Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: A LETTER TO THREE WIVES (1949)

Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, A Letter to Three Wives (1949) sets up its domestic drama with a perpetually absent antagonist who forces a trio of women to consider the central problems of their marriages. This approach makes the homewrecker as mysterious as she is troublesome, but it frees up the screen time for our three heroines, played by Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, and Ann Sothern. For husbands we have Kirk Douglas, Jeffrey Lynn, and Paul Douglas, while the supporting cast consists primarily of memorable character actresses like Florence Bates, Connie Gilchrist, and an uncredited - but excellent - Thelma Ritter. Although some of its marital conflicts seem dated and even sexist today, A Letter to Three Wives offers a serious and insightful exploration of the hard work of maintaining a marriage, and its performances reveal the many fears and grievances that can cause a relationship to crack.

The unseen Addie Ross leaves town with a farewell note to her "friends" announcing that she has run off with one of their husbands, but the women won't learn which one until they return from a day long outing with a group of schoolchildren. Former Navy WAVE Deborah (Jeanne Crain) suspects that her uneasiness in the upper class society of husband Brad (Jeffrey Lynn) might have caused him to abandon her, while radio soap writer Rita (Ann Sothern) thinks that her schoolteacher spouse, George (Kirk Douglas), might have grown tired of her higher salary and late nights at work. Lora Mae (Linda Darnell) pretends that she only married Porter (Paul Douglas) for his money and doesn't care if he's gone, but her memories of their relationship reveal that she feels more for him than she cares to admit.

Each wife has a different kind of relationship to her husband and a different problem. Deborah is the most naive of the three, a Cinderella who has married her prince but doesn't know how to handle her new social status or the passive routine of her role as a wealthy man's wife. The film underplays Deborah's frustration at losing her independent, active life in the Navy, but it pulses beneath the surface nonetheless. She seems to pine for a purpose to restore her pride in herself, something her husband can't really give her. Rita has that purpose as a writer of radio programs, but her higher salary wounds her husband's ego, and he bristles at the concessions she makes to her demanding boss. Oddly, Rita and George are the only couple presented as parents, but we never actually see their twins; the movie can't handle the idea of a dual income household actively raising children as part of their juggling act. Like Deborah, Lora Mae is a poor girl who has married into money, but Lora Mae has done so with eyes wide open about the importance of status and wealth. Her husband, Porter, doesn't seem like much of a catch without his fat wallet, but the movie tries to make up for that with a sudden, unselfish act at the end, meant to show that the boorish businessman has a good heart after all.

With its small scope and little action, A Letter to Three Wives depends entirely on its performances, particularly by the three leads. Darnell has the most complicated character to play, and she succeeds admirably, making us understand Lora Mae's pragmatism and prickly nature. She's a beautiful girl in a man's world, and she'll do what it takes to escape the rattling shack by the railroad tracks, even if that means selling herself for a wedding ring. Crain rises above the pathetic quality of her character toward the end, but Deborah can be a bit of a sob sister, and we don't really see enough of her relationship with Brad to understand their marriage. Ann Sothern and Kirk Douglas probably speak the most to modern viewers with their performances; Rita and George are the most like us, striving for a partnership but not always getting there. Douglas has the most to do of the three men; he's more physically present in the story and more compelling than either of the others, and that helps us be more involved in the story of Rita and George. It's worth noting that the film also provides us with three older women to act as foils to our three young ones; Sadie (Thelma Ritter) is a single working woman, Lora Mae's mother (Connie Gilchrist) is a working class widow, and Rita's boss (Florence Bates) is a domineering career woman with a milquetoast spouse. None of the older women seem like models that the younger ones want to imitate, but they show how women have to make do and live on long after youth and love are gone.

A Letter to Three Wives won Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay and picked up a nomination for Best Picture. For more from director Joseph L. Mankiewicz try The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), All About Eve (1950), and The Barefoot Contessa (1954). Jeanne Crain appears in Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Pinky (1949), and People Will Talk (1951), and Linda Darnell has memorable roles in The Mark of Zorro (1940), Hangover Square (1945), and My Darling Clementine (1946). Ann Sothern, who started her screen career in 1927, went on to star in Maisie (1939) and its sequels, but don't miss her final, Oscar-nominated performance in The Whales of August (1987).


PS - Happy 100th Birthday this month to star Kirk Douglas, who celebrated a century of life on December 9! For more of his work from the 1940s see THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946) and OUT OF THE PAST (1947).




Monday, December 5, 2016

75 Years in CASABLANCA (1942)

It's December 1941 when Ilsa walks into Rick's Cafe Americain. "In all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world," he complains, "she walks into mine." It is not, however, simply chance, since Rick's Cafe occupies a border space between European chaos and American safety. Through that space Ilsa and her freedom fighter husband, Victor Laszlo, must journey if they are to continue the work of the resistance and survive. It's hard to believe that the story of Casablanca (1942) unfolds exactly 75 years ago this month, especially now, when we seem to be experiencing the history that the ignorant are doomed to repeat. Its message is suddenly seen not in the rearview mirror of nostalgia but up ahead of us, and terrifyingly close. There has never been a better time to visit this film again, but we have to look beyond the sentimental romance and consider the darker warnings that Casablanca sounds.

We generally celebrate Casablanca as a love story, albeit one with a triangular, adulterous twist. Even Lauren Bacall focused on that element in her recorded introduction to a video release of the picture; it's hard sometimes to get past the soft light on Ingrid Bergman's face and the wounded expression on Bogart's as they gaze at each other. There's "As Time Goes By" and that iconic scene with the plane. There are lines like "Here's looking at you, kid." These elements are an important part of the movie's appeal, but they're also the sweetness that helps us take our medicine. The film knows that. As Rick says, "It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

Around and behind the romance, Casablanca sounds an alarm about the chaos threatening to overtake the world, about the danger of being complacent or refusing to stick your neck out for anyone. Rick and Louis both start the film as morally ambivalent characters; while they don't become perfect men, they do ultimately figure out what side they need to be on and how to commit to the fight. As in any time of crisis, there are men who look only to profit from the misery of others, and there are those, like the Nazis, who are eager to command and destroy. Parasites, profiteers, and strongmen thrive on the collapse of civilization, at least in the short term. Ugarte and Ferrari hope to make fortunes on the letters of transit. The pickpocket warns of vultures even as he makes off with the wallets of the unsuspecting. Major Strasser looks to impose Nazi order on a supposedly neutral space and crush Laszlo's resistance. Indifference, selfishness, and outright cruelty abound.

At the same time, we are presented with evidence of the decency and spirit of innocent people trapped in this dangerous situation. Even at his most jaded, Rick stocks his cafe with refugee employees, including Carl and Sascha. He helps the young Bulgarian couple after the girl comes to him for advice about surrendering to the sexual coercion of Louis. There are other moments of humanity in the bar; they seem like minor scenes, but they reinforce the message we are meant to understand. Carl speaks kindly to the elderly couple who practice their English and hope for a better life in America. Yvonne rediscovers her love of country. Of course, Victor Laszlo embodies the noblest, most courageous values of the force for good. He has been captured, imprisoned, tortured, pursued, and threatened with all the fury of the Reich, yet he prevails with dignity and determination. He does not compromise with evil. The scene in which he leads the cafe patrons in singing "La Marseillaise" remains powerful even after 75 years. It is a moment of protest, courage, and hope in the face of unfathomable horror. That, to me, is the very heart of Casablanca and what it means.

Although the film was made after the United States entered the war, the original play, Everybody Comes to Rick's, was written before that, when the country had retreated into an isolationist position and left critical allies like Great Britain and France to face the onslaught alone. One wonders what Americans thought would happen once the Nazis and Japanese finished their march across the rest of the world. The events of Casablanca unfold in the last days of Americans' collective slumber. As Rick laments, "I bet they're asleep in New York. I bet they're asleep all over America." They would be rudely awakened on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. They would be fully conscious by the time Casablanca arrived in theaters in late 1942 and early 1943. It went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture in 1944. By the time people saw Casablanca  they could really understand the message it had to share; they were in the thick of the war and fighting for real. They knew that they, like Rick and Louis, would have to make a stand. They hoped for leaders like Victor Laszlo to show them the way.

It's important to remember that many of the supporting players who helped make Casablanca had personal stakes in its story well before Pearl Harbor. There are very few Americans in the cast. Conrad Veidt and his Jewish wife had escaped Germany in the 1930s because his very public opposition to the Nazis made him a target. (Read this wonderful tribute to Veidt on Birth.Movies.Death for more about his life and devotion to the Allied cause.) He played Nazi villains in Hollywood to highlight the danger they posed. S.Z. Sakall was a Hungarian Jew who fled Hungary for Hollywood in 1940; all three of his sisters died in Nazi concentration camps. (Paula's Cinema Club offers this excellent post about Sakall's life and work.) The film's director, Michael Curtiz, was also a Hungarian, although he had left Europe in the 1920s. Paul Henreid, an Austro-Hungarian, strongly opposed the Nazis and became a US citizen in 1941, while fellow Austro-Hungarian Peter Lorre, who was Jewish, left his acting career in Germany after 1933 and fled to the United States. Even Madeleine Lebeau, who played Yvonne, fled her native France as the Germans invaded. (The last surviving member of the cast, she died in May of this year. You can read her New York Times obituary here.) They were immigrants and refugees who knew too well the nature of the threat the world was facing.

These are things we can ponder as we watch Casablanca in December 2016, with the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor also happening this month. In this late age we again find fascism and authoritarian rule on the rise. Around the world, desperate refugees seek to escape war and chaos while the vultures gather to pick over their bones. Disinformation and self-interest keep many blind to the dangers we face, especially in the United States, which once prided itself on being a beacon for democracy, a light in the dark of a troubled world. People are in danger. Freedom is in peril. The basic human rights of millions, both at home and abroad, are being denied. Already we find ourselves facing the same choice as Rick, whether to stick our necks out or look out only for ourselves. We must look to the real world's Victor Laszlos for inspiration. I hope that for you, and for all of us, it will be the beginning of beautiful friendships with like-minded souls. In the meantime, we'll always have Casablanca.


Thursday, November 17, 2016

Classic Movies for Courage

It's easy to think that art doesn't matter in the face of fear and oppression, but sometimes art can change the world, whether for better or for worse. Charles Dickens secured the future of Christmas with A Christmas Carol, while Leni Riefenstahl shored up Hitler's regime. Uncle Tom's Cabin helped to galvanize the North before the Civil War, and The Birth of a Nation (1915) helped to resurrect the KKK. Art can move the needle toward darkness or light. Mostly, though, I like to think that art works as a force for good in the world, especially over the long haul. In the last week I have seen Anne Frank's face and quotations from her diary all over social media, while Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is likely to stay stuck in my head for months to come. The power of art to console and inspire is more important than ever, and that means that films matter more than ever, too. We have to keep watching them and talking about what they mean, just as writers need to keep writing and painters need to keep painting and poets need to keep giving voice to the voiceless. We have to be consumers and supporters of art, and we have to be thoughtful critics of it, too, because what art says matters. Just watch The Monuments Men (2014) or Woman in Gold (2015) if you need a reminder of art's importance in times of global upheaval.

I'm thinking a lot about World War II right now (can't imagine why) and the great films that helped people in America and abroad through a dark time in global history. There were filmmakers who dared to challenge or even laugh at power when they knew the risk they ran. There were directors, writers, and actors who brought hope and resolution to the Allied cause, with stories about the soldiers in the field and the families left at home. There were even morale boosters, shot in Technicolor and filled with song, to give anxious people a respite from their fears. Sometimes people needed a shot of courage, and sometimes they needed an escape. Sometimes they needed to be reminded of what they were fighting to preserve.

If you need some classic films for courage right now, here are half a dozen I'd like to suggest. Feel free to add some of your own favorites in the comments section below.

1) THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) - I can think of no more powerful cinematic statement against hatred and war than Chaplin's daring comedy, which laughs at Hitler even as the outcome of the war is far from decided. Comedy is often an early target of authoritarian governments because power hates to be laughed at and mocked. Chaplin's final speech is a defining moment in film history and well worth hearing now:

"I don't want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible; Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other's happiness, not by each other's misery. We don't want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way."

2 ) TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) - I never tire of this Jack Benny and Carole Lombard comedy, which also dares to mock Hitler in the midst of the war. Director Ernst Lubitsch provides a brilliant mix of laughs and pathos, and you'll remember plenty of Benny's gags, but the rendition of Shylock's soliloquy will stick with you for the rest of your life. Lombard gave her life for the war effort, dying in a plane crash on a war bonds tour before the release of the film, but her performance here survived to inspire millions.

3) CASABLANCA (1942) - Sure, you've seen Humphrey Bogart make sad eyes at Ingrid Bergman a dozen times, but dig this Best Picture winner out of your DVD pile and watch it again. Some people become heroes by degrees, even if they thought they didn't care. There's even hope for Claude Rains' inscrutable Louis. 

4) MRS. MINIVER (1942) - This Best Picture winner focuses on a family in England during the Blitz, proving that daily life has to go on even during the worst of times. Audiences responded to it immediately; it won six Oscars in all and was nominated for another half dozen. Today we can watch it as an example of courage under fire, even for those who aren't holding a gun. Sure, it makes people weep, but sometimes tears can be cathartic, and it's good to cry for other people's suffering. Empathy is a powerful force for good.

5) THE GANG'S ALL HERE (1943) - Need a break from your anxiety, just for a little while? Servicemen and audiences at home loved Fox's morale boosting musicals, often starring adorable Alice Faye and the one and only Carmen Miranda. This one has everything, including Benny Goodman and his orchestra, but if you need more spiritual sunshine there's THAT NIGHT IN RIO (1941) and WEEKEND IN HAVANA (1941).

6) FOUR JILLS IN A JEEP (1944) - I'm not a fan of war movies in general, since they tend to be all boy affairs, but I like this patriotic depiction of USO entertainers doing their bit to keep up morale. Kaye Francis, Martha Raye, Carole Landis, and Mitzi Mayfair head to the front with Jimmy Dorsey and other stars. If this one makes you feel better go for seconds with HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN (1944).

Bonus: If you're up to handling the thorniest questions of social justice, prejudice, and bitter division, try Alfred Hitchcock's LIFEBOAT (1944). It might not make you feel better, but it will definitely give you a lot to consider. The ensemble cast is terrific, but Tallulah Bankhead gives the best performance of her film career.

Be well, friends, and keep courage alive wherever you find it.


Monday, November 14, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: THE TINGLER (1959)

The Tingler (1959) is one of William Castle's most famous horror gimmick pictures, partly because of its star, Vincent Price, and partly because of its wacky use of wired seats and paid plants to elicit screams from the theater audience. Sadly, the modern home viewer can't enjoy the weird thrills of Percepto, but The Tingler is still a lot of fun. In addition to Price, always a pleasure even in his campiest roles, the picture offers Castle himself doing an intro bit, some wonderfully meta moments of the Tingler in a movie theater, and a striking climax that mixes color and black-and-white cinematography to lurid effect. For fans of the fun house sci-fi horror that flourished in the late 1950s, The Tingler is a must-see film, and it's certainly at the top of Castle's strange canon.

Vincent Price plays Dr. Warren Chapin, a pathologist who performs autopsies on executed criminals in search of the force that causes people to scream when they experience fear. During one such autopsy, he meets Ollie (Philip Coolidge), whose brother-in-law is Warren's latest subject. Warren is fascinated to learn that Ollie's wife, Martha (Judith Evelyn), is a deaf-mute who cannot scream even when terrified. He wonders what would happen to her if she were subjected to intense fear, and then she is, in fact, frightened to death. Warren discovers the parasitic Tingler gripping Martha's spine, but it turns out to be a lot harder to control than he expected, and he soon repents of his taboo research into the unknown.

There's actually a lot more going in The Tingler than its central plot suggests, and at times it's hard to tell the good guys from the monsters. Warren has a cheating, evil wife (Patricia Cutts), who would murder him if she could, and perhaps he has the same plans for her. He's obsessed enough to consider experimenting on the defenseless Martha and to take large doses of LSD. At the same time, he seems fond of his assistant and his sister-in-law, the movie's obligatory young lovers. The ambiguity is part of the fun; is Warren going over the edge? Who scares Martha to death? It's not a mystery story, really, but there's enough uncertainty about the central characters to keep us guessing until the end.

The tricky plot sustains the picture when it isn't relying on its gimmicks, but the tricks are Castle's calling cards, and the buzzing seats must have generated plenty of screams in pitch-black theaters back in 1959. The home viewer will have to imagine the scene as the screen goes black and Price's voice calls out to the audience to "Scream! Scream for your lives!" It's corny, yes, but Castle's films are like spook house rides, and that's what makes them so much fun. Home viewers won't have to stretch their imaginations during the scene where Martha is literally scared to death by a series of freakish events. The segment has a terrific silent film quality, something Castle cultivates by having Ollie and Martha run a silent movie theater, but its pièce de résistance is the final moment, when Martha sees bright red blood in a black-and-white bathroom, complete with a bloody hand emerging from a tub of crimson ooze. Poor Martha doesn't stand a chance. The effects of the Tingler itself, hopping across the floor on visible strings, are more typical of the hokey stuff we expect from low-budget shockers of this era, but for many classic sci-fi horror fans it's an endearing flaw, as essential to the genre as the scientist's hubris or the crazy pseudo-scientific dialogue. The Tingler offers plenty of those elements, too.

For another William Castle collaboration with Vincent Price, try House on Haunted Hill (1959). Castle's other pictures include Macabre (1958), 13 Ghosts (1960), and Mr. Sardonicus (1961). Look for more of Price's great camp roles in The Raven (1963), The Comedy of Terrors (1963), and Theatre of Blood (1973). You'll find Judith Evelyn in Rear Window (1954), Hilda Crane (1956), and Giant (1956). Philip Coolidge turns up in North by Northwest (1959) and Inherit the Wind (1960). Be sure to note former child actor Darryl Hickman, who plays Warren's assistant; you might recognize him from Men of Boys Town (1941), Leave Her to Heaven (1945), and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). Hickman enjoyed a long career that jumped to television, and he ended up doing voice work for a number of cartoons, including Pac-Man, The Biskitts, and Pole Position.

THE TINGLER is currently streaming on Shudder!




Monday, November 7, 2016

Domestic Madness in MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE (1948)

As I watched Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) again the other day, several things struck me that I hadn't given much thought to on previous screenings. One was that director H.C. Potter might have sped things up a bit, especially in the first quarter, where the scenes run more like documentary than comedy. Another was that the degree of marital intimacy in the picture is unusual; the protagonists, played by Myrna Loy and Cary Grant, sleep in chaste twin beds but share a bathroom even when one of them is showering. It's obvious from the context that Jim Blandings is getting an eyeful of naked Muriel when he hands her a towel, even if the movie doesn't make a big deal of it. Finally, and most importantly, I was struck by the extent of the Blandings' privilege and extravagance as they build their monstrous dream house in Connecticut. I realized that some of the absurdity that is lost on modern viewers would have been painfully obvious to audiences in 1948, while other aspects that jump out at us would have been more or less invisible to viewers who were accustomed to the race and gender norms of their era. Take both kinds of excess and privilege together, and you begin to see a very different picture overall.

Early in the film, the Blandings live in Manhattan in a very small apartment, with two bedrooms and just one bath. We learn that Jim makes $15,000 a year as an advertising executive, a very good income in those days. The Blandings have two daughters, both enrolled in a progressive private school, and a live-in maid/cook, Gussie (Louise Beavers), whose quarters we never see in either the apartment or the house. Muriel Blandings doesn't work, cook, clean, deal with children all day, or run a large house; mostly she seems to make plans with decorators and move Jim's clothes around so that he can't find them. The Blandings struggle to get themselves out of bed at 7:30 AM, but Gussie is there, dressed and busy and ready with their cups of coffee and their breakfasts. Jim says his office doesn't open until 9, and he never gets there before 10, but he seems very put upon about getting up and getting ready to go.

That setup already gives a modern viewer a lot to unpack. Why can't the Blandings simply move to a better apartment? It would be cheaper and more convenient than moving to Connecticut, but the "dream" of the title involves the American obsession with the ownership of property and houses. The Blandings want to live that dream, even if it bankrupts them and forces Jim to rise before dawn for his commute. They already have some of the most telling parts of that dream, as far as it was expressed in earlier times. Muriel lives a completely domestic life unencumbered by any of the actual work of running a family home; Gussie does all of that for her. The Blandings can afford tuition for two children at an undoubtedly pricey private school. Still, we're meant to see their situation in the apartment as an unbearable plight. We're meant to sympathize with their desire to move out to the country and live in a big house with its own land.

Of course, the Blandings get in over their heads almost immediately. The "historic" house they buy is a wreck that has to be torn down, and then they're really off to the races as they plan an even bigger and more elaborate new home that has to be built. Muriel insists that all of the four bedrooms in the new house have two closets and a private bath; it's never clear if the maid's room has a bath at all, however, since it's only briefly mentioned and then never discussed again. 21st century American homeowners, with their obsession for McMansions of ever-increasing size, might not see the folly of Muriel's demands, but in 1948 it would have sounded crazy. My own house, a modest rancher built in the late 1960s, originally had three bedrooms, each with one closet, and two baths. My grandmother's house, built in the 1950s, also had three bedrooms and two baths for a family of four. That was considered plenty for a comfortable middle class family. The Blandings, however, are not building a middle class home; they are building the 1948 version of a McMansion, and they're getting deep into debt doing it.

All of this is presented as comic mayhem throughout the picture, but the end of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House actually attempts to validate the Blandings' privilege and extravagance as admirable. Jim's career is saved, not by his own efforts, but by the clever ham slogan invented by Gussie, whose reward for saving the family's bacon is a $10 raise (still no word on that maid's room bath, or whether it has any closets). Jim and Muriel's friend, Bill (Melvyn Douglas), who has criticized their rash decisions throughout the story, ends up approving their madness and casting a warm glow over the conclusion, where we see the family, still served by Gussie, relaxing on the grounds of their lavish new home. Thus a picture that seems at times like a critique of suburban excess and consumerism ends up an advertisement for them, beckoning city dwellers to cast caution to the winds and invest every dollar in pursuing this particular American dream. Savings be damned! We're off to the suburbs!

I don't mean to ruin our enjoyment of the film by imposing modern standards on it; anybody who watches classic movies knows that they have to be judged with consideration for the era in which they were made. In this picture, however, audiences of 1948 would have seen issues we don't see, while we see other issues that they didn't really want to consider. We catch the subtexts about race and gender and are glad things are different now, but we fell hook, line, and sinker for the big house madness that would have made a lot of original viewers laugh out loud. These elements make Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House a really interesting film to show in an academic setting, perhaps in an American history course or a seminar on race, gender, and class. New Yorkers, too, especially those in Manhattan, might have their own unique perspective on the film. Is Mr. Blandings building a dream or embracing a nightmare? The movie wants to have it both ways. Luckily for Mr. Blandings, the housing bubble was still half a century from bursting.



Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: MR. SARDONICUS (1961)

Horror showman William Castle ventures into Gothic territory more familiar to Roger Corman and Hammer Studios with his 1961 feature, Mr. Sardonicus, which saves its trademark Castle gimmick, the Punishment Poll, for the very end of the film. Adapted from the story by Ray Russell, Mr. Sardonicus also includes visual and thematic nods to Dracula (1931), The Man Who Laughs (1928), and the frock-coated period horror that flourished during this era. Castle's version indulges his perverse sense of humor, especially when Castle himself appears on screen to open and close the picture, but there are some real horrors to be found, too, especially in sexual violence that is more suggested than shown.

Ronald Lewis stars as Sir Robert Cargrave, an English doctor who specializes in paralysis cases. He is called to remote Gorslava by his former flame, Maude, now the Baroness Sardonicus (Audrey Dalton), who begs him to cure her cruel husband, the Baron (Guy Rolfe), of an affliction that twists his face into a permanent and horrific grin. The Baron eventually reveals his history to Sir Robert to explain his disfigurement; he was once a simple peasant who robbed his father's grave to retrieve a winning lottery ticket, but the sight of his dead father's face caused his own to become frozen in a matching grimace. He then threatens to mutilate the beautiful Maude if Sir Robert cannot reverse the paralysis. Under duress and running out of time, Sir Robert struggles to save himself and Maude by restoring the Baron to some semblance of his former humanity.

Mr. Sardonicus includes all the usual elements one expects from Gothic horror, especially in the films of the 1950s and 1960s. It has a distant, crumbling castle in a strange Eastern European land, with villagers who live in fear of the aristocratic sadist who lurks there. It has damsels in distress, including scenes of torture tinged with sexual connotations. There's a very straight-laced hero type to foil the ghoulish villain, and, of course, there's a leering, sinister henchman, played in this production by character actor Oskar Homolka. Homolka's Krull, a one-eyed fiend with a thing for leeches, belongs to a caste that includes any number of characters played by Dwight Frye, Boris Karloff, and Bela Lugosi. His menacing presence reinforces the familiarity of the whole setup, from Sir Robert's ominous summons to the castle to the final twist that proves the hazards of having an evil fiend for a right hand man.

The big shock of the picture is the Baron's rictus grin, which we see only a few times because the prosthetics were too painful for Guy Rolfe to wear for very long. He looks truly gruesome - and uncomfortable. Just pay attention to Rolfe's eyes when he appears in the fully realized face. The excruciating disfigurement recalls Conrad Veidt's turn as the more sympathetic Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs, although Baron Sardonicus' condition is the result of psychological torment rather than sadistic Gypsy surgery. In a modern context, the Baron's backstory would be the origin of a super villain, which isn't much of a stretch for a man who put out his own henchman's eye and enjoys tying up his wife. Despite his sins, we see him as a dynamic figure and the real protagonist of the narrative, and in the subtext we get the sense that his issues have as much to do with his shrewish first wife as his descent into ghoulish grave robbery. What the Baron fails to understand is that he can't restore his lost humanity, his human goodness, just by restoring his human face. That makes him a tragic monster, as all great cinematic and literary monsters are. It might say something about our own monstrosity that Castle knew how we would vote in the Punishment Poll every time.

For more of William Castle's shockers, try The Tingler (1959), House on Haunted Hill (1959), and 13 Ghosts (1960). You can binge on Gothic castle horror from this era with Roger Corman's House of Usher (1960) and Pit and the Pendulum (1961), as well as Hammer's Horror of Dracula (1958) and Mario Bava's Black Sunday (1960). Look for Ronald Lewis in Scream of Fear (1961), and catch Audrey Dalton in The Monster That Challenged the World (1957). Oskar Homolka earned an Oscar nomination for his performance in I Remember Mama (1948), but if you prefer him being evil go with Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936). You'll find Guy Rolfe playing the vile Prince John in Ivanhoe (1952); he ended his career as something of a horror staple in Dolls (1987) and a series of Puppet Master films.

MR. SARDONICUS is currently streaming on the horror subscription service, Shudder.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: 13 GHOSTS (1960)

Modern viewers probably won't watch this William Castle haunted house feature with Illusion-O viewers, the way original audiences did, but 13 Ghosts (1960) is still a treat for classic horror fans. It's quintessential Castle fare, with low-budget thrills, a nutty gimmick, and all the features - or failings - of its genre and era, right down to its painfully stereotypical American family and pseudoscience mixed with the supernatural. Castle fans, however, embrace his pictures warts and all, and they have an enduring charm that makes them perfect picks for long Halloween evenings. 13 Ghosts boasts a baker's dozen of grotesque ghouls, some of whom are delightfully weird, along with performances by child star Charles Herbert, Martin Milner, and Donald Woods, but the icing on the creepy cake is the appearance of Margaret Hamilton as the family's inherited housekeeper.


Donald Woods plays Cyrus Zorba, the patriarch of a family with perpetual financial problems. Just as the Zorbas reach the bottom of their bank account, Cyrus inherits a furnished house from his reclusive uncle, who spent his life trying to see and interact with ghosts. Cyrus moves his wife and two children into the house but soon finds that the ghosts are inhospitable housemates. His uncle's attorney, Benjamin Rush (Martin Milner), urges the Zorbas to abandon the home, but young Buck Zorba (Charles Herbert) makes a startling discovery that holds both opportunity and danger for the family.

The movie revels in contrasts between the normal and the bizarre. The Zorbas are an aggressively typical clan, struggling to hold on to middle class aspirations even as the furniture is repossessed. Older sister Medea (Jo Morrow) is pretty and unambitious, despite her provocative name, while mother Hilda (Rosemary De Camp) just wants the ghosts to stop wrecking her kitchen. Cyrus, who works in natural history at the Los Angeles County Museum, is a devoted father and husband, if a little too inattentive to paying the bills. Only Buck possesses an interest in the supernatural, but his fascination with ghosts is passed off as perfectly normal for a young boy and not at all macabre. This is the family thrust into the freakish drama unfolding in the old house, where a headless lion tamer grapples with a ghostly lion, an Italian cook confronts his faithless wife with a cleaver, and old Dr. Zorba himself moans and walks out of his portrait. There's no psychological suspense here, and even with a looming death threat the Zorbas maintain their usual bedtimes and leave their kids alone in their own rooms. The whole situation recalls Eddie Murphy's old joke about white people and haunted houses.

The Zorba family might be dull, but the household ghosts are something else entirely. They can be ridiculous; the Italian ghosts, for example, talk like Cousin Itt, and the lion tamer seems determined to stick his headless neck into his lion's mouth. Others, like the ghosts that menace Cyrus in a secret room, are scarier, while the hanging ghost and the executing arms are more unnerving. We only get snatches of backstory for most of the spooks, just enough to pique our imaginations, although the biggest mystery is the identity of the 13th ghost, since there are only a dozen inhabiting the house when the family arrives. Which of the living characters will join the dead? If you're paying attention you'll see it coming a mile away, but it's all part of the fun. Occupying a space somewhere between the ghosts and the mortals is Margaret Hamilton's medium turned housekeeper, Elaine Zacharides, who warns the family of the peril the house brings. The film relishes a running gag about Elaine being a witch, an unsubtle nod to Hamilton's iconic role in The Wizard of Oz (1939), but Hamilton is game for the gag. The best moment of the whole picture might be its last, when Hamilton breaks the fourth wall to acknowledge the audience and her own stunt casting.

If goofy, fun horror of the Castle variety is your favorite Halloween treat, try The Tingler (1959) and House on Haunted Hill (1959) for more, or check out the 1993 love letter to kitsch horror, Matinee, which stars John Goodman as a Castle style showman. You can see Charles Herbert in The Fly (1958) and Houseboat (1958), although he mostly worked in television. Look for Donald Woods in A Tale of Two Cities (1935), Mexican Spitfire (1940), and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Martin Milner, best remembered for television roles on Route 66 and Adam-12, makes other big screen appearances in Life with Father (1947), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), and Sweet Smell of Success (1957).

13 GHOSTS is currently streaming on Shudder.