Thursday, July 31, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935)

Although The Wolf Man (1941) is by far the best known of the Universal werewolf movies, director Stuart Walker’s Werewolf of London (1935) predates it by a good six years, making it one of the earliest examples of the genre. The 1935 picture lacks an iconic horror star like Chaney, Karloff, or Lugosi; instead, it relies on Henry Hull, an actor primarily relegated to supporting roles, as the afflicted protagonist who sprouts fur and fangs whenever the full moon rouses his inner animal. Of the Universal horrors of the 1930s, Werewolf of London is certainly a minor addition, but it does have particular charms for classic movie fans and those seriously interested in the history of werewolf films. Supporting performances by Valerie Hobson, Spring Byington, and a collection of character actresses make Werewolf of London worth watching, even if the picture’s comical old ladies prove more interesting than its titular monster.

Henry Hull plays botanist Dr. Wilfred Glendon, who travels to Tibet in search of a rare moon flower. There he is bitten by a werewolf, Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland), who later appears in London to ask Glendon for some of the flowers from his plant. The blooms are the only thing that can prevent both men from turning into murderous werewolves when the moon becomes full, but the short supply creates deadly conflict between them, even as both struggle to prevent themselves from killing more innocent victims. Glendon’s troubles are compounded by his growing estrangement from his wife, Lisa (Valerie Hobson), and the unwelcome attention of her former beau, Paul (Lester Matthews).

None of the men in the film is especially compelling. In The Wolf Man, Chaney’s protagonist appeals because we see him as a good man tragically robbed of his humanity, but Hull’s Glendon is more the obsessed scientist type, a character begging for doom to knock at his door. Hull lacks the screen presence of a true horror star; though not very handsome or charismatic, he does at least have a good face for the werewolf makeup. The monster’s look was designed by Jack Pierce, who had already worked on Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Mummy (1932) and would go on to provide the hairy facial treatment for The Wolf Man. Hull actually makes a more interesting werewolf than he does a human being, and we do get several transformation scenes showing off the special effects process. Warner Oland plays a sinister variant on the Charlie Chan character, but he never develops into a really satisfying villain or a tragic victim of his own circumstances. Lester Matthews plays Paul as a relentless interloper who steals the girl from his monstrous rival, which makes him hard to root for as any sort of hero.

The women fare better, especially Valerie Hobson as Glendon’s unhappy wife. Hobson’s elegant face registers the many shades of Lisa’s complicated feelings; while Paul was her first love, she is determined to be loyal to the man she married, even as he drifts away from her to grapple with his monstrous urges. Hobson was no stranger to this kind of role, having already played Dr. Frankenstein’s wife in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) that same year. Very different from Hobson but perhaps even more memorable are the movie’s old ladies, a bevy of colorful characters led by Spring Byington as Aunt Ettie. Charlotte Granville, playing the wry Lady Forsythe, has some humorous exchanges with Byington, but the upper crust ladies are outdone by the more outrageously funny old gin swillers portrayed by Ethel Griffies and Zeffie Tilbury. They don’t really have anything to do with the werewolf plot, which might annoy some viewers, but those who appreciate Una O’Connor in The Invisible Man (1933) and The Bride of Frankenstein will adore them.

Stuart Walker also directed Henry Hull in a 1934 adaptation of Great Expectations, but Walker spent more of his career as a producer, particularly of the Bulldog Drummond series. You can see Hull in a more sympathetic light in Boys Town (1938) and Lifeboat (1944). The Swedish Warner Oland played mostly yellow face roles; in addition to Charlie Chan, he also starred in a series of Fu Manchu pictures. Look for Valerie Hobson in Great Expectations (1946), Blanche Fury (1948), and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). Spring Byington earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for You Can’t Take It with You (1938), while Ethel Griffies is best remembered today as the ornithologist, Mrs. Bundy, in The Birds (1963).

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE UNDYING MONSTER (1942)

At first glance, The Undying Monster (1942) looks like yet another routine programmer of its era, one of many low-budget B horrors churned out by various studios in the wake of the Universal monsters’ success. It clocks in at just over an hour, with a cast that most viewers are unlikely to know and a limited collection of sets for them to play against. This Fox chiller gets a boost, however, from the creative direction of John Brahm and the bravura cinematography of Lucien Ballard, a combination that also produced the gothic delirium of The Lodger (1944). With Brahm and Ballard extracting every bit of atmosphere possible from their limited resources, The Undying Monster rises above its humble roots to approach the status of cinematic art. It’s not a perfect film, by any means, but it does warrant some attention from serious students of the horror genre and fans of Val Lewton, who performed similar magic on a shoestring budget.

The story unfolds at the end of the nineteenth century, when Helga Hammond (Heather Angel) discovers her brother, Oliver (John Howard), mauled on a coastal lane near their ancestral home. Oliver’s fellow victims are his devoted spaniel and a local nurse, but nobody knows what exactly attacked them. Scotland Yard sends detective Bob Curtis (James Ellison) and his assistant, Miss Christopher (Heather Thatcher), to investigate, but they find secretive servants and family friends repeatedly blocking their search for clues. Dr. Colbert (Bramwell Fletcher) seems particularly determined to thwart Bob’s investigation, even after the nurse dies of her injuries. Only when Helga is threatened by the mysterious assailant does the terrible truth finally emerge.

Although its title doesn’t suggest it, The Undying Monster is actually a werewolf story, loosely adapted from a 1922 novel by Jessie Douglas Kerruish. The film adaptation also borrows liberally from narrative elements of The Wolf Man (1941), which Universal had released a year before. We even have a foreboding verse: “When stars are bright/ On a frosty night,/ Beware thy bane/ On the rocky lane.” The butler, Walton (Halliwell Hobbes), is especially fond of quoting it. Other conventional genre tropes include the creepy housekeeper, the fearful maid, house pets who suddenly sense the uncanny, and, of course, the monster’s climactic abduction of the story’s female lead.

The performances lie somewhere between the routine and the remarkable. Heather Angel starts the picture as a fine example of a brave, determined heroine, but she recedes from view once the Scotland Yard duo arrive, and by the last scene she has vacated the screen entirely. John Howard’s Oliver is handsome and amiable but never really aware of what’s going on around - and within - him. While James Ellison and Bramwell Fletcher square off as the story’s chief combatants, their romantic jealousy over Helga Hammond is never really articulated, and their disagreement is mainly about how to best protect the Hammond siblings from whatever it is that threatens them. Heather Thatcher has the most unusual role as Christy, the wisecracking spinster assistant; she is partly comic relief and partly progressive, pre-feminist professional woman, but whenever she appears on screen she makes herself impossible to ignore.

The cinematography really lifts the whole picture to a different level. Ballard and Brahm employ some striking camera angles, beginning with a truly tense point of view shot of the nurse being attacked by the monster. The Hammond Hall set is also artfully rendered, with the camera lingering on its ancient rooms and furnishings as the clock strikes twelve. In one of the most visually arresting scenes, Helga and Dr. Colbert sit before a fire and discuss the situation, but we see them from behind the smoke and flames, as if we were hiding in the fireplace to eavesdrop on their conversation. Sadly, the final shot of the monster’s demise is not as skillfully handled; the film aims higher than it can reach by trying to have the monster’s face transform while he’s hanging from a cliff.

John Brahm is best remembered today as a director for television series like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, and The Twilight Zone, but his other cinema work includes Hangover Square (1945) and Hot Rods to Hell (1967). Lucien Ballard provided cinematography for The House on Telegraph Hill (1951), Prince Valiant (1954), and The Wild Bunch (1969). Look for Heather Angel in Pride and Prejudice (1940) and Lifeboat (1944), and see more of John Howard in The Philadelphia Story (1940) and The Invisible Woman (1940). James Ellison also stars in Charley’s Aunt (1941), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Gang’s All Here (1943).

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

10 Classic Movies Directed by James Whale

Born on July 22, 1889, the English director James Whale stands with Tod Browning as one of the most important developers of the 1930s horror genre. Both directors worked to give the iconic Universal horrors their sense of style, but Whale set the bar particularly high with his combination of terror and sly, subversive comedy in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Whale directed 23 films over the course of his career, but the Universal horrors are the pictures for which he is best remembered today. In honor of Whale's birthday, here are ten classic movies where you can see the director's hand at work.

1) Journey's End (1930) - Whale's first directorial effort was an adaptation of a 1928 stage play about World War I. Its cast included two actors who would later be major players in the Universal horror unit: Colin Clive and David Manners.

2) Waterloo Bridge (1931) - This romantic drama about a prostitute and a soldier stars Mae Clarke and Douglass Montgomery, but it was also the third screen appearance of 23 year old Bette Davis. A 1940 adaptation of the Robert Sherwood play would prove more enduring with stars Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor.

3) Frankenstein (1931) - Whale's first horror picture would shape the genre for decades to come, influencing countless later adaptations of Mary Shelley's Gothic novel. With Boris Karloff as the resurrected monster and Colin Clive as his mentally unbalanced creator, Whale crafted a stylish, wry, and genuinely terrifying masterpiece. Mae Clarke, Edward Van Sloan, and the deliriously mad Dwight Frye also contributed to Whale's success with their performances.

4) The Old Dark House (1932) - As the name implies, this film belongs to the "old dark house" genre of horror, with Whale emphasizing the absurdly comedic possibilities of the conventional plot. The collected cast makes this picture a delight for classic movie fans, with Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas, Ernest Thesiger, and Raymond Massey all in the mix, but the strangest pleasure is Elspeth Dudgeon cross-dressed to play the elderly Sir Roderick Femm.

5) The Invisible Man (1933) - Whale's next horror production took the darkly humorous aspect of the genre to a whole different level, with the increasingly mad Claude Rains gamboling invisibly and wreaking havoc all over the English countryside. The film was the first screen role for Rains, who remains unseen until the very last shot, but his voice proved the real draw. Gloria Stuart and Henry Travers star as the friends trying to save Rains from himself, but Una O'Connor also demonstrates her ample talent for scene-stealing and an ear-piercing pitch.

6) The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) - Whale's earlier efforts paved the way for this outstanding picture, which also mingles absurd comedy with its gripping horror. The film reunited Whale with Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Dwight Frye, and Una O'Connor, but its most iconic, if only briefly seen, performer is the young Elsa Lanchester as both Mary Shelley and the shock-haired Bride.

7) Show Boat (1936) - Whale is remembered primarily for his horror, but this 1936 musical drama proved that he could also tap into tender emotions. Generally considered the best film adaptation of the original stage play, Whale's Show Boat gave the world both spectacle and sentiment, with touches of the Whale humor still in evidence. The cast includes many top stars, from Irene Dunne and Allan Jones to Charles Winninger and Helen Morgan, but the film is known today primarily for Paul Robeson's performance as Joe and his powerful rendition of "Old Man River."

8) The Great Garrick (1937) - After The Bride of Frankenstein, Whale moved away from horror, making several dramas and war films. This picture took Whale into the territory of the romantic comedy, with a period setting and Brian Aherne as David Garrick, the great theater personality of the 18th century. Other notable members of the cast include Olivia de Havilland, Edward Everett Horton, Lionel Atwill, and Lana Turner.

9) The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) - Whale continued the period theme with this adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas adventure, with Louis Hayward starring in the double role of the twin royals. Swashbuckling regulars in the cast include Alan Hale and Montagu Love, but Joan Bennett, Warren William, Joseph Schildkraut, and Albert Dekker also make appearances.

10) They Dare Not Love (1941) - Sadly, by the beginning of the 1940s Whale's career was more or less over.  Show Boat had been his last truly memorable work. They Dare Not Love, a World War II drama starring George Brent, Martha Scott, and Paul Lukas, would be his last feature film.

In 1998, Whale's story became familiar to a new generation of moviegoers with the release of Gods and Monsters, adapted from Christopher Bram's novel, Father of Frankenstein. In the film, Ian McKellen plays the director at the very end of his life, while Brendan Fraser stars as the gardener who befriends him. You can also learn more about Whale by reading James Curtis' 2003 biography, James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET (1934)

Once upon a time, the romance of Victorian poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning was one of the world’s most celebrated love stories, although today it’s a tale that only English majors with a particular interest in the 19th century are likely to know well. The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), adapted from the play by Rudolph Besier, takes the usual poetic license with history, but it’s a lovely vision, nonetheless, with strong performances from Norma Shearer and Fredric March as the literary lovers. Viewers don’t really need to know anything about the poets to appreciate the elegant costumes, the tender love scenes, or the striking depiction of Victorian domestic dysfunction, but those well-versed in the works of both Barrett and Browning are likely to enjoy the film that much more. Memorable appearances by Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, and Una O’Connor will give classic movie fans a particular thrill, as well.

Norma Shearer plays celebrated poet Elizabeth Barrett, an invalid who lives at Wimpole Street with a large collection of siblings and their overbearing father, Edward (Charles Laughton). The younger Barretts live in fear of Edward, who refuses to let any of them marry, and even Elizabeth, his favorite, shrinks from his relentless control. Strong-willed Henrietta (Maureen O’Sullivan) engages in a forbidden romance that enrages her father, but his ire is even greater when he suspects that Elizabeth has more than platonic feelings for the energetic young poet, Robert Browning (Fredric March).

Shearer embodies Barrett’s intelligence and frailty beautifully, and she looks fabulous in the sumptuous period gowns and the poet’s signature curls. Her performance earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, the fourth of her career. Fredric March makes an excellent foil to her languid lady with his boundless energy and enthusiasm; he dashes into the room at their first meeting, an irresistible force determined to pull Elizabeth into life and love despite her own misgivings. The two talk of poetry briefly, invoking Browning’s early work, Sordello, in particular, but their later conversations turn almost entirely to affairs of the heart. That reluctance to be literary might be one of the film’s real weaknesses, since it denies uninitiated viewers a chance to figure out what these two poets are actually famous for, and it seems a shame that Barrett’s “How Do I Love Thee?” never gets an airing, since it was first written during the period that the film chronicles.

The supporting players fill the Wimpole Street house with well-defined characters who help to shape the lovers’ story in one way or another. Charles Laughton offers a compelling argument for patricide in his portrayal of Edward; the incestuous nature of his obsession with Elizabeth spills out in one climactic scene, but throughout the entire film he makes the viewer’s skin crawl with his thick lips, pitiless religiosity, and absolute suffocation of his children. Maureen O’Sullivan, as Henrietta, gets several excellent scenes of rebellion against him; she’s less a saint than Elizabeth, but her fiery courage makes us root for her to escape her father’s clutches by any means necessary. (The real Henrietta Moulton-Barrett did eventually marry Surtees Cook, although her father immediately disinherited her.) The delightful Una O’Connor also makes a noteworthy contribution as Elizabeth’s maid, Wilson, who loves Elizabeth far more than she fears Edward.

In addition to the Best Actress nomination for Shearer, The Barretts of Wimpole Street also earned a nod for Best Picture, but it lost on both counts to the big winner of 1934, It Happened One Night. Director Sidney Franklin liked his film so much that he remade it in 1957 with Jennifer Jones as Elizabeth Barrett and Bill Travers as Robert Browning. See more of Norma Shearer in The Divorcee (1930), A Free Soul (1931), and The Women (1939), and catch Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), A Star is Born (1937), and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). The versatile but always brilliant Charles Laughton also stars in Island of Lost Souls (1932), The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), and Witness for the Prosecution (1957). Look for Una O’Connor in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939), and see quite a lot of Maureen O’Sullivan in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and its sequels.

Learn more about Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning from The Poetry Foundation.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

In Praise of 42 Year Old Classic Movie Actresses

Being a 42 year old woman myself, I'm fascinated by the presumption of Tom Junod's recent Esquire piece, which opens with the statement that "there used to be something tragic about even the most beautiful forty-two year old woman." The essay has swiftly and justly provoked a chorus of mockery and retort from both men and women alike. What particularly caught my attention, though, was Junod's use of Anne Bancroft in The Graduate (1967) as his touchstone for the "old view" of the forty-two year old woman's tragic sexuality. For the record, Anne Bancroft was just 36 when she played Mrs. Robinson, while her supposedly 22 year old lover, Dustin Hoffman, was actually 30. Once Junod brought up the subject of classic films and the 42 year old woman, I couldn't help but think about iconic actresses and the roles they were playing when they really were 42. Let's take a look, shall we?

Bette Davis, born in 1908, turned 42 in 1950, the year she starred in All About Eve, one of her most celebrated films. Beautiful, successful, and certainly desirable, her Margo Channing was one of her greatest characters, and one who had a lot in common with her real-life self. The movie won six Oscars, including Best Picture, and Davis picked up her ninth Best Actress nomination.

Joan Crawford, born in 1906, turned 42 in 1948. She didn't have a picture come out that year, but the next year saw her star in Flamingo Road (1949), and in 1950 she made The Damned Don't Cry and Harriet Craig. Sex appeal is her character's chief weapon in the crime drama, The Damned Don't Cry, and Joan would go on being fabulously tough and sexy in This Woman is Dangerous (1952), Torch Song (1953), and Johnny Guitar (1955).

Katharine Hepburn entered the world in 1907 and celebrated her 42nd year in 1949, when she gave Spencer Tracy every ounce of trouble she could muster in the marvelous comedy, Adam's Rib. Hepburn wasn't done, either, not by a long shot. She still had The African Queen (1951), Pat and Mike (1952), Desk Set (1957), and even Rooster Cogburn (1975) ahead of her. She would earn eight of her 12 career Oscar nominations after she was 42, and she would win three more times, all in the last two decades of her long screen career. Irrelevant? I think not. Tragic? Hardly.

Claudette Colbert, born in 1903, was by no means fading at the age of 42, which she reached in 1945. She starred that year in Guest Wife, but she had bigger hits later on, especially with The Egg and I in 1947. Funny, sassy, and classy, Colbert also starred with John Wayne in Without Reservations (1946) and with Walter Pidgeon in The Secret Heart (1946).

Living legend Maureen O'Hara, she of the fiery heart and hair, was born in 1920. She turned in 42 in 1962, a year before her iconic turn in McLintock! (1963) with frequent leading man John Wayne. In 1962 she starred in Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation with Jimmy Stewart, and she reunited with Stewart for The Rare Breed in 1966. She was still yanking Duke's chain as late as 1971, when they made Big Jake.

Not enough for you? We're not even close to finished.

Doris Day starred in The Glass Bottom Boat  in 1966, 42 years after her birth in 1924.

Olivia de Havilland, born in 1916, made The Proud Rebel in 1958, the year she turned 42.

Ginger Rogers, born in 1911, turned 42 in 1953, the year she starred with Cary Grant in Monkey Business and more than held her own against nubile newcomer Marilyn Monroe.

Joan Blondell, born in 1906, made Nightmare Alley in 1947, and turned 42 in 1948. The feisty Pre-Code star continued to work right up until her death in 1979.

Ingrid Bergman, who was born in 1915, turned 42 in 1957. She won an Oscar that year for Best Actress for her performance in Anastasia (1956). In 1958, she starred with Cary Grant in Indiscreet and with Robert Donat in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. She still had two more Oscar-nominated roles ahead of her; she won Best Supporting Actress for Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and picked up her final Best Actress nod for Hostsonaten (1978).

Pause with me a moment to imagine any of these great ladies of Hollywood responding to Tom Junod's assertion that they were tragic because of their age at 42. Are your imaginary ears blistering yet? Mine sure are. Sic' em, Bette, Joan, and Kate!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: I REMEMBER MAMA (1948)

Nominated for five Academy Awards, I Remember Mama (1948) is one of those movies that requires a handful of hankies to watch, especially for those who have fond memories of their own mothers. George Stevens’ nostalgic melodrama has all the right ingredients for a classic tearjerker, including a sweet, sincere performance from Irene Dunne as the idealized matriarch, whose dedication to her family knows no bounds. Barbara Bel Geddes also makes a lasting impression in her second screen role as the narrator of the tale, but the cast is full of talented character actors who each bring something special to the picture and enhance its appeal. While it might prove too sentimental for some modern viewers, those who enjoy heartwarming family stories will find much to love in I Remember Mama, which wisely balances laughter and tears in its depiction of the Hanson family’s experiences.

Barbara Bel Geddes stars as Katrin, the daughter of Norwegian immigrants living in San Francisco in the first decade of the twentieth century. Along with her brother and two sisters, Katrin grows up under the devoted protection of her father, Lars (Philip Dorn), and mother, Marta (Irene Dunne), who make many sacrifices for the benefit of their children. As Katrin enters adulthood and becomes a writer, she recounts the many ups and downs of the family’s life together, but she focuses most on the selfless love and support of her mother.

Both Dunne and Bel Geddes earned Oscar nominations for their performances, but the picture really belongs to Dunne, who manages to make Mama an angel without making her dull. Equally adept at comedy and sentiment, Dunne gives Mama enough good humor and strength to see her through almost any crisis, even little Dagmar’s emergency surgery. Some mothers might sit at home and cry, but Mama disguises herself as a cleaning lady in order to sneak into the ward and keep her promise to her daughter. Scenes that might otherwise play as maudlin, like the euthanization of an injured pet cat, are lightened by Dunne’s handling of the moment. The audience believes in Mama because of Dunne’s performance of her; the role would bring Dunne the last of five Best Actress nominations, and it’s a shame she never won. Bel Geddes, fresh-faced and girlish, looks far younger than her actual age as the adolescent Katrin; her youthful appearance and soft voice lend credibility to her role as a teenager still trying to find her place in the world. Katrin spends much of her time on the sidelines, watching and taking note of her mother’s actions, but Bel Geddes shines in the few key scenes where she takes center stage.

The two lead actresses get ample support from the rest of the cast, which features some memorable players who bring both depth and humor to their roles. Oskar Homolka is quite the scene-stealer as Uncle Chris, the overbearing patriarch whose loud personality masks his loving, generous spirit. Ellen Corby plays timid Aunt Trina with such a yearning for happiness that she alone of Marta’s three sisters commands our sympathy. Both Homolka and Corby picked up Oscar nominations for their performances, pitting Corby and Bel Geddes against each other for Best Supporting Actress (they lost to Claire Trevor in Key Largo). Trina’s mild-mannered suitor is played by Edgar Bergen, appearing without his wooden sidekick, Charlie McCarthy; as Mr. Thorkelson, he functions mostly as a comical figure but has a tender scene with Trina near the very end of the picture. Dedicated classic movie fans will also appreciate the contributions of Rudy Vallee, Florence Bates, Cedric Hardwicke, and Barbara O’Neil in brief but effective appearances.

The original story of I Remember Mama came from Mama’s Bank Account, a novel by Kathryn Forbes, which was adapted into a stage play by John Van Druten. A television series and Broadway musical followed, proving the story’s enduring appeal to audiences. For more of Irene Dunne, see The Awful Truth (1937), Love Affair (1939), and My Favorite Wife (1940). Barbara Bel Geddes is best remembered today as Ellie Ewing on the television series, Dallas, but you’ll also find her in Blood on the Moon (1948), Panic in the Streets (1950), and Vertigo (1958). See Oskar Homolka in Sabotage (1936), The Invisible Woman (1940), and Ball of Fire (1941). Like Barbara Bel Geddes, Ellen Corby had her most memorable role on television, as Grandma Walton on The Waltons, and she also has a small part in Vertigo; look for more of her in Caged (1950), Angels in the Outfield (1951), and Shane (1953).