died centuries before I’d even become a gleam in my father’s eye, but it feels like Paul Muni’s portrayal is pure fiction. Apparently, it isn’t, though his interpretation can be debated by the historians.

Maybe one reason why the film feels wrong is because it starts out with O Canada, which is a little out of place, given that it’s 1667 and it’s New France. O Canada was written in 1880 and didn’t become Canada’s national anthem until as late as 1980. OK, let’s let that slide and leap headlong into swashbuckler territory!

And yes, that’s how it feels when Paul Muni, as Radisson, and Laird Cregar, as his brother-in-law, Gooseberry, waltz into the government house in Albany. They’re fur trappers and the French governor doesn’t want to know about their plan to trade with the Native Americans around Hudson’s Bay, so they’re coming south to talk with the British. They have no interest either and promptly lock them up.

However, their outrageous French Canadian accents combine with their carefree attitudes and their quickness with fists to set this up as a belated colonial sequel to The Adventures of Robin Hood. Gooseberry is very Little John and his purloined jail cell key trick is an animated Disney adaptation special.

Saturday 20 January 2024

Wild Oranges (1924)

Director: King Vidor
Writer: King Vidor, based on a story by Joseph Hergesheimer, with titles by Tom Miranda
Stars: Frank Mayo, Virginia Valli, Ford Sterling and Nigel deBrulier

In 1922, a poll of Literary Digest critics had the “most important American writer” be one Joseph Hergesheimer. Hollywood leapt at his work, this following Java Head and The Bright Shawl in 1923. However, he was known for his descriptive writing rather than plotting and that doesn’t make him an easy writer to adapt.

I’m eager to dive into his descriptions for Wild Oranges, set by a dilapidated plantation house somewhere on the Georgia coast where one scared man and his granddaughter live, plagued by a huge man-child. This is a glorious location to set a descriptive novella, but it’s a difficult job to turn into production design.

However, there’s little else here. Outside of a brief prologue, we spend our entire time at this house or in the water around it to watch only five characters play their parts in a story that we could have written ourselves from the five minute mark.

That’s excluding John Woolfolk’s bride in a brief prologue. These newlyweds are driving a horse-drawn carriage into the new world of married bliss when a newspaper blows across the road and panics the horses. The unnamed Mrs. Woolfolk is thrown from the carriage at a corner and dies immediately. So distraught is her husband that he aims to forget the world by sailing it on his yacht with Paul Halvard, a cook and sailor his only companion. The pulpy title cards by Tom Miranda call it “a haven of solitude upon the vast wastes of the sea.”

We find that out as they’re dropping anchor in this inlet on the Georgian coast, but it looks more like the Island of Dr. Moreau because an array of scared people with faces designed for the movies see them and stare in horror.

Friday 19 January 2024

Brigham Young (1940)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Writer: Michael Wilson, from the book by L. C. Moyzisch
Stars: James Mason, Danielle Darrieux and Michael Rennie

Index: 2017 Centennials.

At what point, I wonder, do spoilers come into play when covering a film based on historical fact? Well, my mindset these days was forged by a theatrical viewing of Public Enemies, at which I was shocked at the audible shock of one audience member when Johnny Depp’s character was killed. Yes, that’s public enemy number one John Dillinger, who was shot and killed by special agents in 1934. If American audience members can be blissfully unaware of such a historic American event, are they likely to know much about, say, espionage in Turkey during World War II? Probably not, so I’ll be careful here, though I have to highlight that this film, while based on a memoir, isn’t remotely as true as the ballsy opening scene might suggest. Rather than merely plaster the usual ‘this is a true story’ onto the screen, we’re also placed inside the House of Commons, as an MP asks if the book, Operation Cicero, is factual. The reply? ‘It must be regretfully admitted that, in substance, the story to which the honourable member refers is a true one.’

In a nutshell, this story involved a man selling a substantial amount of British secrets to the Nazis for cash. In reality, his name was Elyesa Bazna, a Turkish man of Albanian descent, who worked as valet to Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, the British Ambassador to Turkey. The latter had a habit of taking secret documents home, in a dispatch box, and Bazna’s locksmithing skills allowed him to open this and photograph them. In late 1943, he contacted L. C. Moyzisch at the German Embassy in Ankara, and sold him a first batch of pictures. Given the codename of Cicero, he continued to do this for some months. Eventually the British discovered the leak and investigated, even mounting a sting operation that failed. However, the pressure was mounting and Cicero decided that it was time to quit. He stopped selling information in February 1944 and left the embassy in April. What’s wild is that the Nazis failed to act on any of this important information, not trusting it, and the British failed to catch Bazna.

Wednesday 17 January 2024

The House of the Seven Gables (1940)

Director: Joe May
Writer: Harold Greene, based on a story by Lester Cole, in turn based on the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Stars: George Sanders, Margaret Lindsey, Vincent Price, Dick Foran, Nan Grey, Cecil Kellaway and Alan Napier

Index: The First Thirty.

Universal continued to try out new genres for Vincent Price. From comedy to historical, from sci-fi horror to jungle adventure, here’s a gothic drama loosely based on the classic 1851 novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I’ve seen this before and relatively recently, but I found that I liked it more on a second viewing.

It changes the book, but it’s closer than the average Hollywood adaptation and adheres to its spirit. The two largest changes are a shift from revelatory flashbacks to a chronological approach that fits a ninety minute feature and a new romantic angle between two of the lead characters, which works surprisingly well.

The former means that we learn the history behind the Pyncheons from moment one. Back in the 17th century, Col. Jaffrey Pyncheon, an important colonial government leader, stole the land of Matthew Maule by accusing him of witchcraft. He’s hanged, of course, but curses Pyncheon, who’s found dead in the mansion he builds on Maule’s land, a day after moving in. Maule’s curse continues down the years.

Fast forward to the 19th century and Seven Gables is still in the Pyncheon family. Now it’s the colonel’s great-grandson Gerald who rules the roost, with three more Pyncheons present: his two sons, Jaffrey and Clifford, and a cousin of theirs, Hepzibah.

This new Jaffrey, to whom George Sanders is able to endow a suitably slimy demeanour, is starting his career as a lawyer. Clifford, whom Price initially plays in a very light manner, is a budding composer very much in love with his cousin, who, in the form of Margaret Lindsey, happily returns all his affections. This is a new romantic angle, because Clifford and Hepzibah were brother and sister in the book.

Tuesday 16 January 2024

The Brute (1953)

Director: Luis Buñuel
Writers: Luis Alcoriza and Luis Buñuel, based on a story by Luis Buñuel
Stars: Pedro Armendáriz, Katy Jurado, Rosita Arenas and Andrés Soler

Index: 2024 Centennials.

Any opportunity I can get to watch a Luis Buñuel movie I’ll happily take and here’s one from his Mexican period that’s new to me. I know his early work as a surrealist, working with Salvador Dalí on films like Un Chien Andalou—yes, the one with the eyeball slice—and much of his later award-winning work, including The Exterminating Angel which I absolutely adore. However, it’s his mid-period work in Mexico that I tend to appreciate most, especially his exquisitely written melodramas that somehow avoid those scenes we all know were written specifically to win awards for actors. This may not have the depth of Los Olvidados, but it’s a tough story with some highly memorable characters, not only El Bruto himself, played by Pedro Armendáriz, one of the pivotal Latino actors of any country in the forties and fifties; but also Andrés Soler, one of the great Mexican actors from the era; and our first centenarian for 2024, Katy Jurado, who plays a real piece of work here who is responsible for most of what happens in the film.

She may not be responsible for the initial plot device, which is a landlord telling the tenants of a block of flats he owns that they’re all being evicted. He’s Andrés Cabrera, clearly a well off gentleman but one eager to get the 150,000 pesos he’s been offered for the land the flats sit on, which doesn’t make the news any easier for his tenants. Times are hard, not so much that they can’t pay their rent but enough that they struggle to make ends meet otherwise, the diet being whatever they can afford and their health affected by whether they can pay for medicine or not. So they resist, a quartet of brave tenants speaking for them all when they dismiss the eviction notice and say that they’ll fight to stay. Given that the movie is called The Brute, it’s not hard to see that them standing up for their rights or even just what they perceive might be their rights will be dangerous. Señor Cabrera gives them twenty days. It’s pretty clear that they’ll ignore it.

Sunday 14 January 2024

Green Hell (1940)

Director: James Whale
Writer: Frances Marion
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joan Bennett, John Howard, Alan Hale, George Bancroft, Vincent Price, Gene Garrick and George Sanders

Index: The First Thirty.

I had no idea what Green Hell was going into it, except that I thought it was a war movie. It isn’t. It’s a jungle adventure yarn, set in South America, and the names behind it bode well. It isn’t just the stars, with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. top billed, Joan Bennett as the female lead and George Sanders listed separately. It’s also the crew: James Whale as director, flying solo for the last time; Frances Marion as writer, with a pair of Oscar wins behind her; and Karl Freund as cinematographer, my favourite such from the classic era.

The bad news is that it’s really not the best work of anyone involved. On the other hand, the good news is that it’s not without its joys, especially early on.

Vincent Price actually starts us off, as David Richardson, clad in a white suit and in search of Dr. Loren in a crowded South American bar. That’s Alan Hale and he’s got Forrester there with him too, a total lech in the able form of George Sanders. They’re putting an expedition together to seek Incan treasure in the jungle. Outside, in a vain attempt to fight off flower girls, is expedition leader Keith Brandon, in the able form of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

It’ll take a year, maybe two, but Richardson says that he has nobody, even if he makes sure to bid someone farewell before leaving, telling them that he loves them. This seems odd but it becomes odder when they start up a river and he asks a colleague if it’s possible to love two women simultaneously, think yourself faithful to each and yet still ache to be free.

Thursday 11 January 2024

The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

Director: Joe May
Writers: Lester Cole and Kurt Siodmak, from a story by Joe May and Kurt Siodmak, a sequel to The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells
Stars: Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Vincent Price, Nan Grey, John Sutton, Cecil Kellaway and John Napier

Index: The First Thirty.

I thought I’d seen all the original Universal horror movies, but this may be an exception. It’s also a lot better than I expected it to be, in most part due to an intelligent script by Curt Siodmak, going by Kurt here. He had written a number of scripts back in Germany, including Menschen am Sonntag, but would become more known for his horror movies, such as The Wolf Man, I Walked with a Zombie and Donovan’s Brain, the latter of which was based on his novel.

For a start, he didn’t let us see the Invisible Man too quickly. And yes, that’s a pun. It’s not the only one you’ll read because the picture is full of them. But we hear much about Geoffrey Radcliffe before he shows up.

Initially, he’s on death row, two hours away from being executed for murder. He’s visited by Dr. Frank Griffin, brother to Claude Rains’s character in The Invisible Man, here named as John Griffin. And, when the officials come for him, he’s gone. There were two guards in the room and Geoffrey talked with them after the doctor had left. Then he walked round the cell and disappeared. His clothes are right there on the floor.

Of course, we know what happened, so we’ll not be shocked when we see the effects of an invisible man walking into the woods to dress from a deliberately placed suitcase. We know his presence by now.

Monday 8 January 2024

Tower of London (1939)

Director: Rowland V. Lee
Writer: Robert N. Lee
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Barbara O'Neil, Ian Hunter, Vincent Price, Nan Grey and Ernest Cossart

Index: The First Thirty.

I should be worried that Vincent Price went from one historical drama to another, but I’ve seen both before and they’re very different. It can’t be said that this is any more historically accurate than The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, but it doesn’t seem to matter as much.

Part of that is that it’s older history that we don’t remember as well, the Henry Tudor who wins a decisive battle at the end of the picture to become Henry VII, being the grandfather of Elizabeth I. We’re within the Wars of the Roses and they’re not even well remembered in the two counties who bluster at each other still.

However, part of it is also that, while Basil Rathbone is officially the lead here, as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, before, during and after he serves as Richard III, King of England, it has to be said that Boris Karloff seriously challenges him for the lead because he doesn’t think he’s even in a historical drama. He’s obviously in a horror film and, if we think about it, Richard is sometimes too. We could fairly read this as a slasher movie with Richard the big bad and Karloff, as Mord, his favourite weapon.

We begin in 1471 when the monarch wasn’t clear. The young Edward IV is king, because he deposed Henry VI, who is confined within the Tower of London, but Paper Crown Henry is a madman and thinks he’s still king, as he was a short time earlier for almost four decades. It’s a fascinating time in history, and it’s clear that Robert N. Lee, writer of this script, was on the opposite team to George R. R. Martin. Lee has the House of Lancaster the honourable, decent and rightful monarchs but the House of York a bunch of bloodthirsty scheming bastards who murder their way to the throne.

Sunday 7 January 2024

Finances of the Grand Duke (1924)

Director: F. W. Murnau
Writer: Thea von Harbou, based on the novel by Frank Heller
Stars: Harry Liedtke, Mady Christians and Alfred Abel

This film is a heck of a way to kick off a new year, because, its boring title notwithstanding, it’s a screwball comedy directed, of all people, by F. W. Murnau. It could have gone horribly wrong or wonderfully right but it surely had to be something to see and I’m very happy I’ve now got to see it. I had an absolute blast.

It’s worth mentioning here that Hollywood was dominant in world cinema in 1924 but the Germans were nipping at its heels. This is the first of two pictures Murnau would deliver in 1924 and I’ll be covering two others by Fritz Lang and more by Robert Wiene, Paul Leni and Carl Theodor Dreyer, just to highlight a few.

This is a great start, because there are a lot of pivotal names involved and all of them do a wonderful job.

Murnau is the first, important for directing Nosferatu two years earlier, but he’s not alone. The script, adapted from the Swedish novel by Frank Heller, is by Thea von Harbou, Mrs. Fritz Lang, who would write Metropolis three years later. The impeccable cinematography is by Karl Freund, who had shot Der Golem and a few earlier Murnau films but would also go on to Metropolis and Dracula as cinematographer and The Mummy and Mad Love as director. I’m told that the production design is Edgar G. Ulmer’s and he also shot second unit. He would go on to become the king of doing very much with very little, directing low budget gems for PRC like Detour and The Strange Woman.

The names we see on screen aren’t as well known today but they also do excellent work and I’d love to follow some of them into other pictures. I only knew a few of them, including Ilka Grüning, a cook here, so memorable a year earlier in G. W. Pabst’s The Treasure.

Thursday 4 January 2024

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Director: Michael Curtiz
Writers: Norman Reilly Raine and Æneas MacKenzie, based on the play Elizabeth the Queen by Maxwell Anderson
Stars: Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Donald Crisp, Alan Hale, Vincent Price and Henry Stephenson

Index: The First Thirty.

After starting out as a leading man in Service de Luxe, Vincent Price settled for a prominent supporting slot in this second picture for him, playing British war hero Walter Raleigh. It’s a much bigger film though, a movie full of stars that cost a million bucks to make back in 1939. I don’t know what Service de Luxe cost but not remotely that much.

Unfortunately, the role wasn’t as prominent as it could have been, because Raleigh doesn’t get a lot to do in this story, based on a play by Maxwell Anderson that had opened in 1930. It was called Elizabeth the Queen and this version would have followed suit but Errol Flynn felt that it marginalised his role. Warner Brothers met that need by retitling it to The Knight and the Lady, but Bette Davis correctly suggested it could be seen as his film rather than hers, and so they tapped into a British format used on historical dramas like The Private Life of Henry VIII and The Private Life of Don Juan.

It’s an appropriate title because it really is about both Elizabeth I, Queen of England, and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. Davis was only a year older than Flynn but Elizabeth was thirty-two years Essex’s senior, so Davis wears a great deal of aging make-up. That’s the first and last nod to historical accuracy, because it plays fast and loose with history otherwise.

We’re in London in 1596 and Devereux has defeated the Spanish forces at Cadiz so is now on his way to see his Queen. There’s pageantry and extras galore and it’s all aching for some sort of widescreen presentation, which it does not get.

Monday 1 January 2024

Service de Luxe (1938)

Director: Rowland V. Lee
Writers: Gertrude Purcell and Leonard Spigelgass, based on a story by Vera Caspery and Bruce Manning
Stars: Constance Bennett, Vincent Price, Charles Ruggles, Helen Broderick, Mischa Auer and Joy Hodges

Index: The First Thirty.

There’s a lot of irony in play with this film, none of which would have been obvious back in 1938. Most obviously, it’s a comedy, though many know Vincent Price primarily for horror movies. However, he’s also the leading man, albeit as a love interest for Constance Bennett rather than the other way around, though he would move after this to supporting roles. He finds himself dismissed by a cook suggesting “You’re not an epicure!” even though Price is now well known as a gourmet chef.

And he’s a rampant sexist here, even if we remember him as a quintessential gentleman, even when playing outright villains. But that’s because of how the film is set up, because the traditional roles of men and women are what the comedy is sourced from.

Bennett, fresh from success in the first two Topper movies and with memory of being the highest paid actress in Hollywood, plays Helen Murphy, though that’s not what most people know her as, because she’s much more widely known as Dorothy Madison 1. That’s because she’s a businesswoman, the founder of a wildly successful service called Dorothy Madison that effectively runs the lives of a lot of powerful men. Every one of her girls answers the phone as Dorothy Madison, including her.