Sunday, June 30, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: GIRL CRAZY (1943)

By 1943, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland had made more than half a dozen movies together, so Girl Crazy (1943) was both a return to a tested formula and an attempt to do something a little different with the two stars. Once again we have the “let’s put on a show” plot that justifies a series of musical numbers, but Rooney and Garland’s characters have more mature parts to play and a more complicated twist to their usual romance. Fans of the two stars will probably like this picture well enough, but Girl Crazy doesn’t come off quite as successfully as their earlier collaborations, largely because of the way the story sets up the main characters and their relationships.

Rooney is Danny Churchill, Jr., a rich man’s son and a playboy who has an eye for the ladies. In order to make something of him, his father ships Danny off to a remote Western college with no female students, but Danny promptly meets the dean’s granddaughter, Ginger (Judy Garland), and tries to impress her. Ginger rebuffs Danny’s advances at first, but eventually she warms up to him, and the two decide to stage a Western rodeo show to save the college from closing.

The sweet, adolescent quality of Rooney and Garland’s romance is a big part of their earlier films’ appeal, but in Girl Crazy Rooney’s character comes off as something of a masher, putting the moves on every girl he sees, and it’s harder to accept him as an adult romantic lead. He looks foolishly out of place, whether partying on stage in his tuxedo or moseying about the desert in his ridiculous cowboy duds. If Ginger has the pick of every handsome man in town, why would she go for the short, overeager Danny? Their love affairs make more sense when the two are childhood friends and sweethearts from the start, as they are in Babes in Arms (1939). Garland’s character is also problematic; Ginger is very much a Ginger Rogers personality, prickly and resistant to romance, which works great in the Fred and Ginger movies but not so much here. Ginger Rogers had, in fact, originated the role in the 1930 Broadway production, and the character was renamed "Ginger" from the original "Molly" in her honor. Once she decides to like Danny, Ginger’s character works better as a Judy Garland role, but she never manages the perfect balance of attraction and repulsion that makes Rogers so much fun in films like Swing Time (1936).

Despite these problems, there are things to like about Girl Crazy. Big band fans will love seeing Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra in several numbers, with Dorsey playing himself as one of Danny’s nightclub friends. Guy Kibbee is lovable as the college dean, and a young Nancy Walker livens up the group as Ginger’s streetwise cousin, Polly. June Allyson makes an early feature film appearance as a specialty singer, and Busby Berkeley directs a particularly lavish Western finale featuring the song, “I’ve Got Rhythm.” Other musical highlights include “Bidin’ My Time” and “Fascinating Rhythm.” Even if she’s not ideally suited to her character, Garland looks and sounds great, and Rooney also gets a fun number in “Could You Use Me.”

Try the earlier Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney films for a chance to see the two stars in their best collaborations, starting with Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938) and Babes in Arms (1939). Garland, of course, is best remembered for The Wizard of Oz (1939), but see some of her later musicals, too, including Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Harvey Girls (1946), and Easter Parade (1948). Mickey Rooney, a living legend in 2013, has earned four Oscar nominations and appeared in more than 300 films and television programs, starting with the Mickey McGuire shorts of the late 1920s. Catch him in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936), A Family Affair (1937), and Captains Courageous (1937) for some of his best adolescent roles. Norman Taurog, who directed everything except the finale, also directed Mickey Rooney in Boys Town (1937), Young Tom Edison (1940), and Men of Boys Town (1941).

Friday, June 28, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: WAIT UNTIL DARK (1967)

Directed by Terence Young, Wait Until Dark (1967) represents a departure for star Audrey Hepburn from the softer, more romantic roles that she usually played. It turned out to be a good move, too, since Hepburn earned her fifth and final Oscar nomination for Best Actress because of her performance as a blind woman terrorized by a trio of devious criminals. Nearly fifty years later, Wait Until Dark remains a very effective thriller largely because Hepburn does such a good job convincing us that she really is desperately afraid and completely unable to see. Her costars, especially Alan Arkin, also make this film a nailbiting affair, and the last ten minutes provide a tense payoff that Warner Bros. publicized with great enthusiasm when the movie was first released.

Hepburn plays Susy Hendrix, who recently lost her sight in a car accident and is learning how to navigate the world as a blind person. Her photographer husband, Sam (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), pushes her to be independent, even though she often feels afraid and longs for more sympathy from him. When Sam unwittingly takes possession of a doll filled with drugs, he makes Susy a target for three ruthless criminals determined to get the doll back. Susy has only herself and a troubled neighbor child, Gloria (Julie Herrod), to help her find the doll and figure out the truth about Mike (Richard Crenna), Carlino (Jack Weston), and the mysterious Mr. Roat (Alan Arkin).

Hepburn’s character has to evolve very quickly in order to survive her encounter with the criminals, and the film shows us some provocative contrasts between the faltering, uncertain Susy of the beginning and the frantic but determined Susy of the climax. She starts the story terrified by the very idea of fire, but she ends it waving a lit match in an apartment covered with gasoline, and she reveals a fierce side of herself that she clearly did not know existed. Hepburn remains fragile, if not hysterical, throughout, but we understand that Susy is a person who really has to search for the courage to fight back against her attackers. She is also a very observant woman, despite her blindness; it’s not so much that her other senses are sharper, but that she has to rely on them more for information about what’s going on around her. Her ability to read those clues gives her a critical advantage over the con men who try to trick her into giving them the doll; they think she’s an easy mark because of her sex and her disability, but she turns out to be a lot more resourceful than they - or we - expect.

Alan Arkin is especially sadistic as Roat, the leader of the criminal trio. His performance makes it clear very early on that Roat has no qualms about murder, and we know better than to think that he will be satisfied to retrieve the doll and leave Susy unharmed, no matter what he says to his two accomplices about nobody getting hurt. Roat relishes Susy’s confusion and panic, which is why he allows the ruse to continue as long as it does. As Mike and Carlino, Richard Crenna and Jack Weston look like Boy Scouts compared to Arkin’s amoral killer; the audience sees them as charlatans but not necessarily as sinister antagonists, and Mike in particular seems ambivalent about the role he plays in deceiving Susy. If there’s a serious fault with the picture, it’s that Mike turns out to be much more attractive and sympathetic than Susy’s husband, Sam, and the chemistry between Crenna and Hepburn is so palpable that we long to see it realized even though we know Susy is already married.

See Audrey Hepburn in her most iconic roles in Roman Holiday (1953), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and My Fair Lady (1964) for contrast with her performance in Wait Until Dark. Director Terence Young is also remembered for his work on the James Bond films, Dr. No (1962), From Russia with Love (1963), and Thunderball (1965). Alan Arkin, who is still working in films, won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for Little Miss Sunshine (2006); he recently earned his fourth career Oscar nomination for his performance in Argo (2012). You can find Richard Crenna as Colonel Trautman in all three of the Rambo movies. Frederick Knott, who wrote the original stage play version of Wait Until Dark, also wrote Dial M for Murder, which was adapted as a film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1954.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

LEGO My Hitchcock

This is the sort of thing that happens when my two hobbies - classic movies and LEGO - collide. I give you LEGO Tippi Hedren, being terrorized in Alfred Hitchcock's THE BIRDS (1963).

Here's another shot from further out - 

You can visit my photostream over on Flickr if you want to see more of the LEGO photos. I do a lot of this sort of thing. It's a little like art, and a little like therapy.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1944)

This Columbia production directed by Lew Landers puts Bela Lugosi back into a vampire’s cape and fangs, but The Return of the Vampire (1944) is not exactly a success when it comes to following up on the iconic Dracula (1931). Despite a number of inspired elements, the film fails with its two most visible characters, the vampire and his werewolf lackey, and in a horror film that’s a problem that simply can’t be ignored. Still, Lugosi fans will probably want to see The Return of the Vampire just for more of the actor’s burning eyes and sinister accent, and at just 69 minutes long it’s easy enough to sit through if you can put up with one of classic horror’s worst werewolf attempts.

Lugosi rises from the grave as Armand Tesla, a vampire who is first defeated in 1918 by Dr. Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery) and Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort). Decades later, during the bombing of World War II, Tesla is revived when German shells reveal his coffin. He reclaims his werewolf servant, Andreas (Matt Willis), and sets out for revenge against Lady Jane by threatening her son, John (Roland Varno), and his fiancee, Nicki (Nina Foch).

There are a lot of things to admire in this film, beginning with the progressive casting of a female scientist as the vampire’s opponent. Frieda Inescort is completely credible as the courageous and intelligent Lady Jane, and it’s interesting to note that the story never sexualizes her struggle with Tesla at all. Is she too old or too practical for such ploys? At any rate, the vampiric seduction focuses entirely on the innocent young Nicki, whom Tesla first attacks when she is just a little girl, and lovely Nina Foch has some good scenes wandering about under Tesla’s seductive mind control. The movie also uses the World War II backdrop well, with the vampire hunt complicated by constant bombing and the monsters finding plenty of places to hide in the damaged ruins of the city. The cemetery scenes offer plenty of fog and spooky atmosphere, and the idea of Tesla assuming the identity of a scientist fleeing Nazi Germany is also a timely touch.

The monsters themselves, however, disappoint, especially the lackluster werewolf. We never understand how Tesla transforms Andreas into a werewolf in the first place; who knew that lycanthropy was a result of hypnosis? The makeup for the wolf man lacks originality, and Andreas never manages to be scary, partly because he talks and acts like a regular person in full werewolf form. He’s really just a hairy Renfield, without Dwight Frye’s manic madness. Lugosi doesn’t have much to do as Tesla; he mostly stands in doorways and whispers hypnotically at people from offscreen. In the scenes where he pretends to be Dr. Bruckner, there’s really nothing sinister about him at all, and even rising from his coffin he seems too solid and ordinary to be a terrifying ruler of the undead. Given Lugosi’s performances in other films, the fault here lies with the material he is given, not with the actor himself, but this is certainly not the place to start watching Lugosi’s work.

Lew Landers (as Lewis Friedlander) also directed Bela Lugosi in The Raven (1935); for Lugosi’s more memorable films, see Dracula (1931), White Zombie (1932), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). You’ll also find the horror icon in smaller roles in Island of Lost Souls (1932), The Wolf Man (1941), and The Body Snatcher (1945). Frieda Inescort appears in Pride and Prejudice (1940), The Letter (1940), and A Place in the Sun (1951). Nina Foch went on to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Executive Suite (1954); see more of her in My Name is Julia Ross (1945) and An American in Paris (1951).

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974)

The basic idea of this later Hammer production from director Roy Ward Baker is patently ridiculous. The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) might just as well have been called Kung Fu Dracula, representing as it does a mash-up of the successful Hammer formula and the Hong Kong martial arts genre as realized by the Shaw Brothers. It’s a crazy movie propelled by a crazy concept, but its nuttiness is a large part of its appeal, even if it’s a minor entry in the Hammer canon of vampire films.

Peter Cushing returns to the role of Professor Van Helsing, who has traveled to China in search of Asian vampires. With his son, Leyland (Robin Stewart), and an adventurous, wealthy widow (Julie Ege) in tow, Van Helsing sets off with a family of Chinese warriors to find a remote village plagued by deformed bloodsuckers. Dracula (John Forbes-Robertson) has already found out about this nest of vampires and has taken the form of a Chinese visitor (Shen Chan) in order to take over the undead army of the vampires and their victims. Inevitably, Van Helsing and the warriors must engage in a desperate battle with their demonic adversaries to put a stop to Dracula’s predation.

Christopher Lee is absent in the role of the bloodthirsty count, but it doesn’t really matter since Dracula spends most of the movie disguised as Kah. The plot might just as well have dispensed with Dracula entirely and focused on the unfamiliar and more promising territory of the Chinese vampires, who are markedly different in appearance and behavior from their European cousin. Van Helsing shows some interest in the cultural variations between Eastern and Western vampires, and we do see that the Buddha works just as well as the Christian cross when it comes to holy symbols. Unfortunately, we don’t learn nearly enough about the Chinese vampires. The undead attackers might be hopping vampires, but the film doesn’t bother to discuss them or their unique place in vampire mythology. It’s a shame, too, because the different vampires help to distinguish this installment from the stale retreads of the same old formula that Hammer had been using for far too long.

On the plus side, we have Cushing still playing Van Helsing with conviction and gravitas, looking very elegant in his tailored suits and adventure gear. Hammer gets to put quite a bit of female bosom on display and kill off a large cast of supporting characters in an orgy of gory excess, both elements that endear the studio to its many fans. The kung fu scenes are great fun, with David Chiang and Szu Shih both giving especially energetic performances. The movie also takes a decidedly liberal attitude toward interracial romance, and the location shooting in Hong Kong freshens up the whole atmosphere. These are sufficient attractions to keep Hammer devotees entertained throughout, especially if they’re also fond of the iconic kung fu pictures produced by the Shaw Brothers during their long and glorious career.

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is by no means the best of the Hammer pictures, but if you find the premise entertaining you'll enjoy the film. Roy Ward Baker also directed Moon Zero Two (1969), The Vampire Lovers (1970), and Scars of Dracula (1970). For other Van Helsing performances from Peter Cushing, see Horror of Dracula (1958), The Brides of Dracula (1960), and Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972). See kung fu classics from the Shaw Brothers like Five Fingers of Death (1972), Shaolin Temple (1976), and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) to get a better feel for the genre and its style.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: BE YOURSELF! (1930)

In 1969, Barbra Streisand won an Oscar for playing Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (1968), but that performance is probably the only encounter most modern viewers have with the Jewish comedienne, who became a star with the Ziegfeld Follies and was also known for her radio performances as Baby Snooks. Brice was not primarily a film actress. She made fewer than half a dozen notable screen appearances, which is too bad because she’s awfully fun to watch in Be Yourself! (1930), a minor comedy-drama that is worth seeing largely because of Brice’s comedic talent.

Brice (credited as Fannie rather than Fanny) plays Fannie Field, a nightclub performer who develops an affection for promising boxer Jerry (Robert Armstrong). Along with her lawyer brother, Harry (Harry Green), Fannie trains and manages Jerry until he becomes a big success, but her romance with him hits the skids when a predatory rival (Gertrude Astor) puts the moves on the gullible lug.

Be Yourself! is primarily a musical comedy, with Brice performing a number of songs that highlight her humorous bent. Her opera parody is funny stuff, but the highlight of the picture is Brice’s loony take on a swan ballet, in which the graceful conceit of a woman impersonating a dying bird gets turned on its head. Brice also excels at delivering one-liners and rolling her eyes to great effect, and she revels in stereotypically Jewish exchanges with Harry Green. Their constant kvetching, carried on with affection for each other and for Jewish identity, is another memorable aspect of the film.

Brice also has a chance to show her more serious side, especially in her moving and heartfelt performance of “When a Woman Loves a Man.” The song echoes the tone of Brice’s signature song, “My Man,” and Brice delivers both with great pathos. She also invests her character with dramatic feeling when Jerry jilts her for the gold digging Lil, although being a smart cookie Fannie soon cooks up a plan to win him back for good. Robert Armstrong plays Jerry as such a goofy palooka that we never know exactly what it is that Fannie sees in him, but having picked him she sticks faithfully, even when Lil lures him away.

Thornton Freeland, who directed Be Yourself!, also directed They Call It Sin (1932), Flying Down to Rio (1933), and Jericho (1937). For more of Fanny Brice on film, see The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and Everybody Sing (1938). Prolific supporting player Robert Armstrong is best remembered today for his roles in The Most Dangerous Game (1932), King Kong (1933), and Son of Kong (1933).

You can see Be Yourself! on Netflix Instant or on Amazon Prime Instant Video.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: BABES IN ARMS (1939)

The Busby Berkeley musical Babes in Arms (1939) proved an important moment in Mickey Rooney’s career; his role as showbiz hopeful Mickey Moran earned him his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor, in a year when the competition included Clark Gable for Gone with the Wind, Laurence Olivier for Wuthering Heights, and Jimmy Stewart for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. They would all lose to Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips, but the nomination put Rooney at the top of Hollywood’s list of leading men when he was still a teenager. It was also his first musical with Judy Garland as his leading lady; the two had appeared in films together before, but the new formula would be a big enough hit to inspire a whole series of Garland and Rooney musicals. Today, Babes in Arms shows its age, especially in some of its vaudeville numbers, but it still offers plenty to interest fans of its two young stars.

Rooney stars as Michael “Mickey” Moran, a child of vaudeville performers who have fallen on hard times with the rise of the talkies. Along with his girlfriend, Patsy (Judy Garland), his sister, Molly (Betty Jaynes), and their pal, Don (Douglas McPhail), Mickey hopes to turn things around for the older entertainers by staging a new show with the other kids. There’s a lot riding on their success, since meddlesome Miss Steele (Margaret Hamilton) is trying to have all of the youngsters sent away to learn trades at a state work school. The assistance of former child star Baby Rosalie (June Preisser) might save the show, but only if it doesn’t ruin Mickey and Patsy’s relationship.

Rooney is more a comedian than a singer, but he gets plenty of opportunities to exercise his usual energetic humor, and his impressions of Clark Gable and Lionel Barrymore are especially funny. Garland looks achingly young, even more so than she does in her better known film from that year, The Wizard of Oz. The two share a sweet, innocent chemistry that justifies their frequent pairings, and both of them carry their more dramatic scenes effectively. They get ample support from older actors like Charles Winninger, Guy Kibbee, Margaret Hamilton, and Henry Hull, but June Preisser proves a real scene-stealer as Baby Rosalie, a Shirley Temple type whose precious act has grown stale with adolescence. Preisser also does some jaw-dropping acrobatics that you have to see to believe; it’s worth noting that Preisser, Rooney, and Garland had all been vaudeville performers in real life before they made the jump to films.

The songs in Babes in Arms cover a lot of territory, although viewers will recognize several of them from their use in the later classic, Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Busby Berkeley directs most of the numbers with great restraint considering his penchant for dizzy spectacle, but he does provide a more traditional Berkeley treatment for the finale of “God’s Country.” The number that will give most viewers pause is the minstrel sequence, done with the entire group of youngsters, including Rooney and Garland, in full blackface. Despite its attempt to pay tribute to the vaudeville convention, the number is sure to make modern audiences profoundly uncomfortable, if not outraged, by its use of the most noxious racial stereotypes. Fortunately, the performance gets cut short by a plot point, but it goes on much too long for anyone watching it today. Be prepared to have a thoughtful discussion about the history of blackface in Hollywood if you watch this picture with the family.

Babes in Arms also earned an Oscar nomination for Best Music Scoring. For more of Rooney and Garland’s musicals, see Strike Up the Band (1940), Babes on Broadway (1941), and Girl Crazy (1943). Busby Berkeley is best remembered for gloriously surreal musical productions in 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), and Footlight Parade (1933). June Preisser also appears in Strike Up the Band and with Rooney in two of the Andy Hardy films. Groomed as the next Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, neither Betty Jaynes nor Douglas McPhail ever became stars, but they were actually married to one another from 1938-1941, which casts an interesting light on their performance as sweethearts in Babes in Arms.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

BEYOND CASABLANCA Interview on Classic Movie Hub

Just thought I would take a break from writing reviews to let people know that Classic Movie Hub has recently posted an interview with me about BEYOND CASABLANCA: 100 CLASSIC MOVIES WORTH WATCHING. CMH is a great site, and I encourage you to visit and poke around! You'll find blog posts from lots of classic movie bloggers, fun facts, and articles about all kinds of people, places, and things related to classic movies.

Here's the link to the CMH interview.

Thanks to Classic Movie Hub for supporting me!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: GO WEST (1925)

Although it’s set in its own modern day, Go West (1925) provides Buster Keaton with the opportunity to exploit the comic possibilities of Western staples like cattle drives, cowboy life, and the cultural conflict between urban and rural perspectives. These elements give the silent comedy its unique character in the Keaton oeuvre, with its own particular gags, even though the basic situation of Keaton’s awkward, earnest protagonist remains more or less the same. Although it lacks the jaw-dropping brilliance of Keaton’s best films, Go West still provides plenty of entertainment, and young viewers will especially appreciate the main character’s odd romance with a four-footed heroine.

Keaton plays the unfortunate Friendless, who follows Horace Greeley’s advice to “go West” after striking out in Indiana and New York. He falls into a job as a cowhand, where he finally finds a friend in a sweet-natured cow named Brown Eyes. When Brown Eyes gets sent to the stockyards by the rancher (Howard Truesdale), Friendless goes to great lengths to save her.

Like Keaton’s most famous film, The General (1926), Go West features the spectacle of our hapless hero atop a moving train, but the most memorable scenes in this picture involve the huge herd of cattle and the chaos that they inspire during their rampage through city streets. The unruly herd routs the locals by venturing into barber shops, department stores, and Turkish bath houses, with Friendless doggedly shooing them back out despite persecution as the cause of these intrusions. Keaton then stages a bizarre version of the running of the bulls, inducing the cattle to follow him by donning a red devil costume that works rather better than his character might like.

Less showy but more subtly subversive is Keaton’s substitution of a cow for his usual love interest. Brown Eyes plays the same role as the heroine in other Keaton films; like Annabelle Lee in The General, Brown Eyes has to be rescued from frequent peril, but her kindness is the transformative experience in the protagonist’s life, and to him she’s worthy of the utmost devotion. The actual girl in Go West, played by Kathleen Myers, never really competes with Brown Eyes for Friendless’ affection, as the picture’s final gag makes clear. Being a cow, however, Brown Eyes has some unique problems for her protector to solve, such as her inability to stand up to the other cattle due to her lack of horns. Friendless’ solution provides one of the silliest images of the film, which is certain to leave kids rolling in the aisles with laughter.

Keaton not only stars but also writes and directs on Go West; for more of his work in front of and behind the camera, see Sherlock Jr. (1924) and Seven Chances (1925). Don’t miss The General (1926), Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), and the earlier short, One Week (1920), as examples of Keaton’s most celebrated work. Any of the Keaton films will work well to introduce children to silent movies, but if the kids love Brown Eyes they’ll also fall for the monkey in The Cameraman (1928).

Friday, June 14, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969)

Like most of the films on which he worked, The Valley of Gwangi (1969) is best known today for the contributions of Ray Harryhausen, the special effects wizard whose pioneering work in stop-motion created monsters and magic long before the advent of CGI. This particular example of Harryhausen’s talent features plenty of fun creatures. made more interesting by their interactions with live actors and sets, but it’s certainly not the best movie in the Harryhausen canon. Haphazardly directed by Jim O’Connolly, The Valley of Gwangi lacks a human cast equal to its stop-motion stars, although the combination of B-Western cowboys and prehistoric dinosaurs does provide an entertaining spectacle once the mysterious valley appears.

Leading the human characters is James Franciscus as Tuck, an ambitious Western showman who wants to buy a wonder horse from his old flame, T.J. (Gila Golan). As it turns out, she has an even more wonderful horse than Tuck expected, a tiny eohippus taken from a forbidden valley by T.J.’s new boyfriend, Carlos (Gustavo Rojo). When gypsies steal the prehistoric steed to return it to its home, Tuck, T.J., Carlos, and Champ (Richard Carlson) team up with paleontologist Professor Bromley (Laurence Naismith) and his young guide, Lope (Curtis Arden), to enter the secret valley and recapture the valuable creature. There they find that the eohippus is only the least dangerous of the valley’s strange inhabitants.

The movie begins as a low-budget cowboy story about a group of Wild West showmen working south of the Mexican border, and except for the eohippus it stays firmly in that genre territory for quite a long time. There are plenty of odd characters poking about, including the ominous gypsies, who are led by an old blind woman with the usual penchant for prophesying doom. Naturally she has a sinister looking dwarf for a sidekick. The gypsies play as the villains in the piece, which doesn’t really make sense when they only want to return little Diablo to his valley home, but the movie seems content to assume that we’ll root for the cowboys and against the gypsies without any rational justification. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, since the audience is really going to root for the dinosaurs as soon as they make their appearance. The real advantage of merging the Western characters with the prehistoric effects is the chance to see the cowboys bullfight one dinosaur and lasso another, and these are some of the best moments of the whole picture.

The actors are an uneven bunch, although there are a few standouts among them. James Franciscus has a handsome face that recalls Charlton Heston’s in its smug, strong jaw and untrustworthy grin, and he does well enough as the leading man, but Gina Golan leaves a lot to be desired as his love interest. Richard Carlson is solid in a small role as the older showman, Champ, and Laurence Naismith is suitably academic and out of his element as Professor Bromley. Curtis Arden brings the cute kid element to the picture without being too precious, and he has some good exchanges with James Franciscus and a memorable encounter with a pterodactyl. As is often the case with monster movies, there are too many characters in the mix, largely to give the dinosaurs more opportunities to eat them, and we get little development for colorfully named cowboys like Rowdy and Bean.

Of the lot, Naismith probably had the best film career. See more of him in Village of the Damned (1960), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), and Camelot (1967), in which he played Merlyn. James Franciscus also stars in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). For more of Ray Harryhausen’s iconic special effects work, see The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), and Clash of the Titans (1981).

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973)

Following Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) brought Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing together for one more modern day conflict as the undead count and his perpetual nemesis. Hammer Studios also relied again on the directorial services of Alan Gibson, with Joanna Lumley replacing Stephanie Beacham as Van Helsing’s vampire bait granddaughter, Jessica. This would be the last pairing of the two iconic horror actors in a Hammer film, and it’s a shame they couldn’t go out from their signature roles with more aplomb, since The Satanic Rites of Dracula recycles one too many elements from previous installments and suffers from some serious third act fatigue.

Cushing plays Lorrimer Van Helsing, the latest in a long line of vampire hunters to oppose the immortal Dracula (Lee). Not long after their previous encounter, which supposedly disposed of the count, Van Helsing discovers that the vampire is back and up to new mischief with a small band of powerful men as his servants. Assisted by Inspector Murray (Michael Coles) and Agent Torrence (William Franklyn), Van Helsing penetrates the lair of Dracula’s blood cult to stop him from unleashing a deadly plague that will destroy all life on Earth. Dracula, however, has many lackeys and thralls at his command, and his plot also includes revenge against Van Helsing by making his granddaughter (Joanna Lumley) an undead bride.

Problems with the picture are not the fault of Cushing and Lee, who always bring a certain gravitas to their characters even in the most ludicrous situations. Lee actually talks more this time out, endowing his “D.D. Denham” cover persona with modern sophistication and a Lugosi-tinged Eastern European accent. Cushing looks much too frail to endure the hazards of combating such a coterie of opponents, but his face is still filled with intelligence and determination, and we believe in him the way that he believes in his silver crosses. The supporting players are generally solid, too, with Lumley and Coles leading the set and bringing a hint of romance to the tale.

The narrative, however, tries too hard to bring in modern elements and genres. It begins as a spy thriller, segues into pornographic occult horror, and then adds an unnecessary twist of science fiction with a super plague that will annihilate the world’s population. Dracula, who doesn’t even appear in much of the movie, ultimately comes off more as a Bond style megalomaniac than a lord of the undead. There’s actually a lot of Bond floating around, from sniper assassinations and staged suicides to hidden cameras and top secret cover-ups. Hammer must have hoped that these additions to their traditional formula would make the film more hip, but they merely detract from the archetypal conflict of good and evil that the essential story tells. It borrows its "secret pact of powerful men" plot from the earlier Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), and like that picture it collapses at the end, with the inevitable defeat of the count something of a letdown and the resolution of the romantic angle left hanging.

Serious Hammer fans will want to see The Satanic Rites of Dracula for Cushing and Lee’s final bows as their famous alter egos, but newcomers to the Hammer canon should start with better examples like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), and Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972). Catch House of the Long Shadows (1983) for Cushing and Lee’s final screen collaboration. Joanna Lumley, best known today for her role on the British television series, Absolutely Fabulous, also made early career appearances in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1968), The Devil’s Widow (1970), and Lady Chatterly Versus Fanny Hill (1971).

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: CHANDU THE MAGICIAN (1932)

In the 1930s, Chandu the Magician was a popular radio program with a supernatural twist that lent itself to eerie sound effects, replete with the creaking doors, ringing bells, and ominous footsteps that made such programs so delightfully spine-tingling for their listeners. The movie version sought to take advantage of the original’s popularity with audiences, but it also had to translate the spooky chills into a visual medium, no small task considering a plot that involves astral bells, hypnotism, and hallucinations as well as exotic locations. Happily, Chandu the Magician (1932) manages to deliver quite a thrilling ride for viewers, thanks to inventive direction by William Cameron Menzies and Marcel Varnel. If Edmund Lowe is a bit stiff as the title hero, the special effects and sense of adventure go a long way to make up for it, but the real treat here is a deliciously evil performance by Bela Lugosi as a madman bent on controlling the world.

Lowe plays Frank Chandler, better known as Chandu the Magician, a white man who has acquired the mental powers of the Hindu yogi as well as their taste in headgear. Chandu leaves India for Egypt to defend the world and his sister’s family against the maniacal Roxor (Lugosi), who hopes to take over the planet by means of a giant death ray invented by Chandu’s brother-in-law, Robert Regent (Henry B. Walthall). Roxor will stop at nothing to gain knowledge of the ray, and Chandu finds himself, his family, and his lovely friend Princess Nadji (Irene Ware) in constant peril from Roxor’s countless lackeys and spies.

Chandu the Magician plays more or less as a horror story because of Bela Lugosi’s presence and the constant threats of sexual violence and torture set against the creepy backdrop of an Egyptian tomb. Fans of adventure stories, however, will notice the beats of that genre as part of the film’s makeup, as well. The set pieces, like the Hindu temple and the slave market, are meant to transport and excite the viewer with their exotic spectacles, and they succeed admirably. The special effects include duplicate versions of Chandu that appear and disappear, guns that change into snakes, ropes that hang in midair, and miniature versions of the boozy sidekick, Miggles (Herbert Mundin), that materialize to taunt him whenever he takes a drink. In between there are plenty of extreme closeup shots of Chandu’s hypnotic eyes and the frozen gazes of his victims.

The performances in the film are a mixed bag, but overall they work well enough to keep the picture interesting. Edmund Lowe, a leading man of the period who had previously played a magician in The Spider (1931), is not really unearthly enough to be credible as a mystic hypnotist, but he looks good in the disguises and has a hearty, masculine presence that works better with the adventure aspect than the supernatural one. Irene Ware puts her beautiful eyes to good use as the love interest, but Virginia Hammond and June Lang (credited as June Vlasek) don’t have a lot to do as the other women except to project the occasional terrified reaction shot. Herbert Mundin has several funny bits as the comic relief, and Henry B. Walthall holds his own as the captive inventor of the death ray, although it’s puzzling why a man with his strong moral convictions would create such a thing in the first place. Bela Lugosi, however, rules the cast with his terrific performance; this is really one of the best places to see him, freed from the distracting makeup and costumes of his more famous roles. In Chandu he looks slim, menacing, and full of sinister energy, and he gets plenty of dialogue to play with, too. He has so much screen presence that the studio got rid of Lowe and cast Lugosi as Chandu in the subsequent films.

For more of William Cameron Menzies’ work in this vein, try Things to Come (1936) or Invaders from Mars (1953). He won two Oscars as an Art Director, for The Dove (1927) and Tempest (1928). Marcel Varnel also directed Oh, Mr. Porter! (1937) and Convict 99 (1938). Give Edmund Lowe another look in Dinner at Eight (1933) and Dillinger (1945). You might recognize Herbert Mundin as Much in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and you’ll find Henry B. Walthall in more than 300 films, including The Birth of a Nation (1915), Wings (1927), and A Tale of Two Cities (1935). For more of Bela Lugosi, start with Dracula (1931) and then move on to Mark of the Vampire (1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which are just a few of his many memorable screen appearances.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Classic Hollywood Stars on the USS Alabama

Earlier this month we made the trip down to Mobile, Alabama, to take the Kid to camp, and while we were there we paid a visit to the USS Alabama. As I perused a wall of photos from the ship's memory book, I was delighted to find this one of Ray Milland, Mary Elliott, Frances Faye, and Rosita (aka Rita!) Moreno visiting the sailors of the Alabama in the South Seas.

You can tell that whoever wrote the caption wasn't a big film buff, but it was great to see the photo and think about the stars who entertained our men in uniform during and after the war. Hope you enjoy this classic movie moment as much as I did!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: BOMBSHELL (1933)

Two of Jean Harlow’s film titles became permanently associated with her image; one is Platinum Blonde (1931) and the other is Bombshell (1933), a very Hollywood look at the life and trials of a fictional leading lady. Under the uncredited direction of Victor Fleming, Bombshell presents a comedic take on the hazards of stardom, with Harlow playing a role for which she already had plenty of personal experience. Although it’s a funny picture with a cast of memorable performers, Bombshell also suggests the darker side of Tinseltown fame, since Harlow’s harried movie queen finds that there’s really no exit from the gilded cage in which she resides.

Harlow plays Hollywood star Lola Burns, who is adored by her fans but beset by leeches and opportunists on every side. Lola’s fame and the studio’s overeager publicity head, Space Hanlon (Lee Tracy), conspire to make her love life impossible, while her nutty relatives thwart her desire for peace at home. Sick of her crazy life, Lola runs away, but neither the studio nor Lola’s family will let go of their meal ticket that easily.

Although she is remembered today primarily as a sex symbol, Harlow shows a natural gift for comedy, and she easily keeps up with her hammy costars. She throws several impressive fits throughout the picture, tossing her platinum curls and stamping her little foot to great effect. Lee Tracy and Frank Morgan give her plenty to fume about with their troublesome characters; Harlow’s screen presence is evident in her ability to keep such inveterate scene-stealers from walking off with her film. Una Merkel, however, has little to do as Lola’s secretary, which is a shame since she knows how to work a comic character just as well as any of her costars. Franchot Tone adds class as the latest man to enter Lola’s life, the well-heeled Gifford Middleton, with C. Aubrey Smith and Mary Forbes as his parents.

Bombshell is ostensibly a comedy, and it does offer some very funny scenes and performances, but there’s also something terribly sad about Lola’s situation. She ends the movie no better than she started, even though we long to see her throw off the mooching father, the opportunistic secretary, and the two-faced publicity man once and for all. She never has a meaningful relationship with another person, even though her desire to adopt a baby shows how much she longs for it. Her career is ultimately nothing more than a glamorous trap from which she cannot escape, even though we know that an actress’ fame lasts only as long as her looks and her youth. Harlow herself would die at the tragically young age of 26, right at the height of her popularity, but her three marriages and two divorces indicate that she must have known something of Lola’s struggle to find real love.

Look for Ted Healy, Pat O’Brien, and Louise Beavers in supporting roles. For more of Jean Harlow, see Platinum Blonde (1931), Wife vs. Secretary (1936), and Saratoga (1937). You’ll find Lee Tracy in Doctor X (1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933). Frank Morgan, best remembered as the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz (1939), also turns up in The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Dimples (1936), and The Shop Around the Corner (1940). Franchot Tone gets better leading man roles in Dancing Lady (1933) and opposite Harlow in The Girl from Missouri (1934). Victor Fleming, the uncredited director of some half dozen films in the 1930s, is best known for his work on Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Wizard of Oz (1939), but he also directed Captains Courageous (1937) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941).

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: SARATOGA (1937)

Although the story itself is a romantic comedy, Saratoga (1937) wears a shroud of sadness peculiar to those films unknowingly made by doomed stars. Jean Harlow, only 26 years old and already a huge Hollywood success, died just before shooting of the picture could be completed, and the studio finished the production and released the movie largely because of her fans’ fervent desire to see her final screen appearance. The loss of its leading lady undermines the movie’s ending, but until then Saratoga is a solid comic outing, featuring a classier role for Harlow and a cast of familiar players that includes Clark Gable, Lionel Barrymore, Walter Pidgeon, Una Merkel, and even Hattie McDaniel.

Harlow stars as Carol Clayton, a child of the horse track crowd who is moving up in the world thanks to her engagement to wealthy Hartley Madison (Walter Pidgeon). When her father dies and leaves the deed to the stud farm as a marker with his bookie, Duke (Clark Gable), Carol insists on buying Duke out before she gets married. Duke sees Carol’s fiancĂ© as a rich target, but his better nature also inclines him to help the Clayton farm and Carol’s crusty old grandfather (Lionel Barrymore).

The early parts of the film are the best, with Harlow looking fabulously put together in a series of fashionable little hats. She and Gable have a sharp, snappy chemistry that marks all of their pictures together, but in Saratoga they clash constantly, and Harlow’s character has a prickly, contrary personality that is markedly different from the brassy, boisterous girls she often played. The problems in the third act caused by Harlow’s death are nobody’s fault, but one can’t help watching the film with a morbid eye for signs of Harlow’s illness or absence. Later scenes do seem to suggest her collapsing health, and the stand-in shots that were necessary to complete the film are glaringly obvious, with "Carol" seen only from the back and her face obscured by hats and other tricks.

Gable flashes his usual charming, roguish grins as the rival for Carol’s affections, and it’s clear from the start that his Duke is a lot more fun than Walter Pidgeon’s rich but rather wooden business tycoon. Gable also has some very good scenes with Lionel Barrymore and Gone with the Wind (1939) costar Hattie McDaniel, who makes the most of yet another domestic role. A crowd of other character actors also helps to keep the story rolling, with Una Merkel enjoying a fine part as Duke’s friend, Fritzi, and Frank Morgan mangling his lines amusingly as Fritzi’s jealous husband, Mr. Kiffmeyer. Look for Margaret Hamilton and her unmistakable nose in one scene with Frank Morgan that will entertain fans of their later film, The Wizard of Oz (1939). Keep an eye out, too, for George Zucco as the patronizing doctor who tries to calm a tightly wound Carol.

For earlier pictures with Harlow and Gable, try Red Dust (1932), China Seas (1935), and Wife Vs. Secretary (1936). Jack Conway, who directed Saratoga, also directed Harlow in Red-Headed Woman (1932), The Girl from Missouri (1934), and Libeled Lady (1936). See more of Walter Pidgeon in How Green Was My Valley (1941), Mrs. Miniver (1942), and Forbidden Planet (1956). Look for Una Merkel in several other Harlow films as well as 42nd Street (1933) and Destry Rides Again (1939). Prolific character actors Lionel Barrymore and Frank Morgan also turn up in additional Harlow pictures, but with more than 200 screen appearances for Barrymore and nearly 100 for Morgan, you’ll find both of them in plenty of classic films, often playing fatherly or grandfatherly roles to a variety of leading ladies, including Shirley Temple.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THREE AGES (1923)

Although it’s not as celebrated today as Sherlock Jr. (1924) or The General (1926), Buster Keaton’s Three Ages (1923) is still funny stuff, even if it ventures into more outlandish settings than most of Keaton’s films. This would be the first of Keaton’s efforts at creating a feature film after a series of shorts; Keaton not only starred in Three Ages but also wrote, directed, and produced it, which means that his influence is felt in every frame of the picture but also that he had a lot riding on this production. Given its place in the formation of the Keaton canon, Three Ages is required viewing for hardcore fans of the silent comedian, but it’s also goofy and energetic enough for the youngest novice to enjoy, even if it lacks the polished brilliance of Keaton’s best films.

Keaton plays the underdog suitor in three interwoven tales of love and war across time: one in the Stone Age, one in the Roman Empire, and one in the modern day of the 1920s. In each incarnation Keaton vies with a larger and more successful rival (Wallace Beery) for the affections of a lovely girl (Margaret Leahy), but fate and his opponent throw one obstacle after another into Buster’s path.

The stories alternate so that we follow our romantic triangle through each segment of the common narrative in batches. Each story is set up, then the contests between the two rivals begin, and from there we proceed through the ups and downs of courtship toward the inevitable end. Of course, the conclusion of each story remains the same, with Buster finally winning his lady fair and retiring to enjoy the pleasures of domestic life, although the fruits of domesticity vary from age to age.

The Stone Age is the most absurd of the three settings, with Buster riding a stop-motion dinosaur and all of the characters engaging in gags that presage those seen on The Flintstones. In the Roman sequences the funniest bit is probably the chariot race, in which Buster drives a dogsled against his rival’s more traditional horses. His handling of a “flat” during that scene is particularly silly, but kids will love it. The lion’s den segment is also charmingly bizarre, especially when Buster searches the lion’s paw for a thorn to pull. There’s nothing remotely realistic about the lion, but he still displays wonderful personality, and his movements are fascinating to watch. The modern plot has fewer opportunities for such wild visual antics, but the situations remain just as comical, and without the crazy costumes we can focus on the more nuanced aspects of the three central characters.

For more of Keaton’s silent features, see Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924), and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). He continued to appear in films long after the silent era ended, and you’ll also find him in In the Good Old Summertime (1949), Sunset Blvd. (1950), and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). Wallace Beery also made the jump to talkies, and today he is best remembered for character roles in classics like Grand Hotel (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), and China Seas (1935). In 1932 he tied with Fredric March for the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in The Champ (1931). Margaret Leahy, the winner of a leading lady contest in England, made no other pictures, so Three Ages is the only chance you’ll have to assess her potential as a silent film star.