Thursday 2 May 2024

I Bury the Living (1958)

Director: Albert Band
Writer: Louis Garfinkle
Stars: Richard Boone, Theodore Bikel and Peggy Maurer

Index: 2024 Centennials.

Robert Kraft is the new chairman of the Management Committee of the Immortal Hills cemetery in Milford so Andy McKee, who’s been its caretaker for as long as anyone can remember, shows him around. Bob Kraft is Richard Boone, well known on TV in 1958 for his role in Medic, which landed him a 1955 Emmy nomination, but was becoming a bigger star through roles in westerns like The Tall T, Ten Wanted Men and Man without a Star, along with a new TV show for 1957 called Have Gun – Will Travel, in which he played a gentleman wandering the West as a gun for hire to help people in need. McKee, an old Scot with a thick accent whose retirement is one of Kraft’s first priorities, is Theodore Bikel, then a thirty-four year old Austrian Jew. He was born in Vienna but moved to what was then Mandatory Palestine (now Israel), learning acting there and later in London, to which he moved at twenty-one to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He racked up many European nationalities in movies. A Scot was just one more.

The easiest way to see I Bury the Living is as an unassociated feature length episode of The Twilight Zone, so it doesn’t hurt that Boone bore a resemblance to Rod Serling. He had similar rugged good looks, a similarly serious attitude and, of course, a similar suit given that Bob is also the president of the Kraft department store. The Kraft family run the town of Milford and Bob’s Uncle George, who was chairman two years prior, explains to him how they maintain their level of prestige. Every man in the family “served on every community project, board and committee that was ever created. They served for free but they did it for business.” So, even though Bob is busy with the store, he’s now going to have to dedicate a few hours a week to the cemetery. Given that most of the feature is set at Immortal Hills and we never see the store, you can imagine how well that doesn’t go for him. There’s a reason for that and it is inherently tied to the big board on the far wall of the cemetery’s office that McKee talks him through on that first fateful visit.

Saturday 13 April 2024

Two for the Road (1967)

Director: Stanley Donen
Writer: Frederic Raphael
Stars: Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney

I had never heard of Two for the Road before plucking it out of Stanley Donen’s filmography for this project, but I’m very happy that I did. It’s technically a British film, but the funding came from a Hollywood studio—20th Century Fox—and it was primarily shot in France, so it’s an international picture and that’s highly appropriate because it feels like an international film, a romantic comedy obviously influenced by the French New Wave. It was shot in 1966 and, while it certainly looks like it was shot in 1966, it also feels like it could have been made yesterday because it’s that timeless; and let’s be honest, how many films shot in 1966 can you say that about? It wasn’t much of a commercial success, making back $12m on a $5m budget, but it was highly regarded by the critics. More than one has described it as Donen’s best movie, even though he also directed Singin’ in the Rain; it’s often been described as having Audrey Hepburn’s greatest performance; and Henry Mancini has claimed that his theme is his personal favourite from his work.

Clearly I should take a look at it to remember Donen and his career, on what would have been his centennial; he came pretty close to celebrating it too, passing in 2019 at the age of 94. The lead actors are Hepburn and Albert Finney, the latter of which was fresh from the success of Tom Jones and the former very close to her initial retirement, with only Wait Until Dark following it until a much anticipated return a decade later in 1976’s Robin and Marian. The most important name, though, at least to this particular picture, is that of Frederic Raphael, who wrote the original screenplay. It’s not exactly autobiographical, but it was sparked by a road trip that he and his wife took through France, some of the script taken from things that they did but much of it taken from things that they didn’t do but could well have done in a parallel universe. He received an Oscar nomination for his work, the film’s only nomination as Hepburn was nominated for Wait Until Dark instead, but he lost to William Rose for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

Wednesday 13 March 2024

The Bribe (1949)

Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Writer: Marguerite Roberts, based on the short story by Frederick Nebel
Stars: Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, Charles Laughton, Vincent Price and John Hodiak

Index: The First Thirty.

Here’s another Vincent Price movie that I’d never even heard of, though it turns out that I have seen parts of it, in Steve Martin’s comedy nod to film noir, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. He takes his name of Rigby from this film and the whole Friends and Enemies of Carlotta angle is taken from its location, Carlotta being a town on the Central American island of Los Trancos.

Of course, this is the original and it wants to be taken seriously, a little too much if Rigby’s got anything to say about it. That’s Rigby the American cop, in the form of Robert Taylor, who’s sent to Carlotta to find out who’s behind a war surplus racket.

Apparently someone’s buying lots of scrap, but someone’s including good airplane motors in the shipments, which are then shipped out of the country, where they’re conditioned and sold. That’s millions of dollars in profit, none of it taxed, and if there’s anything that’s more un-American than taking money from Uncle Sam, I don’t know what it is.

There are only two suspects, so Rigby looks at them first when he gets to Carlotta in the guise of a fisherman. Apparently, nobody goes to Carlotta except to fish. Or to steal airplane engines, of course. They’re a married couple, Tugwell and Elizabeth Hintten. Tug flew down with the airline, but lost his job so now tends bar at Pedro’s and drinks himself into a stupor on his day off. Liz sings there and well too, but we only get a couple of songs. Tug is played by John Hodiak, Liz by Ava Gardner.

Monday 11 March 2024

The Three Musketeers (1948)

Director: George Sidney
Writer: Robert Ardrey, based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas
Stars: Lana Turner, Gene Kelly, June Allyson, Van Heflin, Angela Lansbury, Frank Morgan, Vincent Price, Keenan Wynn and John Sutton

Index: The First Thirty.

For a beloved family classic, there’s an awful lot wrong with this famous take on The Three Musketeers, now only the seventh result for the famous title on IMDb, but the fifteenth made at that time. However, it won me over again in the end, as it does each time. I’m embarrassed early on but it leaves me smiling by the end.

The Three Musketeers this time out—Athos, Porthos and Aramis, as always—are played by Van Heflin, Gig Young and Robert Coote, who make for a jolly lot of honourable scoundrels, Heflin in particular bringing substance to his role and not only in the sense of alcohol.

The new fish, D’Artagnan, who trawls them into a rash of adventures, is Gene Kelly, utterly sure that he’s in a musical even though writer Robert Ardrey and director George Sidney had no such ambition. He overdoes everything as a living cartoon and I never bought his comedy, but the balance and energy he has as a dancer does lend itself to magnificent swordfights.

On his first day in Paris, he manages to find his way into a duel with all three of the above musketeers on the very same day, but the first turns into a rout of Richelieu’s men, who show up to arrest them. Given a string of ambitious leaps, I wondered if he was aiming at Douglas Fairbanks Sr. more than Errol Flynn, but then I realised that his ability to turn anything into a prop meant that he was aiming at Jackie Chan, merely thirty-five years too early.

Thursday 7 March 2024

Rogues' Regiment (1948)

Director: Robert Florey
Writer: Robert Buckner, based on a story by Robert Buckner and Robert Florey
Stars: Dick Powell, Marta Toren, Vincent Price and Stephen McNally

Index: The First Thirty.

Back to regularly scheduled programming, Price’s next film proper after Up in Central Park is a picture that tries to be every different film genre all at once. It doesn’t work, which might explain why this is criminally underseen and unavailable outside the grey market, but it is a particularly fascinating attempt.

As the opening credits roll, it’s obviously a French Foreign Legion movie, which is backed up by those very words showing up under the title on the movie’s poster. And it is, but not in the usual way. This is a far cry from Beau Geste.

For a start, the very next scenes involve the burning of the bodies of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun outside their bunker in Berlin in 1945. It might seem historical to us but it was notably topical for 1948, being only three years on. It’s only two years after the Nuremberg Trials, our next stop, to watch in archive footage, the fate of the leading Nazis to survive the war. One, however, also sentenced to death, isn’t there.

Monday 4 March 2024

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Directors: Charles Barton and Walter Lantz
Writers: Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo and John Grant
Stars: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Glenn Strange and Lenore Aubert

Index: The First Thirty.

While it took Vincent Price sixteen films to land top billing, achieving it with Shock, and he was very much a supporting actor throughout the rest of his First Thirty, his profile was such that his name made it onto every single poster for every single feature he was in from Service de Luxe to Up in Central Park. That remarkable streak, comprising his first twenty-one films, is ended here, as he’s given less to do in this one than in any other thus far and possibly in his entire career.

That’s because he’s basically just a sight gag in the last minute of the film, delivering a pair of lines and some maniacal laughter to serve as the final punchline to the original Universal comedy horror flick. Let me set the scene.

Abbott and Costello have survived the film, thinking back on what they just went through. While Lou saw everything, his partner didn’t, consistently so for comedic effect, and so he’s adamant to get that across now they’re safe.

“The next time that I tell you that I saw something when I saw it, you believe me that I saw it,” Lou spits out in his infamously thick Brooklyn accent.

Bud is dismissive. “Oh relax. Now that we’ve seen the last of Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Monster, there’s nobody to frighten us any more.”

Friday 1 March 2024

Up in Central Park (1948)

Director: William A. Seiter
Writer: Karl Tunberg, based on the musical by Herbert Fields, Dorothy Fields and Sigmund Romberg
Stars: Deanna Durbin, Dick Haymes and Vincent Price

Index: The First Thirty.

Four words are needed to set you up for Up in Central Park and not all of them are obvious from the poster. Sure, it’s a romantic musical, as you’d expect. It’s also a comedy, or at least it’s supposed to be, and that’s there too. The fourth word needed, though, is “politics”.

You see, this is a fictional story set against the backdrop of a very real political era, that of the dominance of Tammany Hall in 1870s New York. Vincent Price is notorious William Tweed, whom everyone calls “Bill” or “Boss”, depending on whether they’re in his favour or not. And, just in case a word like “notorious” wasn’t enough, here’s a little history lesson.

Back when the Republicans were liberal and the Democrats were conservative, there was a Democrat named William Tweed, who owned New York, not literally, as he was merely third in the ranks of landowners, but through his influence and control. He sat on the boards of railroads, banks, utilities, mines, newspapers, even the Brooklyn Bridge Company. He was a state senator in New York and a congressman in Washington. He orchestrated elections and controlled finances, to the degree that, by the time he was convicted of corruption and sent to jail for life, he had extracted the equivalent of $5 billion in today’s money from the city.

Tuesday 27 February 2024

Moss Rose (1947)

Director: Gregory Ratoff
Writers: Jules Furthman and Tom Reed, adapted by Niven Busch from the novel by Joseph Shearing
Stars: Peggy Cummins, Victor Mature and Ethel Barrymore

Index: The First Thirty.

It would be easy to find fault with Moss Rose, a gothic film noir murder mystery drama of a movie, but it feels relentlessly unusual and I’d be lying if I said that it’s not going to stay with me. I have a feeling I’m going to remember it a lot longer and a lot more fondly than Vincent Price’s previous couple of movies, even if he isn’t actually in it much. It kept me guessing all the way, partly about whodunit but mostly about where the heck it would travel next. It’s thoroughly unpredictable.

Breaking his trend of playing four villainous roles in a row, Price is a police inspector here in a Victorian London straight out of Jack the Ripper, with cobbled Coin St., near Waterloo Bridge, drenched in fog. It starts suspensefully with young chorus girl Belle Adair going home from work and wondering who’s hiding in the shadows watching her. Of course, we can see that it’s Victor Mature, who we don’t expect to play a 19th century stalker.

If that’s our first surprise, our second is that Belle is not our victim; that’s a friend, fellow chorus girl and neighbour, Daisy Arrow, who’s flustered already the moment we first meet her. As Belle goes on a date with Georgie that night, the pair of them hear Mature’s voice as he rides off with Daisy. Next day, she brushes past him on the stairs to her apartment. She’s coming in and Mature’s rushing out in a hurry because Daisy’s dead in her room, having been drugged and then smothered.

Saturday 24 February 2024

The Long Night (1947)

Director: Anatole Litvak
Writer: John Wexley, based on a short story by Jacques Viot
Stars: Henry Fonda, Barbara Bel Geddes, Vincent Price and Ann Dvorak

Index: The First Thirty.

I’ve seen The Long Night before and I’ve even reviewed it at Apocalypse Later, but I didn’t remember my 2009 viewing at all. Watching again, I find that it starts to fade quickly from memory, not because it’s bad but because it’s weak. It’s a Hollywood adaptation of a classic French film, 1939’s Le jour se lève, or Daybreak, but with much of its palpable edge removed.

It opens neatly, with Vincent Price tumbling down a staircase with bullet holes in his body, the only witness a blind former soldier played by Elisha Cook, Jr. Of course, we saw it too and we know that he emerged from the front room on the top floor, which we soon discover is Joe Adams’s apartment.

Bill Pulaski has a room behind him, but he’s working a swing shift, so Henry Fonda is the one and only suspect in the death of Vincent Price. Of course, it doesn’t help his case when the cops knock on his door and he greets them with more bullets. He even comes out to look around, with his gun still in his hand. This has to be the easiest murder to solve in the history of the movies!

Thursday 22 February 2024

The Web (1947)

Director: Michael Gordon
Writers: William Bowers and Bertram Millhauser, based on a story by Harry Kurnitz
Stars: Ella Raines, Edmond O'Brien, William Bendix and Vincent Price

Index: The First Thirty.

I’ve wondered throughout this project when the studios would start to realise the potential that Vincent Price had to be a villain. It turns out to be halfway through his First Thirty, the success of his first top billing in Shock enough to somewhat stereotype him into villain roles in films noir for a while. After fifteen films of not playing a single villain (albeit not always a hero either), this one marks three villains in a row, with another one on its way right after it.

This time, he’s a businessman who lives in a different world to the rest of us. We learn that when Bob Regan barges into one of his board meetings to serve him with a summons. Regan is very serious about the $68.72 he wants from him on behalf of a client whose banana cart he knocked over with negligent driving. Andrew Colby of Colby Enterprises merely laughs and promises to write him a cheque.

However, that night, he also hires Regan to be his bodyguard for a couple of weeks. Maybe he’s a little upset that the attorney got in that easily and maybe he appreciates the balls that he demonstrated in doing so. Either way, he’s offering a lot of money, so Regan takes the job, noting that “Until this morning, I had to save up to weigh myself.” One day later, he starts to regret his decision because he has to shoot a man dead to earn that money.

Regan is a young and thin Edmond O’Brien, who feels like the lead actor but was actually second billed to Ella Raines, who plays Colby’s trusted personal secretary, Noel Faraday. Price is credited fourth after William Bendix as a cop, Lt. Damico, who knows Regan and quickly has to investigate him anyway.

Monday 19 February 2024

The Killers (1964)

Director: Donald Siegel
Writer: Gene L. Coon, based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway
Stars: Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, Clu Gulager, Claude Akins, Norman Fell and Ronald Reagan

Index: 2024 Centennials.

I was surprised to find that I hadn’t seen The Killers, at least in this incarnation, the 1964 feature by Donald Siegel, not yet to shrink that into Don. It started out as a short story by Ernest Hemingway, originally published in 1927, which was set in Chicago during a peak era for organised crime: prohibition. It’s about a couple of hitmen, Max and Al, who arrive at Henry’s Lunch-Room to murder a Swedish boxer called Ole Anderson, only to find that he isn’t there. It’s an interesting story, because Anderson doesn’t die within it; instead Hemingway focuses on the responses of the various characters to the knowledge that he’s about to. It’s been adapted to screen many times, most notably by Anthony Veiller in 1946 in a version that I have seen and rate very highly indeed as one of the best films noir Hollywood ever made. That version is far more cinematic than the painful wait of the story, with the hit happening first and the story behind it unfolding in flashback, giving a debuting Burt Lancaster plenty of screen time as Anderson.

This later version updates that one, keeping the hit at the start and the story behind it in flashback, but with the two hitmen as the reasons why the story is told. In 1946, that was done by Edmund O’Brien as an insurance investigator called Jim Reardon; here, it’s the killers who mount an investigation because one of them is puzzled by why his victim was completely resigned to his imminent demise. As the names have all been changed and the timeframe was updated to the sixties, the killers are now Charlie and Lee and the victim is Jerry Nichols. Charlie recognises him as Johnny North, a former race car champion who supposedly pulled off a heist of a mail truck that netted him a million bucks, so he starts to wonder about why they were paid well above the typical rate for the hit and where that money went, given that whoever hired them didn’t care. Thus the investigation, which unfolds chronologically within the contemporary scenes, while the back story fleshes out through the memories of the characters that they interview.

Sunday 18 February 2024

Dragonwyck (1946)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Writer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on the novel by Anya Seton
Stars: Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Vincent Price and Glenn Langan

Index: The First Thirty.

My mother had lots of Anya Seton novels on her bookshelves and I inappropriately thought of them alongside the gothics of the centuries before, because of their shared period settings. This, for instance, is set in early 19th century New England, and speaks to historical themes like the patroon system and Anti-Rent Wars, both of which made it into the movie, and the Astor Place Riots and steamboat racing on the Hudson, neither of which did.

However, when 20th Century Fox adapted this novel, it was so recent that it was still in stores, having been published only two years earlier. While this picture sits well alongside an earlier Vincent Price, The House of the Seven Gables, the authors of their respective source novels were born a century apart, Nathaniel Hawthorne before the Victorian era, in 1804, but Seton after it, in 1904.

In both, Price’s character is a member of an old family who lives in the sprawling mansion of the title. However, in this one, he’s wealthy and influential, friend and neighbor to Martin van Buren, the previous U.S. president, and his estate Dragonwyck is thriving, not least due to him being a patroon, meaning that he owns a significant amount of land that tenant farmers work for him, paying him substantially in rent and tribute at the annual kermesse.

Thursday 15 February 2024

Shock (1946)

Director: Alfred L. Werker
Writer: Eugene Ling, based on a story by Albert DeMond, with additional dialogue by Martin Berkeley
Stars: Vincent Price, Lynn Bari and Frank Latimore

Index: The First Thirty.

Shock is one of the easier movies to see from Vincent Price’s First Thirty, because it’s in the public domain, but it’s one that I haven’t seen before and am very happy to see for the first time now, because it’s Price’s first top billing.

He was the leading man his first film out in Service de Luxe, but it was a Constance Bennett movie and he played her love interest rather than the other way around. He played the title character in The Invisible Man Returns, but that had Sir Cedric Hardwicke top billed. Price saw his name on the poster for his earliest fifteen films, but this sixteenth marks the first time it was either listed first or indeed above the title.

It’s a B-movie film noir, merely 70 minutes long, but it’s a telling picture that starts Price out on the road to the roles we generally know him from, far more so than the more overtly horror-based The Invisible Man Returns. That’s because he plays another mad doctor, as he would so often later, from The Fly, The Tingler and The Bat to the Dr. Phibes duology, via, of course, the wacky Dr. Goldfoot pictures.

This sure looks like a horror movie from the outset and it sounds like one as well, with dark ominous music behind the opening credits. It also features a nightmare sequence early on, after Janet Stewart checks into a San Francisco hotel to meet her husband, who’s been at war for a few years and presumed dead for two, but he doesn’t show. She imagines him outside but he can’t get in and she can’t find the door; even when she does, the handle is too big; and, when she finally makes it through, he’s gone again. These visuals are primitive but effective and they set a mood for the picture as a whole.

Monday 12 February 2024

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Director: John M. Stahl
Writer: Jo Swerling, based on the novel by Ben Ames Williams
Stars: Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde and Jeanne Crain

Index: The First Thirty.

I had no idea what this film was before this project cued it up for me, but then I’m unsure now, having seen it. It’s often been described as the first colour film noir, which does make sense to a degree, but it’s truly a psychological thriller, one that would have a very different poster if it was remade today. And it may well be, as it’s apparently one of Martin Scorsese’s favourite movies. The man has taste.

Like Laura, Vincent Price’s first film noir, it’s told in flashback after an introductory scene. This one has a sombre Cornel Wilde returning to Deer Lake after a couple of years in prison. Off he goes over the lake in a rowboat as we’re told the background behind that, which begins with him meeting Gene Tierney by chance on a train journey.

He’s Richard Harland, a bestselling novelist. She’s Ellen Berent, who’s partway through one of his books but doesn’t realise who he is until they’re introduced on the platform after they disembark. They’re aiming to stay at the same New Mexico lodge, he with friends and she to scatter her father’s ashes.

Friday 9 February 2024

A Royal Scandal (1945)

Director: Otto Preminger
Writer: Edwin Justus Mayer, adapted by Bruno Frank from the play Die Zarin by Lajos Biró and Melchior Lengyel
Stars: Tallulah Bankhead, Charles Coburn, Anne Baxter and William Eythe

Index: The First Thirty.

There are a few things to say about A Royal Scandal before I start. It’s a comedy more than it’s a historical drama, emphatically so. As in The Keys of the Kingdom, Vincent Price doesn’t have a large role but he’s welcome. It’s utterly and unashamedly ridiculous. It’s also a whole heck of a lot of fun. And all these things are obvious quickly.

It’s set in Russia during the 18th century, in a palace of Catherine the Great. In fact, for all that some details of national or international importance are mentioned, we never set foot outside that palace, whichever one we happen to be in. Historical detail is not important here in the slightest. It’s just stage dressing.

There’s also no attempt by anyone to sound remotely authentic. Not only do none of these British and American actors sound Russian but neither do the actual Russian-born actors, like Vladimir Sokoloff, Michael Visaroff and, most recognisably, Mischa Auer, who’s very happy manning the east gate. Nobody even tries and there’s a general’s nephew with such an out of place accent that I started to wonder if this was really a parody.

What saves it early and often is the writing, especially the dialogue, which is stellar. For a little while, it feels like it’s all given to Charles Coburn, who’s the man effectively in charge of Russia, Chancellor Nicolai Ilyitch. When Price arrives, as the only actor willing to attempt a foreign accent, even if it’s a stereotypical one, he gets great lines too. Fifteen minutes in, as we finally meet Catherine the Great, Empress of All Russia, and we realise she has plenty of great dialogue too, we accept that it’s going to be consistent and it is, throughout the film.

Tuesday 6 February 2024

The Keys of the Kingdom (1944)

Director: John M. Stahl
Writers: Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Nunnally Johnson, based on the novel by A. J. Cronin
Stars: Gregory Peck, Thomas Mitchell and Vincent Price

Index: The First Thirty.

This is very much a film of its time, made at a point in history when moviegoing audiences were happy to pay money to see a story about a Roman Catholic priest without wondering as it begins why he’s spending so much time at a fishing hole with a young boy.

Fr. Francis Chisholm is the sort of good man who does good things for long enough that he leaves the world a better place for his being a part of it. We struggle to believe in this sort of good man today, but Gregory Peck, one of the quintessential good men of the movie screen, does make our job a little easier in this film.

As such hagiographies tend to do, we begin towards the end of his life, back in the Scottish village in which he was born, Tweedside. Now he’s a priest, but his teachings are raising the sort of concern with the church that they have sent a monsignor to suggest that he retire. But he goes to bed and finds Fr. Francis’s journals, so settles down to read and we learn his story in a set of long flashbacks.

Sunday 4 February 2024

Laura (1944)

Director: Otto Preminger
Writer: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Betty Reinhardt, based on the novel by Vera Caspery
Stars: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price and Judith Anderson

Index: The First Thirty.

While we all likely remember Vincent Price from a variety of movies much later in his film career, this is the big one from his First Thirty. It wasn’t his personal favourite and it wasn’t the one that gave him the happiest memories, but it’s the best of them, The Song of Bernadette notwithstanding, and it’s one of the great and most impactful films noir of the forties.

It’s a story of obsession, a trait shared by an admirably varied set of characters, not just the inevitable gritty detective, Mark McPherson of the NYPD, who’s investigating the murder of a young advertising executive. Laura Hunt was answering the door to her apartment when a shotgun blasted her in the face and it’s his job to catch her killer.

First and most important of the obsessed is Waldo Lydecker, a newspaper columnist who believes he was the only one who really knew her. Clifton Webb is impeccable in his first role in a feature film since 1925 and he’s given an impressive amount of the best lines. He was given a deserved Oscar nod as Best Supporting Actor but lost to Barry Fitzgerald for Going My Way. That’s a tough choice right there!

Saturday 3 February 2024

The Marriage Circle (1924)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Writer: Paul Bern, based on the play Only a Dream by Lothar Schmidt
Stars: Monte Blue, Florence Vidor, Creighton Hale, Adolphe Menjou, Marie Prevost, harry Myers and Dale Fuller

There must have been something in the air in early 1924, because two out of the first four films have been outright comedies that verge on the screwball. Finances of the Grand Duke was directed by an unlikely German, F. W. Murnau, but The Marriage Circle by a far more likely one, Ernst Lubitsch, though this was a Hollywood feature, his second after 1923’s Rosita.

He made that while under contract to Mary Pickford but, while the film was a success with both the critics and the public, they clashed in production enough that he was able to sign to a Warner Brothers contract instead, one that unusually allowed him complete creative and casting control.

Whatever reasons Jack Warner had for that, it worked, because this is a treat of a comedy. Yes, we ache to slap some sense into Dr. Franz Braun for most of the running time, but that’s fine. If he had the requisite amount of sense to begin with, this would be a five minute short.

We’re in Vienna, which an introductory title confidently tells us is “the city of laughter and light romance”. There’s laughter and romance in this film, but not so much as we might think for a comedy about relationships. We’re doing all the laughing while the characters get into more and more outrageous misconceptions.

Wednesday 31 January 2024

Wilson (1944)

Director: Henry King
Writer: Lamar Trotti
Stars: Alexander Knox, Charles Coburn, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Thomas Mitchell, Ruth Nelson, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Vincent Price, William Eythe and Mary Anderson

Index: The First Thirty.

Henry King was an important filmmaker, a man who directed his first Hollywood picture as far back as 1915, co-founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and even landed the inaugural Golden Globe for the Best Director. That was for The Song of Bernadette, the first of two Henry King films to feature in Vincent Price’s First Thirty. I enjoyed that one greatly and its running time of over two and a half hours felt a lot shorter indeed.

Here we are again with King’s next film and Price’s next but one, a pet project for Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox. It was a critical success, nominated for ten Oscars and winning five, including for its screenplay. The public, however, stayed away in droves and it went down as King’s first notable flop.

And, quite frankly, that’s fair. It lasts three hours long and feels like twelve. It’s a biopic of such mind-numbing proportions that it makes Brigham Young, an earlier Vincent Price biopic, seem like a frolic in the park.

That’s because it isn’t merely a biopic, it’s a political biopic, of a politician who never even wanted to be a politician, being as happy as a clam as the president of Princeton University, writing about government in his spare time.

However, he was talked into running for the governorship of New Jersey and won, against the odds, and kept on winning until he became the 28th president of the United States.

Sunday 28 January 2024

The Eve of St. Mark (1944)

Director: John M. Stahl
Writer: George Seaton, based on the play by Maxwell Anderson
Stars: Anne Baxter, William Eythe and Michael O'Shea

Index: The First Thirty.

Here’s one that I hadn’t seen and apparently had no idea what it was about. I assumed that the religious title meant a religious film, thus following on from the big success of The Song of Bernadette. While that title does refer to the religious holiday, the film isn’t religious at all, being a war movie, yet another new genre for Vincent Price that isn’t outright horror.

It’s an odd movie, though, for a few reasons. For one, it’s obviously based on a play, with an acutely limited set of locations and a dialogue heavy script. However, it’s well written and an absolute gift for the character actors. I should mention that that doesn’t mean the leads, who are Anne Baxter and William Eythe. Neither of them fail at their jobs, as a young couple who are separated by his being drafted. They have plenty of screen time but few opportunities.

Eythe is the true lead, a young country boy named Quizz West, who’s one of a million and a half Americans called up for service in the first round of the Second World War draft. It’s October 1940, so before the United States was dragged into the war. That means that service didn’t mean much and Eythe can play Quizz, now Pvt. West, like Jimmy Stewart might, full of intent but without much chance of actually joining in the fighting. The draft law says they can’t be deployed outside the country.

Baxter is Janet Feller, his sweetheart. He fell in love with her in New York, having been as oblivious as could be about someone that he’s known his whole life until she orchestrates an accidental meeting there. She fell for him long ago and got fed up of waiting for him to notice her. It’s one of the cruelties of life that, having now made that happen, they’re separated.

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.