Monday, August 15, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: BRINGING UP BABY (1938)

Howard Hawks' quintessential screwball comedy fell flat at the box office when it first appeared in 1938, but today Bringing Up Baby is widely regarded as a masterpiece of the genre, with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in fine form as the unlikely couple thrown together by leopards, dinosaurs, and the relentless persistence of Hepburn's wacky heroine. The non-stop hilarity runs by so fast that it might take three or four viewings to catch all of the gags, but this is a picture that gets funnier every time you watch it. Outstanding supporting performances from Charlie Ruggles, May Robson, Barry Fitzgerald, and Walter Catlett add to the feast of furiously funny scenes, but the animal actors, including the titular Baby and Asta as George the dog, will have even the youngest viewers in stitches.

Grant stars as David Huxley, a scientist whose dry bones life and engagement to the very professional Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker) are upended when he meets flighty socialite Susan Vance (Hepburn). Both David and Susan hope to receive a million dollar gift from Susan's aunt, Elizabeth (May Robson), but Susan's interference keeps getting David into trouble. Susan loses a pet leopard meant for her aunt, David loses the last bone needed to finish his dinosaur, and everyone ends up in jail thanks to a series of misadventures and misunderstandings.

Bringing Up Baby offers enough cartoon physical comedy and sight gags to make it entertaining even to modern kids, with Grant and Hepburn romping about the Connecticut countryside and literally falling all over themselves. Grant, a vaudeville veteran, is in his natural element, with a talent for pratfalls and double takes reminiscent of the silent stars. His big round glasses, which evoke Harold Lloyd, further the comparison, especially when we see him carried off on the sideboard of a running car and stepping on the back of Hepburn's gown. As lovely and impossibly slim as she was at that age, Hepburn also dives right into the absurd antics; her "born on the side of a hill" bit is perfectly girlish, a moment of pure silly fun. More robust laughs erupt when the supporting players, especially Charlie Ruggles and Barry Fitzgerald, get their chance to react to the presence of Baby, the leopard on the loose, while George the dog, played by A-list canine star Asta, wreaks plenty of havoc, as well.

Beyond the obvious high jinks, however, the film offers a more sophisticated kind of comedy that springs from verbal sparring and the rapid delivery of naughty Freudian gags. David, after all, is a man who has lost his bone, and only a wild thing like Susan can help him get it back. Susan even goes to the extent of renaming David "Mr. Bone," which underlines the point rather forcibly. He's certainly sexually confused by all the chaos that Susan creates. Sabotaged by her desire to keep him around, David ends up in a feathery negligee, at which point he exclaims that he "just went gay all of a sudden!" Later, when Susan complains about losing her heel, Walter Catlett deadpans, "Don't worry about him." The characters deliver these zingers so rapidly that the Breen Office must have missed what they were saying, but at times it's a wonder that this film got past the censors at all. In a picture where Charlie Ruggles and May Robson exchange leopard mating calls by way of flirtation, almost anything can - and does - happen. This is a movie that proves its point about the love impulse revealing itself in terms of conflict, and not just in men.

Be sure to note Walter Bond looming over the other characters in a bit part as a motorcycle cop. For more of Hepburn and Grant, see Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Holiday (1938), and The Philadelphia Story (1940). Howard Hawks also directs Grant in His Girl Friday (1940), I Was a Male War Bride (1949), and Monkey Business (1952). If you love scene-stealing dogs, catch Asta in The Thin Man (1934) and its sequels and The Awful Truth (1937), which also stars Cary Grant.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Failure of Fathers in STRANGER THINGS

Warning: This essay contains spoilers! Read at your own risk.

The Duffer Brothers' 2016 Netflix series, Stranger Things, takes its cues from a bevy of 80s movies, most notably the films of Steven Spielberg and screen adaptations of the works of Stephen King. The mix also includes iconic pictures from the horror, science fiction, and teen genres like Alien (1979), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and the films of John Hughes. The television series reflects the culture of the 1980s as seen through the lenses of these pictures, creating a strong sense of nostalgia for Gen Xers in particular, who were the same age as the show's characters during the era depicted in the series. As a kind of period piece, Stranger Things offers us a chance to look back at the 1980s and consider its essential themes, from Cold War paranoia to the initial rise of geek culture as embodied by Dungeons & Dragons. One of the most telling themes incorporated into the series is the breakdown of the traditional nuclear family and the normalization of divorce, especially as those issues relate to absent or failed father figures in the lives of the children and teens. In fact, while Stranger Things depicts a number of father characters, almost none of its fathers manage to live up to the obligations of paternity, and substitute father figures must stand in to provide guidance and protection to the four young boys who function as the show's core characters.

The series focuses on a group of 12 year old friends who stumble into a bizarre government conspiracy after one of them disappears. Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) vanishes from the small town of Hawkins, but his mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), soon suspects that her son is both alive and held captive in some mysterious place, where he communicates with her by flashing electric lights. While the friends conduct their own search for Will, Joyce enlists the help of police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), who becomes convinced that a government lab near the town is connected to Will's disappearance. The boys unexpectedly find Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a girl whose strange abilities and sudden appearance link her to both Will and the secretive lab. Meanwhile, the teen siblings of two of the boys discover more clues to the mystery and realize that a bloodthirsty monster is also involved.

The four boys at the center of the story are Will Byers, Mike Wheeler, Dustin Henderson, and Lucas Sinclair. Only two of the four are shown to have fathers at all: Will has an absent, divorced father named Lonnie, while Mike has an older, sedentary father who spends a lot of his time sleeping in a Lazy Boy chair. We never see the fathers of Dustin and Lucas at all, although we can infer from the series that Lucas has a father who is a veteran of the war in Vietnam. Neither Lonnie nor Ted Wheeler can be called a good father in any meaningful sense, although Ted's failures are more sins of omission than anything else. Lonnie takes no interest in Will or older son Jonathan, and his ex-wife, Joyce, asserts that Lonnie used to deride Will as a "fag" before the parents broke up. When Lonnie does return after Will's disappearance, he turns out to be interested only in suing the quarry where Will's body was supposedly found; he doesn't actually care about his missing/dead son. Ted, who is still married to Mike's mother, Karen, and clearly has a good job, seems like a better father on the surface, but he has no emotional connection to his three children and doesn't seem to understand them at all. While Karen doggedly tries to earn the trust of both Mike and older sister Nancy while constantly caring for toddler Holly, Ted merely works and sleeps. He doesn't know how to talk to his children, doesn't seem to interact with them, and is shown in the last episode to be the only person sleeping in a hospital waiting room full of otherwise worried characters. If Lonnie is the stereotypical deadbeat dad of the 80s, then Ted is the stereotypical dad of the 50s and 60s, who leaves all the domestic and emotional work of parenting to his wife. Neither is the kind of father a child wants or needs, especially a boy on the cusp of adolescence.

Dr. Brenner with Eleven

Even worse than Lonnie and Ted is the manipulative Dr. Brenner, who adopts a paternal facade in his relationship with Eleven. Dr. Brenner is not the girl's real father, and no hint of a biological father's identity is provided, but he trains Eleven to call him "Papa" and to think of him as a parental figure. Lonnie and Ted are neglectful, emotionally distant fathers, but Brenner is actively evil and abusive. He encourages Eleven to rely on him, to obey him, and even to fear him, but he repeatedly hurts her and endangers her for his own ends. Part of Eleven's psychological journey in the series is her realization of Brenner's essentially bad nature and her ultimate decision to reject him. A stark contrast is provided for Eleven in the way that Brenner has treated her versus the way Joyce treats her in the seventh episode, "The Bathtub." Brenner has pushed Eleven to do dangerous things simply because he wants the power and knowledge, but Joyce asks Eleven to take risks to save her son. Joyce thanks Eleven for her bravery but also reassures her, holds her, and supports her, while Brenner dumps Eleven into the lab's sensory deprivation chamber and leaves her to confront the monster alone. Joyce's maternal behavior is utterly alien to Eleven; the scenes in the lab always show her surrounded by emotionally blank male scientists, with only Brenner's insidiously abusive relationship as a gross perversion of parenthood. Nonetheless, Joyce's brief relationship with Eleven clearly has a huge impact on the girl and helps her see the truth about Brenner. The last word she says to him is "bad," and the look on his face tells us that he understands that his hold over her has been broken.

Hopper and Sarah

Somewhere in the middle of the set we find Jim Hopper, the emotionally damaged police chief. Hopper has been a good father; we see that demonstrated in flashbacks of his daughter, Sarah. Tragically, Hopper's daughter contracted a terminal illness; her death destroyed his marriage, drove him to self-destructive habits, and closed him off emotionally until Will's disappearance resurrects his paternal instincts. Hopper was such a devoted father that the loss of his child wrecked him; it's clear that embracing the role means accepting the risk of loss and heartbreak. As he searches for Will, Hopper begins to revisit his grief and simultaneously regain his ability to be a strong father figure, even though the child he tries to help is generally unaware of his efforts. Trapped in the Upside Down, Will doesn't know how dedicated Hopper has become to finding him, but we see how Hopper adopts the paternal role that has been callously vacated by Lonnie, not only toward Will but toward Jonathan, as well. Hopper also takes the domestic role in relationship to Joyce, becoming her partner and emotional support. Despite his courage and resolution on Will's behalf, Hopper does not become an ideal father figure. He makes a Faustian bargain with Brenner to get Will back, one that directly endangers Eleven, so his paternal urge is limited in its scope. He is willing to trade one endangered child for another, even though he has learned that Eleven's mother never stopped trying to find her. It's ironic, on some level, that Hopper is willing to sacrifice the life of a girl to save a boy, given that he was himself the father of a daughter. He does, however, reach out to her in the series' coda, leaving food for her in a box in the woods. It might be too late - the show leaves us with a lot of questions about Eleven's fate - but at least Hopper continues to move back toward the role he once filled.

The absence of real fathers, whether physical or emotional, leaves the role to be filled by substitutes. Hopper becomes one surrogate father, albeit one with serious issues of his own, but other characters also volunteer themselves for the job. Will's older bother, Jonathan, steps in to fill the gap left by Lonnie, even though Jonathan still needs a father figure himself. Jonathan goes to school, works, helps to care for Will, and cooks for the family; he functions as a model for a newer, more invested kind of fatherhood that more closely resembles the multi-tasking required of mothers. He nurtures and supports Will, teaching him about music and bonding with him; Jonathan is the one who knows how to find Will's friends using the two-way radios. When Will goes missing, Jonathan searches for him and openly grieves; he is more in touch with his emotions than any of the previous generation of father figures. Jonathan and Nancy become younger parallels of the partnership embodied by Hopper and Joyce, both active, dedicated, and defined by their devotion to someone else. Jonathan's willingness to accept this burden makes us prefer him to Nancy's love interest, Steve, who is selfish and immature in comparison. The science teacher, Mr. Clarke, is also a surrogate father figure, although his role is less emotionally involved. All four boys have a close relationship with him; he provides them with the intellectual nurturing they cannot get at home and even tries to offer some emotional support after Will's disappearance. Ironically, Brenner's lab uses Clarke's dedication to the boys as a way to locate them; they pretend to be looking for talented science students for a fictitious state club. Clarke has no idea that he's actually betraying his favorite students to their enemies, but he - again unwittingly - makes up for it when he helps them design a sensory deprivation chamber for Eleven, even though it's Saturday night. Although the boys lack actual fathers in their lives who fulfill their parental obligations, the show depicts hope in the form of those who willingly take on such burdens, whether they are authority figures, male relatives, or teachers. If Mike, Will, Dustin, and Lucas become good men in their turn, it's because of characters like Hopper, Jonathan, and Mr. Clarke, not the men who sired them.

Stranger Things offers a dense narrative with many threads worth pursuing, especially in terms of its relationship to the culture of the 1980s, but the failure of fatherhood certainly seems to lie close to its heart. While mothers are generally shown as loving, dedicated figures - not only Joyce, but Karen Wheeler and even Terry Ives - fathers are seen as deeply flawed. They are absent, uninterested, clueless, or even cruel. They leave young boys to fend for themselves in a dangerous and uncertain world, even as the rules for what it means to be a man are in flux. They treat girls as things and betray them to suffering and peril. Still, there is hope. Where some men rush to vacate their roles as fathers, others step in. It will be interesting to see if Stranger Things revisits these themes with a second season or offers us a glimpse of the ways in which the four boys mature to become the fathers of another generation.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

I Feel It in My Bones: My Favorite Star Trek Character

With Star Trek Beyond out in theaters just in time for the 50th anniversary of the original show, I find myself thinking back about my lifetime of Trek experiences. I first saw the show as a little girl, when it was on in re-runs during the 1970s. I have been a fan ever since, seeing every movie and every new television series (although Enterprise never quite captured my attention like everything else). There's a lot to love about Treks old and new, from the progressive vision of humanity's future to the deep love of literature that balances its more obvious focus on science and engineering. Every fan, of course, has his or her favorite episode, movie, and character, and for me that character has always been the irascible Dr. Leonard McCoy, particularly as played by original series star, DeForest Kelley.

I've had some trouble adjusting to the new McCoy, played by Karl Urban, but mainly because my devotion to the original ran so deep. Urban finally won me over with his performance in Star Trek Beyond, thanks largely to his wonderful banter with Zachary Quinto's pitch-perfect Spock. Still, Kelley will always be the "real" McCoy as far as I'm concerned. His depiction of a future Southerner struck home for me as a little girl growing up in the Deep South; he was one of the only truly positive representations of Southern people I had seen. Usually Southerners were hicks on television; The Dukes of Hazzard was the worst offender, but even The Andy Griffith Show had a folksy, aw-shucks sensibility that galled me. I was a voracious reader, a bookish kid who loathed sports, but I was also defined by a distinctive drawl and a childhood spent on a farm. I never saw anybody like me on TV.

Something about Bones, though, spoke to me. He was cranky but humane, the voice of the heart to balance Spock's voice of the head. He didn't relish adventure and being transported across space, but you could rely on him in a pinch. He never gave up his drawl or his Southern manner, but he worked on an integrated starship where everyone was judged by his or her individual merits. He knew Shakespeare just as well as Kirk and Spock. He was instantly familiar but so different from any Southern TV character I had seen before. Most of all, his Southern identity felt authentic, and that's because it was. DeForest Kelley was born in Georgia, where he lived until he left for California to become an actor. His accent wasn't forced or feigned; it sounded like the people I grew up with and knew. I've talked about Southern identity in classic films and television before; it's rare to see an actual Southerner play a positively depicted Southern character. It means a lot to young people in particular to see someone like them get to be smart, forward-thinking, and part of the in-crowd of heroes and pioneers.

Bones was a doctor, damn it, as he often liked to say, but to me he's still the heart of Trek. I'm pleased to see the character continue in the new series, even if I'll always hold a special place in my heart for Kelley's original version. Do you have a favorite Star Trek actor or character? I'd love to hear about it in the comments section!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: THE SPANISH MAIN (1945)

The Spanish Main (1945) revisits many of the same elements as earlier swashbucklers, especially Captain Blood (1935) and The Black Swan (1942), but this time instead of Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power we get Paul Henreid as the heroic pirate, and the actor gives a perfectly winning performance in the role. The picture suffers a bit in comparison with the greatest examples of the genre, and it certainly doesn't break any new ground, but Henreid and leading lady Maureen O'Hara make The Spanish Main an entertaining way to spend an evening. Gorgeous Technicolor costumes and supporting performances from Walter Slezak, Mike Mazurki, and the very engaging Binnie Barnes also add to the appeal.

Henreid plays Laurent Van Horn, a Dutch captain whose ship of immigrants to the Carolinas wrecks off the coast of Cartagena. Van Horn and his passengers become the prisoners of the foppish, corrupt viceroy, Don Juan Alvarado (Walter Slezak), but Van Horn escapes from the dungeons and reinvents himself as the notorious pirate known as The Barracuda. With his crew of former prisoners, Van Horn exacts revenge on Alvarado at every opportunity, but the best chance of all comes when the pirates take the ship carrying Alvarado's intended bride, the beautiful Francesca (Maureen O'Hara). Van Horn promptly marries Francesca to gall Alvarado, but his actions anger his pirate peers, especially the jealous Anne Bonney (Binnie Barnes) and his second-in-command, Mario (John Emery). With plots rising against him at every turn, Van Horn finds that he might actually be in love with his stolen bride.

Paul Henreid is, of course, best remembered for Casablanca (1942); in The Spanish Main he gets to play a more physical, roguish role, but his refined air softens his character in comparison with Tyrone Power's protagonist in The Black Swan. The juxtaposition of the two comes naturally because both actors play pirates engaged in a war of the sexes with Maureen O'Hara, who was classic Hollywood's go-to girl for gorgeous shrews. Henreid has an air of continental class, even when he's tied to the mast and being lashed, that makes us doubt the sincerity of Van Horn's misogynist threats, but the actor looks remarkably good in the period costumes, especially with his tousled blond curls. This is a sexier, looser Henreid, who looks like he's having a lot of fun. He's exciting to watch in the sword fight sequences, too, and the audience can certainly sympathize when Francesca falls for him. O'Hara is radiantly lovely in a series of dazzling gowns, but as usual her fiery spirit serves as her chief attraction, and she has some wonderful scenes in which her character gets to prove her mettle to Van Horn, even standing to a pistol duel and organizing the pirates' escape from Alvarado's treacherous clutches.

If the miniature ships and painted backdrops look a little obvious to modern eyes, the performances of the supporting players also help to make up for it, particularly Binnie Barnes in a delightful turn as the real lady pirate Anne Bonney. She's so feisty and fun that she could have carried her own movie, although the resolution for her character is one of the places where the picture falls flat. Walter Slezak makes for a preening, pompous villain as Alvarado; he would play a very similar role in The Pirate (1948), and in both pictures he's a perfect foil for the vigorous, virile hero. John Emery rocks his roguish hair and mustache as the slippery Mario, although he doesn't really have a lot to do until the last third of the picture, while Mike Mazurki proves the standout of the minor characters without ever uttering a word. Fritz Leiber, who had also appeared in The Sea Hawk, plays yet another priest character, and naturally he looks very much at home in the role, although he disappears toward the end of the movie as the action heats up.

Frank Borzage, a two-time winner of the Oscar for Best Director, made The Spanish Main toward the end of his career, which had started out during the silent era. He is probably best remembered today for A Farewell to Arms (1932) and the wartime morale booster, Stage Door Canteen (1943). For more of Paul Henreid, see Now, Voyager (1942), Deception (1946), and Rope of Sand (1949); he returned to piracy in Last of the Buccaneers (1950) and Pirates of Tripoli (1955). Maureen O'Hara plays more beautiful firebrands in The Quiet Man (1952) and McClintock! (1963), opposite frequent costar John Wayne, but for something different see her in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940). Catch Binnie Barnes in The Private Life of King Henry VIII (1933), The Last of the Mohicans (1936), and In Old California (1942). If you really want to loathe a Walter Slezak villain, see him at his worst in Lifeboat (1944).

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: IVANHOE (1952)

Adapted from the novel by Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (1952) makes a perfect companion to The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Both are rousing Technicolor adventures set during the days of King Richard the Lionheart, and Robin even plays a critical part in the later story. Robert Taylor might lack the insouciance of Errol Flynn's roguish Robin, but his Saxon knight is a bold hero, nonetheless, and Joan Fontaine matches her sister, Olivia de Havilland, as an alluring lady love. Director Richard Thorpe oversees the lavish production, which earned three Oscar nominations, and the film benefits from memorable performances by Elizabeth Taylor, George Sanders, and Finlay Currie.

Robert Taylor leads the cast as the heroic knight, who returns from the Crusades determined to free King Richard from imprisonment and restore him to his throne. Rejected by his Saxon father, Cedric (Finlay Currie), for his loyalty to the Norman king, Ivanhoe must contend with the treachery of Prince John and his supporters, especially the knights Sir Hugh De Bracy (Robert Douglas) and De Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders). Ivanhoe's adventures introduce him to the beautiful young Jewess, Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor), who falls in love with him in spite of his long-standing romance with Rowena (Joan Fontaine). All of Ivanhoe's friends, however, are threatened by the schemes of Prince John's allies, who hope to ensure that King Richard never returns to England alive.

Location shooting heightens the atmosphere and appeal of the picture, especially in the climactic sequence at Torquilstone Castle, where Ivanhoe and his companions are held prisoner by the Norman knights. Luckily for Ivanhoe, Robin Hood leads an army of Saxon men to lay siege to the castle, although in this film Robin is called only by the less familiar name of Locksley (played by Harold Warrender). The tournament scenes are also highlights; they exude pomp and excitement but also provide opportunities for each of the key characters to reveal themselves. Ivanhoe's first tournament, where he fights in disguise as the black knight, sets the stage for later conflicts between the Saxon hero and his Norman nemesis, De Bois-Guilbert, while their final battle brings their long rivalry to its destined end. The pageantry, shot in gorgeous Technicolor, rivals that of The Adventures of Robin Hood, although the mood of the later picture is more somber.

Taylor makes for a serious and mature Ivanhoe, but his performance sells the hero's commitment to his cause. The movie downplays the love triangle between him and the two women; Taylor and Fontaine are too well matched for any real doubt that Ivanhoe will stay with Rowena, but Elizabeth Taylor is so compelling as Rebecca that she makes us wish the story could end differently. She handles her scenes with emotion and skill, especially those that address the plight of Jews in Medieval England, and Felix Aylmer is also very good as her father, Isaac. Finlay Currie provides a different model of paternity as the stubborn Cedric, and he threatens to steal his scenes with his blustering resentment and underlying affection. George Sanders, an adept at playing the heavy, adds humanity to De Bois-Guilbert with the sincerity of his passion for Rebecca, but he's most in his element as the haughty foe. The rest of the Norman knights run together, particularly when they're dressed for battle, although Guy Rolfe makes the best of his few scenes as the despicable Prince John. Be sure to appreciate Welsh actor Emlyn Williams as Womba, the lowly serf whom Ivanhoe promotes as his squire; it's a shame that he disappears without much fanfare before the picture ends.

Ivanhoe picked up Oscar nominations for Best Picture as well as cinematography and score, but it had to compete with the likes of High Noon (1952), The Quiet Man (1952), and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). Director Richard Thorpe returned to the same territory the following year with Knights of the Round Table (1953), in which Robert Taylor plays Lancelot and Felix Aylmer turns up again as Merlin. For more from Thorpe and Taylor, try All the Brothers Were Valiant (1953) and The House of the Seven Hawks (1959). See Joan Fontaine and George Sanders in Rebecca (1940), and don't miss Finlay Currie in Great Expectations (1946) and People Will Talk (1951). If you want to catch Fontaine and Elizabeth Taylor in different roles, see them both in Jane Eyre (1943), in which Fontaine plays the lead and Taylor appears in an important but uncredited role as Jane's friend, Helen Burns.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: TOWER OF LONDON (1939)

Tower of London (1939) lacks the poetic grandeur of Shakespeare's Richard III, but the story remains more or less the same, with an atmosphere of horror injected into the historical drama through the appearance of genre icons like Boris Karloff and Vincent Price. As history goes, this is bloody stuff, indeed; it opens with a beheading and goes on as it begins, and there's certainly enough death and torture to satisfy the bloodthirstiest horror fan. Basil Rathbone brings gravitas and intelligence to the role of Richard, while Karloff plays the executioner henchman who helps him murder his way to the throne. A fine supporting cast includes Ian Hunter, Barbara O'Neil, John Sutton, and the lovely Nan Grey, but most fans will flock to this film for the irresistible trio of Rathbone, Karloff, and Price.

As Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Rathbone schemes and slays in a bid for the English crown. To get there, he must first get rid of everyone ahead of him in line, including his brothers, King Edward IV (Ian Hunter) and the Duke of Clarence (Vincent Price), and his young nephews, the king's sons with long-suffering Queen Elyzabeth (Barbara O'Neil). Assisting Richard is Mord (Boris Karloff), a torturer and executioner whose own deformed foot creates a kinship with the hunchbacked Duke. While Richard murders his way to power, the Queen's followers, John Wyatt (John Sutton) and Lady Alice (Nan Grey), struggle to keep their love alive and to defend the country from Richard's evil reign.

As the subject matter implies, this is really Rathbone's film, and he gives a terrific performance, even if he doesn't get to spout any Shakespearean soliloquies. His Richard is not merely evil and repulsive; he has courage, genius, and the military prowess to match his ambition. His strange relationship with Anne Neville (Rose Hobart) proves that he has a certain charisma, too, like a snake that charms before striking. The discovery of the real Richard III's body in 2012 made him a celebrity again and shed new light on the historical record, but in many ways Rathbone's performance seems ahead of its time, especially in comparison with the way the king is portrayed in Shakespeare's play. Rathbone also gets to exercise his celebrated swordsmanship in several sparring scenes, which again emphasize the active, aggressive nature of this incarnation of his character.

The rest of the performers help to make Tower of London a very solid example of its type. John Sutton is something of a stand-in swashbuckler as John Wyatt, one of Richard's most determined opponents, and Nan Grey has several good scenes as his lady love, though her best is probably her rescue mission to help John escape from Richard's dungeon. Barbara O'Neil radiates maternal devotion and fear as the mother of the doomed little princes, while Ian Hunter makes a hale but too trusting Edward IV. Karloff, of course, owns his scenes as Mord; he and Rathbone pair up perfectly and convey a lot about their relationship through their expressions and body language. Mord yearns to see combat on the battlefield, and he mostly enjoys his murderous occupation, but the scene in which he is sent to murder the young princes adds just a touch of humanity to his villainous soul. Vincent Price, still at the start of his career in 1939, has a fairly small part as the weak-minded Clarence, but he makes the most of it, especially in his fateful drinking contest with Richard. The role presages those he would play later in life, especially in the Corman pictures and the AIP horror of the 70s.

Rowland V. Lee, who directed Tower of London, made a number of historical action pictures late in his career, including The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), The Three Musketeers (1935), and Captain Kidd (1945), but he also directed Karloff and Rathbone in the excellent Son of Frankenstein (1939). For more of Rathbone's great villains, see The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Mark of Zorro (1940). Karloff is justly famous for his monsters and fiends; to get beyond his Universal classics from the 30s, try Val Lewton horrors like The Body Snatcher (1945) and Bedlam (1946), or catch him in a more sympathetic mood in Corridors of Blood (1958). Fans will recognize Barbara O'Neil as Scarlett's mother in Gone with the Wind (1939), while John Sutton and Nan Gray can both be found with Vincent Price in The Invisible Man Returns (1940). For a double feature starring the trio of Rathbone, Karloff, and Price, follow up Tower of London with the delightfully macabre The Comedy of Terrors (1963), which also stars Peter Lorre.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: STAGE FRIGHT (1950)

Released just before the wildly successful Strangers on a Train (1951), Stage Fright (1950) ranks among the minor entries in the Alfred Hitchcock canon. It lacks the screw tightening suspense of the best of the director's pictures, and its humor, while engaging, never reaches that pitch black, twisted level that fans adore in the most iconic Hitchcock films. That said, Stage Fright offers an assortment of entertaining performances from its cast, especially a collection of delightful character actors in supporting roles. Jane Wyman and Marlene Dietrich carry the lightweight murder plot, such as it is, but the scene stealers here are Alastair Sim, Sybil Thorndike, Kay Walsh, and Joyce Grenfell, each playing the sort of offbeat character you'll remember long after you forget the details of the fuzzy central narrative.

The film opens with aspiring actress Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) trying to help Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) escape a murder charge that he claims to have gotten mixed up in on behalf of the seductive stage star Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich). Charlotte's husband has been killed, with Cooper spotted leaving the scene by Charlotte's maid, Nellie (Kay Walsh). Eve enlists her father, Commodore Gill (Alastair Sim), as a confederate in hiding Cooper from the police, including the charming Detective Smith (Michael Wilding), for whom Eve rapidly develops some very inconvenient feelings. Determined to expose Charlotte as the real killer, Eve disguises herself as a mousy dresser named Doris, but her efforts are complicated by the constant appearance of people who know her as Eve.

Several elements make this movie a less than successful Hitchcock production. The most glaring is the flashback used at the beginning to create a set of expectations for both Eve and the audience. There's something not quite right about it, as later events prove. There's also not much suspense in the way that the action unfolds. Eve's deceptions provide plenty of comedy, but it's more straightforward than perverse, and she never encounters any seriously dangerous situations until the very end of the film. Contrast the pacing and mood here with those in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), for instance, and it's easy to see that Stage Fright wanders a bit and lacks real teeth as a proper thriller. More might be made of the uncertainty the audience feels about Cooper, who exploits Eve's unrequited affection to save his own neck, but Richard Todd's perfectly acceptable performance is overshadowed by the livelier character actors and the very engaging Dietrich, who makes a far more interesting murder suspect as the selfish, glamorous star.

What it lacks in suspense and narrative thrust, Stage Fright makes up for in the little things, and it's still a movie worth seeing if you're a fan of English character actors. Alastair Sim and Sybil Thorndike are delightful as Eve's eccentric, estranged parents, with Sim getting an especially juicy role. The scene in which Cooper asks to spend the night at Eve's home gives the pair a great scene together; watch their expressions and body language as they discuss where everyone is going to sleep. Kay Walsh is pricklier but no less engaging as the scheming dresser, Nellie, who lets Eve bribe her and then demands blackmail money to continue their ruse. She and Sim get big laughs when he brings the required funds to the garden party but fails to recognize their intended recipient. Joyce Grenfell, billed in the credits as "Lovely Ducks," has only one scene, but it's a corker, a sublime example of feminine physical comedy. Just watch how she fumbles and chatters her way through an attempt to load the Commodore's gun. Speaking of characters with limited scenes, be sure to note the director's daughter, Patricia Hitchcock, as Chubby Bannister, one of Eve's friends from the drama school.

With its English setting and characters, Stage Fright hearkens back to the films Hitchcock made before his move to Hollywood. Try The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) for a sense of that phase of the director's career. Jane Wyman won the Oscar for Best Actress for Johnny Belinda (1948); you'll also find her in The Yearling (1946), The Glass Menagerie (1950), and Magnificent Obsession (1954). Marlene Dietrich's other films from the 1950s include Rancho Notorious (1952), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and Touch of Evil (1958). Catch Michael Wilding in Torch Song (1953), and see Richard Todd take a more saintly turn in A Man Called Peter (1955). Although he appeared in more than fifty films, including Green for Danger (1947), An Inspector Calls (1954), and School for Scoundrels (1960), Alastair Sim is best remembered today for his performance as Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1951 adaptation of A Christmas Carol.