Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Classic Movie Atmosphere at Disney's Hollywood Studios

We visit Walt Disney World in Orlando every few years, and I always enjoy the classic Hollywood vibe at Disney's Hollywood Studios. Here are a few photos from our most recent trip showing some of the ways that the park makes classic movie fans feel right at home.

The nod to classic costume designers Adrian and Edith Head was one of my favorite little touches. Replicas of gowns from the 1920s and 1930s could also been seen in many shop windows, although, sadly, the merchandise within the stores tended to be the same old theme park souvenirs. I keep hoping that Studios will add more interesting items to their stores, but we did manage to find some neat Oswald the Lucky Rabbit stuff this trip.

The main entrance area of the park is bright with neon and signs that recall Hollywood's Golden Age, including this Planet Hollywood sign. If only the real Planet Hollywood chain was this cool!

The mock movie posters at the Planet Hollywood shop also pay tribute to classic films. The sci-fi one is clearly a reference to the iconic promo image for Forbidden Planet (1956), while the Flyboys Over Hollywood poster reminds me of both the original and remake versions of The Dawn Patrol. I often wonder how many tourists actually stop to look at these little details, much less know what they mean.

These next two bring to mind Gone with the Wind (1939) and Out of the Past (1947), but they also summarize the whole genres of romance and film noir. I wonder how many old movie posters the designers looked at when they made these?

Every time I visit I notice something I hadn't really seen before, which is one of the reasons going back to Disney is always fun. I hope that by the next time I go, I'll have lots of new classic movie details to appreciate with the TCM updates at The Great Movie Ride!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Great Movie Ride Still Awaits TCM Updates

The Great Movie Ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios is due for a makeover as part of a new partnership with Turner Classic Movies, but it appears that classic film fans will have to wait longer than the original target date of Spring 2015 to see the updated look of the attraction. As of May 2015, there is still no sign of the upgrades or TCM's sponsorship of the ride, which takes guests on a whirlwind tour of classic favorites like Singin' in the Rain, Mary Poppins, and The Wizard of Oz.

For those (like myself) who enjoy the nostalgic attraction, the announcement of the TCM partnership was good news all around. The Great Movie Ride has been a staple at the park since 1989, but its focus is decidedly old school compared to more popular rides like Star Tours and The Tower of Terror. Many guests certainly don't get the enthusiasm for old movies, and some treat it like the Studios' version of The Hall of Presidents, i.e. a really good place to take a nap. The TCM partnership signals the park's determination to keep The Great Movie Ride around even though massive renovations are on the horizon at Studios over the next few years.

According to the TCM announcement from November 2014, the refurbishment of The Great Movie Ride will include a new pre-ride video featuring Robert Osborne, a new montage at the end of the ride, and a photo opportunity for guests with a classic movie theme. The queue area will also get TCM branding and new digital movie posters to entertain guests while they wait. While it would be great to have a gift shop offering classic movie themed souvenirs, it's unclear right now whether the photo op area will include anything else that guests can take home from their adventure through film history. (Dear Disney, I do believe in fairies, I'm wishing upon a star, and I want a proper classic movie gift shop!)

While there's a lot of construction and renovation going on all around Walt Disney World right now, it seems that the updates to The Great Movie Ride are somewhat lower on the priority list. At least with the Sorcerer Mickey hat no longer obscuring the view, the ride has better visibility at the center of the park. Let's hope that Robert Osborne and the new TCM trappings will make their appearances soon.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE (1948)

Anyone foolish enough to think of building a home should be required to watch Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), in which Cary Grant and Myrna Loy endure all the horrors attendant on such an unpredictable endeavor. Eric Hodgins, who wrote the original novel version of the story, had real-life experience to inspire his tale of construction gone awry, and the film adaptation spares its protagonists no headache, setback, or expense, much to their dismay and the audience's delight. Director H.C. Potter guides Grant and Loy through all the everyday problems of a couple in close quarters as well as the extraordinary difficulties of their quixotic quest to build their dream home in the Connecticut countryside. A great supporting performance from Melvyn Douglas adds to the appeal, with Reginald Denny and Louise Beavers also making memorable appearances.

Cary Grant stars as Jim Blandings, a New York ad man who finds apartment living with his wife and two daughters much too cramped for comfort. Hoping for a better life, he and his wife, Muriel (Myrna Loy), buy a dilapidated and overpriced farmhouse in rural Connecticut, but they soon discover that the unstable relic must be torn down and a new home built in its place. The Blandings start construction on their dream home, despite the disapproval of their friend and lawyer, Bill (Melvyn Douglas), who sees that their additions and changes constantly delay the work and increase the final price. Everything that can go wrong does, and the strain of the experience threatens to drive Jim to distraction, even though his job is on the line for an important ad campaign.

Grant and Loy brilliantly capture the complicated emotions of a couple well beyond the honeymoon phase, still in love but pressed by the forces of daily life. Their early scene in a tiny bathroom is flatly unromantic but completely realistic; the heady thrill of intimacy has been replaced by competition for a little space at the mirror and the chance to take a hot shower. The two Blandings girls, played by Sharyn Moffett and Connie Marshall, also complicate their parents' relationship, and they are just at the age to ruffle their confused father's composure almost constantly. "Bicker, bicker, bicker," says one daughter, assessing her parents' vexed conversation but completely unaware of her own part in creating the conflict. It's easy to see why this family needs more space, but our sympathy for their situation begins to dwindle as we realize just how naive and impractical the Blandings are when it comes to home construction.

The building of the new house almost ruins the couple, both romantically and financially. Neither Jim nor Muriel has much sense about the cost or the problems associated with the project, and they have to find out the hard way. First the original home has to be torn down, then the new home transforms from a modest family dwelling into a rambling palace of additions and alterations. Muriel wants more closets and bathrooms, plus a garden sink and a sewing room, while Jim dreams up a game room and a study. They fail to realize that basic necessities, like a well, might end up being a lot more complicated and expensive to acquire. "You start to build a home and you wind up in the poor house," Jim laments. The stress of the process also brings out Jim's long simmering jealousy of his friend Bill, who was once one of Muriel's college sweethearts. At the climax of the picture, a storm provides a natural complement to the state of Jim's mind, tempest tossed as it is with the construction woes, Muriel's friendship with Bill, and the impending deadline for the Wham Ham campaign. Fortunately for the Blandings, this is a comedy, in which storms are inevitably followed by sunshine and even the worst home construction project will turn out all right.

Be sure to appreciate Louise Beavers in a small but pivotal role as the Blandings' maid, Gussie. H.C. Potter also directed The Shopworn Angel (1938), The Cowboy and the Lady (1938), and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). See more of Grant and Loy together in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), which also stars a teenage Shirley Temple. Catch Melvyn Douglas at his peak in Ninotchka (1939); he won two Best Supporting Actor Oscars later in his career, for Hud (1963) and Being There (1979). Reginald Denny's career began in the silent era, but he had a recurring role as Algy Longworth in the Bulldog Drummond films, and you'll also find him in Rebecca (1940) and Cat Ballou (1965).

Thursday, April 30, 2015

CMBA Blogathon - The Fabulous Films of the 30s: THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)

This post is part of the CMBA Spring Blogathon celebrating The Fabulous Films of the 30s. Visit the Classic Movie Blog Association for more information and links to participating posts!

Even among the great horrors produced by Universal in the 1930s, The Invisible Man (1933) stands out. It revels in madness and genius in equal measure, presenting viewers with a shocking example of a figure we now know all too well, the insane super villain. It's the movie that made Claude Rains a star, even though we can't see him, and that's all the more reason to be impressed with his stunning performance, which gains in grandeur by being set loose from the conventional experience of being seen. Just as Rains is the picture's unseen star, James Whale is its equally invisible yet utterly palpable director, putting his ineffable stamp on every moment of chaos and comedy. Between the two of them, Rains and Whale make The Invisible Man a cinematic work like no other, a dark delight that takes us over the edge with its tragically mad protagonist.

Rains plays Jack Griffin, who has already tried his fatal experiment with invisibility by the time we first meet him. His formula has worked, but Griffin has no way to reverse the effects, and murderous insanity turns out to be a secondary result of the transformation. Griffin works feverishly to find a cure for his condition even as his madness grows, while his mentor, Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers), and fiancee, Flora (Gloria Stuart), try to help him. Unfortunately for all of them, Griffin's humanity is also vanishing, and many lives must be lost before fate catches up with the doomed madman.

One of the great shared elements of the Universal horrors is their ability to present their monsters as figures of sympathy and pity in spite of the destruction they wreak. We feel bad for them because they once were human beings, and we understand that they have not chosen this fate, even though we also recognize that death is the only possible ending for their stories. Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and both Lon Chaney Sr. and Jr. invest their monsters with enough pathos to complicate our feelings about them. Claude Rains follows this tradition, but he has to evoke those simultaneous responses of revulsion and sympathy without the usual makeup or even the expressions of his own face. His voice, however, is powerful enough all on its own, gripping the audience and holding it mesmerized throughout the picture. Through that exquisite instrument Rains conveys all the panic, despair, and horrific insanity that Griffin experiences. He is monstrous, murderous, an id utterly divorced from the higher powers that once controlled it, and yet he is heartbreaking in his struggle to reclaim his humanity and hold onto his love for Flora.

Whale creates scenes around Rains' invisible protagonist that heighten the horror but also undercut it with the director's usual pitch black sense of humor. The special effects are marvelous, even by today's CGI standards, but they are also jokes that Whale is playing on the audience. It doesn't take a genius to realize that Whale basically gets away with a movie in which a naked madman parades around destroying things and riding bicycles through town. We even get scenes in which Griffin chucks his clothes, highlighting the fact that he's only invisible because he's totally nude. For Whale, the joke has its deeper side, too; Griffin's naked id, unprotected by reason or morality, is set loose, just as Griffin's naked body breaks the bounds of social convention and self-protection. His nakedness hides him, but it also leaves him exposed, especially in the final scenes, when falling snow becomes a threat to him in more ways than one. Griffin has dreamed of greatness, influence, and power, but he is reduced to a naked animal, shivering in the cold, hunted and cast out from humankind. It's a tragic ending, and when we see Rains' face at last, we remember that Griffin was a man before he became a monster.

The supporting cast also makes The Invisible Man a memorable film. Be sure to appreciate the performances of Henry Travers, Gloria Stuart, William Harrigan, and the inimitable Una O'Connor. Compare Whale's work on The Invisible Man with his direction for Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). See more of Claude Rains' work in the horror genre in The Wolf Man (1941) and Phantom of the Opera (1943). The Invisible Man inspired a number of sequels, including The Invisible Man Returns (1940), in which Vincent Price takes on the title role, and The Invisible Woman (1940), which stars Virginia Bruce as a calmer and more comedic unseen protagonist.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: HOUSEBOAT (1958)

Cary Grant and Sophia Loren make a charming pair in Melville Shavelson's romantic comedy, Houseboat (1958), which earned Oscar nominations for both its screenplay and the song, "Almost in Your Arms." Their chemistry is hardly surprising, given that Grant had fallen hard for Loren during the filming of The Pride and the Passion (1957), but the real life romance was even more complicated than the protagonists' love affair in the film. Grant fans who know the story will find Houseboat worth watching for its stars alone, but the picture doesn't rely solely on the considerable sex appeal of its two leads. In addition to Grant's smoldering interest in his leading lady, Houseboat offers some real laughs, several very solid supporting performances, and a believably bittersweet family story about a father trying to connect with his three grieving children.

Grant plays Tom Winters, a busy government employee whose impending divorce is derailed when his estranged wife dies in an accident. Tom returns home to claim his three children rather than let his wife's family raise them, even though the youngsters regard him with suspicion and hostility. To appease them, he engages the attractive Cinzia (Sophia Loren) as a maid, although she's really a runaway Italian socialite looking for freedom from her overbearing father (Eduardo Ciannelli). The awkward family group ends up inhabiting a dilapidated houseboat, where Tom and Cinzia develop their relationships with the children and each other.

Grant, thirty years Loren's senior, still manages to pull off the virility and charm needed to make him a credible romantic interest, not only to Cinzia but to Tom's lovestruck sister-in-law, Carolyn (Martha Hyer). Perhaps Loren's continental air narrows our sense of the divide; she might be young, but she's no ingenue, and she radiates a knowing sensuality to match her impressive figure. Cinzia knows how to handle men, even the ardent Angelo (Harry Guardino), who pursues her relentlessly until he realizes she's the kind of woman who makes a man think of marriage. The fuse to light the protagonists' flame is a slow-burning one, giving them time to size one another up and consider their options, but once it lights it blazes through the final scenes of the picture.

The supporting performances from the three children help to sell the family side of the story, with each child enjoying a few key scenes in which to shine. Charles Herbert takes the early spotlight as Robert, especially since the opening credits offer us his perspective of the world. Mimi Gibson is the most emotionally mature of the three as the daughter, Elizabeth, even though her fear of thunder sends her seeking refuge in her father's bed. Paul Peterson slowly unfolds the grief and confusion of the oldest child, David, who has taken to stealing things in the wake of his mother's death. Each of the young actors reveals the complicated emotions of children who have lost their mother and don't know what to make of the stranger their father has become. The pathos of their situation is never laid on too thick, and it doesn't weigh the lighter elements of the picture down, but it gives Houseboat more heart than other Cary Grant vehicles like Indiscreet (1958) or Charade (1963).

For more from writer and director Melville Shavelson, you might try The Seven Little Foys (1955), The Five Pennies (1959), or Yours, Mine and Ours (1968); he and Jack Rose also wrote the screenplays for films like It's a Great Feeling (1949), On Moonlight Bay (1951), and the Cary Grant picture, Room for One More (1952). See more of Sophia Loren in Two Women (1960), El Cid (1961), and Marriage Italian Style (1964). Mimi Gibson appears in The Children's Hour (1961) and provides the voice of Lucky in 101 Dalmatians (1961), Charles Herbert has a significant role in The Fly (1958), and Paul Peterson can be found on The Donna Reed Show (1958-1966). Cary Grant didn't play fathers very often, but for more familial images of the star, try Penny Serenade (1941), Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), and Room for One More.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: INDISCREET (1958)

Stanley Donen's 1958 romantic comedy, Indiscreet, reunites stars Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, who had famously paired up for Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious in 1946. Unlike the earlier film, or other Grant outings with Hitchcock, the Donen picture more or less eschews action to rely almost entirely on the considerable charm of its leads. Norman Krasna's screenplay shows its theatrical roots as an adaptation of Krasna's play, Kind Sir, with most of the action in a single room and a lot more conversation than anything else, but Grant and Bergman make the proceedings interesting enough to watch, even if the slow fuse of the plot takes entirely too long to reach its destination.

Bergman plays successful stage actress Anna Kalman, who despairs of finding a worthwhile, unmarried man. Her sister, Margaret (Phyllis Calvert), and brother-in-law, Alfred (Cecil Parker), introduce her to the temptingly attractive Philip (Cary Grant), but he quickly confesses that he, too, possesses a wife. Anna enters into a romance with Philip in spite of his inability to get a divorce and soon begins to yearn for more than an illicit affair.

You'll end up scratching your head in bewilderment if you're looking for a moral to Indiscreet, and it's certainly not progressive in terms of its portrayal of Anna, a successful, celebrated star whose girlish neediness stands in strange contrast to her supposed experience and social standing. The reversals of the third act don't clarify any of these issues, although they do at least rouse Anna to action and give the lovers something to do besides make eyes at each other. Bergman is lovely, and Grant is charming, and that's sufficient for the film's modest ambitions. The problem of Anna's celebrity, hinted at when autograph seekers pursue her through every excursion, is never really developed as an aspect of the romantic relationship; Philip's employment in a sensitive NATO undertaking is also suggested but not really delved into as an issue that might complicate an adulterous affair.

As is often the case with this kind of romantic comedy, the supporting characters are more interesting than the leads, with two pairs of spouses acting as foils to the besotted lovers. Phyllis Calvert gives an especially good performance as Anna's protective older sister. Margaret is wiser and much less romantic than Anna, as her marriage to Alfred reveals; their relationship relies more on long-standing camaraderie than sexual chemistry, but they don't seem unhappy together. The more obvious comedy is left mostly to David Kossoff and Megs Jenkins as Carl and Doris, Anna's devoted servants, and they make another couple whose practical, everyday relationship provides a contrast to the perpetual Valentine of Anna and Philip's affair. The older couples sense that Anna's swooning ecstasy can't last, especially with an unobtainable man, but the film still seems to encourage us to think that the classical romance, adultery and all, is the preferred mode.

For a more exciting endeavor from Stanley Donen and Cary Grant, see Charade (1963). Donen is also remembered today for Singin' in the Rain (1952), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), and Funny Face (1957). For more of Cary Grant in the 1950s, try To Catch a Thief (1955), An Affair to Remember (1957), and North by Northwest (1959). Ingrid Bergman won Best Actress Oscars for Gaslight (1944) and Anastasia (1956), but she is certainly best known for her role in Casablanca (1942). You'll find Phyllis Calvert in Appointment with Danger (1951), and she and Cecil Parker both appear in The Magic Bow (1946).

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943)

Universal Studios enjoyed so much success with its various monsters that the temptation to make endless sequels and combinations of characters proved too tempting, and movies like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) appeared in large numbers throughout the 1930s and 40s. Of course, the quality of these pictures declines in direct proportion with their quantity, but fans of classic horror enjoy them as much for their flaws as for their virtues. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man plays mostly as a direct sequel to the 1941 film, The Wolf Man, and it features Lon Chaney's Larry Talbot/Wolf Man character far more than it does Frankenstein's monster. While it lacks the narrative coherence of the original film, it does offer a second encounter with some wonderful characters, and the cast brings together an impressive cadre of classic horror's most reliable stars.

The plot resurrects Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) four years after his assumed death. Talbot, distraught at being alive and cursed by lycanthropy again, eventually makes his way to the home of Dr. Frankenstein, in the hope that the infamous doctor can end his eternal life. Unfortunately, the doctor is dead, and Larry finds and revives the monster (Bela Lugosi) instead. The unfortunate village near Frankenstein's castle falls prey to the depredations of both werewolf and monster, prompting panic and a rising mob, while Larry's doctor, Frank Mannering (Patric Knowles), and the attractive Baroness Elsa Frankenstein (Ilona Massey) struggle to bring Larry and the monster to a peaceful end.

The plot fails to resolve itself, probably because Universal wanted to keep its monsters alive for additional sequels, and editing decisions cut much of Lugosi's role out of the final version of the picture. Technically speaking, the only Frankenstein in the film is Elsa, who is actually the granddaughter of the original mad scientist and the daughter of his son, who had taken up the family vocation in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942). Frank Mannering ends up being the doctor who must face the temptation of controlling life and death, and he never gets insane enough to be much fun.

Chaney continues to imbue Larry Talbot with tragic pathos, and his transformation scenes are really quite good, better even than those seen in the original film. Rejoining him on his journey to Frankenstein's castle is Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva, and she makes the movie worth watching all by herself. Dwight Frye has a small role as one of the villagers (you'll miss him if you aren't watching for him), and Lionel Atwill, another regular in the genre, plays the reasonable town mayor. Lugosi, sadly, has little to do; many of the scenes featuring the monster are really stunt doubles, and the monster's limited screen time makes him merely a minor character, despite the title's implication to the contrary.

I can't tell you why Patric Knowles ends up playing two different characters named Frank between The Wolf Man and this film, but it makes for a rather odd sense of deja vu if you watch both movies in rapid succession. Maybe he just makes a perfect foil to Chaney, or perhaps director Roy William Neill wanted to bring back as many of the original film's cast as possible. Even Chaney's beloved German Shepherd, Moose, who played the role of the wolf in the original movie, makes a brief appearance in the sequel. Chaney himself would bring Larry Talbot back for more suffering in House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). You can see more of Maria Ouspenskaya in Love Affair (1939), Waterloo Bridge (1940), and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940). Roy William Neill's directorial credits include many Sherlock Holmes adventures with Basil Rathbone, but he also directed Black Angel (1946).