Friday, October 31, 2008

Horror movies for non-horror fans

Happy Halloween! To celebrate the day I've put together a list of scary movies (one per decade) that may appeal to those of you,who, like me, would rather watch ten obscure pre-code films than one horror movie.

Well how about starting it off then with an obscure pre-code horror movie? The Old Dark House (1932) starring Charles Laughton, Melvyn Douglas, Boris Karloff, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart and Lilian Bond and directed by James Whale is a good old-fashioned things that go bump in the night kind of movie. This film doesn't use a lot of fancy effects or make-up to create horror. It uses the darkness, tension and the sound of wind on a stormy night in Wales to create the atmosphere. Because it's pre-code, there's a bit of raciness in that Lilian Bond plays a show-girl whose shacked up with Charles Laughton but falls in love with a traveling stranger played by Melvyn Douglas. They manage to sneak in a rather sweet romance in between screams.

The Uninvited (1944) is another things that go bump in the night movie about a couple that rent a haunted house on the English Coast. It stars Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey and Donald Crisp. The ghost is kind of annoying rather than scary. I enjoyed this movie priamarily because I love Ruth Hussey and it was great to see her in a such a big part even if she only plays the hero's sister.

Eye Without a Face (1959) This French film is creepy in the extreme while making a really powerful statement about the beauty culture in which we live. Pierre Brasseur plays a mad scientist trying to restore his daughter's face which was horribly disfigured in a car accident. He keeps her prisoner while he kidnaps women, and attempts to remove their faces and surgically transplant them onto hers. All this goes down rather poorly with daughter and her fiancee who thought she died in the accident.

The Innocents (1961) starring Deborah Kerr is a brilliant adaptation of Henry James' novel "The Turn of the Screw." This is agreat ghost story whose techniques of filming have been borrowed so frequently since that it doesn't quite seem as pioneering as it probably did in the early sixties. This movie relies almost entirely on tension, lighting and music to convey the horror. The creepiest scene in the movie takes place in broad daylight. Kerr is always wonderful, but here she is at her best conveying the sense of rising terror and panic that may or may not be her own hysteria.

The Wicker Man (1973) is another movie that is almost all atmosphere and tension. Edward Woodward plays a police detective sent to a remote island in the Hebrides to investigate a missing child. The great horror veteran Chirstopher Lee plays Lord Summerisle, Woodward's adversary. One unnerving and unsettling event after another happens leading the audience down the garden path to the film's surreal and horrible conclusion.

The Changeling (1980) Looking back on my list, there is a predominance of haunted house movies, but this is probably the scariest of the lot. The contemporary Japanese horror film Ringu and it's American re-make, The Ring, borrowed heavily from this tale of lonely man (George C. Scott) in haunted house trying to solve the mystery of its former occupants. In most haunted house movies you wonder why the occupants don't just leave after the first incident, but the Changeling offers the explanation that this man would really rather have a ghost as his companion than no companion at all.

The Blair Witch Project (1999) If you can take all the cursing and the horrible hand-held camera work, this is possibly the scariest movie of all time. Relying on pyscological tension and a few well placed gimmicks, the story follows three film students who get lost in the woods. The innovative techniques used to make this film on a miniscule budget make it legendary. No film in my recollection has caused such a polarized reaction. Peoople either bought into and thought it was scary as all get out as I did, or they were bored silly. I saw this film in the theater when it first opened and my friend and I literally clinged to one another through the second half of the movie. I happeneded to be scheduled to go on a ten day camping trip right afterward. Just hearing the sound effects in the trailer is enough to get my heart rate up to this day. This movie has been parodied enlessly, but that is only a reaction to the complete hold it had on pop culture one summer.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Brush up your Shakespeare, it's Shrewfest '08

Elizabeth Taylor looking bad ass and hot in Taming of the Shrew.

While discussing the 1999 film Ten Things I Hate About You, a friend of the blog recently pointed out that it was a modern adaptation of Taming of the Shrew. So I owe the idea for Shrewfest, entirely to Abbynormal and her magical video collection.

In 1929, shortly after the birth of talking pictures, director Sam Taylor adapated "The Taming of the Shrew" for film. There were two previous silent era versions of the play, but this one had the distinct advantage of having the premier married couple of motion pictures, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks as its stars. Rumor has it that the declining relationship between the couple was responsible for added viciousness in the fight scenes.

Almost forty years later the play was again adapted by another great Shakesperean popularizer, Franco Zeffirelli and again it starred the premier married couple of motion pictures, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Again, the couple's marital ills came through on screen. (Taylor aznd Burton were divorced shortly after its release.) This 1967 version was the only one I'd ever seen until recently.

In between these two films Cole Porter made a musical adaptation Kiss Me Kate, which was set in a contemporary theater where the premier married couple of motion pictures are working out their marital difficulties onstage. I wondered if Cole Porter knew about the Fairbanks/Pickford film and if it inspired his version. Porter's musical is fairly insipid, the leads are annoying and yet, I found myself completely delighted by most of the musical numbers, especially those that featured the dancing talents of Ann Miller. I also loved "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" and had it in my head for days after seeing the movie.

The final adaptation I watched for Shrewfest was Ten Things I Hate About You, (1999) starring the late Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles, who were at the time anything but the premier married couple of motion pictures. Ledger is about as convincing as a high school student as Olivia Newton John is in Grease, but I'm willing to give that a pass as I've watched enough OC and Beverly Hills 90210. I know that high school students are supposed to look 26. The movie also stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt from one of my favorite sitcoms of all-time, Third Rock from the Sun. By setting Shakespeare's comedy in a modern high school, obviously, the writers took some major liberties with the story, yet it's really no worse than Kiss Me Kate.

Taming of the Shrew has as its conclusion, a scene which is pretty tough for most modern female audiences to stomach. In it the "tamed" shrew, lectures her sister and another disobedient wife about the importance of respecting her "master's" wishes and putting his needs before her own. Her monologue goes onto rationalize the paternalistic order of things by pointing out the softness of womens bodies in contrast to the hardness of men. It's ironic because she has spent the whole play thus far proving how tough women are, while most of the men in the play come off as buffoons, fools and scoundrels. There isn't a single reason for Katherina to submit to Petrucio's brutal humiliations other than love and there isn't a reason at all for her to love him, except that she does. Kiss Me Kate, made the lovers a divorced couple who reconcile after playing out their differences on stage. It's clear from the start that they still love on another and after a series of perfunctory misunderstandings they are reunited. Porter manages to make that monologue not about the shrew submitting her will, but returning to her true love, the theater. In the Zeferelli version it's all about chemistry. Burton and Taylor about burst into flames when they are alone together on screen. Zeferelli couches this in sumptuous production values and picturesque scenery, but the lesson is plain. Both the shrew and the tamer submit to their attraction for that which is wild and opposite in the other. Ten Things I hate About You translates the denoument into modern terms by having Kat read a mushy poem in front of class. By modernizing the play, the writers simply jettisoned those paternalistic lines and the story is not hurt a bit by it.

Ten Things owed as much to John Hughes' Ferris Bueller's Day Off as it does to Shakespeare. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I have a soft spot for Bueller from my youth. There are the inevitable teen tribal introductions, the coffee kids, the future MBA's, etc. Like a good Hughes movie, there are plenty of heart-warming daddy-daughter bonding scenes (I don't remember Katherina being exactly close to her dad in the play) and when Heath Ledger steals the school PA and sings a oldie the the heroine, I was a little disappointed that it wasn't Englebert Humperdinck. Because it's set in high school, the movie strings out the courtship of Petruchio and Kate (or Pat and Kat as the case may be) for the full length of the film. You can't have two high school kids getting married in the first twenty minutes of the movie. I really enjoyed Ten Things, largely because the young actors were all quite good, especially Julia Stiles who played Ophelia the following year in the modernization of Hamlet.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Garbo laughs with her pals in Stalinist Russia.

A few weeks back, I made a list of movies which I hadn't seen, but probably should have by now. At the top of this list was Ninotchka, starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Though I had high expectations for this film, Ninotchka managed to surpass them. This is a very funny movie ranging from long passages of simmering witty dialog to boil over onto the stove hilarity.

More amazing to me is the way that this comedy is still at heart a Greta Garbo movie. Love is still king and Garbo's suffering at the potential loss of love is every bit as palpable as it is Camille. After learning to embrace some of the trappings of capitalism, Ninotchka and her comrades are sent back to the Soviet Union, where crowded conditions, lack of food and material goods and the ever-present threat of the secret police put a damper on the fun. As Ninotchka reads a censored letter from her sweetheart, the camera goes in for a typical Garbo closeup. The look on her face is devastating. When her roommate starts to snore in the midst of this take it is at once funny and heart-breaking.

If any one ever was going to make a comedy about Stalinist Russia, it would be Lubitsch who tread a similar minefield in the original To Be Or Not To Be. While the film does not let Stalinism off the hook it doesn't entirely embrace Western Capitalism either. When Nincotchka gets drunk at a Paris nightclub her first action is to organize the ladies restroom attendants to go on strike. Her character never gives up on Communism and she is ruthlessly smart in fulfilling her duty to her country, though she does wear a hat that she sees as emblamatic of imminent collapse of Western Civilization. It's so refreshing to see a movie where a woman is 10 times as smart and capable as most of the men and her looks are merely an afterthought. In one scene the three comrades Ironoff (Sig Ruman), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart) and Kopalski (Alexander Grenach) meet Ninotchka at the the train station. They apologize for not bringing flowers because they assumed the government would be sending a man. "Please don't make an issue of my womanhood" she says in a dead-pan monotone that would be offensively one-dimensional if it were said by any other actress.

Garbo has great chemistry with Melvyn Douglas who plays a European playboy, the sort of character that Ninotchka views as an endangered species. It is this chemistry which makes Ninotchka a very romantic movie as well as a funny one. The writers make a point to emphasize the number of steps going to the top of the Eiffel tower and the fact that an elevator ride is included in the price of admission. It is significant that Ninotchka takes the stairs. She's not one to do anything, even love, the easy way. It turns out that he represents a White Russian countess whose jewels Ninotchka and her comrades have come to Paris to hawk. This revelation happens early in the film and surprisingly the pair deal with it in a way that is unheard of in romantic comedy. Instead of having a big blowout fight, Ninotchka simply departs, obviously saddened that she and her new friend can no longer see one another. Over and over throughout the movie, I had one set of expecations from watching romantic comedies of this period and was surprised to see plot elements from a romantic melodrama from earlier in the decade.

Ninotchka is a unique and wonderful film. It plays remarkably well alongside To Be or Not To Be, but it is more romantic, and more directly sensual, probably owing to Garbo's presence. It is more worldy and less naive than Frank Capra romantic comedies though it shares with those films a simple belief that love conquers all.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Special Kay: Have you had yours today?

For the longest time I've had a very skewed opinion of Kay Francis. I'd only ever seen her in one movie, In Name Only (1938) with Cary Grant and Carole Lombard in which she plays a shrewish, downright nasty woman. I knew she'd had a vibrant pre-code career from reading Mick LaSalle's "Dangerous Women" and from blogs like "Trouble in Paradise." So my first real Kay Francis movie then was Trouble in Paradise (1932) an Ernest Lubitsch film that also stars Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marsahll. Not only was Kay Francis' image at stake but I was very excited to see an Ernest Lubitsch film that I hadn't seen before since he's one of my favorite directors. High expectations can frequently be a problem with movies and on first viewing I was a touch disappointed. I think I was expecting something a bit zanier, but this film is very sophisticated and funny in a winking, droll way. Though Kay's character isn't unsympathetic in Trouble in Paradise, she is a rival to Miriam Hopkins. It's hard not feel that if Herbert Marshall wasn't going to wind up with both women, in a Design for Living style compromise than you just have to root for Hopkins' scrappy, funny jewel thief . I can't help it, I always cheer for funny.

Herbert Marshal does a good job of playing a man genuinely torn between the two. It's difficult to know exactly when his con of playing male secretary to the female head of a perfume company becomes a genuine job that he enjoys and does well. In one memorable scene, he leads Kay Francis in exercises, in which she demonstrates that she can lie on the floor and kick her heels over her head. This was pre-code after all--nothing wrong with a little gratuitous caboose.

I just watched a much less famous Kay Francis vehicle, Man Wanted, in which she plays another female executive who becomes involved with her male secretary. Though Man Wanted is not in the same class as Trouble in Paradise, it utterly charmed me and I think I finally get whole Kay Francis appeal. She is witty, confident and always makes you believe that she is as every inch as ambitious as the character she plays on screen. With her widow's peak and her smoky deep voice, Kay Francis was something special. I wish there was an actress like her now making movies about smart women in power that didn't fall into the Devil Wears Prada stereotype. While Meryl Streep plays tough minded magazine editor in that movie the whole point of it is that she's lonely and mean-spirited because she's a woman in power who doesn't have time for fulfillment in her personal life. Streep humanizes the devil, but at the end of the day she's still a dragon in four inch heels; she's still the antagonist. Lois Ames is the heroine and though her personal life is unfulfilled she's not mean or petty. Even when she realizes she's been cheated on, she seems momentarily annoyed and hurt, but quickly recovers her poise to make a joke of it. This is a woman so sure of herself that men are like buses, you miss one and another one will come along in a little while. A few years later and a woman like Lois would be required to find happiness and retirement in marriage. One of the true evils of the production code was its insistence that woman not be shown being happy or fulfilled at work since they were supposedly taking jobs away from men. It's clear that we've never really regained the ground lost to the code, when a role like Streep's in the Devil Wears Prada stands out as being unusual.

The man, in Man Wanted is the very lovely David Manners who remains desirable despite being a tad immasculated by all that stenography. Manners, like Francis was very successful in the pre-code era and was a genuine matinee idol who popped up around the time talkies came in. He triumphed over fickle fame by retiring at the top of his game in 1936, to paint, write books and act in the occasional play. Manners will probably be forever known for his roles in Dracula and The Mummy, but he was also very good at romantic comedy, playing the straight man to comic actors Una Merkel and Andy Divine in Man Wanted.

I've loads more Kay Francis movies to look at and from time to time, I'll be adding them to the media room.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Eye Candy of the Day: The Late Great Paul Newman

Back on the Chain Gang: Newman in Cool Hand Luke.

Let's take a moment to reflect on Paul Newman. He was a great actor. He hadn't always been a a great actor, he made it through a great deal of his career as a good actor who looked, well, see for yourself. In the late 1970s he began to do something that's nearly impossible for Hollywood leading man to do. He started to age gracefully. He took difficult parts in movies about men growing old and feeling used up. For those of us too young to remember Newman of the late 50s and 60s, he was always just that old drunk from the Verdict or that old pool shark in The Color of Money.

I remember when he beat Harrison Ford (among others) for the Oscar in 1987. He was winning for Color of Money, probably not his best performance, but it was a catch-up Oscar. "Oops we haven't given Brick Pollitt, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy, or Reg Dunlop an Oscar yet." I really wanted Harrison Ford, my favorite actor at the time, to win for Witness. I ran to my kitchen, grabbed a bottle of Newman's Own Italian dressing out of the door and shook it till I felt better. I guess hadn't really learned to appreciate the awesomeness of Paul Newman yet.

The next year I watched Cool Hand Luke (1967) and it changed my mind about the actor . If ever there was a movie tailor made to cater to the interests of a dorky 17 year old girl, it was Cool Hand Luke. It has authority or "authorit-tie" being disrespected, unrelenting, soul-crushing random punishment that might as well be high school and one really cute boy who just can't keep his shirt on. I think my favorite thing about Luke is that he eats 50 eggs on a bet. I can relate to that self-destructive kind of need for attention. I do, afterall, keep a blog. He just wants credit for his egg eating ability, so he continues, despite Dragline's (George Kennedy) warnings of doom.

Cool Hand Luke had as much appeal for the wannabe rebel of the late eighties as it did for the disaffected youth in the late Sixties. Toward the end of the movie Newman has a somewhat contrived, though beautifully acted scene in which he questions God, "You made me what I am. How am I supposed to fit in?" No matter how many times they put Luke in the box, he just kept coming back at them, with his banjo, his escape attempts and his real purpose, which is seemingly to unmask authority. In the final case, the mask is a literal one, the cold souless, reflective aviator sunglasses that the bosses henchmen wear while beating the prisoners into submission. The filmmakers made some attempt to turn Luke into a Christ figure, even filming Newman from above sprawled out in a crucifixion pose.

Paul Newman had other great roles, of course. I'm even kinda partial to his final role as Doc Hudson in Cars. And I bet I could eat 50 of those Newman's Own Fig Newmans.