Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959)

Like other Hammer adaptations of literary classics, director Terence Fisher’s 1959 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles takes many liberties with its source material but strives to retain the essence of the original’s appeal. Making the best-known and most adapted of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries was a natural step for the studio, which boasted not one but two stars who could credibly play the iconic detective. In this outing, Peter Cushing gets the plum role, while Christopher Lee takes on the part of his client, the heir to an estate that is plagued by a deadly legacy. Purists might squirm at the picture’s many deviations from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, but Hammer fans will find a lot to love in the performances of its legendary stars.

In this adventure, Holmes (Peter Cushing) and Watson (Andre Morell) accept an engagement as the bodyguards of Sir Henry Baskerville (Christopher Lee), who has just inherited the Baskerville estate after the mysterious death of the previous owner. While Watson keeps an eye on Sir Henry, Holmes scours the countryside for clues about the spectral hound who supposedly brings doom to the Baskervilles. Sir Henry becomes interested in Cecile (Marla Landi), the daughter of his neighbor, Stapleton (Ewen Solon), but danger dogs the Baskerville heir at every step.

Cushing makes a very compelling Holmes, so much so that he would play the part again in a 1968 television series and a 1984 TV movie. Like Van Helsing and Victor Frankenstein, Holmes is a character perfectly suited to the fierce intelligence displayed in Cushing’s elegant carriage, expressive face, and precise speech. Christopher Lee would get his own chance to play the sleuth in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962) and two TV movies in 1991 and 1992, but since there can only be one Holmes at a time Lee has to make the most of his role as Sir Henry, which gives him the unusual opportunity to be a romantic lead in his scenes with the smoldering Marla Landi. Neither Cushing nor Lee could play the part of Watson, that exemplar of hearty British normalcy, but Andre Morell fills the role very nicely. Holmes’ cold brilliance requires Watson’s merely human counterpoint, but Morell never makes a buffoon of his Watson, which is a great relief to those bothered by less flattering depictions of the detective’s stalwart companion.

Although The Hound of the Baskervilles is not really a horror movie, Hammer milks the gruesome backstory for all the lurid material it can offer. The lengthy opening sequence delays our introduction to the main players but revels in the history of the sadistic Sir Hugo (David Oxley), whose sins supposedly bring about the curse of the monstrous hound. Kidnapping, torture, rape, and murder are the themes of the introduction, making the events that follow seem quite tame by comparison. For all its delight in shocking the viewer up front, the movie remains oddly coy about showing the hound itself, but the budget and effects available at the time produce a rather unexciting beast, so that might be for the best. The human monsters are far more interesting, and each of them gets an opportunity to be perfectly awful, with the requisite poetic justice not far behind.

Terence Fisher also directed Cushing and Lee in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), and The Mummy (1959). You’ll find Christopher Lee playing Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft, in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). Look for Andre Morell in Stage Fright (1950), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and Ben-Hur (1959); although not as famous as his two costars, he had quite an impressive career in both television and film. For the sake of comparison, try other classic Sherlock Holmes movies like The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), A Study in Terror (1965), and Murder by Decree (1979). You could really spend the rest of your life watching Holmes adaptations and pastiches; along with Count Dracula, he is one of the most frequently depicted fictional characters of all time.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT (1933)

Barbara Stanwyck is always exciting to watch, especially in Pre-Code pictures that let her characters straddle a fascinating line between good and bad. Baby Face (1933) is the best known of her films from this era, but Ladies They Talk About (1933) also merits admiration, especially because Stanwyck gives such a great performance as its anti-heroine, a jaded crook who nonetheless wins the love of a straight arrow crusader against crime. Most of the movie takes place inside a women's prison, which gives Ladies They Talk About plenty of ladies who warrant some discussion, as well as lots of opportunities to revel in the freedoms of Pre-Code film production. Like its iconic star, Ladies They Talk About is smart, sexy, and as tough as they come.

Stanwyck stars as Nan Taylor, a career criminal and the lone female member of a gang of bank robbers. When a sharp-eyed detective recognizes Nan at the scene of the robbery, she ends up going to jail, but she also attracts the attention of David Slade (Preston Foster), an energetic young reformer from her old hometown. Nan confesses her role in the robbery to Slade, who then retracts his offer to help her avoid prison, even though he really cares about her. In the women's section of San Quentin, Nan refuses to see Slade and becomes embroiled in her gang's jailbreak attempt, but her feelings for the handsome Slade are far more complicated than she realizes.

This is Stanwyck's picture from start to finish, and she never disappoints. Her Nan is one cool customer, even on her first day in prison. A less self-assured woman might be daunted by the cries of "New fish!" that go up when Nan enters the common rooms, but she promptly shows her mettle and puts down Susie (Dorothy Burgess), the rival whose jealous obsession with Slade makes her Nan's inveterate enemy. Only Slade has the ability to rock Nan's boat; she melts enough to confess to him early on, but his moralistic reaction strikes her as an unforgivable betrayal. She angrily tears up his letters and then plots revenge against him, but her attraction to him reveals her own better nature, even when she herself refuses to acknowledge it.

The other players merely support Stanwyck's performance, but they do so capably, especially Lillian Roth as Nan's scrappy friend, Linda, and the wonderful Ruth Donnelly as a kind-hearted prison matron. Preston Foster has the clean features and erect posture expected of a religious reformer, but he never seems too stuffy to be likable. Dorothy Burgess plays Susie with a compelling mixture of malice and madness without upstaging the star, although Maude Eburne does engage in some scene stealing as the earthy old madam, Aunt Maggie. In fact, the women of San Quentin make up quite a colorful lot, including the murderous Mrs. Arlington (Cecil Cunningham) and the feisty Mustard (Madame Sul-Te-Wan).

Be sure to appreciate the posh amenities of the prison, including the women's numerous pets and the cell walls decorated with movie stars' pictures. For more classic women's prison movies, try Caged (1950) and I Want to Live! (1958). Barbara Stanwyck's other Pre-Code films include Illicit (1931), Night Nurse (1931), and The Purchase Price (1932). You'll find Preston Foster in Doctor X (1932), I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), and The Last Days of Pompeii (1935). Howard Bretherton and William Keighley, who directed Ladies They Talk About, also collaborated on The Match King (1932).

Ladies They Talk About is currently available from streaming on Warner Instant Archive.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: JIMMY THE GENT (1934)

James Cagney and Bette Davis only made two pictures together, the first of which was Jimmy the Gent (1934), and the second The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941). The pairing of these two huge personalities might seem like a match made in heaven, but neither of their collaborations is as good as their individual films, perhaps because both put Bette Davis into uncertain territory as a comedic heroine. In Jimmy the Gent, Michael Curtiz directs the two stars through a rocky romance that plays like a tamer version of a typical Pre-Code comedy, which makes sense given the movie’s release date in 1934, just as the Hays Code really started to be enforced. There are laughs to be found in Jimmy the Gent, thanks to Cagney and the daffy charms of Alice White, but the picture will mostly appeal to those who have a vested interest in the careers of the two iconic leads.

Cagney plays Jimmy Corrigan, who specializes in providing imaginary heirs for the fortunes of dead millionaires, with a generous cut for himself as the reward. Bette Davis bristles as the more ethical Joan Martin, who used to work for Jimmy but jumped ship to his upscale rival, Wallingham (Alan Dinehart). As Jimmy makes an effort to polish his act, he and Wallingham end up supporting rival heirs to an old lady’s fortune, but Jimmy’s real plan is to win back Joan by exposing Wallingham as a cheat and a heel.

With his shaved head topped with a cockscomb of wavy hair, Cagney has the feisty demeanor of a barnyard rooster, strutting and crowing in an office full of attractive hens. He plays up the comedic aspects of his character, who talks like a gangster but is really a much milder kind of crook, and his most violent acts involve throwing things at his sidekick, Louie (Allen Jenkins). Jimmy yearns for class and the appearance of respectability, but he doesn’t fully comprehend either. In fact, Jimmy is crooked to the core; even his show of “ethics” to win back Joan is merely that. Cagney invests the character with such energy and humor that we want to like him in spite of his amoral behavior, but some of his dealings are so shady that it’s hard to forgive him, especially when Jimmy plans ahead of time to cheat Gladys Farrell (Mayo Methot) out of her cut of the money that he promises to give her.

Bette Davis ends up being another problem with our final sense of the picture. A different leading lady, perhaps Jean Harlow or Joan Blondell, might have made Jimmy the Gent a real corker of a comedy, but Bette Davis plays it perfectly straight, and her performance creates a jarring sense of dual genres. The shift is especially noticeable in her scenes with Alan Dinehart, when his smirks and double takes contrast with her melodramatic delivery of her lines. The movie also saddles Davis with an odd hairstyle and camera angles that don’t necessarily flatter her face, but this is still early in her career, before she was a big enough star to have a say in such matters. Her breakout role would come later the same year, when her dramatic talents were put to much better use in Of Human Bondage (1934). I would never say that Bette Davis was bad in anything, but Jimmy the Gent is by no means the best place to see her, and her performance suggests that she knows this isn't her kind of movie or the sort of character she was meant to play.

For more of Cagney’s early comedic roles, try Blonde Crazy (1931), Lady Killer (1933), and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). See Bette Davis come into her own in The Petrified Forest (1936), Marked Woman (1937), and Jezebel (1938). Bette Davis could do comedy very well when the material was right; try, for example, the very funny It's Love I'm After (1937), in which Davis stars with Leslie Howard and Olivia de Havilland. For more of Allen Jenkins, look for Lawyer Man (1932), Blondie Johnson (1933), and The Mayor of Hell (1933). Michael Curtiz is best remembered today as the director of Casablanca (1942), but his other films from the early 1930s include Doctor X (1932), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), and Captain Blood (1935).

Jimmy the Gent is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE UNKNOWN (1927)

Lon Chaney’s talent for physical transformation takes a different form in this silent horror film from Tod Browning, the director best remembered today for Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932). Like Freaks, this earlier Browning production also unfolds in a circus, with Chaney as one of the sideshow acts, and it presages the later movie’s themes of altered bodies, unrequited love, and terrible revenge. As the movie’s murderous protagonist, Chaney gives an intense, powerful performance that silent horror fans are certain to appreciate, but Joan Crawford also provides part of the appeal as the object of Chaney’s deranged devotion.

Chaney stars as Alonzo, an armless performer in a gypsy circus. His inability to touch her attracts the friendship of the beautiful Nanon (Joan Crawford), who harbors a phobia of men’s hands. Alonzo, however, has a dangerous secret; he does have arms, which he keeps hidden because a deformity of his fingers marks him as a wanted criminal. Alonzo pretends to encourage his handsome rival, Malabar (Norman Kerry), to pursue Nanon, but secretly he plots to win her for himself, even if keeping her love means making a monstrous sacrifice.

Many of Chaney’s most famous characters depend on makeup and appliances to alter his face, but as Alonzo he looks more or less like himself, if outfitted in picturesque gypsy garb. We actually get to see the way in which his arms are bound when Alonzo gets undressed at night, and it looks absolutely excruciating, but the real fascination lies in Alonzo’s expressions, which Chaney brilliantly invests with love, hatred, rage, and grim resolve. We understand that Alonzo is both evil and insane, but we also see that he worships Nanon with a passion even more violent than his darker urges. He will go to any lengths to possess her, and we have to pity him for that devotion, much as we pity all of the great, doomed monsters of classic horror.

As Nanon, Crawford amply justifies Alonzo’s ardor, although she’s so young that you might not recognize her at first glance. With her large eyes and Cupid’s bow mouth, the youthful Crawford has a softness about her that we don’t normally associate with her image. We do, however, see flashes of the woman she would become later in her film career; when Nanon is frightened, angry, or repulsed, the angles of her face take on their familiar shape, the hard lines revealing that steely, indomitable force. She has her best scenes early on, when she recoils from the amorous Malabar’s embraces; later, once she gets over her fear and accepts him as a lover, she functions mostly as Alonzo’s unwitting tormentor, smiling at her distraught admirer while the hated rival triumphantly takes her in his arms. We can hardly blame Alonzo for plotting an accident that will tear the offensive appendages right off of Malabar’s muscular torso.

Browning and Chaney both revel in a perverse sense of irony that builds to a crescendo around the halfway point and then spills over into the conclusion, but the climax really comes with Alonzo’s realization, too late, that he has made his sacrifice in vain. It’s an extreme but effective reminder not to count one’s chickens before they hatch, and the scene delights in showing us the happy couple’s caresses contrasted with Alonzo’s increasing hysteria in reply. They don’t know why he laughs, and cries, and faints, but we do, and the result is brilliantly awful, the kind of moment that makes a viewer squirm with an unbearably delicious sense of agony and dread. It is precisely the kind of sublime horror that the best of the silent films excel at evoking.

Alloy Orchestra provides musical accompaniment on the Warner Archive version of the film, which enhances the mood without being intrusive. For more Chaney and Browning collaborations, see West of Zanzibar (1928) and Where East is East (1929). You can see Chaney in his most iconic roles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925); Norman Kerry appears in both of those films, as well. For more of Joan Crawford's early screen work, see West Point (1927) and Our Dancing Daughters (1928).

The Unknown is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant, along with the 1928 Chaney picture, Laugh, Clown, Laugh.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Short Stories for Classic Horror Fans

Here on Virtual Virago, I write primarily about classic movies, but that's not the only kind of writing that I do. In the last year I finally gathered my courage and started publishing short stories on Kindle at Amazon; I'm also slowly working my way through a novel, but I love the faster turnaround time that short fiction allows, and I taught short stories for so many years that they feel very comfortable and familiar to me.

The short stories that I write generally fall into the categories of horror, fantasy, or science fiction, but they are deeply influenced by my lifelong passion for classic horror movies and literature. I'm not particularly interested in gore; I prefer the psychological thrills of Val Lewton's work to the slashers of more recent years. Poetic justice is also a going concern; I like to see bad apples forcibly tossed out of the mortal barrel. Hopefully those are things that you also enjoy.

Here are the short stories currently published on Kindle; I hope you'll take a look and maybe even read one or two. I put them on free promo as often as they are eligible, but I certainly wouldn't mind a few actual sales!

DESICCATED - You know how all of those old mummy movies feature reincarnated Egyptian princesses? You get one here, too, but seen from the perspective of an overwhelmed young mother. Most of my stories play in my head like Twilight Zone episodes, but this one has more of an Amazing Stories feel to it.

THE SPINSTERS- I love Arsenic and Old Lace. I have a thing for oddball old ladies. These sweet little spinsters have a surprise or two for an unscrupulous con man who preys on the elderly.

THIS IS NOT A LIFE  - Shakespeare, Magritte, and the conventions of classic science fiction mingle in this story, which also owes a debt to Forbidden Planet. I originally had the title in French, but I decided that was a bit too much. Still, "Ceci n'est pas une vie" has a certain ring to it, I think.

Several more stories are currently in various stages of completion. I hope to have a full book-length collection up on Kindle sometime in the spring!

If you're curious about the other kinds of writing that keep me busy, you can check out my Amazon Author Page, although it doesn't include the editions of classic novels I have worked on for Barnes & Noble.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE LEOPARD MAN (1943)

The Leopard Man (1943) provides another example of the collaborative efforts of RKO producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur, a pair best known for their work on the iconic horror classic, Cat People (1942). Although this movie returns us to feline territory, the story takes a more practical view of horror, with suggestions of the supernatural limited to the dark fate predicted by a fortune teller's cards. The Leopard Man is strictly a low-budget production, with few familiar stars in sight, but like most of Lewton's pictures it shows what a talented filmmaker can do with a lot of imagination and a very small amount of cash. It's not the first Lewton film a newcomer should see - that would be Cat People or I Walked with a Zombie (1943), also directed by Tourneur - but it's a worthwhile addition to the horror canon, and at only 66 minutes long it doesn't take much time to experience.

Dennis O'Keefe stars as Jerry, the manager and boyfriend of an attractive singer named Kiki (Jean Brooks). Jerry and Kiki are playing a gig in New Mexico when he decides to generate publicity by renting a showman's leopard for Kiki to use as a prop, but the leopard promptly escapes. Soon young women are turning up dead all over town; the leopard is the obvious suspect, but Jerry realizes that something more sinister might be taking place.

Suspense and atmosphere are the key elements in this picture, which depends on the creation of a certain mood much more than it relies on the actual leopard or the killer who impersonates him. We see very little of either predator during the movie's most riveting scenes, when the young women meet their violent ends. The most famous is the first death scene, in which a frightened girl finds herself locked out of her house as something terrible closes in. Her skeptical mother, safely on the inside, mocks her until the girl's screams become too horrific to ignore. By then it is too late, and we see the dark pool of the girl's blood ooze beneath the door. The next girl meets an equally gory death in a walled cemetery, while a third, more brazen than her fellow victims, tries to laugh at the death card the fortune teller repeatedly draws for her. These moments make the most effective use of pacing, shadow, and sound, especially as Clo-Clo (Margo), the third young woman, plays a constant rhythm on her castanets wherever she goes.

Other Lewton films rely on the star power of actors like Simone Simon, Boris Karloff, Frances Dee, or Anna Lee, but The Leopard Man lacks a really fascinating central character. Dennis O'Keefe and Jean Brooks have no air of mystery about them; they're just two all-American folks hoping to assuage their guilt by finding the leopard and the opportunistic killer. The first two victims are lovely but not especially interesting girls, and they have too little screen time for us to become really invested in them. More compelling are Clo-Clo and her fortune teller friend, Maria, played by the very capable Isabel Jewell; they get quite a bit of development, and Clo-Clo's feisty, sweet and salty personality makes her the most engaging female character in the movie. While it would spoil the movie's ending to say too much about the killer, this is definitely not a story that makes a protagonist out of the heavy, which might be a bit of a letdown given the title and the implied possibilities for psychological aberration.

The story of The Leopard Man is adapted from Cornell Woolrich's novel, Black Alibi; film noir fans will also know Woolrich as the writer behind Phantom Lady (1944), Black Angel (1946), and Rear Window (1954). For more Lewton horror, try Curse of the Cat People (1944), The Body Snatcher (1945), and Bedlam (1946). Jacques Tourneur is best remembered today as the director of Out of the Past (1947), but he also made The Flame and the Arrow (1950), Night of the Demon (1957), and The Comedy of Terrors (1963). You'll find Dennis O'Keefe in Brewster's Millions (1945), T-Men (1947), and Raw Deal (1948). Jean Brooks and Isabel Jewell also star in Lewton's 1943 film, The Seventh Victim. See more of the charismatic Margo in Lost Horizon (1937) and Viva Zapata! (1952).

The Leopard Man is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Feel the Love with Warner Archive Instant

Valentine's Day is just around the corner, which means it's time to snuggle up with some of classic Hollywood's most romantic couples. Assuming Snowpocalypse Redux doesn't trap me at home, I'll be introducing a screening of Casablanca at a swanky Valentine's Day dinner event, but you can have classic movie romance right on the couch at home. Warner Archive Instant, my favorite streaming service, has plenty of romantic movies to enjoy with your box of chocolates and bottle of bubbly. Even if your cuddle companion is a puggle or a pint of Ben & Jerry's, you can enjoy the moment with the right movie. Here are ten of my top picks for Valentine's Day from the current Warner Archive Instant catalog.

1) Bachelor Mother (1939) - Ginger Rogers and David Niven star in this saucy romantic comedy about a shopgirl who accidentally acquires a foundling when she's accused of being its real mother. If you prefer your romantic comedies on the sprightly side, with lots of laughs, then this one is a sure bet. Donald Duck and Charles Coburn both play entertaining supporting roles. The 1956 remake, Bundle of Joy, is also in the current catalog.

2) Jewel Robbery (1932) - For a Pre-Code romantic comedy, try this classy little gem starring William Powell and the lovely Kay Francis.William Dieterle directs the snappy fun, which also features performances from Helen Vinson, Alan Mowbray, and Hardie Albright. For a double feature, pair this one with Man Wanted (1932), which is also in the current streaming catalog.

3) Sylvia Scarlett (1935) - Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant star in this romantic comedy with a gender-bending twist that's right out of Shakespeare. Edmund Gwenn has a fun role as Hepburn's morally challenged dad, and Brian Aherne plays the manly artist who attracts our heroine's amorous attention. George Cukor, who also worked with the stars on The Philadelphia Story (1940), directs.

4) Romeo and Juliet (1936) - Speaking of Shakespeare, you can't get much more romantic than a classic love story like this one, even if Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer are awfully mature to play the Bard's adolescent lovers. George Cukor directs again, and the supporting cast includes John Barrymore, Edna May Oliver, Basil Rathbone, Andy Devine, and Reginald Denny. The film picked up four Oscar nominations, including nods for Shearer and Rathbone, but went home empty-handed.

5) Romance (1930) - Greta Garbo stars in this aptly named picture from the early sound era. Garbo plays an opera singer with a complicated love life, while Lewis Stone and Gavin Gordon play some of her paramours. The movie earned two Oscar nominations: Garbo was nominated for Best Actress and director Clarence Brown also earned a nod, but neither won.

6) On Dangerous Ground (1951) - If you like your love stories film noir dark, try this excellent outing from director Nicholas Ray. Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan star as a couple whose relationship forms subtly over the course of a murder investigation. Lupino plays a blind woman who is willing to make tremendous sacrifices for those she loves, while Ryan is a damaged cop looking for something to arrest his headlong plunge towards violence and bitterness.

7) The Flame and the Arrow (1950) - For swashbuckling romance without the mushy stuff, it's hard to bear Jacques Tourneur's top-notch adventure, which stars Burt Lancaster and Virginia Mayo. Can't get a babysitter? Gather the kids and watch this one as a family. Like The Princess Bride (1987), The Flame and the Arrow has everything - fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, and true love. Don't miss Lancaster's buddy and former acrobatic partner Nick Cravat as the hero's mute but nimble sidekick.

8) All This, and Heaven Too (1940) - For classic, big drama romance, check out Bette Davis and Charles Boyer in this film from Anatole Litvak. The supporting cast includes Virginia Weidler, Henry Daniell, Harry Davenport, June Lockhart, and Montagu Love, and the movie earned three Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.

9) Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (1940) - Mickey Rooney's lovable protagonist is up to his usual tricks in this installment of the beloved Andy Hardy series. This time out, Andy gets his head turned by a New York socialite (Diana Lewis). This is another romantic story that's totally family-friendly, since Andy's brand of romance is definitely puppy love. The supporting players include Judy Garland, Lewis Stone, and Ann Rutherford, along with the rest of the usual Hardy crew. You're Only Young Once (1937) and Judge Hardy and Son (1939) are also in the current catalog.

10) The Constant Nymph (1943) - Joan Fontaine and Charles Boyer star in this well-regarded adaptation of the novel and play, with direction by Edmund Goulding. Fontaine earned her third and final Best Actress nomination for her performance as Tessa, but she lost to Jennifer Jones for The Song of Bernadette (1943). The supporting cast includes big stars like Peter Lorre, Charles Coburn, and Dame May Whitty.

Visit the Warner Archive Instant site for yourself to find a full list of the current streaming catalog. The movies available do change periodically, so it's a good idea to check every week or so for new content.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE MIRROR CRACK'D (1980)

Director Guy Hamilton's 1980 film, The Mirror Crack'd, is not the greatest screen adaptation of an Agatha Christie mystery; there are plenty of more likely contenders for that title, including Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and Death on the Nile (1978). That said, it is a solid enough picture, perhaps a bit slow, but worth the time for Christie fans, particularly those who favor the village investigations of Miss Marple, here played by the very capable Angela Lansbury. The best audience for The Mirror Crack'd, however, is undoubtedly the experienced classic movie fan, who will appreciate this picture's dense web of classic Hollywood references, allusions, and inside jokes.

As Miss Marple, Lansbury enjoys a ringside seat at a murder investigation that begins when a group of Hollywood players settles in the neighborhood to make a lavish costume drama. At a party hosted by the American celebrities, one of the locals, Heather Babcock (Maureen Bennett), is fatally poisoned, and the evidence suggests that the intended victim was actually troubled star, Marina Rudd (Elizabeth Taylor). Plenty of suspects surround the actress, including her husband, Jason (Rock Hudson), her assistant, Ella (Geraldine Chaplin), and her hated rival, Lola (Kim Novak). Scotland Yard sends Miss Marple's nephew, Inspector Craddock (Edward Fox), to solve the case, and he naturally relies upon his observant aunt for assistance in discovering the identity of the murderer.

As a sleuth, Lansbury is best known as Jessica Fletcher, the heroine of the television series, Murder, She Wrote, but she makes a perfectly good Miss Marple, although in 1980 she was really too young for the role at only 55. There's less than a decade between Lansbury and her costar, Elizabeth Taylor, but Taylor looks decidedly middle-aged, while Lansbury's makeup and costume are designed to pass her off as a little old lady. The two actresses had first appeared together as sisters in National Velvet back in 1944, so The Mirror Crack'd represents a kind of reunion for its two stars. They are joined by an elite ensemble of classic Hollywood A-listers, with Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, Charlie Chaplin's daughter, Geraldine Chaplin, and Kim Novak all playing substantial parts. Of the lot, Kim Novak has the most fun; she makes off with the entire film in her role as brassy, bitchy Lola Brewster, a wicked parody of the rotten Hollywood diva.

Christie's plot derives from a well-known Hollywood tragedy involving classic star Gene Tierney, which I won't summarize here because knowing what happened makes it all too easy to see how the mystery will end. Wait until after the movie to look it up if you aren't familiar with the real-life events. Other allusions in the film include the middle initial of Tony Curtis' producer character, a reference to David O. Selznick, as well as spoken lines from the characters that pay tribute to the other films of the stars playing the roles. Elizabeth Taylor, for example, gets to mock Kim Novak for looking like Lassie, with whom Taylor had starred in Lassie Come Home (1943), while Rock Hudson's frequent costar Doris Day is mentioned in another joke.

The Mirror Crack'd takes its title from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's famous poem, The Lady of Shalott; Christie named the original novel The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side and used the poem as a recurring motif. Most of the film's stars are easy enough to find in other pictures, especially Elizabeth Taylor. Blink and you'll miss an uncredited appearance by a very young Pierce Brosnan. For more Miss Marple, see the films starring Margaret Rutherford from the 1960s, starting with Murder She Said (1961). You can see Angela Lansbury in her most important early roles in Gaslight (1944) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). Director Guy Hamilton is best known for his work with the James Bond franchise; he directed Goldfinger (1964), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), Live and Let Die (1973), and The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE UNSUSPECTED (1947)

Michael Curtiz’s 1947 thriller, The Unsuspected, puts Claude Rains back into the kind of role he had already played with great success in films like Casablanca (1942) and Notorious (1946), so it’s no surprise that he’s equally compelling as Victor Grandison, the suave but manipulative radio host who is really this picture’s protagonist. Fans of the incomparable Rains will enjoy The Unsuspected because it focuses on his character and gives him a series of excellent scenes in which to work out Grandison’s various moods, although the romantic leads aren’t able to hold the screen against their more interesting costar. Despite a few weak spots that hold it back from true greatness, The Unsuspected is certainly worth watching if you like Claude Rains, and it also offers some memorable performances from Audrey Totter, Hurd Hatfield, and Constant Bennett.

Rains dominates the movie as the “genial host” of a murder mystery radio show, who lives with his vicious niece, Althea (Audrey Totter), and her drunken husband, Oliver (Hurd Hatfield), in a mansion that actually belongs to Grandison’s ward, the naive Matilda (Joan Caulfield). When Matilda unexpectedly returns home after being presumed drowned in a shipwreck, she finds not only her familiar housemates but also Steven (Ted North), a mysterious young man who claims to be her husband. Murder, mystery, and hysteria ensue as the apparent suicide of Grandison’s secretary is revealed to be foul play, and the chief suspects are the residents of Matilda’s own home.

A strong Gothic quality hangs over the whole plot, with the imperiled heiress constantly under siege from one quarter or another. Her sanity is already questionable because of the shock of being lost at sea, and the events that unfold do little to improve her mental health. Like Paula Alquist in Gaslight (1944) or Lina McLaidlaw in Suspicion (1941), Matilda Frazier spends much of the story coming unglued, but Joan Caulfield lacks the presence of an Ingrid Bergman or a Joan Fontaine. We never see enough spine in this heroine to root for her or really fear for her safety. In fact, Caulfield’s Matilda is such a milquetoast that it’s easy to see why Althea hates her and much more difficult to understand her appeal to either Steven or Oliver. Steven also comes off as a bland, straight arrow sort, which undermines his guise as the forgotten husband. Joseph Cotten or Cary Grant might have played his role with a little more menace and uncertainty, but Ted North, credited as Michael North, can’t muster the necessary subtlety, and this role would prove to be his last screen appearance.

As problematic as the lovers might be, there are several solid players giving top-notch performances here. Rains, of course, puts his talent for slippery types to excellent use, and his hypnotizing voice makes him a perfect choice for a radio host. The great Audrey Totter oozes malice as nasty Althea, who steals Oliver from Matilda just for spite and quickly gets to work on Steven when she finds out that he belongs to Matilda, too. Hurd Hatfield, best remembered today as the title character in the 1945 adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, here looks more like Dorian’s ruined portrait than his ageless original, with the decay of alcohol and self-loathing heavy on his brow. He makes us pity Oliver even as we deplore the weakness that leaves him vulnerable to Althea’s predatory charms. Constance Bennett has a small but effective part as Jane, who works for Grandison and is deeply interested in finding out who killed his secretary. Unlike Matilda and Althea, who could easily relocate to a Gothic castle, Jane is a thoroughly modern woman, cheerful, smart, and independent. Her no-nonsense attitude and strong moral character make her the only female character in the movie who is never in the slightest bit of danger.

Be sure to appreciate comedian Fred Clark in a supporting role as Richard Donovan. See more of Claude Rains in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and The Wolf Man (1941). You’ll find Audrey Totter in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Tension (1949), and The Set Up (1949). Michael Curtiz also directed Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Mildred Pierce (1945), and White Christmas (1954). For even more Gothic thrillers, try Rebecca (1940), Jane Eyre (1943), and Dragonwyck (1946).

The Unsuspected is available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


If you know much about writer and director Preston Sturges, you might well go into The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949) expecting too much. Sturges, after all, was the brilliant creative force behind smartly daring comedies like The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), but this Western musical comedy starring Betty Grable lacks the punch of those classic films. Despite that, The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend is still amusing enough to be worth watching, especially because of a sprightly supporting cast and several instances of Sturges’ typically outrageous humor.

The story follows Freddie Jones (Grable), a feisty singer in a frontier saloon who gets into trouble when she accidentally shoots a judge in the rear end while aiming for her faithless lover, Blackie (Cesar Romero). Freddie and her pal, Conchita (Olga San Juan), hightail it out of Bashful Bend and impersonate a schoolteacher and her Native American maid in another town further down the railroad line, where Freddie entertains the advances of a wealthy local (Rudy Vallee). Trouble pursues the girls when Blackie discovers their hiding place and the resulting shenanigans cause a shootout in the town.

Grable is fetching as the trigger happy heroine, and her musical number early in the picture is fun, especially as her backup singers react to her plans to finish the song with a bang. Cesar Romero projects his customary charm as her roving paramour, and Rudy Vallee is reliably cast as the fussy golden boy. The romantic relationship between Freddie and Blackie sadly lacks development, and the joke about the judge’s posterior gets old by the end of the picture, but Sturges’ usual crew of character actors liven things up, and Sterling Holloway is hilariously weird as a crazy local youth. There’s also a great cameo appearance by Margaret Hamilton early in the movie. Upstaging all of these comedians is the simply delightful Olga San Juan as Freddie’s Mexican friend, Conchita. Whatever the other failings of the picture might be, her knowing, naughty performance makes the whole thing worthwhile.

Be sure to catch the strains of the old murder ballad, “Frankie and Johnny,” in the score whenever Freddie and Blackie get together. Look for more of Betty Grable in Down Argentine Way (1940), I Wake Up Screaming (1941), and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). Best remembered today for his role as the Joker on the 1960s Batman series, Cesar Romero can also be found in Wee Willie Winkie (1937), Orchestra Wives (1942), and Vera Cruz (1954). Rudy Vallee plays similar characters in The Palm Beach Story (1942) and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947). Olga San Juan never became a star, but you can find her in a couple of comedies, including Blue Skies (1946), Variety Girl (1947), and One Touch of Venus (1948). Finally, ask the kids if they recognize the distinctive tones of that maniacal redheaded fellow; Sterling Holloway provided the voice for several memorable Disney characters, including the Cheshire Cat and Winnie the Pooh.

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: MARKED WOMAN (1937)

The world of the gangster movie is largely a boys' club, where women exist only as victims or commodities and the mobsters' guns serve as constant reminders of their phallic power. In opposition to that trend we have director Lloyd Bacon's very effective Marked Woman (1937), which features Bette Davis as the leader of a group of women who fight back against the mob's control over their lives. Inspired by the real-life fall of mobster Lucky Luciano in 1936, Marked Woman is a film that took a lot of finesse to get by the censors, but it's an excellent example of a classic Warner Bros. gangster picture that also offers something different from the studio's better-known films.

Davis stars as Mary Dwight, one of five "hostesses" at a night club newly acquired by Johnny Vanning (Eduardo Ciannelli), a vicious crime lord. At first, Mary and her friends agree to play by Vanning's rules, and Mary even helps the mobster beat a murder charge prosecuted by a crusading assistant district attorney named David Graham (Humphrey Bogart). Later, Vanning murders Mary's innocent kid sister, Betty (Jane Bryan), and the devastated Mary leads the women in a dangerous bid to help Graham bring Vanning to justice for his crimes.

Of course the women are prostitutes. The movie calls them "hostesses" to placate the censors, but there's little doubt about their real occupation at the club. When Vanning first takes over, his speech to the assembled girls pointedly includes directions to soften up the suckers for the gambling tables by any means necessary, and later scenes show them cozying up to various men according to the management's orders. The seedy nature of their work contrasts with their beautiful clothes and attractive faces, but they are all tough survivors underneath, pragmatic and jaded enough to cover up Vanning's crimes and keep their mouths shut. The actresses who play the women are all very good at projecting those facets of their characters' personalities. Davis is the undisputed star, but Isabel Jewell is very good as the soiled Southern belle, Emmy Lou, and Lola Lane, Mayo Methot, and Rosalind Marquis all give solid performances, as well. In the most powerful scene in the film, the gangsters beat and mutilate Davis' Mary behind closed doors while the other girls (and the audience) shudder in horror at the sounds of screams and blows. When the door opens, we see only the girls' white-faced reaction shots as clues to the carnage inside. Davis proves her talent for dramatic transformation when she later appears bandaged and beaten in a hospital bed, the wrecked visage and copious gauze a result of her own decision to make the scene more realistic than Bacon and the make-up department had intended.

Bogart's role is comparatively small, although the film marks a reunion with Davis following their appearance together in The Petrified Forest in 1936. At least the part of David Graham put him on the other side of the law for a change. More importantly for Bogart, the film introduced him to Mayo Methot, whom he married in 1938, although the union would prove to be a train wreck that ended with divorce in 1945. Eduardo Ciannelli has a meatier part as the gangster boss, and he makes a truly horrifying villain. Jane Bryan is fresh-faced and sweet as Davis' kid sister, a perfect contrast to the streetwise group who avenge her tragic death.

You'll find plenty of more masculine gangster action in films like Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932). For more of Bogart and Davis, see Kid Galahad (1937) and Dark Victory (1939). Isabel Jewell is probably best remembered today for her performance as the unlikable Emmy Slattery in Gone with the Wind (1939). Look for Mayo Methot with Davis and James Cagney in Jimmy the Gent (1934). For more from Lloyd Bacon, try 42nd Street (1933), Footlight Parade (1933), and Brother Orchid (1940).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.