Monday, December 21, 2009

Angel (1937)

Angel was the first film Ernst Lubitsch directed under the production code. And it shows. You can see Lubitsch struggling against the Code. His usual "touch," that light unobtrusive slyly sexual humor that his best movies exhibit, is a bit off somehow. To add to Angel's troubles, the film was cut down by twenty minutes to please the studio. That also shows. There are chunks of explanatory dialog missing. I was confused about the opening scene of the film, expecting it to be explained in the end and it simply wasn't. Worse, you can see moments where Lubitsch had given the actors space to actually react to things and those are pared down in the most noticeable way. In one scene Herbert Marshall comes to realize that his wife is the woman, "Angel" that his buddy Melvyn Douglas has been nattering on about for two reels. The film fades to black right in the middle of Marshall's reaction. His face is still changing. It's most disconcerting and I can only blame Paramount for this incompetence because I can't see a genius like Lubitsch actually pulling such a hack move.

Dietrich plays Maria Barker, wife of an important British diplomat, Sir Frederick Barker (Herbert Marshall) whose time is consumed by attempting to make peace in the Pre-World War II era. Through a slight case of mistaken identity she meets Tony Halton (Melvyn Douglas) in the Grand Duchess' Salon, which is far as I can tell is a cross between a single's bar and a brothel. The Grand Duchess, ably portrayed by Laura Hope Crewes is part time agony aunt to Maria with whom she has some mysterious, never quite explained connection. Halton shows up on the recommendation of a never-seen Captain Butler (remember this is two years BEFORE Gone With The Wind, I think the name was merely coincidence) looking for a good time. Maria offers to show him the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, though that's not what he had in mind. Those reading along might think some of this sounds remarkably similar to Ninotchka, made by Lubitsch also with Douglas and a fake Russian Emigre, Greta Garbo a few years later. But Angel is no Ninotchka and it's a bit of a puzzle as to why. Dietrich and Douglas' early scenes together, so critical to the believability of the rest of the film, are leaden where they should be light and ponderous when they should be breezy. I like both these actors separately, but together in these early scenes, I can't wait for the movie to well, move along.

I literally said aloud, "oh thank God!" when I saw Edward Everett Horton's face in the next scenes. Now, we are actually going to have a comedy, I said. Well, almost. Horton has a small part that he does his best with as Graham, Barker's loyal manservant who judges the various European powers by the manners of their representatives at the League of Nations. He holds them all up to be lacking compared to those of his master, Sir Frederick who is smooth, easy-going and impecable in every way a butler could wish for. Unfortunately he's not so impeccable in every way a wife could wish for. After a wonderful bit of Lubitsch nonsense involving mixed up sleeping arrangements in the bedroom suite (the highlight of the movie for me), we see that Maria and Frederick's relationship is more or less platonic. I love Herbert Marshall and all, but really man, do you need a B12 shot or something? Can I get you a plate of oysters? This is Marlene Dietrich telling you about a dream she had in which you beat her and she quite liked it (Oh Lubitsch and his references to S&M are one of my favorite little quirks) and you run off to answer a telegram from the Yugoslavians. Sigh.

At a scene quite reminiscent of Notorious, Maria spots Halton at races through a pair of binoculars and begs to go home with a headache. Speaking of Hitchcock, the whole pre-World War II vibe is very Foriegn Correspondent-ish, right down to the fact that Maria and Sir Frederick have the exact same enormous Great Dane as Marhsall's character does in the later Hitchcock film. Wierd. Anywho, inevitably Halton and Sir Frederick meet, discover they once shared the affections of the same Parisian woman during the Great War and become fast friends. When Douglas and Dietrich are reunited, the sparks finally fly and both actors are really wonderful at showing just enough emotion to let the audience know what they are thinking. The way Douglas says "Hello, Angel" when they are finally alone together is enough to make me almost root for him. And that's saying a lot because y'all know I'm bananas for Herbie. Marshall and Douglas seem to enjoy being with each other more than they do Dietrich, which makes me wonder if Lubtisch wasn't just trying to remake Design for Living with the promise of "no sex" actually coming true. Marshall and Douglas' scenes together all slap you on the back old man, make you a gin and tonic and light your cigarette. I could just about watch 90 minutes of this camaraderie, but if it Lubitsch had allowed it to go on a second longer I would be convinced that it was the two guys who were lovers after all.

I wouldn't discount any Ernest Lubitsch film entirely. Though it's been difficult to find in the U.S. , some kind soul has uploaded it to Youtube. It is worth watching to appreciate the enormous tension wrought by Lubitsch in this comedy that wants to be a thriller. It wants to be Notorious. How I ache for Marshall to come out at the end and admit he's a fat-headed guy full of pain. Actually, almost any movie would be better with that as the ending. Dietrich keeps hinting that she could be a spy when she first meets Douglas. I kept hoping that would be the case. Her marriage would be revealed as a sham so she could run off with Halton. Graham and Sir Frederick could live happily ever after in a Jeeves and Wooster rip-off drawing room comedy.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ten Favorite Pre-Code Love Scenes

Well it's the end of a decade folks so all the movie blogs are bound to have a lot of lists. Since I have barely watched ten movies from this decade (if I didn't exaggerate, I would die) I will focus on stuff I'm actually watching. You know: old movies. So here's my Ten Favorite Pre-Code Love Scenes to keep you heated up on this cold winter's day.


10)Gary Cooper and Cary Grant in Uniform. And if that's not enough...submarines! Gary Cooper has many great pre-code love scenes: The scene at the end of One Sunday Afternoon where he in a matter of a few minutes saves his marriage and wins the audience's grudging affection. Not to mention scenes in Farewell to Arms where he makes you forget momentarily that the script has left Hemingway behind pages ago. But none of these scenes are really all that different from Gary Cooper love scenes after the code. A big exception is to be found in the oddball melodrama Devil and the Deep co-starring Tellulah Bankhead, Charles Laughton and a little known (at the time) actor named Cary Grant. Cooper picks Bankhead up, literally, he saves her from keeling over in the midst of a festival, and spends the night with her in an oasis. The scene lasts ten or eleven minutes following the couple as they move through crowded streets, back-alley bazaars and eventually the moonlit dessert. At one point she's trying to get rid of him and she shakes his hand to say goodbye, he keeps it and continues talking to her in a low monotone of hypnotic seduction while stroking the inside of her wrist with his forefinger. It's a completely cheeky thing which would get a mere mortal slapped, if he didn't look like Gary Cooper. Bankhead plays into it beautifully, protesting half-heartedly until it's too late. The rest of the film is campy good fun that ends in a submarine crash in which everyone gets wet (except Cary Grant, who sadly left the movie before this point, D'oh!)

9) Cheap and Vulgar. Warren William and Joan Blondell in The Goldiggers of 1933. Joan Blondell calls herself "Cheap and vulgar Carol" and Warren William replies "I love you, whatever your name is." It's really pretty awesome. See it here. More on Golddigers here.





8)Put em round me. Norma Shearer and Clark Gable in a Free Soul. This whole scene is the essence of pre-code from the costumes (Norma Shearer's loose, low cut dressing gown worn without underwear would never be permitted a few years later) to the context (the scene takes place as the couple are spending the night in Ace's hideaway.) Gable and Shearer argue. He wants to marry and she doesn't. She ends the dialog and the argument with a direct command for some lovin. "Come on. Put 'em round me." A contemporary review of the film found this couple preposterous, but now they are almost cliche--the gangster bad boy and the wild, society girl. The whole scene is linked here, and starts at about the three minute mark. More on A Free Soul can be found here.



7)The pussyfooting. Barbara Stanwyck and James Rennie discuss the ups and downs of shacking up together in Illicit. "I can't stand all this pussy-footing around," he declares to which she replies, "Don't say you don't like the pussy-footing." Stanwyck is adorable and hilarious and Rennie has stuck with me, even though this is the only movie I've ever seen him in. The combination of romance, comedy and a head-strong heroine mixed in this scene would be repeated frequently in Stanwyck's best pictures. Highlights are linked here and begins around the 55 second mark. More about Illicit can be found here.




6) Jungle love. Four Frightened People. Herbert Marshall and Claudette Colbert lose their clothes and, eventually, their inhibitions as they lose their way in the jungle. After epic quantities of flirtation, he touches her shoulder. She tells him that it feels so good when he touches her and he replies "everything I've touched for weeks now has seemed to be you." Squeeeeee! Later in the film the lovers, exchange wedding vows while tied back to back to a piece of bamboo. Marshall's character has a wife back home which adds an extra level of pre-code angst to the proceedings. More about Four Frightened People here.



5) I'm gonna let you watch me shave. In Bed of Roses (1933), Joel McCrea plays a gritty ship's captain who falls for a prostitute (Constance Bennet). The whole thing is a bit of Red Dust rip off in that respect, but it's a fun movie, with well-written dialogue and enormous chemistry between the leads in their third pairing on film. In one scene McCrea's character shaves in front of Bennett and things get pretty steamy. I happened upon this movie in the last five minutes and I was completely mesmerized by McCrea and Bennett, so much so that I made a point to seek out the whole film and others with these two actors. McCrea is ridiculously handsome in this movie. I'd been used to seeing his films from the early Forties, where he was pretty, but wow. OK, just... wow. Fan of Palm Beach Story? Watch one of his pre-code comedies with Bennett and prepare to have your mind blown.

4) They are still talking about typewriters, right? Leave it to Lubitsch to make even an old typewriter sexy. In Design for Living Frederich March and Glinda admit there feelings for one another and then move on to more important matters--talking about Tommy's old typewriter. Him: "Ya didn't keep it oiled! The keys are rusty." Her, "It still rings." He moves really close to her and she whispers, "it still rings." See the whole scene here starting at around minute 54.

3)Garbo and the furniture In Queen Christina Garbo and her real-life lover John Gilbert act out the doomed love affair between a queen dressed as a man and her Spanish lover, Antononio. They spend three days together snow bound in an inn. In one memorable scene Garbo moves around the room touching the furniture and draperies with a sensual delight. She explains to Anotonio "in the future in my memory I shall live a great deal in this room." See the whole scene here.


2) What about breakfast? In The Smiling Lieutenant, Claudette Colbert and Maurice Chevalier discuss when they will next see each other. She suggests dinner, but he says no that's too long to wait he is hungry now. Then she suggests tea and he says, knowingly, what about breakfast? As she's leaving, they kiss and the screen fades to black. In the next scene she is happily cooking him breakfast. And that, ladies and gentleman is why they call it the Lubitsch touch! See the whole thing here, from the five minute mark.

1)UNF. If you don't know what UNF is try looking it up and you might just find a scene from Red Dust there as an explanation. The rather crude acronym has come to mean"paradigm of sexiness" and that about says it all really. It's hard to pick just one scene from Red Dust. One might do a list of at least five just from that film. My favorite is the first meeting of the couple in which they mostly debate the merits of different kinds of cheese. It's almost as if the writers were trying to come up with the least sexy dialog possible, but Gable and Harlow somehow set it on fire anyway. See it here.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

All About Eve (1950)

I've been talking a lot about the ages of various actors and actresses in my last few posts and discussing the viability of their careers after they were deemed Over the Hill. It reminded me to re-watch the movie All About Eve, which is at its heart about the struggles of a 40-year-old actress, Margot Channing (played by 42 year old Bette Davis) to hang onto her career, her 30 Something boyfriend and her sanity in the face of a young, ambitious and insidiously manipulative rival, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Davis used all kinds of personal tics and charming idiosyncrasies to put a part of her soul up on that screen. That is great acting, as opposed to merely competent acting which allows us to imagine a person is someone else. In one scene, Davis reveals her real age to her playwright friend and says, "I feel as if I'd just taken off all my clothes." My reaction watching that was that I've seen into a person's real, secret pain. She might as well have taken off all her clothes.

Maybe I'm so age obsessed lately because I'm just days away from the big 4-0 myself. These kinds of milestones are bound to bring out the erratic behavior. Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill), Margot's lover is dismissive of her fears, calling them childish, which they may be, in at least the way she has a tendency to bring them forth in tantrums, but they are reasonable concerns, nonetheless. Whenever I watch a movie like this it just makes me wanna take up arms against...I don't know what. Like seeing Emma Thomspon cheated on in Love Actually, is actually physically painful because I think, "damn if it could happen to Emma with all her looks, talent and brains, then the rest of us mortals are all totally screwed." This is the essence of what a "Women's Picture" is all about. It is a theme which resonates with women and more than a half century later, All About Eve is just as potent a cocktail as the day it was made.

Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewitz, All About Eve has one of the best script's ever put before a camera. The opening monologue alone, delivered in a tone of perfect derision by theater critic, Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) is probably one of the all-time ten best opening sequences. Sanders is the picture of wickedness and yet he's so dang funny you just can't hate him. He is the devil, but you find yourself wanting to hang out with him anyway. Other supporting players shine, like Thelma Ritter who literally makes me say aloud "I love you, Thelma" during every scene in which she appears. Even Miss Casswell (Marilyn Monroe), DeWitt's ditsy like a fox escort to Margot's disastrous party, is memorable and not just because she's Marilyn Monroe. She's just perfect--conveying the same menacing ambition as Eve, but without the dishonest facade of naivete which Eve uses to worm her way to the top. Miss Casswell plans on sleeping her way to the top, with stops in the middle range couch of a theatrical critic. There's a sort of crude honesty about the way in which DeWitt points her in the direction of a bigger fish at the party, presumably having been paid in kind for his services as pimp. It's not exactly admirable, but at least it is straight-forward. The same can not be said for Eve.

Watching Eve slowly rise at the expense of others is a bit like watching a horror movie. You shout, "don't go there, stupid!!" at the screen every time one of Margot or her friends cuts her a break. The worst part is that Eve is probably talented enough that she could make it without all the backstabbing. At a certain point Margot just wants to retire and get married, in which case she would have been happy to see her protege rise, I think. By the way, I'm not sure I buy that whole premise much anyway. Can't Margot be married and continue to work? It's how you know you're watching a Women's Picture, I guess. That and at any point after 1950 people would have spotted Eve's behavior as pathological right from the get go.

The ending is sort of hokey, and perhaps the only weakness of the film. Eve is stalked by a very young Eve-y type stalker, which is all just a bit too pat for my taste. I would rather the film end with Eve accepting her Major Award and getting away with all her crimes. At least we get to see DeWitt one more time and he has a great moment of recognition when he meets Eve's young fan. The look on Sander's face is pretty priceless and takes the sting out of the unsatisfactory conclusion.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Eye Candy of the Day: Found Footage

Last night I had the good fortune to attend the Fourth Annual Found Footage Festival at the Heights Theater in Minneapolis. A good friend of mine put the DVD of last year's festival in our hands and we found it greatly amusing. Seeing it live with the film's creators commenting Mystery Science Theater style is a whole other level of funny. I laughed so hard I cramped up my jaw.

As we were leaving the theater I kept remarking to my friends, that I had to get a hold of one of the videos in the festival. I couldn't put my finger on it at the time, but there was something about it. And then it hit me: I think I found Warren William's modern day doppleganger, appearing in a 80s Eurotrash new wave band called "Something Big" in what is billed as the "World's First Nude Pop Video." To paraphrase the best thing about the video, it's elaborately crafted disclaimer, "Please don't watch this video programme, if nudity offends you." What it should really say is "Please don't watch this video programme if Warren William lookalikes and blurry photos of topless (and sometimes headless) women offend you."

Enjoy!


Something Big

Found Footage Festival | MySpace Video

Friday, December 4, 2009

Some people call me Maurice

I'd never watched any Maurice Chevalier movies until recently, and then I watched two, from the book-ends of his career: The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) and Love in the Afternoon (1957). Chevalier made his name as a suave singing comic lover on the stage before he signed with Paramount and starred in their earliest musicals. In The Smiling Lieutenant, a thin, spicy plot hangs together around Chevalier's musical numbers which are charming and often quite bawdy. He is the apex of a love-triangle with Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins and in one memorable scene the two women get together to prepare notes, cooing over how handsome he looks in his signature straw boater. "Did you ever see him in...oh, no nevermind" Colbert says, blushing. She goes on to give Hopkins some musical tips about spicing up her lingerie wardrobe before leaving Chevalier to enjoy the fruits of her makeover talent. Only in a pre-code Ernest Lubitsch movie would you have such a sophisticated and nonchalant attitude toward sex. Well, perhaps in a modern French film, but then they'd all stand around and look out the window all day and no one would sing or dance or anything!

in Love in the Afternoon, Chevalier plays a private detective whose daughter (Audrey Hepburn) falls in love with one of his most notorious targets--an American playboy played by Gary Cooper. Cooper and Chevalier were both leading men at Paramount in the early 30s and it must have been a bit irksome to him to be relegated to the fatherly role, while aging Coop still clung to his male lead status. The movie is delightful and funny and while many people have a problem with pairing 56-year-old Cooper with 28-year-old Hepburn. It is well-known that director Billy Wilder's first choice for the part was Cary Grant. Now I can never deny feeling that Grant would be a superior choice in almost any film (OK, maybe not in say, A Streetcar Named Desire), but I actually think Cooper is just fine. Yes, he looks his age, as Grant did not at that point. Cooper shows a bit of vulnerability when he becomes insanely jealous over Hepburn's implied experience with men. Of course the whole thing is a big bluff, but that doesn't stop him from going completely over the top. If this weren't handled just right, I think it would be kind of creepy, which is why I'm glad Cooper finesses the situation just perfectly.

My only real beef is with Wilder who seems completely paranoid about Cooper's face. He is never shown in close-up until almost the very end and he is almost always in shadow. This very frustrating for Cooper's fans. If so much had not been made of his age by the director, I don't think it would be such a big deal.

Anyway, Chevalier and the whole rest of the cast are wonderfully charming and fun. I love the script which tries very hard at being European and sophisticated, but still comes off being pretty quaint by today's standards. Hepburn is worthy of everyone of Wilder's loving close-ups, the ones he didn't give to Coop, and she and her leading man, and her pretend father all act wonderfully together. This is really one of those movies that is kind of like comfy old slipper that you could try on any time you need to feel warm and fuzzy.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Platinum Blonde (1931)

Though Platinum Blonde is primarily remembered today as a Jean Harlow vehicle, it may surprise many people to learn that Harlow was actually given third billing behind Loretta Young and Robert Williams in the movie. The latter is especially shocking given that the leading man is all but forgotten today, with the exception of his appearance in this film. This is too bad because the comic talent Williams displays in the movie is a revelation. He died of complications from a burst appendix a few days after this film's release. The early reviews were very positive and it's certain that he would have become a major leading man. Williams had an archly comic style of a William Powell or Lee Tracy and the looks and romantic moves of a young Frederic March.

The story follows a reporter, Stew Smith (Williams) who helps an heiress' family with a paternity suit and wins her hand in marriage as a reward. Harlow isn't terribly believable as a society dame and her usual quirky comic personality is subdued in order to play a somewhat shrill chic who has looks and money but little else to offer (as if that ain't enough!) She and Williams have some nice love scenes together, though which adds at least a touch of humanity to her character. After a few months of trying to live in the family mansion, dress for dinner and stay away from his cronies back at the office, including his gal pal, Gallagher (Loretta Young), and Stew has a meltdown. He invites all his reporter friends over and they trash the mansion. If that's not enough, he and Gallagher are caught collaborating on a sofa in a rather unprofessional pose. I've never seen Young play this sort of role before, and I think she does fine. Although, she is insanely pretty and its a bit of stretch to believe that Stew never notices her until the end of the movie. The movie is definitely pre-Code in that it ends with Stew and Gallagher living together in his old apartment, while he's waiting for his divorce from the heiress to come through! Try that after 1934!

Frank Capra directed Platinum Blonde and it has the comic energy and passion of his later films minus the crusading bent. That isn't meant as a criticism. I actually enjoy taking a break from the crusading Capra every once in a while. Loretta Young plays the first in a long line of Capra female newspaper reporters in movies like Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. What's missing from the formula here is the fatherly editorial figure whose special relationship sees the female reporter through difficult times. That's because the emphasis is on Stew and maintaining his integrity in the face of his wife's money.

I love newspaper movies and this is a good one. It's more about the culture of being a reporter than about any one big story, which is another refreshing break. No major corruption scandal is broken; no Tammany Hall is toppled. In fact the leads leave the reporting game altogether to write a novel together, a perhaps laughable plan, but one that's inconceivable from Capra later in the decade.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Ever Since Eve (1937)

It's really hard to watch a movie with Marion Davies and not think of the whole "Rosebud" thing. It's also hard to watch her not imagine that the actors and actresses around her wouldn't be just a touch resentful of her star status. As William Randoph Hearst's mistress, she had an entire film production company created to give her a showcase. Of course, as Irving Thalberg's wife, Norma Shearer had a similar degree of unfair advantage. But Shearer won over critics and the public were crazy about her. She would have been a star without being Mrs. Thalberg. The same can not be said for Davies, though as a comic actress, she is actually quite good. Ever Since Eve was her final film and was a fitting movie to go out on. It is a breezy screwball comedy, co-starring Robert Montgomery and the always hilarious Patsy Kelly. I watched this movie for Montgomery and Kelly, but I was impressed with Davies' ability to hold her own in with these top notch comic actors.

Davies retired from Hollywood at age 40 to devote herself to Hearst full-time. Without Hearst's backing, she might have made a very first rate actor, though perhaps never a star. I think she was wise not to try to force her way into the glamor gal roles any more. Hollywood then as now had little room for women over forty who had the misfortune to look their age. Looks are an important part of my assessment of this movie because the entire film is predicated on the conceit that Davies character is so incredibly gorgeous and sexy that her bosses can't keep their hands off of her. She looses job after job because she refuses to submit to sexual harassment. While I'm happy to see the issue of sexual harassment brought up, I think it's a mistake to think that it only happens to pretty girls. Even more offensive is the joking way in which Patsy Kelly is disappointed that her boss is a perfect gentleman with her.

As a solution to her employment problem, she gets an ugly bob wig, a dumpy double breasted suit, some thick glasses and manages to get along fine as Robert Montgomery's secretary. Like those movies where women dress in drag and men find themselves strangely attracted to them, only to be relieved when the ruse is revealed later in the film, Montgomery's character seems drawn to her. Absurdly he doesn't recognize her voice or face when she he meets her dressed in her normal "beautiful" attire. My willingness to suspend disbelief is further stretched by the fact that Davies looks pretty dowdy in the supposedly fashionable wardrobe she wears in this part of the film. Whatever happened to the kind of outrageously glamorous work attire that say Kay Francis would wear? The fitted pencil skirts and short jackets she's wedged into do nothing for Davies. Even the gown she wears in a nightclub scene makes her look lumpy. Maybe it was more than the actors who were resentful and Orry Kelly hated her as well? Hearst moved his production company from MGM to Warner's because Davies was tired of being second fiddle to Norma Shearer. Though she might have lost parts to Shearer at MGM, I'm pretty sure they wouldn't have allowed her to go before the cameras like this.

What works in this movie is the script which is frothy and full of dozens of memorable one-liners. Patsy Kelly is a hoot and so is her fiancee played by Allen Jenkins. This is definitely a case in which the secondary couple were entertaining enough to draw my interest away from the leads. Montgomery was charming and funny as usual and he and Davies are quite fun together especially when she is impersonating a plain girl. I couldn't help but wish he would have just fallen in love with her like that. Or better yet, run off with Patsy Kelly.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Invisible Man (1933)





















A frustrated scientist discovers a drug that will make him invisible. The side-effect is that it also makes him nuts. Oh, and he has no idea how to make himself visible again, which, at the very least, is a problem in his love life. So he rents a room at a quiet country inn and sets about in a make shift laboratory trying to figure out how to reverse the effects of his "condition." Claude Rains plays the mad scientist who after a few days of invisibility decides that it's all he needs to take over the world. He sets about on a campaign of murder and terror to prove his point.

The great irony of the Invisible Man is that the scientist feels invisible when he is actually visible and powerful when he is in invisible. To further add to the wacky, this is all in his head. He has a fiancee who adores him, a mentor who cares for him like a son and the jealous, grudging respect of colleagues.

Rains made a career out of playing insecure men. Think of his most famous roles as the jealous Nazi in Notorious and the corrupt French policeman who is called to take a moral stand in Casablanca. These men use their power in cowardly ways to cover up some kind of inadequacy and to get the women they ordinarily wouldn't be able to get. In the end, it's their undoing. If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's that dating outside one's league always leads to trouble. One minute you are having your honeymoon, the next she's being dragged from your house by her super hot spy boyfriend.

In The Invisible Man, this deeply ingrained feeling of inadequacy, normally a controllable if unpleasant neurosis, blossoms into full-on ca-razy complete with long periods where the dude does nothing but cackle insanely and make footprints in the mud. While this is a horror movie, I think the horror lies in the first few times we glimpse the emptiness beneath the bandages and the creepy feeling that you could be in a room with someone you can't see. A lot of the effects border on silly rather than scary--a policeman gets pantsed, a pipe smokes itself. Of course, the invisible man does really nasty things like murdering a cop and derailing a train, just to shake things up.

I watched this entire movie and I had completely forgotten that I hadn't actually seen Claude Rain's face until the last frame of the film. His voice so completely embodies the character that we forget that we can't see him. For those of who remember Rains primarily for his roles in the 1940s, it's a shock and surprise to see him here looking so young and handsome when at last he is finally visible.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

The lesser known and loved of the two great films put out by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940 (the other being Rebecca), Foreign Correspondent is sometimes lost in the shuffle of Hitchcock's oeuvre. While I watched this movie in a film class at some point, I mainly remembered the famous umbrella sequence and that some of the plot devices are later rehashed in North by Northwest. Coming back to the movie with my obscure actor love goggles on, I can't believe how jam packed with awesomeness this movie is and I didn't even know it till a week ago.

I always feel that while commenting on Hitchcock movies that I have to really struggle to say something new. I tried doing a picspam commentary on Murder! which, based on the number of comments I received, was met with crickets chirping. This time I'm really going to shake things up with a macro using a fairly popular internet meme created by the ONTD livejournal communities.

So here goes, the first ever OCD Macro, printable at the 11x17 tabloid size, if you REALLY wanna show your love for Cinema OCD.

And while we are showing mad love for George Sanders, please enjoy this lovely, in-depth article about him. Watch him in one of best be-monicled scenes here.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Eye Candy of the Day: Stuff found in my desk



As you all know, I'm a little OCD. Hence the name of this blog. One of my symptoms is an hoarding problem, especially when it comes to movie star memorabilia. Recently I had to move offices at work and the upside was that I cleaned a shitload of stuff out of my desk. I found this rather large cardboard portfolio of stills that I purchased on EBAY and never scanned. So in upcoming weeks you all will reap the benefits of my madness.

Speaking of madness, I purchased this still to go into my Boots and Shirtsleeves Screensaver folder, which is comprised of photos of actors in period dramas wearing white puffy shirts and/or riding boots. I also have a folder called Time for Tea with just pictures of my favorite actors drinking tea and another called Ungroomed which features pictures of my favorites unshaven and/or with messy hair. Sometimes, a photo will be a twofer, and feature someone with messy hair in shirtsleeves, or wearing riding boots drinking tea or unshaven and in shirtsleeves (as above). If I ever found a photo of one of my favorite actors drinking tea unshaven, with messy hair and in shirtsleeves and riding boots, I would probably have some kind of attack and have to be hospitalized.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Ghost West (1935) or Kilts a go-go

Murdoch Glaurie and his stylin' pimp bonnet break hearts across three centuries.

While it's a stretch to call The Ghost Goes West a horror movie, it was one of the first films in the horror comedy sub-genre and certainly one of the first of that ilk to be a huge hit. Believe it or not, this mostly forgotten little gem was the number one box-office draw in Britain in 1936 and arguably inspired Hal Roach studios to invest in Topper the next year.

The story opens in 18th century Scotland with the back story of our ghost, Murdoch Glaurie (Robert Donat) who was more interested in making time with the ladies than making war on English invaders. He's a lover not a fighter who is killed in a wacky friendly fire incident and condemned to haunt his family's castle until he can avenge his honor. Flash forward to 1930s Scotland and Donald Glaurie (also Donat) is what Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park would describe as a " poor honorable." Glaurie castle is falling down around him, creditors stalk him and his ambulatory ancestor has scared away most of his servants. So it's no surprise that when pretty Peggy Martin (Jean Parker), daughter of an American millionaire expresses interest in buying the old dump, her offer seems like manna from heaven. It's not till later that Donald learns that the new owner plans to move the castle to Florida and put a radio into one of his suits of armor. To add to the hijinx, the amorous ghost takes a liking to Peggy and manages to prove that 18th century moves are pretty darn effective with modern girls. Peggy assumes that the ghost is actually Donald in disguise (further confusion is added by the fact that at the end of the film Donald does disguise himself as the ghost) and goes for the role playing until the ghost proves to be too much of a playa for her.

The effects are all solid, if humdrum by today's standards and the action is ably managed by highly-respected French director Rene Clair, in his first English-language film. The comedy is further helped by Eugene Pallette who plays the crass millionaire with appropriate clueless brio, and Morton Selten who has a small but memorable role as Murdoch's crotchety dad, just known as The Glaurie. Jean Parker is an able comedian and actress who made a number of under-rated movies like this one that are well-regarded by those that have actually seen them (Lady for a Day, Operator 13, Gabriel over the White House).

Donat, as usual, is wonderful, managing a slight Scottish accent for the ghost and a generic public school one for Donald. He seems to really relish playing the lady-killing spector though he gives his lines a completely natural reading that makes them even funnier. As Donald he is a bit Mr. Chips-y adding a subtle layer of awkwardness and shyness to his character that is always appealing. One gets the feeling that this guy would never get to first base if the ghost wasn't unwittingly playing on his team. Audiences in Britain at the time ate up the sub-text that things were just plain better in the past and that being of noble heritage will not necessarily get you laid. Moat ownership, as those who've followed the news from the old country this past summer, is not what it used to be.

So not much remains to be said about this movie, except for me to drag out the eye candy, which predictably, is mostly kilt-related.

Eye Candy: Kilts a gogo











There are so many kilts in this movie. At one point an entire Afro-caribbean Jazz orchestra is outfitted in clan tartans.

I just love the look of complete disdain on Donat's face here. The not-so subtle anti-Yank sentiment in this movie is probably one of the reasons it wasn't a huge hit in America.

Best fake newspaper plot advancement headline ever! People just don't use the phrase "highhat" enough anymore.

The ghost says goodbye. I love Clair's shadowy cinematography. He manages just the right amount of romantic gloom for the Glaurie castle sets.

This is bordering on gratuitous, but I love me some kilts!


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Ah, Charles Laughton. He could rock an insane character like no one else. Six months after playing a bonkers submarine commander in The Devil and Deep (1932), he tackled the mad scientist Dr. Moreau for this Paramount horror movie. Bela Lugosi was hired for his horror movie gravitas, though he's mostly wasted in a small part, "The Sayer of the Law." I confess, I couldn't pick him out of a beast man line-up to save my life. He does get to utter the most famous line of the film, "are we not men?" which was inspiration for Devo to ask the question decades later.

Richard Arlen rather woodenly portrays the protagonist Edward Parker who is stranded on the island. Parker is disturbed by Moreau's experiments-- the "unsuccessful" examples are used as slaves and the "House of Pain" that the islands inhabitants fear is a vivisection lab. He decides to keep quiet about things in order to get off the island more quickly. After meeting Moreau's creation, Lota the panther woman, (Kathleen Burke) he changes his mind about keeping quiet.

Moreau quickly moves from being a hospitable if eccentric host to being completely crazy, deciding that he's going to keep his new house guest to mate with Lota to prove once and for all that his creations are perfectly human. What's completely insane about Moreau and is never really addressed is the question of exactly what the doctor's experiments are supposed to do to help humanity? In Frankenstein, the ability to reanimate the dead could seemingly have profoundly positive benefits, but why go around making a race of mutants, if the only point is to prove that animals can be turned human? Aren't there plenty of regular humans walking around who were made the old-fashioned way? South Park pretty much nailed this flaw in the story in their parody, in which the mad scientist makes turkeys with multiple asses. Really, what's the point, dude?

My favorite part of the movie is Lota. You gotta love Lota. And indeed, until he finds out her secret origin, Parker is completely prepared to ditch his fiancee back on the mainland to have a shot with her. Paramount, desparate to hype the film, had held a nation-wide contest to cast the part and Burke won. Though she never really hit the big time, she proved more than capable in the movie and went on to play more exotic temptresses in Paramount classics such as The Lives of The Bengal Lancers and The Last Outpost.

Bonus Eye candy:
A whole lotta Lota!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum

Doctor X (1932) and The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) were Warner Bros. answer to Universal's horror power house. Both films star Lionel Atwil and Fay Wray, both were directed by Michael Curtiz and both used the two-strip technicolor process. There is even a remarkable similarity in plot--an intrepid reporter investigating a series of murders, stumbles upon a bizarre series of suspects, solves the murder and winds up living happily ever after.Both films bolster the fairly weak horror plots with lots of humor and Warner's stable of snappy actors make these movies quite enjoyable. The desaturated technicolor provides an unusually moody atmosphere for horror, making morgues, foggy waterfronts and old dark houses that much creepier.

Doctor X stars Lee Tracy as the reporter. As always Tracy is really fun , zipping in snide one-liners and even doing a little slapstick now and again. Tracy is investigating a series of full moon murders where the victims were strangled and their bodies cannabalized. He is lead to Doctor Xavier's research institute, aka the Spooky Old House of Incredibly Suspicious Mad Scientist Murder Suspects. He also meets the Xavier's daughter, Joan (Fay Wray), who doesn't seem at all disturbed by the half dozen potential maniac cannibals roaming her house, but is totally spooked by her father staying up late in his library. Horror truly is a subjective thing I guess.

Doctor X has a fun twist on the whodunnit denoument in which all the suspects are gathered together. Xavier chains them all to their chairs and hooks them into a crazy 1930s "science" movie set. The killer is of course the one person not chained up, and he dons his artificial flesh made out of melted down corpse bits and sets to work attacking Joan who has been set up as bait for the killer. Good thinking doctor! This is actually a tense and horrifying scene, but Tracy saves the day and gets the girl in the end.

The Mystery of the Wax Museum begins with a sculptor Igor (Lionel Atwill) who is hard at work on his wax creations, which are for some reason confined only to this movie, considered high art. His business partner, fed up with loosing money on the museum, decides to burn the place down. He doesn't bother to wait till Igor's gone home to make with the matches and Igor barely survives the fire, trying desparately to save his creations. The melting of the wax statues is actually awesomely creepy and is one of the best things about this movie. Igor becomes obsessed with recreating them, but his hands are so badly damaged in the fire that he can no longer sculpt.

Meanwhile in New York City, we are introduced to Florence (Glenda Farrell), an intrepid reporter investigates the death of a fashion model. Like Lee Tracy, Farrell is an actor who livens up every scene and it's a joy to watch her in a lead rather than side-kick position. Florence finds out that the police suspect the model's boyfriend, George Winton and she interviews the fellow in jail. Florence flirts with him and later decides to date the millionaire playboy.

Her roommate Charlotte (Fay Wray) takes her to the opening of a wax museum and Florence becomes convinced that a statue of Joan of Arc is actually the dead fashion model whose body had recently disappeared from the morgue. Igor is struck by Charlotte's beauty and her resemblance to his masterpiece, Marie Antoinette. He traps her in the wax museum and tries to kill her. In the tense climactic scene Charlotte attacks his face and it crumbles away revealing his hideously burned visage beneath a wax mask. Florence arrives in the nick of time but discovers that her new boyfriend, the millionaire playboy is involved with bootlegging and is associated with Igor's match-happy former business parner. Luckily out of left field, her editor proposes to her and in annoying twist, Florence gives up her career as a reporter.

I think Doctor X is probablya tighter and more entertaining picture. At times Mystery of the Wax Museum looses focus, sending us down dark alleyways looking into bootlegging operations and the life of Igor's drug-addled assistant Mr. Darcy. As a Jane Austen fan I had a hard time with that character name, actually. Assistants are supposed to be called Igor, but I suppose since that was already taken by the main villain they needed to have some kind of name for his deranged helper.

The pre-code in both these films comes out in the treatment of Fay Wray as cheesecake. In Doctor X there is a completely out of place beach scene were Wray and Tracy lounge in skimpy costumes and in Mystery of the Wax Museum there is a gratuitous dressing before the camera. Apart from these surface ornaments, the movies feel much more like films that would be made later in the decade. With the emphasis on fast-talking humor, marrying off the working woman and other conventions of the late 30s, I half expected to see Howard Hawks' name above the title.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Freaks (1932)

Freaks is probably the quintessential Pre-code horror film. Such a movie could never be made today, unless make-up effects were used in place of real-life people with deformities. Even cut back to 64 minutes from 90 or so, the film was too intense for post-code Hollywood. The fascination with the daily lives of people with deformities mirrors the period's fascination with the prostitute film. Browning had been a circus performer and was able to present the tale that was still horrifying and yet showed the "freaks" mostly sympathetically. During the Depression self- exploitation film, be it exploitation of circus performers or prostitutes, was considered more justifiable. People have to make a living and studios certainly didn't mind profiting from the fact that people wanted to see exploitation movies. MGM tasked Browning with giving them something unique that would compete with Univerisal's tremendously profitable horror franchises. While Freaks was certainly unique, it wasn't profitable. The film was just too strange and the studio backed away from casting major stars or doing much publicity for it. It was more or less forgotten until the 1970s when it was revived and appreciated for the first time..

A great deal of plot actually revolves around the so-called "normals" in the circus the good couple, Venus (Leila Hyams) and Phrenso (Wallace Ford) and the bad couple Cleo (Olga Baclanova) and Hercules (Henry Victor). There is a third couple, little people, Hans and Freida (played by brother and sister Harry and Daisy Earles), who become involved making Freaks a six-sided love polygon. Cleo who is having an affair with Hercules, marries Hans for his inheritance. At the wedding banquet, the freaks, generously, but perhaps optimistically move to accept Cleo into their group by chanting "one of us" and drinking from a huge goblet. Cleo flips out and offends them. After that they are suspicious and soon figure out her plan to murder Hans and steal his money.

The side-show performers and their routines are strung onto this relatively straight-forward skeleton of a plot. Many of the cuts came from these areas of the film, which may have detracted focus from the central story. These are parts of the film that are the most compulsively watchable. While the love drama wears out quite quickly, it is impossible to be bored while a guy (Prince Randian) with no arms and legs smokes a cigarette. Also, after watching Freaks, I really want an old-school circus house wagon. They are awesome.

The ending of Freaks is where it changes into a true horror movie. I think that cut back as it is, the ending is a bit confusing. I thought that Cleo was changed into the chicken woman through some sort of magic since none of her mutilation is shown. Apparently there were intensely brutal scenes of Cleo and Hercules being attacked with knives. Hercules is castrated and Cleo winds up loosing her legs, an eye and use of her voice. The studio insisted that a happy ending be filmed that resolves the relationship between Freida and Hans and has a carnival barker explaining about Cleo's transformation into the human chicken. Part of me is glad that those scenes were lost to posterity, even though the integrity of the film was compromised by the "softer" ending. It is a lot easier to sympathize with the freaks if you don't have to watch them mutilate people.

Note: Well it turns out having a three year old during Halloween week is not the optimal situation for maintaining a blog about pre-code horror movies. Between parties, costume contests, pumpkin carving contests and actual trick or treating, I'm not getting a whole lot of spare time to flap my gums about pre-code horror. I have a backlog of movies I didn't get to. I may just extend Halloween week through the 7th of November. Yeah, that makes sense!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Frankenstein (1931)

Literary critics have said for some time that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein as a reaction to the horrors of child birth. In a time when one out of three women died giving birth, that is really not such an irrational idea. However, I'd like to get more specific. I think she wrote Frankenstein in reaction to the horrors of raising a toddler. For what is Frankenstein's monster but an 18-month old with the strength of twenty men. Despite his criminal brain, he reacts mostly as a child would react to many situations--a child that had the power to kill people who annoyed him. Developmental psychologists tell us that children don't understand right or wrong until around three or four years old. To understand metaphysical cause and effect, one must first grasp physical cause and effect. In other words, throw an object, be it a rock, a flower or a small child into a lake and that object will either float or sink to the bottom. And these are the sort of real life experiments that the monster goes about making. If only someone would have given him a nap and juice box instead of a firey torch in the face maybe the whole thing wouldn't have ended so badly. As the parent of a toddler I can totally relate to the doctor's reaction to his creation's first murder which is essentially, "yeah, but, to be fair, dude totally had it coming to him."

Watching James Whale's Frankenstein for the first time, I also realized that growing up with Mel Brooks' version will completely ruin all the other Frankenstein movies for you. It really is such an uncanny parody, at times its not even a parody. The assistant really does drop the normal brain and replace it with a criminal one. Less the scene where the assistant explains, "I brought you the brain of Abby someone..." it's pretty much the same sequence of events and they have a low comedy in the original as well. And Peter Boyle totally nailed Boris Karloff's monosyllabic, yet expressive mode of communication.

Karloff's acting here is definitely to be admired. He communicates without words and with little mobility in his face and body. Like Lugosi with Dracula, we probably remember all the copies more than the original and yet, I felt karloff's monster was certainly the best and most scary as well as the template for say, Herman Munster. The effects are pretty seamless as well which always makes for an enjoyable horror movie and once again, I really dug the sets and costumes. Frankenstein's tower filled with old science stuff is just awesome.

The best thing about Frankentstein (1931), besides the monster of course, was Colin Clive as as the mad doctor. He did a good job of conveying obsession while still remaining reasonable on many levels. I think that is the key to getting the whole mad scientist persona. Mae Clark and John Boles are both remarkably wooden in comparison. This isn't the first movie Mae Clark has failed to impress me. I'm starting to think she really couldn't act and that she just got a lot of big parts in the early thirties because of her looks.


Bonus Eye Candy: Boris Karloff in the monster making chair

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Mummy 1932

The Mummy (1932) has a lot of similarities to Dracula (1931): same producer (Carl Laemmle), same actor (David Manners) plays a hero caught in a love triangle with a monster and D.P. Karl Freund was upgraded to director. Freund's film seems tighter than Dracula and the script corrects many of the problems that I had with the earlier movie. For one thing, the Mummy is a straight-forward love story and that makes it a simpler and more enjoyable movie. Boris Karloff's Imhotep is a lover from Ancient Egypt who is buried alive for the crime of trying to raise his girlfriend from the dead. He is scary to look at in his make-up and his transformation from inanimate corpse to stiffly moving mummy is one of the best effects sequences of the decade, but he's also sympathetic. He assists a team of British tomb hunters in locating his girlfriend's grave so that he can have her close to him, even if it as a corpse in the museum. People sometimes die of fright when he reveals his undead status, but that's not really his fault. He only becomes a bad guy when he discovers that his love has been reincarnated in the body of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) and that she is involved with the very same Egyptologist who uncovered her tomb. He is motivated by jealousy and a sense that after all he's been through, he has some happiness coming to him. We can completely empathize with that and yet we can also see why even though Imhotep has a mystical connection to Helen, she prefers the company of a guy who doesn't look like he's 3700 years old. (Well, to be fair to Karloff, he doesn't look a day over 900.) After Frank (Manners) tells Helen how he fell in love with a mummified corpse she goes ahead and starts making out with him even though they've only known each other about five minutes. What girl could resist a line like that?

One of my problems with Dracula was not caring so much for the damsel in distress. Zita Johann fares far-better. She seems to be purpose-built to be a horror movie heroine. With her slight body, pale face and enormous eyes, she looks like she stepped out of an Edward Gorey illustration. She also really works her skimpy Egyptian inspired costumes and outrageous head dresses. I confess that half of my delight in this film was the art deco take on Egyptian clothes and furnishings.

The flashback to Ancient Egypt is one of the most famous sequences in the movie. Freund has Imhotep able to spy on his lover and his enemies by means of a pool in his apartment, that functions a bit like a crystal ball. Each frame is edged the same as the distinctive shape of the pool. At one point he shows Helen her past life in his magic pool TV, which somewhat comically, doesn't have sound. Freund even uses some of the conventions of silent film to convey an older time in filming this sequence. We are reminded that the discovery of the mummy Tutankhamen was only a decade earlier and perhaps that is why ancient Egypt and silent film seem to go so well together.

The Mummy is spooky, particularly when we are focused in on Karloff's eyes. Freund uses the lighting set up that was so effective in Dracula but wisely uses a much tighter framing, so that Karloff's evil, pain-filled stare fills the entire screen. Imagine seeing that in an old-school movie palace? That would have sent me scrambling under my seat, I'm sure. The Mummy is also a good time. Manners is a lot less insipid parading around in an open shirt with the sleeves rolled up high, Clark Gable style. He is an astonishingly poor Egyptologist, not only needing help locating the tomb, but also in identifying the Goddess Isis and her place in mythology. (With my limited of Egyptian history, comprised of mummy episodes of cartoons in the 1970s, I think I could have managed that without an explanation. ) Though much about the movie is derivative of earlier Universal horror films, I found the Mummy to be just the right combination of horror, romance and fun.

Bonus Eye Candy: Zita Johann

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Dracula (1931)

When I was a kid I was terrified of Dracula. The widow's peak, the medallion, the cape, the way he pronounced "good evenink--" the whole bag was scary to me. This Dracula came to me via pop-culture through cartoons, breakfast cereal and after-school tv shows. This wasn't so much Dracula as Grandpa Munster. And yet, this version of Dracula was a caricature of the one created by Bela Legosi in the 1931 film. And here's the wacky thing. I'm not scared of the REAL Dracula at all.

Certain cultural icons are sometimes lacking when you discover that the sum of the whole cultural snowball is greater than the grain which started it rolling. Never in the 1931 Dracula does Bela Legosi say "I vant to suck your blood." He doesn't even say "Good evenink," he says "We sail tomorrow evenink." Somehow not as bone-chilling. He only once throws his cape over one of his victims, but it is a quick scene at the beginning meant to show a change of place from Transylvania to London. Indeed, the scariest thing in Dracula is Renfield!

Dwight Frye plays Dracula's hapless slave with an eerie glee and pathos that is truly haunting. His creepiness is heightened by the almost expressionistic way his character is filmed. In the film's scariest scene, a rescue team discovers a boat adrift and all passenger's dead, save one, Renfield who has been locked in the hold with his master's coffin. Director Tod Browning films Renfield from above with his pale mad face poking out from the gloom and the only noise on the soundtrack the man's hideous laugh.

Part of what excited me about re-watching Dracula '31 was seeing David Manners again as Jonathan Harker. That turned out to be the biggest disappointment. In the many adaptations I've seen, Harker comes off as somewhat insipid. He is the protagonist of the novel but most of his heroic deeds involve skillful clerical work. That doesn't exactly make for scintillating cinema, and to make matters worse, in the screenplay all of Harker's trials in Transylvania are transferred to Renfield leaving David Manners with nothing to do but sit on a lot of sofas and fuss about the mysterious interloper who is putting the moves on his chic. He reminds me of a less-funny Nick Townsend with Count Dracula being the scum-of-the-Earth titled aristocracy. I actually prefer Trevor Eve in Dracula '79 who played Harker as an impatient and brash young man. Part of the problem is a lack of chemistry between Manners and Helen Chandler, who plays Mina. Chandler recreates the chaste Victorian etiquette teacher as a free-spirited heiress whose fascination with the European villian is just another episode in presumably long list of head-strong experiments. But the spoiled heiress is a tricky beast for an actress. Do it right and you have Irene Bullock in Her Man Godfrey and do it wrong and you have Barbara Vance, Irene Dunne's forgettable and unpleasant rival in The Awful Truth. Helen's Mina definitely falls into the Vance camp as far as I'm concerned and after about the twentieth instance of refuting Van Helsing's advice, I was ready to give up her immortal soul. She's that annoying.

In the novel Mina represents the Victorian ideal woman, chaste, caring and sacrificial. Dracula's brides represent all the sins of low, worldly women. In the same way that the romance films of the late 20s and early 30s transformed the Vamp from a Victorian harlot to a wanton flapper, Dracula neatly transforms a flapper into a literal monster or at least a near-monster.

Dracula of the novel goes after Mina for revenge but in the movie, he does it more or less for sport. Dracula is a playa. Lugosi just doesn't have the magnetism to pull off this aspect of the character, though I'm sure generations of horror fans will disagree with me. Lugosi's characterization relies purely on his ability to make you believe he is a supernatural being with magical mojo. One of his most believable moments is the one in which Dracula spots a mirror. His reaction is wild and animalistic --completely at odds with his drawing room Count. Lugosi is assisted by clever lighting and make-up, which highlight his deep set eyes and menacing stare. The still I've posted shows the effectiveness of his make-up, I think. His fingernails alone are the stuff of nightmares. Yet on screen, Dracula is too often represented by a hilariously fakey rubber bat, which in one scene is fought off by Manners in a way that is reminiscent of C3po in the mynocks.

Perhaps it is the aggregate weight of the sequels and knock-offs that have immortalized Lugosi
as the ultimate image of a vampire in our culture rather than any one scene in Tod Browning's film.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Doctor Jekykll and Mister Hyde (1931)

If this still doesn't get you to watch this movie, nothing will!

I was really looking forward to this version after reading about it in Mick LaSalle's books. I knew it was pre-code and that it dealt with the sexual part of the story in a frank way. The main villain here is sexual repression with Dr. Jekyll's repressed fiancee and her ultra-Victorian father trapping him into a long engagement. Unable to repress his natural impulses, he discovers while taking a potion that he can transmute into an ogreous version of himself, one unable and unwilling to control his darker instincts. After meeting a prostitute (Miriam Hopkins) in a medical emergency, he decides to drink his potion, become Hyde and take her as his lover.

Though March won the Oscar, Hopkins is really the reason to watch this movie. She is amazingly seductive in the beginning, and slowly fleshes out the character as she struggles to maintain her dignity and humanity. Frederic March is wonderful at portraying the Hyde side and even the gentle part of Jeckyll. The problem is that March's acting is really over-wrought (and not in a good way) when he realizes that he can't control the monster inside him. The scenes of him begging his fiancee to marry him as soon as possible are painful, not just because it's painful to watch a man who Miriam Hopkins in love with him begging another woman, but because March just really over-does it. It's obvious to a modern viewer, and probably was so in the thirties as well, that the good doctor's fiancee is all wrong for him. At least Hyde, for all his faults, has the good sense to be unabashedly smitten with Hopkins' character.

There was an article recently in the New Yorker about the Great Depression and its effect on art and popular culture. There was an off-handed comment in it, that said that marriages became less common because people couldn't afford to marry. This was a common problem in the 19th Century as well, so it's interesting that this early 30s horror movie is doing a modern take on an old problem: what to do, if you can't get married and you are a grown-up with normal needs? Apparently Dr Jekyll was too hung up on being a savior to mankind to just go out and hire a prostitute like every other male in the Victorian era, so we have the potion and the mess that involves. Of course that left me wondering about the ladies? I mean, poor March's fiancee. She might like to get laid too!

Another context for this is the end of prohibition. If you look at the potion as a metaphor for alcohol, this would seem a strangely anti-booze movie for the time. Usually in the pre-code era people are either drinking illegally or saying "wooohooo! At least booze is legal!"

I will just randomly end this by saying that one of the main things I learned from this film is that you supposedly pronounce Jekyll as GEE-kill, not JEK-il, as I'd done for most of my life. So bonus points for that I guess.

Friday, October 2, 2009

District Nine

Summer is over and, sadly, so is drive-in movie season. Our final trip to the ex-urbs to car camp in front of a big screen was one of the most cinematically rewarding we've ever taken. We're used to seeing bad movies at drive-ins and more frequently, mediocre ones. Occasionally a movie is married so perfectly to the setting that we remember it more fondly than it perhaps deserved (the first Fast and the Furious and Pirates of the Caribbean movies comes to mind). Low expectations usually help as does the low gate fee and total willingness on the part of drive-in employees to overlook take-out pizza boxes and coolers full of cold beer. But seeing District Nine at the drive-in recently was probably a once in a life time experience. Not only was this late-summer alien invasion movie perfectly placed on a drive-in screen, but it was also a remarkably good film and far away the best science fiction movie I've seen in years.

Though it's been marketed simply as an edgy escapist effects picture produced by Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings), it's a far darker and more disturbing film than has yet been seen in the genre of "sci-fi horror." While the summer started with Watchmen and its downbeat, angst-ridden and blood spattered antics, it ends with this deeply critical science fiction allegory that does a far more effective job of exposing the rotting underbelly of "human nature" then Watchmen managed, despite that blockbuster's faithfulness to its source material. Skewering racism, corporate contract military operations, greed, opportunism and even office politics, District Nine finds little worth redeeming in our species and its treatment of an Apartheid era ghetto full of aliens. It's hero, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is a South African Michael Scott, an ineffectual middle-manager who has married out of his league and landed the bosses daughter. Wikus' obsessive devotion to his wife is probably his only likeable characteristic, though as the film progresses and he mutates into one of the creatures he's spent his professional life bullying, degrading, murdering and I would say dehumanizing, but that's not quite right--he does become, ironically more humane. He is paired with one of aliens, Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) and together they work together to break into the headquarters of the multinational that is running the operations against the aliens.

While Battlestar Galactica has taken on some of these themes and has done so by making villains less cardboard than the white racists and black gangsters in District Nine, it had years of screen time to do so. District Nine borrows Battlestar Galactica's cinema verite style, adding some texture with mockumentary interviews of fake experts and talking heads. Sometimes these textures slow down the pace of the plot and one becomes relieved when they eventually disappear about mid-way through the movie. The other sci-fi sources for District Nine are The Fly and it's Kafkaesque metapmorphisis; the first Alien film with it's under-current of anti-corporate sentiment; the orignal Battlestar Galactica which had an episode about one of the show's heroes being stranded with a cylon whom he was forced to work with to escape from the planet, a plot which was borrowed for several Star Trek episodes and a feature film (Enemy Mine) as well as an episode in the re-imagined series which literally fused the alien technology with biology as District Nine does. The X-files and ET first imagined that if we found aliens the government would seize them for medical experiments as District Nine asserts as well.

The deepest source for this deeply distopic vision of mankind is probably our cable news culture which can expose the systematic cruelty and destruction of a race and seemingly do nothing to prevent it. This camera-awareness permeates the film. Wikus is constantly asking that some embarrassing or potentially libelous moment be edited out from the final cut. I've seen several reviews that imply that film is merely critical of Apartheid, which of course it is. It is also critical of present day South Africa and really the entire way in which refugees are handled in the world and the way war is now prosecuted with an insincere smiles accompanying jack-booted thuggery. This could be Iraq or any other place where a powerful military presence is on the honor system in dealing with a large civilian population.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

RIP(ed) Patrick Swayze

While Patrick Swayze was one of the few actors to ever make People's Sexiest Man Alive (1991) who did not appeal to me, I've always enjoyed the outrageous campiness of his movies. From Roadhouse to Red Dawn his movies are just fun and incredibly fun to mock. Mike Nelson of Mystery Science Theater fame has made a second career out of deriding Swayze , of course, in an affectionate way. So I love the movies, but Swayze himself? Sorta like watching a cold burrito on screen. Maybe it was the mullet? I dunno though, Bono had a pretty serious mullet throughout the 80s and that didn't stop me from plastering his picture all over my locker. So I can't even blame the hockey hair. But I post this bit of eye candy for those of you who did love the Swayze in all his shirtless (and often pantless) glory.

My favorite so bad it was good Swayze film was Next of Kin (1989) in which he plays a cop and violinist (I know!) who must take down a gang of mobsters who have killed one of his brothers. Meanwhile another brother, a hillbilly (played by, I kid you not, Liam Neeson!) decides to take the law into his own hands and starts using a crossbow on local wiseguys. This movie is so packed with mockability that it really deserves its own shrine, website, or at least a pic spam where I dissect the stupidity scene by scene. Maybe another day my friends.

So to the actor who gave us the immortal pot throwing scene in Ghost, the line "Nobody puts baby in a corner," the Chippendales dance off with Chris Farley, and the surfing bank robber philosopher in Point Break, I say Rest in Peace, dude. Rest in Peace.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Knight without Armor (in a savage land!)






















This fun Marlene Dietrich/Robert Donat melodrama has all hallmarks of a great movie about the Russian Revolution: action, romance, dancing Tartars and wacky hats. Robert Donat plays a British journalist who, after being threatened with deportation from Russia, decides to assume a false identity and spy on revolutionaries. His cover is so good that when he gets caught and sent to Siberia by the Czarist regime, no one ever finds out he's a Brit. He manages to switch sides at will in the conflict to suit his purposes, which mainly involve cozying up to an imprisoned countess (Dietrich). Charged with delivering her to her probable execution, he decides to help her escape instead. This makes for a pleasant cross-country romantic adventure story that's not dissimilar from The Thirty-Nine Steps when you get down to it.

Perhaps because it's an English film, it feels quite a bit racier than typical American fare of the period (1937). Dietrich has no less than two gratuitous bathing scenes and she and Donat spend their time unchaperoned and unconcerned with sleeping arrangements. In one scene Donat tells her "They'll call off the search now. In a few days we can leave the forest." Dietrich inquires in her smokiest, most suggestive baritone "Don't you like my forest?" to which Donat replies, "I adore it" and they kiss, while the scene fades out. When next we see Dietrich she is skinny dipping, a scene reminiscent of the pre-code Blonde Venus (1932).

Though it was filmed in England and lacks that David Lean sweep of landscape that would make Doctor Zhivago an immortal classic, Knight Without Armor still manages to capture some of the insanity of that period of history. In a tense sequence Donat and Dietrich wait for a train that isn't coming, even though the station master insists on mustering passengers to the platform despite the obvious non-presence of the train. The longer they wait the more danger they face from Donat's own underlings who've decided to kidnap the Countess for themselves. There is a creeping irrationality to the peasants who are all mostly out for themselves and the good time to be had. The film presents no heroes or villains on either side, only individuals who are either sympathetic to the cause of the lovers or they are not. I suppose you could argue that this focus on the individual over the collective whole would be a way of taking sides after all.

At one point they encounter a young officer (John Clements) of the revolution who is so taken by the Countess' beauty that he deliberately allows them to escape, creating a diversion by killing himself. This conveniently allows the leads to have to avoid that big sacrifice that I was expecting from them, this being a 1930s melodrama. It also makes for some interesting dynamics between Donat and Dietrich. Donat uses the cover story that he and the Countess are brother and sister, so he has to sit by and watch while this young officer flatters and makes love to his girl. Donat applies his usual mask of indifference, appearing to trust Dietrich to prevent the fellow from going too far. In a beautifully filmed night scene, Dietrich reaches her arm out to Donat in the train car and he kisses it passionately, silently, all while the young officer looks on jealously. Yet, the young man never confronts the couple, preferring to push his advantage as far as he can, until he realizes that she will never love him. All of this is accomplished with minimal dialog and great skill from every quarter.

Certainly Knight Without Armor isn't a great film. Though Belgian director Jacques Feyder's other films are well-respected, this one is largely forgotten and I think it's partly his fault. The flow of the movie is a bit choppy and even occasionally hard to follow. There are scenes obviously left out (Dietrich's marriage and the death of her husband) and it isn't simply a case of a director deciding the audience is smart enough to fill in the blanks. It really seems as if he's not quite in control of the material or the pacing. Despite this criticism, I like the way he treats Dietrich as an actress rather than an object. He still manages to get her "little butterfly" in view in a few close-ups, but spends more care in setting up the drama the lighting. Take this clip which shows the moment when the Countess realizes that she is on the losing side in the revolution. Notice the time and elaborate set-up involved in building the drama of this scene. When Dietrich realizes that her servants have joined the rabble who've over run the estate, she is framed in a classic glamour close-up. She steels herself, asks "what are you waiting for?" and marches forward to face them. The crowd of rabble advances and an elderly woman from the crowd shouts, "c'mon she's only a woman!" The wit here is subtle, with Dietrich's power as a film star and her potency as a femme fatale being pitted against an angry mob.

There's a nice story attached to the making of this film, that stuck with me as I was watching it. Apparently during production Donat became ill and the film's producers wanted to replace him. Dietrich refused, saying that no other actor could play the part so well. She got her way and production was stalled till Donat could return. Perhaps all this really says is that Alexander Korda was more of a push over than Dietrich's usual Hollywood bosses. But it is nice to think of a little bit of chivalry involved in Knight without Armor, even if it is on the part of the damsel in distress.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Eye Candy of the Day: The 39 Steps

Robert Donat and Madeleine Carrol are literally shackled together and shacking up in Alfred Hitchcock's adventure thriller the 39 Steps (1935). Richard Hannay (Donat) steps into a music hall to divert himself and before long finds himself hip deep in a spy ring, beautiful women, racy sleeping arrangements, and murder. The action begins with a pick-up: a mysterious woman in a veiled hat invites herself up to Hannay's apartment and winds up dead a few hours later. Hannay borrows her ploy of using sex to get what he wants and finds women mostly willing to go out of their way to help him. Hitchcock exposes a society ready always to believe the lascivious and vicious before the innocent truth. Of the three women Hannay ends up spending the night with he falls for the one he fights with (Madelaine Carrol) which is true to the spirit of the screwball comedies that were bubbling up in America.

There's an interesting and poignant interlude on the Scottish moors with a woman who is completely swept off her feet by the dashing mysterious stranger who has stumbled briefly into the miserable cottage she shares with an even more miserable husband. The film leaves her behind, but not before she gets the memorable chance to make a noble sacrifice for him and get a kiss from our hero. She's like the fleshed out version of the woman into whose hospital room Cary Grant passes through in North by Northwest. Speaking of which, The 39 Steps is remarkably similar to that later more famous Hitchcock film. Both movies use a man on the run from the police as an excuse for a cross country chase and a series of entertaining adventures as he dodges the law, deadly thugs and prevents a master spy from stealing important military secrets. The focus of North By Northwest is a sweeping, technicolor travelogue while The 39 Steps has a more intimate agenda. Unlike the larger than life characters that inhabit North By Northwest, the supporting cast in 39 Steps insinuate themselves quickly into the memory and seem like real people glimpsed in the midst of their daily lives. That moment in North by Northwest when Cary Grant is treated like the movie star he is by the woman in the hospital room, is funny because the audience is in on the joke of the whole stylized, over-refined universe. And a similar moment in The 39 Steps is completely uncynical and poignant because Hannay begins his flirtation with crofter's wife as part of a role he's playing and ends with his genuine concern for her welfare. His good-bye kiss is what is required of the part but you can see him conflicted about the game he's played.

In both movies, Hitchcock seems to enjoy torturing his heroes, putting them not only in constant peril, but continually uncomfortable, awkward and embarassing situations. They get hungry, tired and dirty along the way (though not quite as much as mortal men would) but they never seem to get lonely! If there's one thing you should learn from these movies its this: chicks dig fugitives.