Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954)

Adapted from the novel by Jules Verne, Disney’s large scale Technicolor adventure provides plenty of eye-popping aquatic scenery, which helped it win a pair of Oscars for Special Effects and Best Art Direction. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) also offers classic film fans a unique combination of iconic stars, including James Mason as the enigmatic Captain Nemo, Kirk Douglas as a feisty sailor, and Peter Lorre as a scientist’s nervous assistant. While its pace might seem a bit slow by modern standards, especially for younger children, the effects and actors make the picture well worth the two hours it takes to watch, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea remains one of the best and most influential of Disney’s live action features.

Paul Lukas plays Professor Pierre Aronnax, who embarks on a ship with his assistant, Conseil (Peter Lorre), to investigate rumors of an enormous sea monster that is destroying vessels at sea. When the supposed monster attacks their ship, Aronnax, Conseil, and sailor Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) are thrown overboard, where they discover that the creature is, in fact, a technologically advanced submarine controlled by the misanthropic Captain Nemo (James Mason). Nemo reveals to the men a world of oceanic wonders, but his destructive methods cause them to question his sanity and look for opportunities to escape.

Lukas and Mason are the intellectual, dramatic leads as the idealistic scientist and his grimly jaded host. They represent different perspectives on science and the nature of man, and their debates hinge on philosophical, scientific, and academic principles. While Mason in particular gives a memorably brooding performance, the film does tend to slow down when Nemo and Aronnax hold the screen. Livelier scenes focus on Ned Land and the perpetually woeful Conseil, both of whom have far more pragmatic attitudes about their situation. Lorre plays comic relief with the same deadpan genius that characterizes many of his late career performances. Kirk Douglas’ Ned might be a greedy, impulsive fool, but he’s still the most energetic and charismatic character in the movie, especially when he’s singing “A Whale of a Tale” or goofing around with Nemo’s pet sea lion.

The submarine takes both the characters and the audience on an amazing adventure, with elaborate underwater scenes of divers mourning a fallen comrade and harvesting the bounty of the sea. Peril abounds, as Nemo first attempts to drown his three visitors and then involves them in dangerous expeditions, including an obligatory island encounter with cannibals. The giant squid fight sequence holds up well, even after sixty years, and the Nautilus is a fantastic early example of steampunk design, simultaneously elegant and menacing. These elements would have a lasting effect on the American cultural consciousness, especially with the ride at Walt Disney World recreating the experience for generations of fans from 1971 until 1994. Luckily, the film has outlasted the attraction it inspired.

Richard Fleischer, who directed 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, also made The Narrow Margin (1952), Fantastic Voyage (1966), and Soylent Green (1973). See more of James Mason in A Star is Born (1954), North by Northwest (1959), and Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959). Paul Lukas won the Oscar for Best Actor for Watch on the Rhine (1943), but you’ll also find him in Dodsworth (1936) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). Other Kirk Douglas films from the 1950s include Ace in the Hole (1951), Lust for Life (1956), and Paths of Glory (1957). Be sure to catch more funny performances by Peter Lorre in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), The Raven (1963), and The Comedy of Terrors (1963). For a family-friendly film festival of classic movie adaptations of Jules Verne, try Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), Mysterious Island (1961), and In Search of the Castaways (1962).

Monday, September 8, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: SON OF FURY (1942)

Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney give Son of Fury (1942) plenty of sex appeal to go along with its adventurous story of 18th-century greed and revenge, and the sight of those two in extended scenes of Polynesian undress justifies the movie’s existence all by itself. Luckily, Son of Fury has plenty of other attractions for classic movie fans, including a fantastic cast of supporting players and excellent direction from John Cromwell. While not exactly a swashbuckler, this film adaptation of the novel by Edison Marshall offers one memorable thrill after another, with Power fighting, swimming, dancing, and romancing his way from the streets of Bristol and London to the shores of the South Pacific.

Power plays Benjamin Blake, whose supposed illegitimacy keeps him from inheriting his dead father’s estate. Ben’s uncle, Sir Arthur (George Sanders), treats him like a servant and hopes to prevent him from ever establishing a claim to the family wealth, but Ben has supporters in his aunt (Kay Johnson) and his beautiful cousin, Isabel (Frances Farmer), with whom Ben falls in love. After an altercation with Sir Arthur, Ben goes on the run, eventually finding riches and romance on a tropical island, where Eve (Gene Tierney) becomes his lover. Ben, however, feels compelled to return to England, confront his uncle, and claim Isabel as his bride, even though London holds many dangers for him as a wanted man.

Power gives a great performance as the hot-headed Benjamin Blake, who nurses his simmering resentment against his uncle for years. “Flesh and blood can stand no more,” he declares after Sir Arthur punishes him for courting Isabel with a vicious whipping, although he suffers violence at other hands, as well. The intensity of the character suits the star perfectly, and he looks equally good in the English period costumes and the Polynesian loincloth. The island costume puts quite a bit of Power’s physique on display, especially when he goes diving for pearls, and his matinee idol look is matched by Tierney as the native beauty who playfully joins him in the water. Her ignorance of English and Western customs might be laid on a little thick, but Tierney is so stunning that it hardly matters what language her character speaks. We’re on her side the moment we first see her, hoping that Ben will forget all about England and the sophisticated but spoiled Isabel.

The supporting cast elevates the whole production to an almost delirious height, with Sanders especially notable as the smoothly heartless Sir Arthur. He and Power have a series of riveting fight scenes that bookend Ben’s Polynesian adventures, and Sanders of course has the cultured manner and physical presence to pull off the role. John Carradine gives one of his characteristically brilliant performances as Caleb, the sailor who befriends Ben and takes him along to the remote Pacific island, while Harry Davenport is genuinely moving as Ben’s beloved grandfather. Dudley Digges steals his scenes as Bartholomew Pratt, the London man of the world whom Ben employs against his uncle; Digges has an ideal face for an 18th-century character, and his first scene is a highlight of the film. Even Roddy McDowall makes a brief but critical appearance as young Ben, setting the stage for Power’s adult interpretation of the character. Tierney and Frances Farmer supply the picture’s female beauty, but Kay Johnson, who was married to John Cromwell at the time, is wonderful as Ben’s aunt Helena, and Elsa Lanchester takes over the movie for her one long scene as a sympathetic barmaid who helps Ben evade the law.

The only thing that might have improved Son of Fury is color, which would have brought the Pacific Island scenes a lusher look, but as a whole the movie works beautifully. See more of Power’s tremendous energy in The Mark of Zorro (1940), Blood and Sand (1941), and The Black Swan (1942). Gene Tierney also stars with Power in The Razor’s Edge (1946), but she is best remembered today for Heaven Can Wait (1943), Laura (1944), and Leave Her to Heaven (1945). George Sanders won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for All About Eve (1950), while John Carradine gained lasting fame for roles in Captains Courageous (1937), Stagecoach (1939), and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). For other films directed by John Cromwell, try Of Human Bondage (1934), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), and The Enchanted Cottage (1945).

Friday, September 5, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: KONGO (1932)

Kongo (1932) certainly ranks as one of the stranger productions of the Pre-Code era and also one of the most alarmingly perverse. It began as a stage play and had already been adapted by Tod Browning in 1928 as West of Zanzibar, with the great Lon Chaney and Lionel Barrymore as the embittered rivals, but the MGM sound version benefits from the experience of Walter Huston, the actor who had originated the role of Dead Legs Flint on the stage. Huston might not be remembered as a man of a thousand faces, but he makes quite a grotesque spectacle as the picture’s insanely vengeful villain, who could give Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz a run for his money. Lurid, deliriously racist, and steeped in sadistic thrills, Kongo is a fascinating journey to the dark heart of classic horror for those with a strong enough stomach, but it’s by no means safe territory for the Pre-Code novice.

Huston’s Dead Legs Flint was paralyzed years ago when his rival, Gregg (C. Henry Gordon), crushed his spine and stole Flint’s wife. As part of his elaborate plan for revenge, Flint takes Gregg’s daughter, Ann (Virginia Bruce), as an infant and places her in a convent school until she is grown. Then he delivers her to a Zanzibar brothel for humiliating assault and abuse. After two years, he has her brought to his miniature empire in the Congo, where he rules the natives with a mixture of cheap magic and cruelty. When the drug-addicted young doctor, Kingsland (Conrad Nagel), stumbles into Flint’s camp, he rekindles Ann’s humanity, but he also attracts the interest of Flint’s nymphomaniac mistress, Tula (Lupe Velez). Flint wants Kingsland to operate on his damaged back, and he also has a final act of violent vengeance planned for Ann and Gregg.

Kongo shares many themes with Heart of Darkness, including a repulsively racist attitude toward the native Africans, but its focus is really on Flint’s maniacal obsession with revenge. He has an ugly, disfigured face to match his twisted soul, and he relishes the suffering he inflicts on Ann, treating her like a dog in his own house and encouraging her miserable dependence on alcohol. “How proud your father would be if he could see you,” he sneers. His sadistic streak extends to the natives and Tula, whose tongue he attempts to cut out when she disobeys his orders to keep Kingsland away from the addictive root he craves. Flint’s grand scheme requires his old enemy to come to the camp, confront Ann’s defilement, and then die so that Flint can have Ann burned alive in accordance with the local burial custom. After nearly twenty years of plotting, Flint seems poised to realize his horrible desire, but an ironic revelation casts a different light on everything he thought he knew.

Huston’s performance dominates the picture, but Virginia Bruce sells the fractured humanity of Ann very effectively. She really looks awful when we see her again after her ordeal in Zanzibar, with deep lines around her face and a wild, bestial quality in her movements. Conrad Nagel also revels in a sorry state as the drug-addled Kingsland, swinging between debauched euphoria and sober nobility. Bruce and Nagel have some very tender scenes in which they attempt to save one another from the nightmare world they inhabit, but their best moments as actors are their worst ones as characters. Once they get cleaned up they become more conventional and less memorable, but luckily their romantic salvation occurs very late in the picture. Lupe Velez plays the Portuguese Tula with more energy than subtlety; Tula’s chief ambition is to sleep with as many white men as possible, but her residence in the remote camp offers her limited opportunities, and it’s never really clear how the audience is supposed to feel about her.

Track down the 1928 film for a double feature comparison of the two versions. William Cowen only directed half a dozen movies, none of them particularly well-known today. Walter Huston, however, earned four Oscar nominations during his screen career and won Best Supporting Actor for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). For more of his work, see Dodsworth (1936), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Virginia Bruce also stars in Jane Eyre (1934), Born to Dance (1936), and The Invisible Woman (1940). Look for Conrad Nagel in The Divorcee (1930) and All That Heaven Allows (1955). Lupe Velez is best remembered for the Mexican Spitfire movies starting in 1940, but you can also see her in The Gaucho (1927) and Where East is East (1929).

Kongo is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant; Warner has also released the film as part of its Archive DVD collection.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE NARROW MARGIN (1952)

It might not be as famous as the noir classics that usually make the top ten lists, but The Narrow Margin (1952) is definitely a picture that every noir fan ought to get around to, and the sooner the better. Richard Fleischer’s tight, smart thriller packs a cross-country train trip with unexpected twists, making great use of the confined spaces and close quarters that its setting entails. This RKO production also features knockout performances, particularly from Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor, with Jacqueline White providing a refined contrast to Windsor’s dangerous dame. Those who enjoy train movies will love this film’s claustrophobic, high-speed atmosphere, and noir devotees will find enough pointed lines and sudden reversals to satisfy even the most devious imagination.

Charles McGraw stars as Walter Brown, a tough police detective saddled with the job of transporting a mobster’s widow across country so that she can testify in court. Mrs. Neal (Marie Windsor) turns out to be exactly the kind of cheap, selfish tramp Brown expects, but he and his partner, Forbes (Don Beddoe), have to protect her at any cost. Of course the mob wants her silenced, and their attempts to get to the witness only intensify once they board a train from Chicago to Los Angeles. Brown’s efforts to keep Mrs. Neal alive become even more complicated when he meets the attractive Ann Sinclair (Jacqueline White) and accidentally leads the killers to think that she is their target.

The Narrow Margin plays with our expectations and those of its own characters, especially Brown. The jaded cop is sure that he knows all about Mrs. Neal before he even meets her. “What kind of dame would marry a hood?” he asks, and Marie Windsor’s flashy viper matches his preconceived image perfectly. As a result, he doesn’t feel obligated to be nice to her; he repeatedly tells her to shut up and handles her like a parcel of dirty laundry. He gets as good as he gives, too. “You make me sick to my stomach,” he tells her. “Well,” she snaps back, “use your own sink.” Brown only softens when he meets Ann, a classy, polite blonde who is Mrs. Neal’s opposite in every way. The trouble is, Brown knows a lot less than he thinks about what is really going on, and his actions put both women in danger.

The train setting ratchets up the tension because the killers and their targets come into such close contact; nobody can hide except in plain sight. Paul Maxey is an especially imposing presence in this environment; his character, Sam Jennings, uses his girth as an effective weapon in the train’s cramped corridors. “Nobody loves a fat man,” he jokes, but he knows exactly how to throw his weight around to achieve his aim. Gordon Gebert’s hyper Tommy Sinclair also has an exaggerated effect in the tight spaces; his boyish noise draws unwanted attention to Brown every time the two meet. Brown struggles to keep a low profile in spite of these and other human obstacles to his mission, but he has to play a weirdly blatant cat and mouse game with the killers. His only advantage is that the assassins don’t know what Mrs. Neal looks like, but it’s just a matter of time before hunters and prey occupy the same fatal space.

Richard Fleischer also directed 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Fantastic Voyage (1966), and Doctor Dolittle (1967), as well as the cult sci-fi classic, Soylent Green (1973). Look for Charles McGraw in The Killers (1946), T-Men (1947), and The Man in the Net (1959). Marie Windsor gives another fabulously poisonous performance in The Killing (1956). The Narrow Margin was Jacqueline White’s final film before her retirement from Hollywood, but you’ll also find her in Crossfire (1947). Child actor Gordon Gebert turns up in Holiday Affair (1949), The Flame and the Arrow (1950), and The House on Telegraph Hill (1951).

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET (1964)

Don Knotts stars in The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), one of the weirdest war comedies ever made, in which a nearsighted amateur ichthyologist transforms into a fish and then becomes an unlikely hero during World War II. This family-friendly picture combines animation and live action for its strange fish tale, and it possesses an odd charm that still works on viewers of all ages, thanks to Knotts’ sweetly funny performance and plenty of lively action that keeps the story in motion. Jack Weston, Carole Cook, and Andrew Duggan also make memorable appearances, but the movie really belongs to Knotts and the colorful undersea world where he finds friendship, adventure, and love.

Knotts plays Henry Limpet, a timid, bookish fellow whose wish to be a fish comes true when he falls off a pier at Coney Island. While his wife, Bessie (Carole Cook), and overbearing pal, George (Jack Weston), give him up as drowned, Henry embarks on a new life underwater, where he makes friends with a hermit crab (Paul Frees) and attracts the admiration of the lovely Ladyfish (Elizabeth MacRae). Henry also finds purpose when he realizes that his unique situation allows him to help the US Navy hunt down Nazi U-boats in the Atlantic.

Most people immediately think of Knotts as Barney Fife, and his popularity on The Andy Griffith Show more or less defined his career, but as Henry Limpet Knotts gets to play a gentler, less buffoonish character. There are distinct shades of a Jimmy Stewart type in Knott’s Henry; he might be obsessed with fish, but he’s a sweet guy, very bright, and really just waiting for a chance to prove himself. Henry longs to serve his country in spite of his 4F status, and his magical transformation gives him a chance to become both a hero and a figure of romance. He first appears as a puny, undersized human, but he makes for a strapping and extraordinary fish. Knotts even gets to sing the movie’s signature song, “I Wish I Were a Fish,” and though he’s no crooner it further shows that the actor had more range than many Barney Fife fans might expect.

The supporting actors in the live action scenes mostly react to Knotts, even when he’s playing the milquetoast human version of Henry. As George Stickel, Jack Weston is overbearing when Henry is a man but amusingly in awe of his pal as a fish, and he serves as the link between Henry’s two worlds. Carole Cook seems like a terrible harridan of a wife to Henry until she thinks he has drowned, and then she reveals a surprising tenderness toward him that makes us reassess our sense of her character. Andrew Duggan plays Harlock with a mix of befuddlement and practical acceptance of whatever gets the job done, but even in the framing sequences Harlock and Stickel look like they’d rather forget all about incidents they still can’t really believe. Elizabeth MacRae’s Ladyfish might be the least interesting character in the whole picture, with her sexy voice and vacuous personality, but Paul Frees invests Crusty the hermit crab with a feisty loyalty that makes him a highlight of the story.

Arthur Lubin, who directed The Incredible Mr. Limpet, also made Buck Privates (1941), Francis the Talking Mule (1950), and Rhubarb (1951), as well as a whole series of Francis sequels. For more of Don Knotts’ film career, see No Time for Sergeants (1958), The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), and The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975). Look for Jack Weston in Wait Until Dark (1967) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Veteran voice actor Paul Frees earned more than 300 screen credits for his film and television work, and you might recognize him as the voice of Barney Bear, Wally Walrus, Boris Badenov, Snuffy Smith, Charlie Beary, Ludwig Von Drake, and a host of other animated characters.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How Classic Movies Helped Me Write My Novel

So, my first novel is now available on Amazon Kindle, and I'm about as proud as a new parent handing out cigars. Two years of working, writing, and thinking will hopefully pay off in a story that people enjoy reading. As always, my ongoing love affair with classic movies has been a big part of the process.

That won't be obvious to everyone who reads the book, and it might not even be apparent to other classic movie fans. The novel is a YA fantasy about a boy raised by a dragon. Its relationship to fairy tales and other fantasy novels is certainly more marked, and it also draws from literary classics like The Jungle Book. I have been a voracious and constant reader since I was 3, and everything I have ever read swims around in my imagination and seeps into my own work. Hopefully English majors will appreciate the many allusions and influences.

However, my brain also teems with classic films, and those, too, permeate the novel, especially when it comes to creating characters. My roguish dragon, Willais, is always a Tyrone Power type in my mind, especially when he is magically transformed into a man. I even gave him Ty's distinctive eyebrows. Lanky, sweet-natured Bert is inspired by Ray Bolger, especially as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz but also in The Harvey Girls. Bert's wife, Magda, is a mix of Mary Boland and Spring Byington types, with a little extra temper thrown in (a touch, perhaps, of Alice's Queen of Hearts as voiced by Verna Felton). Whenever I needed a pop-up character for a single scene, I imagined a classic movie character actor who might have played the part. Victor McLaglen is in there, and Frank Morgan, too. I doubt many people will notice, if any, but it really helped me see the characters in my own mind when I was writing about them.

Of course, many of the characters have very different family trees, but I don't think the novel would be the same if not for all of those classic movies I have enjoyed so over the years. Once again I'm grateful for a passion that has not only entertained me but has made me think that much more about narratives, characters, and the way in which a good story comes together!

If you're actually interested in the novel, it's called Wierm's Egg. You can find it on Amazon by clicking the link. Of course the Beyond Casablanca books and the two Jim Henson anthologies are there, too.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946)

Adapted from the novel by James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) delivers all of the classic noir conventions, with a special emphasis on the ironic workings of fate. Tay Garnett directs this MGM contribution to film noir, which features an iconic performance from Lana Turner as the resident femme fatale, along with John Garfield and Cecil Kellaway as the doomed flies caught in her attractive web. Leon Ames and Hume Cronyn also make memorable appearances as a pair of lawyers who care more about competition than actual justice. Modern critical opinion of Postman goes both ways; David Thomson applauds it, while David N. Meyer derides it, but it's still required viewing for any serious noir fan.

Garfield is drifter Frank Chambers, who takes a "Man Wanted" position at a roadside station because of the owner's seductive wife, Cora (Lana Turner). Frank and Cora begin an affair, but Nick (Cecil Kellaway) seems like an impossible obstacle to their happiness, and they start to imagine their lives without him standing in the way. When Nick announces his plan to sell the station and take Cora away to Canada, the lovers rush into desperate action, but the district attorney (Leon Ames) has his eye on the murderous pair, and their plot becomes far more complicated than they intended.

Each of the three main characters is a loser in his or her own way, but Postman presents them in shades of gray that slowly slip toward black. Kellaway's Nick seems jovial and kindly at first, until we realize how tight-fisted and dictatorial he is, especially where Cora is concerned. When Frank and Cora first think of killing him, we feel bad for the old man, but his abrupt decision to force Cora to Canada to play nurse for his invalid sister goes a long way toward justifying the second attempt. Cora just wants to make something of the diner. She isn't afraid of hard work, and at first she resists Frank's advances. "You won't find anything cheap around here," she tells him. As her spotless white outfits shift to black, however, she reveals a dangerous jealousy and even mental instability. What kind of mother would such a woman have made? We get the feeling that Junior might have grown up to be the Norman Bates of the Twin Oaks establishment, had fate not conveniently stepped in. Frank himself is the first to blame; he only takes the job to chase Cora, and he doesn't let up until it finally dawns on him that he might be in over his head. He does try, at least, to walk out, but by then he has already set the dominoes in motion.

Oddly enough, the most despicable people in the film are the lawyers, played with predatory cunning by Leon Ames and Hume Cronyn. Ames' district attorney pretends to be on the side of justice, but he seems perfectly content to let Frank and Cora commit murder so that he can prosecute them, when he actually has plenty of opportunity to stop the murder from happening in the first place. His moral posturing at the movie's end reeks of irony, given his cavalier bet with the opposition about the earlier trial's outcome and his willingness to make plea deals. Cronyn's Arthur Keats lacks even the veneer of morality; he's a sharper, as crooked as they come, and ready to do everything but commit murder himself to control the verdict in Cora's trial. Cronyn is so gloriously sleazy that he more or less steals the movie every time he shows up, and that's quite a feat when Lana Turner's ample charms are on display.

Audrey Totter, another notable femme fatale, adds an extra touch of irony as the girl Frank runs off with when he gets mad at Cora; he clearly has a thing for dangerous curves. Take note of Fred Flintstone voice actor Alan Reed as the lumbering crook, Kennedy. For more from Tay Garnett, try China Seas (1935), The Cross of Lorraine (1943), and The Valley of Decision (1945). Cain's novel was also adapted in Italy as Ossessione (1943), which makes a provocative double feature with Postman. See John Garfield in They Made Me a Criminal (1939), Tortilla Flat (1942), and Gentleman's Agreement (1947). Lana Turner turns heads in Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), and The Three Musketeers (1948). Don't miss Cecil Kellaway in Harvey (1950) and Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), and be sure to appreciate Hume Cronyn in Lifeboat (1944). Leon Ames is probably best remembered today as the Smith family patriarch in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), but you'll also find him in Lady in the Lake (1947) and Little Women (1949).