Friday, May 30, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: PSYCHO (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) marks the arrival of the slasher genre on the Hollywood horror scene, and today it retains a powerful hold on the public imagination, even though the movie itself is quite tame by modern standards. Because the picture has become so familiar, even to people who aren’t necessarily fans of old movies or Hitchcock, it’s almost impossible to watch Psycho now without knowing all of its major twists and turns. We can’t recapture the suspense of seeing it the way audiences did in 1960, but we can still appreciate its iconic Bernard Herrmann score, its diabolical cinematography, and the absolutely brilliant performance of Anthony Perkins as one of cinema’s most dangerously devoted sons. It isn’t Hitchcock’s best or smartest picture, but Psycho remains essential viewing for all serious cinephiles, especially those interested in the history of horror.

Perkins plays the boyish Norman Bates, an amateur taxidermist and the proprietor of the largely empty Bates Motel. His establishment attracts Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a Phoenix secretary who has skipped town with $40,000 of her employer’s money and is on her way to find her divorced lover, Sam (John Gavin), whom she hasn’t been able to marry because of his alimony payments. Marion’s sister, Lila (Vera Miles), and a private detective (Martin Balsam) both set out to track Marion down, and their investigations lead them to the Bates Motel, where Norman’s mysterious mother seems to be the key to finding out what has become of Marion and the missing money.

Much has been made of the brevity of Janet Leigh’s screen time as the picture’s ostensible leading lady, but from the moment he first appears Psycho is really Anthony Perkins’ movie, and his performance gives the film its chilling appeal. His Norman is so vulnerable and eager to please, but the intensity of his personality lurks just below the surface of his puppyish amiability. With Perkins’ assistance, Hitchcock lures us into liking Norman and sympathizing with him, even after the first murder takes place. Norman’s efforts to clean up Mother’s mess reveal his revulsion at the sight of blood, his discomfort with a naked woman’s body, and his determination to protect the object of his adoration, no matter how badly she treats him. Madness or monstrosity by themselves are mere bugbears; Norman’s fragile, sensitive humanity makes him fascinating and, ultimately, all the more disturbing, because we find ourselves sharing his perspective. The final, shocking scene jolts the audience by revealing just how deranged that perspective has become.

As a technical accomplishment, Psycho demonstrates the ways in which camera angles, editing, and scoring help to create effective horror and suspense, especially in the infamous shower scene, where viewers often imagine seeing a lot more than is actually on display. It would be naive, however, to claim that Psycho is a perfect movie. The menacing Bates house, so much more evocative than the bland motel, is rather underused, and the psychiatrist’s scene near the end drags on like a high school lecture. With only two murders in the entire movie, the second one might have benefited from a little more time and attention, even if it doesn’t provide the salacious voyeurism of the first. Finally, Vera Miles and John Gavin are not especially interesting as Lila and Sam; they don’t have any chemistry with each other, and their mundane, middle-class American characters leave us unconcerned for their welfare. They’re just cogs in the plot machine, like so many characters in later and lesser slasher films, and we know that Hitchcock could have done more with them than that.

Psycho earned four Oscar nominations, including a Best Director nod for Hitchcock, but it went home empty-handed in a year dominated by Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960). For contrast, read the original novel by Robert Bloch or endure the generally panned 1998 remake starring Vince Vaughn. Anthony Perkins starred in a couple of Psycho sequels and never really escaped the typecasting that followed the role, but you can see him in a different light in Friendly Persuasion (1956), Desire Under the Elms (1958), and The Trial (1962). Catch Janet Leigh in Touch of Evil (1958), and look for more of Vera Miles in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). See Shadow of a Doubt (1943) for an earlier Hitchcock foray into serial killer territory.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: ACROSS THE WIDE MISSOURI (1951)

Hollywood churned out Westerns during the 1950s, but only a few of them became true classics on the level of Winchester ‘73 (1950) and The Searchers (1956). The rest, like William Wellman’s Across the Wide Missouri (1951), amused the Saturday matinee crowd well enough, and today they are still decent company for an hour or two, especially for fans of the genre as a whole. Although it’s by no means a great film, Across the Wide Missouri offers just enough entertainment to make it interesting, especially in its fine cast and gorgeous Technicolor scenery. Classic movie fans will appreciate Clark Gable in the lead role, with supporting players like Ricardo Montalban, John Hodiak, Adolphe Menjou, and J. Carrol Naish.

Gable stars as Flint Mitchell, a beaver trapper who takes a pretty native wife (María Elena Marqués) as a business arrangement to open up new territory. Soon enough he finds himself in love with his spirited bride, but their happiness is threatened by the antagonism of the Blackfoot warrior, Ironshirt (Ricardo Montalban).

Yes, indeed, we have Ricardo Montalban as the shirtless Blackfoot antagonist, looking almost as ridiculous in retrospect as Rock Hudson in Winchester ’73. Both of the most important “native” roles in the film are actually played by Mexican actors, with the lovely María Elena Marqués making a charming if ethnically inaccurate Blackfoot heroine. The chiefs are equally inauthentic; J. Carrol Naish plays Looking Glass, and Jack Holt appears as the aging Bear Ghost. Of the lot, the Marqués character, Kamiah, proves the most interesting. Unfortunately, she follows the Pocahontas model of Native American femininity; she’s spunky, eager to throw in with the white man’s cause, and safely controlled by tragedy.

Moments of startling cultural conflation provide some of the film’s best scenes. John Hodiak appears as a Scotsman who has adopted Blackfoot dress and culture, which makes his performance of a traditional Scottish jig quite a sight. Later, a Native American chief appears decked in a suit of medieval armor, buckskins, and a huge feather headdress. Throughout the film, the frontier appears as a place where cultural identities are negotiated and revised, with a diverse group of settlers banding together and sharing aspects of their national tastes and traits with one another. Thus we have characters like the French trapper, Pierre (Adolphe Menjou), joining the mix of Scots, Southerners, and natives who populate the wilderness.

Take note of Howard Keel as the uncredited narrator of the tale. For more of Wellman’s Westerns, see The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Buffalo Bill (1944), and Yellow Sky (1948). Gable made several Westerns late in his career, including Lone Star (1952), The Tall Men (1955), The King and Four Queens (1956), and his final picture, The Misfits (1961). Ricardo Montalban also appears as a Native American in Cheyenne Autumn (1964), but you can catch him in more diverse roles in Neptune's Daughter (1949), Border Incident (1949), and Battleground (1949). Look for more of John Hodiak in Lifeboat (1944) and The Harvey Girls (1946).

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

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Brave New World of FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956)

This post is part of the CMBA Blogathon: Fabulous Films of the 50s. Visit the Classic Movie Blog Association's website for links to all of the participating blogs!

The 1956 science fiction classic Forbidden Planet is like one of those desserts that secretly has spinach or wheat germ in it. On the surface, it's a wildly imaginative influential genre landmark with cool robots, a scary monster, and a hot young Anne Francis in some very short dresses. It's also, however, a thoughtful Freudian revision of Shakespeare's The Tempest in which science and magic become different terms for the same concepts and the nature of monstrosity is internalized to depict the ways in which ambitious people become corrupted by their own power. It's this dual nature of the film that makes it such an enduring classic as well as one of my all-time favorite movies.

Granted, Forbidden Planet gets off to a bit of a slow start, but once it picks up it really keeps going. We have Leslie Nielsen looking serious and heroic as Commander Adams when his team starts turning up dead, killed by the same mysterious creature that wiped out the previous colonists. We get Walter Pidgeon gloriously sombre as the brilliant scientist, Dr. Morbius, and Anne Francis embodying the very definition of pulchritude as his daughter, Altaira. Best of all, we have Robby the Robot, a walking, talking vision of the future as only the 1950s could imagine it. What's not to love?

Now, the sneaky Shakespearean content begins to appear. In The Tempest, the powerful sorcerer Prospero and his daughter Miranda are trapped on a remote island, much like Morbius and Altaira. In both tales a ship arrives, filled with puzzled newcomers, and one of them rapidly develops a passion for the sheltered girl. Prospero's helpful spirit, Ariel, is recast as the docile but remarkable Robby, while the dangerous monster Caliban is transformed into the planet's invisible lurking evil.

Forbidden Planet gives a Freudian twist to the narrative by making its monster an uncontrolled embodiment of the id, the dark, brutish part of Morbius that the scientist thinks he has banished by his experiments with advanced alien technology. As it turns out, Morbius has only accomplished a Jekyll and Hyde kind of separation of the higher and lower parts of his nature; without the yoke of his rational and ethical thoughts, the id runs amok. This, too, has its roots in Shakespeare. Near the end of the play, Prospero says of Caliban, "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine," and that acknowledgement is precisely what is required of Morbius in order to save his daughter and Commander Adams' remaining men.

While the movie had a profound influence on later science fiction with its visual effects and its iconic robot, Forbidden Planet also shows the depth and breadth of Shakespeare's legacy. That's an impressive one-two punch, to do something radically new that changes a whole genre while still reveling in the ability of something old to have relevance and meaning. It's a movie for science fiction fans and for Shakespeare fans. English majors and engineers can reach across the table and shake hands over a film like this one. I like to think that, in the long run, Forbidden Planet helped to make science fiction smarter, deeper, and more conscious of its literary nature as well as its science. O brave new world, that has such movies in it!

By the way, if you're a fan of Shakespeare and Forbidden Planet, be sure to have a look at the hilarious stage musical, Return to the Forbidden Planet. I had the good fortune to see it performed by the American Shakespeare Center several years ago, but you can find videos from various performances of it on YouTube.

PS -

Forbidden Planet and The Tempest are also the underlying influences in my short story, "This is Not a Life," which you'll find on It helps if you know something about Magritte, too.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Alone in the Dark: Where is Huntsville's Audience for Indie Films?

I love classic movies, but I'm really an equal opportunity cinephile. I love to see new movies in the theater, too, especially with an appreciative audience to share the experience. This week we have been warming up the seats at the cineplex quite a bit, having logged three new releases already (with two more in the works for the holiday weekend). Our trio of intrepid moviegoers enjoyed Godzilla on Thursday night, Particle Fever on Tuesday night, and Jodorowsky's Dune on Wednesday night. We saw all three films at the same theater - the Regal Hollywood 18 - but the first experience was very different from the other two. Why? Because for both of the other films, we were the only people there.

I often complain that Huntsville is not a movie person's town. It's a two hour drive in any direction to the nearest art house or revival theater. This is an engineer's town, a NASA town, so I know the population doesn't get all worked up about Joan Blondell and Buster Keaton the way I do. You would, however, think there would be a strong interest in a movie about physicists discovering the Higgs-Boson particle and a movie about the struggle to adapt one of the most influential science fiction novels of all time into a revolutionary film. Engineers love science, right? Aren't they really into science fiction?

Not so much, apparently, since the box office worker seemed surprised both nights that anybody was showing up for these movies. On the night we saw Particle Fever, the girl in the booth gave us a huge stack of postcards for the movie because, as she said, "nobody has really come to see it." Now, I know we were seeing these pictures on a week night, but it was at 7 PM, and when we saw Godzilla on a Thursday night there was quite a good crowd of devoted rubber monster fans.

I don't really mind being the only person in the theater now and then, especially when I see a movie late in its run and during the day, but it's depressing to think that indie films draw so little interest around here, even when they seem perfectly directed at local tastes. Theaters have no incentive to run indie pictures if nobody shows up; they'll just screen the big, loud blockbusters and stupid comedies (I'm looking at you, Blended) that repeatedly pack the house. I have nothing against blockbusters - I liked Godzilla - but limited access is bad for moviegoers, and it's bad for movies. When we don't watch indie films we forget that movies can be a lot more than superheroes and monsters blowing stuff up. We forget that movies can say something important. We forget that they can be Art.

Both Particle Fever and Jodorowsky's Dune are excellent documentaries with engaging stories to tell. They both challenge us to dream bigger, to dare to fail, to go out and try to change the world. Those movies should be packing the house every night. People should be taking their kids to see them (my 13 year old was especially inspired by the concept art for Dune). I want more indie films in Huntsville, but if we're the only people in the theater that's not going to happen.

Over the Memorial Day weekend I plan to see both X-Men: Days of Future Past and Chef. I know there will be a huge turnout for the comic book movie, and as a lifelong geek and comics reader I'm happy about that. Maybe the fact that Jon Favreau, the guy who directed the first Iron Man movie, wrote, directed, and starred in Chef will help generate a little enthusiasm for his film, too, but after the last two outings I am cautiously optimistic at best.

If you live in some great city where indie films draw big crowds and revival theaters show silent films with live organ music, revel in it. Send me a postcard. Hey, invite me to visit and crash on your couch. If you live in Rocket City USA, get up from the computer, turn off the TV, and get thee to an indie film. Your brain and your soul will thank you.

PS -
You can read my full review of Jodorowsky's Dune over at

Monday, May 19, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940)

Producer Alexander Korda’s lavish revision of the 1924 silent version of The Thief of Bagdad marks a key moment in the evolution of the fantasy adventure film. It would prove an inspiration to imaginative filmmakers for generations to come; its influence is clearly seen, for example, in the Sinbad movies of Ray Harryhausen, himself an iconic figure in the history of fantasy films. Shot in sumptuous color and bursting with visual delights, The Thief of Bagdad thrills viewers of all ages with its magical creatures and daring escapes, but youngsters will especially appreciate the role of child star Sabu as the plucky thief who gives the story its human interest as well as its title. The movie benefits further from the efforts of a team of directors, including Michael Powell, and memorable performances from Conrad Veidt, June Duprez, and Rex Ingram.

Sabu plays Abu, the loyal companion of lovestruck hero Ahmad (John Justin), whose passion for a beautiful princess (June Duprez) carries the pair into many trials and adventures. Ahmad’s corrupt vizier, Jaffar (Conrad Veidt), first usurps Ahmad’s throne and then tries to win the princess for himself, even bribing her foolish father with a mechanical flying horse. Dark magic and corrupt political power repeatedly enable Jaffar to thwart Ahmad and Abu, but the discovery of a genie (Rex Ingram) and a magical stone offer the heroes some much needed assistance.

The film features an impressive array of special effects that bring its locations and creatures to life, although some techniques are so subtly employed that most viewers will never recognize them. Wide shots of huge fantasy settings use hanging miniatures and matte paintings brilliantly; we perceive the colorful towers of Arabian cities and a giant statue as real things rather than mere illusions, which draws us into the world and encourages us to invest in its characters. The fabulous beings who populate this landscape get our attention more readily, for they are creatures calculated to inspire amazement. A mechanical steed comes to life and carries its riders into the sky, a silver statue seduces and then kills with half a dozen arms, and an enormous genie emerges from his bottle to fill the screen and frighten tiny Abu. A few of these effects scenes reveal their age, especially around the edges, but they were groundbreaking accomplishments in 1940, and they still have the power to charm and surprise a generation brought up on computerized cinematic spectacles.

The performances of the human actors help to sell this story of exotic enchantment. Conrad Veidt projects hypnotic menace as the evil Jaffar, a villain of great cunning and power, while June Duprez is lovely enough to justify all of the attention she gets from both Jaffar and Ahmad. John Justin, making his very first screen appearance, plays Ahmad as affable, romantic, and sincere, especially during his blind beggar phase. He has just a touch of roguish charm to liven up his character without stealing Sabu’s thunder. A jovial Rex Ingram makes the genie a highlight of the picture, and Miles Malleson, who also wrote the screenplay, has a memorable role as the toy-obsessed sultan. Foremost of all, however, is Sabu, the Indian child actor who had first appeared in Korda’s Elephant Boy in 1937. With his mischievous grin and youthful charisma, Sabu brings a street urchin’s perspective to the grand calamities of the adult world. He’s funny, energetic, and boyishly handsome, a more exotic version of Tom Sawyer or Peter Pan. It’s easy to see why Korda was eager to capitalize on the sixteen year old’s appeal by building pictures around him.

The Thief of Bagdad won three Oscars, for Cinematography, Art Direction, and, most deservedly, Special Effects. Sabu, like many child stars, did not enjoy much success as an adult actor, but his other early films include Drums (1938), Jungle Book (1942), and Black Narcissus (1947). Conrad Veidt, best remembered as a Nazi in Casablanca (1942), can also be found tackling a sinister role in A Woman’s Face (1941). Look for June Duprez in None but the Lonely Heart (1944) and for Rex Ingram in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939) and Anna Lucasta (1958). Don’t miss Miles Malleson, one of the most prolific actors in the cast, as Dr. Chasuble in The Importance of Being Earnest (1952). Be sure to point out to young viewers the remarkable similarities between The Thief of Bagdad and Disney’s Aladdin (1992); Sabu’s protagonist gets downgraded to a monkey sidekick, but many of the plot elements and characters are exactly the same.

The Thief of Bagdad is available on DVD from the Criterion Collection and is currently included in the Criterion streaming catalog on Hulu Plus.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: ROMANCE (1930)

Greta Garbo earned two Oscar nominations for Best Actress in 1930, one for Anna Christie (1930) and the other for Romance (1930). Both talking pictures and the Oscars were still new that year, and the double nomination testifies to the thrill viewers felt on hearing Garbo’s remarkable voice. In Romance, directed by Clarence Brown, Garbo uses that voice and all of her other charms to great effect, although the picture falls short of her best work because of trouble with the story and a weak performance from her leading man. Despite these issues, Romance is worth watching for its luminous star, who revels in the glamor and the tragedy of her character in truly operatic fashion.

Garbo plays European opera diva Rita Cavallini, who arrives in New York as the guest of her much older lover, Cornelius Van Tuyl (Lewis Stone). There she meets Tom Armstrong (Gavin Gordon), a young clergyman who becomes enamored of her and naively believes that they can be married. Van Tuyl encourages Rita to end the relationship in order to spare Tom the inevitable heartbreak of learning the truth about Rita’s past affairs, but Rita finds her own love for Tom too powerful to resist.

Rita is a perfect role for Garbo because it capitalizes on her persona as a foreign enchantress, an angel of the unknown, both gloriously bright and faintly threatening. Radiantly beautiful in her formal evening gown, Rita appears in her first important scene with Tom as a Sleeping Beauty awakened by his arrival in the room, but her pose is all a calculated role. Tom fails to recognize her, and she delights in his ignorance, even telling him that Madame Cavallini is a fat, ugly hunchback. The way she says “horrible” is thrillingly naughty, exaggerated and arch. Throughout the movie she is the flame to which moths and viewers are drawn, so we understand why both Van Tuyl and Tom fall in love with her, but it’s much harder to fathom what she sees in Tom, who comes off as priggish, stiff, and hopelessly out of touch. His prudish morality sounds especially dull coming from Gavin Gordon, who simply lacks any onscreen chemistry with his leading lady. We really believe he’d marry her and then expect her to be content crocheting doilies for the rectory and receiving the occasional chaste peck on the cheek as a mark of his affection.

The frame tale that surrounds the central narrative works very well, with the elderly Tom much more sympathetic and interesting than young Tom ever manages to be. Old Tom, a wiser and a sadder man, tells the story of his brief romance to his grandson, Harry (Elliott Nugent), a headstrong youth who wants to marry an actress against his mother’s wishes. We find out a lot about the aftermath of Tom and Rita’s brief time together in just a few lines of quiet dialogue. Of course Tom settles into a comfortable life with a woman more suited to his expectations and profession, but Rita’s story takes a different turn, surprising perhaps but perfectly in keeping with the grand theatrical nature of her passions. The last time we see her in Tom’s story, she is standing like a saint at the sacrificial stake, her rapt face turned toward God, with the forgotten and now worshipful Tom clinging to the hem of her gown. She seems poised for ascension; what earthly life could hold meaning for her after a moment like that?

Be sure to appreciate the appearance of Clara Blandick, best remembered as Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz (1939), as Tom’s disapproving aunt. See more of the great Garbo in Grand Hotel (1932), Queen Christina (1933), and Ninotchka (1939). Gavin Gordon went on to play supporting roles in many films, including Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Lewis Stone played Judge Hardy in the Andy Hardy series, but you’ll also find him in other Garbo films and in Jean Harlow pictures like Red-Headed Woman (1932) and China Seas (1935). Clarence Brown earned an Oscar nomination for Best Director for his work on Romance; although he never won, he picked up five more nominations over the course of his career for films like A Free Soul (1931), National Velvet (1944), and The Yearling (1946).

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Muppet Madness: The Kid's Muppet-Themed Birthday Party

We take our movies and our Muppets pretty seriously at our house, so I can't claim that I was surprised when the Kid declared that she wanted a Muppet-themed birthday party this year. Her trip to see Muppets Most Wanted at Disney's El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood had been quite the religious experience (for her and for me!). Surely, I thought, with a brand new movie out, Disney would have some Muppet themed party supplies on the market. The party would be easy!

Alas, no. Although Disney has done a good job getting more Muppet merchandise into the pipeline in a general way, apparently it never occurred to them that kids might want Muppet-themed birthday parties in the wake of the latest film. Maybe they're just distracted by the relentless snowball of success that is Frozen. We couldn't find any Muppet-themed party supplies in town. The Kid was beginning to look a bit glum. Now that she's turning thirteen, I can see the end of her wanting to have this kind of party at all; I didn't want to let her down.

So we got creative. I started work on handmade party invitations and a Muppet-themed centerpiece; thank goodness it was a short guest list, so we didn't need a huge pile of invitations. We decided to capitalize on the "Rainbow Connection" as a motif and have rainbow colored tableware and treats. (Actually, rainbow stuff is also harder to find than you might expect, unless, perhaps, you live near a gay pride center). I found a case of Muppet Pez dispensers on Amazon and ordered them as the main party favors. Slowly the pieces began to come together.

Now, I'm into Muppets, so much so that I have co-edited two essay anthologies about them, so of course I have Muppet stuff lying around my house. Unfortunately, it isn't necessarily the kind of stuff you use for party decorations. I have Christopher Finch's terrific book, Jim Henson: The Works. I have copies of  my own two books, Kermit Culture and The Wider Worlds of Jim Henson. I don't, however, think that the kids would have enjoyed a book display, no matter how informative and engaging the texts. ("Hey, kids, let's listen to Dr. Garlen give a fascinating reading of her essay on high and low aesthetic cultural values as represented by Gonzo the Great!") Luckily, I also have a stuffed Gonzo and a secret stockpile of Muppet stickers, and we put those to work for our cause.

For snacks, we had Piggy pink and Kermit green cupcakes, rainbow Jello, and rainbow sherbet. Rainbow Jello looks super, but it takes forever to make all of those layers, and I had to keep repeating "Roy G Biv" to myself while I made each new level. We also had a colorful tray of veggies and a bowl of rainbow Goldfish crackers, but as you can probably imagine we had a lot of veggies left over at the end. Who knew kids would rather eat cupcakes than raw carrots?

The Kid wanted us to have a Muppet-themed activity, so I made a 20 Questions kind of game where we pinned the names of Muppet characters to the kids' backs and had them ask yes or no questions to figure out which one they had. We had easy, medium, and hard questions, but I might have gotten a teensy bit carried away with the hard ones. Hey, I was sure the Kid and our other junior Muppet fan would get Camilla, Uncle Deadly, Link Hogthrob, and Lew Zealand! It's not like I asked them to guess Bobby Benson's Baby Band or Wayne & Wanda (OK, maybe I did put Marvin Suggs in there. I have a sadistic streak). The kids who didn't know anything about the Muppets - and I'm sad to tell you that such children do exist in the world, poor deprived little urchins that they are - got the softball Muppet standards like Kermit, Miss Piggy, and Animal.

The party was a big success, and we scored a last minute win by finding a giant Kermit balloon at a grocery store in town. Hopefully the Kid will have some memories to cherish. I'll take it as a sign that I'm raising her right if she shares my enthusiasm for Muppets and classic movies. Actually, I guess I ought to be thankful she didn't decide she wanted to have a Gene Kelly or Marx Brothers themed birthday party instead! Seriously, I wouldn't put that past her.

Nobody give her any funny ideas like that for next year!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Katharine Hepburn in ROOSTER COGBURN

This post is part of the Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon hosted by Margaret Perry at The Great Katharine Hepburn. Visit her blog for links to all of the participating posts!

Young Katharine Hepburn is a glorious creature, a perfect combination of brains and beauty, but old Katharine Hepburn is the version that really gives me hope. Even when I was young I loved this weathered, grayer version of the iconic star; I grew up around older people and found them familiar, comfortable in their own skin, and inspiring because of their experience and tenacity. I still feel that way today, which is why I spend my time volunteering for lifetime learning programs. Older people are full participants in the human experience, although our popular and movie cultures often seem to think that the world belongs only to the young. Released in 1975, when Hepburn was 68 years old, Rooster Cogburn (1975) offers a welcome antidote to our collective obsession with youth, with two aging stars giving richly nuanced performances. Katharine Hepburn and John Wayne, as opposite one another as any two actors could be, prove to us that the later years of our own lives can be as adventurous, romantic, and meaningful as we choose, even if we don't find ourselves facing down desperadoes on the American frontier.

The movie is ostensibly a sequel to True Grit (1969), with Wayne reprising his Oscar-winning role as the cantankerous lawman, Rooster Cogburn. Hepburn plays yet another determined female who horns in on Cogburn's mission to bring killers to justice; like Mattie Ross in the original film, Eula Goodnight is looking for the man who murdered her father. Unlike Mattie, Eula is a Yankee spinster of advanced years who possesses a wry sense of humor. She baffles and fascinates Rooster, and a chaste kind of love blooms between them as they struggle to complete their task and survive a series of deadly encounters.

Hepburn's Eula has a lot in common with her Rose Sayer character in The African Queen (1951), but Miss Goodnight is far better prepared for the dangerous wilderness she inhabits; she seems far more at home on the frontier than we find Rose in her African village. A good rider and an excellent shot, Eula irritates Rooster with her morality but quickly earns his respect. She proves her fortitude and courage repeatedly, especially when the villainous Hawk (Richard Jordan) and his gang attack the small posse. Hepburn is utterly believable in the role; she has the grace and carriage of a lady as well as the fierce independence of a pioneer. She invests Eula with so many of the qualities that we associate with Hepburn herself: intelligence, passion, confidence, and humor. We understand why Wayne's Rooster finds her an irresistible force.

Wayne was also 68 the year Rooster Cogburn was released, but unlike Hepburn he had only a few more years to live. He would die in 1979, while Hepburn endured until 2003, almost a quarter of a century longer. Both show their ages in the film, but despite his greater size Wayne is actually the frailer of the pair. Perhaps that mellows his persona a bit; he seems content to share an amiable, bickering chemistry with his leading lady. Of course, Wayne had plenty of experience with fiery redheads as costars; his films with Maureen O'Hara were proof that he worked well with that kind of onscreen pairing. Hepburn is also mellower; despite deep differences in their political views, she really seems to glow with warmth toward Wayne, at least on screen.

I won't argue that Rooster Cogburn is among the best pictures either star ever made, or even that it is a great film. It has its flaws, and it arrived at a point in movie history when the Western was on its way out. Rooster Cogburn is, however, a great testament to the enduring appeal of its two stars; it speaks to us of aging proudly, defiantly, and with courage. Critics at the time might have complained that Hepburn and Wayne were too old for their roles, but I think they are perfectly cast. Like Rooster Cogburn himself, they can still outcrow anything in the barnyard. I hope I'm half as grand as that in 2040, when I wake up and find that I, too, am 68. Maybe I'll watch Rooster Cogburn to celebrate.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE SHOW (1927)

Horror maestro Tod Browning is in familiar territory in The Show (1927), which takes place in a community of Budapest carnival performers. Although much of the movie falls more into the category of melodrama, Browning revels in the opportunity to stage images of the disturbing, the extraordinary, and the truly bizarre, and fans of Browning’s work will certainly see the parallels to films like The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown (1927), and, of course, Freaks (1932). John Gilbert, Lionel Barrymore, and Renee Adoree star in this silent shocker about a deadly love triangle, which holds up well despite some unintentional hilarity from an unusual animal costar.

Gilbert plays the skirt-chasing Cock Robin, a sideshow barker and performer who uses his charm with the ladies to attract the foolish daughter of a wealthy sheep farmer. Barrymore’s character, known only as The Greek, is a dangerous criminal who jealously watches the attention that Cock Robin receives from his lover, the beautiful dancer Salome (Renee Adoree), who used to be Cock Robin’s girl. Determined to get rid of his competition, The Greek devises a series of bizarre schemes to kill Cock Robin, who has enough problems already thanks to his mercenary entanglement with the farmer’s daughter.

All three of the principals perform their roles beautifully, projecting their characters’ emotions as only silent stars can. John Gilbert, devilishly handsome in his striped shirt and fitted pants, makes us see what the ladies love about the aptly named Cock Robin even though he behaves like a heel. His charisma helps to explain Salome’s helpless attraction to a man who mistreats her so cruelly, although Cock Robin might as well be a saint compared to The Greek. There’s something sadistic, even sociopathic, about Lionel Barrymore’s bright, steely eyes as he imagines his gruesome revenge on Cock Robin. Everybody is afraid of him, and with good reason, too. Renee Adoree plays Salome as a complex character, sometimes a temptress, as her name and stage role suggest, but at other times a patient martyr, a voice of reason, and a steadfast protector. If her sexy carnival costume doesn’t quite become her, it’s because her true nature differs so greatly from the role she has to play; she looks most beautiful when her eyes fill with tears of suffering, love, and compassion.

With the sideshow as the setting for this romantic melodrama, Browning has room for plenty of bizarre touches. Cock Robin and Salome perform a recreation of the beheading of John the Baptist, which ends with Salome kissing the mouth of the decapitated but still living victim. The show also includes an assortment of fake freaks, the most striking of which is the Spider Woman staring balefully from the center of her web. The horrific teeters over into the hilarious, however, when a deadly Gila monster is introduced as The Greek’s weapon of choice against Cock Robin. The poisonous animal is played in the movie by a rather energetic iguana, who leaps onto his victims as if he has been shot from a catapult. When The Greek finds himself trapped in a closet with the angry animal, it’s a moment of poetic justice, but watching Barrymore react to the iguana provokes laughter much more than horror. Perhaps iguanas were less familiar when the movie was made, but whatever audiences in 1927 might have thought of the reptile, it’s sure to be one of the movie’s most memorable elements for modern viewers.

Tod Browning is best remembered today as the director of Dracula (1931), but he also made Mark of the Vampire (1935) and The Devil Doll (1936) with Lionel Barrymore. See more of John Gilbert in He Who Gets Slapped (1924), Flesh and the Devil (1926), and Queen Christina (1933). Renee Adoree also stars with Gilbert in The Big Parade (1925) and La Boheme (1926). Of the three stars, Lionel Barrymore is the most familiar to modern audiences; his long career included over 200 roles in classics like Captains Courageous (1937), You Can’t Take It with You (1938), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

The Show is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE RETURN OF DOCTOR X (1939)

Before The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942) made him a certified leading man, Humphrey Bogart often played heavies, but The Return of Doctor X (1939) takes him into even stranger territory as a villain who also happens to be one of the undead. This otherwise routine horror programmer directed by Vincent Sherman becomes something unique in the annals of Hollywood history thanks to Bogart’s performance, which shows him more at home in the horror genre than one might suspect. For fans of the iconic star or those interested in the evolution of the movie vampire, The Return of Doctor X merits a viewing, but its thrills mostly depend on the bizarre spectacle of the beloved Bogie in his ghoulishly pallid disguise.

Bogart plays Marshall Quesne, the mysterious assistant of the prominent blood specialist Dr. Flegg (John Litel). When a famous actress (Lya Lys) inexplicably recovers from being murdered, the doctor is consulted about the case by dogged reporter Walt “Wichita” Garrett (Wayne Morris) and junior physician Mike Rhodes (Dennis Morgan). A second murder deepens the plot, and the two young men begin to think that Dr. Flegg and his strange associate know more about the deaths than they’re saying. Their investigation uncovers the incredible truth but also endangers the life of Mike’s new love interest, Joan (Rosemary Lane), a pretty nurse whose blood type matches that of both of the murder victims.

Technically, Bogart’s character is just a supporting role, but his subsequent fame and his intense performance make him the player to watch. Wayne Morris is genial but rather mild as the reporter, especially in comparison to Lee Tracy, who plays the same type of character in the original Doctor X (1932). Although they make credible leads in other pictures, Dennis Morgan and Rosemary Lane just don’t have that much to do as the obligatory romantic pair, and they’re consistently less interesting than the creepy characters. Lya Lys has some effective scenes as the undead Angela Merrova, while John Litel really looks the part of the dangerously obsessed academic in his goatee and monocle, but from the moment he first turns up Bogart really steals the movie. We first see him, with his white-striped hair and deathly pallor, in full mad scientist garb, weirdly accompanied by a white rabbit cradled in the crook of his arm. He looks like the long-lost grandfather of Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd. In just a few moments on screen Bogart manages to convey both the menace and the pathos of his character, who describes both himself and the rabbit as “victims of circumstance.”

The specific circumstance that dictates Quesne’s fate makes The Return of Doctor X intriguing as a blend of the scientific hubris of Frankenstein and the bloodlust of Dracula. Dr. Flegg uses manipulation of the blood, plus his own invention of a synthetic substitute, to bring the dead back to life; unfortunately, his patients must have a constant supply of new blood to replenish their systems. Although the vampires of this story require transfusions rather than exposed necks, the murder victims end up drained of their blood just the same. While Angela and Quesne both have the pale faces, cold flesh, and strange manner typical of the 1930s screen vampire, their monstrosity is born of science, not the supernatural. Neither of them chooses to become what they are, yet they cling to their unnatural lives with grim determination. Later movies, like Near Dark (1987) and Blade (1998), would further explore the idea of vampirism as a matter of hematology, but in this picture the theme is yoked to the overreaching ambition of a scientist determined to play God. Near the end of the movie, Flegg, the Victor Frankenstein of this narrative, predictably laments, “My experiments have turned into madness. I’ve created a monster.” We understand that his intentions were the very best, but perhaps he ought to have expected this outcome when he chose a crazed scientist executed for child murder as his test subject.

The Return of Doctor X is only nominally a sequel to the 1932 film, Doctor X, which stars Lionel Atwill as the title character. The 1939 movie was the directorial debut of Vincent Sherman, who went on to make Mr. Skeffington (1944), Adventures of Don Juan (1948), and The Damned Don’t Cry (1950). See more of Humphrey Bogart’s heavies in The Petrified Forest (1936), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), and The Oklahoma Kid (1939). Wayne Morris also stars with Bogart in Kid Galahad (1937) and with Dennis Morgan in Bad Men of Missouri (1941).

The Return of Doctor X is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE ODD COUPLE (1968)

Neil Simon’s original Broadway play debuted in 1965, and the film version of The Odd Couple made its appearance three years later, with Walter Matthau reprising his role from the stage production and Jack Lemmon taking over from Art Carney. Simon wrote the screenplay for the adaptation, with Gene Saks directing, and the result is a very successful picture that shows its theatrical roots without feeling too claustrophobic. Like most truly great comedies, The Odd Couple understands that emotional honesty and even suffering are inherent components of humor; we laugh at Oscar and Felix because their plight is so human, because we recognize their failures in ourselves and know that we, too, are not always easy to live with.

Lemmon plays the tightly wound Felix, who moves in with his slovenly, divorced pal Oscar (Matthau) after his wife ends their marriage. Initially suicidal over the loss of his family and identity, Felix soon directs his compulsive attention at Oscar and the domestic arrangements of their shared apartment. The constant cooking, cleaning, and nagging make Oscar wish he hadn’t stopped Felix from killing himself, especially after Felix wrecks Oscar’s date plans with two young English women (Monica Evans and Carole Shelley) who live in their building.

Lemmon and Matthau share a remarkable rapport that sells the audience on their characters’ relationship, and therein lies the picture’s enduring appeal. We have to like both Felix and Oscar even as we shudder at the thought of living with either one of them, and we have to believe that these two men care deeply about each other no matter how much their habits and personalities clash. The movie offers us a brilliant study of the nature of men’s relationships with one another, a complicated subject given that men are generally unwilling to talk about such things. The rest of the poker group, played by John Fiedler, Herb Edelman, David Sheiner, and Larry Haines, play variations of the masculine types that fall somewhere between Felix and Oscar; their collective relationship revolves around a shared activity but transcends that when they feel that Felix is in trouble and needs their help.

Much of the angst that the men suffer in the film comes from their uncomfortable position as pioneers of a new sexual era, one in which wives decamp and take the kids with them, not because of one huge misstep but a series of small ones. We never see Frances Ungar or Blanche Madison, but their absence is constantly felt; Felix and Oscar both struggle to come to terms with their failures as husbands and their lingering feelings for their wives. Their relationship with each other gives them a chance to rehearse and try to correct the flaws that led to their divorces, although we learn that change really doesn’t come easily. Both men have such deeply ingrained traits, such ludicrous habits, that we have to laugh at them, but we also pity them because we see how these flaws have undermined their lives. Even Oscar recognizes the need for change. “You mean you’re not going to make any effort to change,” he asks Felix. “This is the person you’re going to be until the day you die?” Felix, the more fatalistic of the two, merely replies, “We are what we are.” Lemmon’s delivery of the line is funny, but its significance strikes home. Our faults may cost us the things we most value, but it’s still almost impossible to let them go.

Be sure to appreciate Monica Evans and Carole Shelley as the giggly Pigeon sisters; they would pay tribute to their roles in The Odd Couple by voicing a pair of equally silly geese in Disney’s The AristoCats in 1970. The Odd Couple earned two Oscar nominations, one for Adapted Screenplay and one for Film Editing; it would be the first of four career nominations for Neil Simon. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau appear together in quite a few films, including The Fortune Cookie (1966), The Front Page (1974), and Grumpy Old Men (1993). Gene Saks also directed Barefoot in the Park (1967), Cactus Flower (1969), and Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986). For comparison to Lemmon and Matthau, check out the television series version of The Odd Couple starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Strange Stuff on Warner Archive Instant

Last night I picked a double feature of freakish fare from the streaming catalog at Warner Archive Instant. I'm intentionally seeking out more obscure classic horror films in the hopes of getting a collection of reviews together by the fall of this year, but last night's movies were so unusual that it might take me a few days to figure out what to say about them in a full-length review format.

Now, Warner Archive Instant devotes a whole category to Mondo/Cult films, so they like the weird stuff, but these picks came from the regular Horror section. I don't know how long they'll stay in the current lineup, but if you want to revel in the bizarre spectacles described below then head on over to the Instant site and check them out there.

When Killer Iguanas Attack!

First up was The Show (1927), a Tod Browning silent starring John Gilbert, Lionel Barrymore, and Renee Adoree. The human actors are all great in this creepy melodrama set in a Budapest carnival, but they have a scene-stealing costar in the large iguana who stands in for a venomous Gila monster. Seriously, the iguana attack scene near the end was so funny I almost fell off the couch. My howls of laughter attracted the attention of the my daughter, who then wanted to see the scene for herself. We ended up replaying it twice. Watching Lionel Barrymore locked in a closet with an angry iguana is one of those priceless moments of movie-watching only a classic film fan can really appreciate. The rest of the movie is menacing, tragic, and possessed of a weirdness typical of Browning's sensibility, but the iguana scenes are the ones you'll remember.

The Demon Bogart of Fleet Street?

My next feature was The Return of Doctor X (1939), which really doesn't have anything to do with the original Doctor X (1932) but does offer the one and only appearance of Humphrey Bogart in a horror movie. Through the whole movie I kept wondering, "Why is Humphrey Bogart dressed up like Sweeney Todd?" Actually, that question ought to be, "Why is Sweeney Todd dressed up like Humphrey Bogart?" since Bogart did it almost 70 years before Johnny Depp. I'm not the first person to notice the resemblance, either. Jim Emerson posted about it in 2007, when Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street made its debut in theaters. If you have ever wondered what Bogie would look like as a pale-faced, blood-lusting vampire, here's your chance to find out. The Return of Doctor X is by no means a great movie, but I had a lot of fun watching it, and Bogart's first appearance - cuddling a bunny?! - is quite the spectacle.

Now that you know I'm on the prowl for unusual or lesser-known horror classics, feel free to send me some suggestions! In the meantime, I'll be checking out The Cyclops (1956), The Hypnotic Eye (1960), and Frankenstein 1970 (1958) on the Warner site.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: MOON OVER MIAMI (1941)

Walter Lang’s musical comedy is another of the frothy, fun Technicolor amusements produced by Fox during the early 1940s, with the usual assortment of studio players and plenty of eye candy in the form of pretty girls, glamorous costumes, and lively dance sequences. This one actually has more plot than several of its peers, but Moon Over Miami (1941) also benefits from very winning performances by its leading ladies and supporting cast. Fans of Betty Grable will find a lot to like in her turn as the gold-digging heroine, and other notable performers include Carole Landis, Don Ameche, and Robert Cummings, with scene-stealing appearances by character actors Charlotte Greenwood and Jack Haley. Intentionally light and airy, Moon Over Miami promises nothing more than a good time, which it dutifully and energetically delivers.

Grable and Landis star as sisters Kay and Barbara Latimer, who leave Texas for Miami with a plan to snag a wealthy husband for Kay. With their aunt Susan (Charlotte Greenwood) posing as their maid, the girls take up residence in a posh resort, where Kay soon meets the suitably rich Jeff Boulton (Robert Cummings) and his friend, Phil McNeil (Don Ameche). The two men compete relentlessly for Kay’s attention, but Jeff also attracts Barbara’s admiration, and Kay has to choose which suitor to lure into a proposal. All the while, the truth about the girls’ finances and intentions threatens to get out, especially with hotel waiter Jack (Jack Haley) constantly hanging around Susan.

The classic narrative structure of the romantic comedy dictates the course of this story, which has its obligatory pairs of lovers, counterpoint clowns, and Forest of Arden atmosphere. Grable and Ameche, as the primary leads, are of course destined to be together, although their road to union proves riddled with potholes shaped like dollar signs. Landis and Cummings make a more subdued secondary couple; her quiet interest in him is telegraphed early on, but it takes his flighty character a long time to see what’s right in front of him. Of the four principal actors, Landis has the smallest role but also the most nuanced one; disguised as her sister’s secretary in glasses and sensible shoes, Barbara is more introverted than Kay but also kinder, more thoughtful, and more sincere. The funny stuff happens when Greenwood and Haley get together; their big number, “Is That Good?” is a highlight of the picture, with Greenwood launching into her signature high kicks and Haley making those most of his big, expressive eyes.

The movie includes a number of memorable dance sequences, thanks to the efforts of choreographer Hermes Pan, who makes his own appearance on screen as Betty Grable’s partner during the “Kindergarten Conga” piece. Grable does part of the dance for “You Started Something” sitting down, which is an entertaining twist on the usual routines; her partners during this segment are the impressive specialty dancers, the Condos Brothers, who appear again in the Seminole dance near the end of the picture. Don Ameche’s performance of the song, “I’ve Got You All to Myself,” is also fun because it opens a zany montage of the two rivals constantly horning in on each other’s dates with Kay, which culminates with a memorable shot of a shirtless Robert Cummings underwater. Ameche actually sings quite a bit in this picture, more than any other performer, but his delivery is predictably good, and his songs are well-integrated into the flow of the story.

Walter Lang also directed Betty Grable in Tin Pan Alley (1940), Song of the Islands (1942), and Coney Island (1943); he earned his only Oscar nomination for directing The King and I (1956). For more of Betty Grable, Don Ameche, and Charlotte Greenwood, try Down Argentine Way (1940); Grable also stars with Carole Landis in I Wake Up Screaming (1941) and Four Jills in a Jeep (1944). Robert Cummings has memorable roles in Kings Row (1942), Saboteur (1942), and Dial M for Murder (1954). The world remembers Jack Haley as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz (1939), but he also appears with Betty Grable in Pigskin Parade (1936) and with Don Ameche in Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938).