Thursday, August 28, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET (1964)

Don Knotts stars in The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), one of the weirdest war comedies ever made, in which a nearsighted amateur ichthyologist transforms into a fish and then becomes an unlikely hero during World War II. This family-friendly picture combines animation and live action for its strange fish tale, and it possesses an odd charm that still works on viewers of all ages, thanks to Knotts’ sweetly funny performance and plenty of lively action that keeps the story in motion. Jack Weston, Carole Cook, and Andrew Duggan also make memorable appearances, but the movie really belongs to Knotts and the colorful undersea world where he finds friendship, adventure, and love.

Knotts plays Henry Limpet, a timid, bookish fellow whose wish to be a fish comes true when he falls off a pier at Coney Island. While his wife, Bessie (Carole Cook), and overbearing pal, George (Jack Weston), give him up as drowned, Henry embarks on a new life underwater, where he makes friends with a hermit crab (Paul Frees) and attracts the admiration of the lovely Ladyfish (Elizabeth MacRae). Henry also finds purpose when he realizes that his unique situation allows him to help the US Navy hunt down Nazi U-boats in the Atlantic.

Most people immediately think of Knotts as Barney Fife, and his popularity on The Andy Griffith Show more or less defined his career, but as Henry Limpet Knotts gets to play a gentler, less buffoonish character. There are distinct shades of a Jimmy Stewart type in Knott’s Henry; he might be obsessed with fish, but he’s a sweet guy, very bright, and really just waiting for a chance to prove himself. Henry longs to serve his country in spite of his 4F status, and his magical transformation gives him a chance to become both a hero and a figure of romance. He first appears as a puny, undersized human, but he makes for a strapping and extraordinary fish. Knotts even gets to sing the movie’s signature song, “I Wish I Were a Fish,” and though he’s no crooner it further shows that the actor had more range than many Barney Fife fans might expect.

The supporting actors in the live action scenes mostly react to Knotts, even when he’s playing the milquetoast human version of Henry. As George Stickel, Jack Weston is overbearing when Henry is a man but amusingly in awe of his pal as a fish, and he serves as the link between Henry’s two worlds. Carole Cook seems like a terrible harridan of a wife to Henry until she thinks he has drowned, and then she reveals a surprising tenderness toward him that makes us reassess our sense of her character. Andrew Duggan plays Harlock with a mix of befuddlement and practical acceptance of whatever gets the job done, but even in the framing sequences Harlock and Stickel look like they’d rather forget all about incidents they still can’t really believe. Elizabeth MacRae’s Ladyfish might be the least interesting character in the whole picture, with her sexy voice and vacuous personality, but Paul Frees invests Crusty the hermit crab with a feisty loyalty that makes him a highlight of the story.

Arthur Lubin, who directed The Incredible Mr. Limpet, also made Buck Privates (1941), Francis the Talking Mule (1950), and Rhubarb (1951), as well as a whole series of Francis sequels. For more of Don Knotts’ film career, see No Time for Sergeants (1958), The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), and The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975). Look for Jack Weston in Wait Until Dark (1967) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Veteran voice actor Paul Frees earned more than 300 screen credits for his film and television work, and you might recognize him as the voice of Barney Bear, Wally Walrus, Boris Badenov, Snuffy Smith, Charlie Beary, Ludwig Von Drake, and a host of other animated characters.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How Classic Movies Helped Me Write My Novel

So, my first novel is now available on Amazon Kindle, and I'm about as proud as a new parent handing out cigars. Two years of working, writing, and thinking will hopefully pay off in a story that people enjoy reading. As always, my ongoing love affair with classic movies has been a big part of the process.

That won't be obvious to everyone who reads the book, and it might not even be apparent to other classic movie fans. The novel is a YA fantasy about a boy raised by a dragon. Its relationship to fairy tales and other fantasy novels is certainly more marked, and it also draws from literary classics like The Jungle Book. I have been a voracious and constant reader since I was 3, and everything I have ever read swims around in my imagination and seeps into my own work. Hopefully English majors will appreciate the many allusions and influences.

However, my brain also teems with classic films, and those, too, permeate the novel, especially when it comes to creating characters. My roguish dragon, Willais, is always a Tyrone Power type in my mind, especially when he is magically transformed into a man. I even gave him Ty's distinctive eyebrows. Lanky, sweet-natured Bert is inspired by Ray Bolger, especially as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz but also in The Harvey Girls. Bert's wife, Magda, is a mix of Mary Boland and Spring Byington types, with a little extra temper thrown in (a touch, perhaps, of Alice's Queen of Hearts as voiced by Verna Felton). Whenever I needed a pop-up character for a single scene, I imagined a classic movie character actor who might have played the part. Victor McLaglen is in there, and Frank Morgan, too. I doubt many people will notice, if any, but it really helped me see the characters in my own mind when I was writing about them.

Of course, many of the characters have very different family trees, but I don't think the novel would be the same if not for all of those classic movies I have enjoyed so over the years. Once again I'm grateful for a passion that has not only entertained me but has made me think that much more about narratives, characters, and the way in which a good story comes together!

If you're actually interested in the novel, it's called Wierm's Egg. You can find it on Amazon by clicking the link. Of course the Beyond Casablanca books and the two Jim Henson anthologies are there, too.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946)

Adapted from the novel by James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) delivers all of the classic noir conventions, with a special emphasis on the ironic workings of fate. Tay Garnett directs this MGM contribution to film noir, which features an iconic performance from Lana Turner as the resident femme fatale, along with John Garfield and Cecil Kellaway as the doomed flies caught in her attractive web. Leon Ames and Hume Cronyn also make memorable appearances as a pair of lawyers who care more about competition than actual justice. Modern critical opinion of Postman goes both ways; David Thomson applauds it, while David N. Meyer derides it, but it's still required viewing for any serious noir fan.

Garfield is drifter Frank Chambers, who takes a "Man Wanted" position at a roadside station because of the owner's seductive wife, Cora (Lana Turner). Frank and Cora begin an affair, but Nick (Cecil Kellaway) seems like an impossible obstacle to their happiness, and they start to imagine their lives without him standing in the way. When Nick announces his plan to sell the station and take Cora away to Canada, the lovers rush into desperate action, but the district attorney (Leon Ames) has his eye on the murderous pair, and their plot becomes far more complicated than they intended.

Each of the three main characters is a loser in his or her own way, but Postman presents them in shades of gray that slowly slip toward black. Kellaway's Nick seems jovial and kindly at first, until we realize how tight-fisted and dictatorial he is, especially where Cora is concerned. When Frank and Cora first think of killing him, we feel bad for the old man, but his abrupt decision to force Cora to Canada to play nurse for his invalid sister goes a long way toward justifying the second attempt. Cora just wants to make something of the diner. She isn't afraid of hard work, and at first she resists Frank's advances. "You won't find anything cheap around here," she tells him. As her spotless white outfits shift to black, however, she reveals a dangerous jealousy and even mental instability. What kind of mother would such a woman have made? We get the feeling that Junior might have grown up to be the Norman Bates of the Twin Oaks establishment, had fate not conveniently stepped in. Frank himself is the first to blame; he only takes the job to chase Cora, and he doesn't let up until it finally dawns on him that he might be in over his head. He does try, at least, to walk out, but by then he has already set the dominoes in motion.

Oddly enough, the most despicable people in the film are the lawyers, played with predatory cunning by Leon Ames and Hume Cronyn. Ames' district attorney pretends to be on the side of justice, but he seems perfectly content to let Frank and Cora commit murder so that he can prosecute them, when he actually has plenty of opportunity to stop the murder from happening in the first place. His moral posturing at the movie's end reeks of irony, given his cavalier bet with the opposition about the earlier trial's outcome and his willingness to make plea deals. Cronyn's Arthur Keats lacks even the veneer of morality; he's a sharper, as crooked as they come, and ready to do everything but commit murder himself to control the verdict in Cora's trial. Cronyn is so gloriously sleazy that he more or less steals the movie every time he shows up, and that's quite a feat when Lana Turner's ample charms are on display.

Audrey Totter, another notable femme fatale, adds an extra touch of irony as the girl Frank runs off with when he gets mad at Cora; he clearly has a thing for dangerous curves. Take note of Fred Flintstone voice actor Alan Reed as the lumbering crook, Kennedy. For more from Tay Garnett, try China Seas (1935), The Cross of Lorraine (1943), and The Valley of Decision (1945). Cain's novel was also adapted in Italy as Ossessione (1943), which makes a provocative double feature with Postman. See John Garfield in They Made Me a Criminal (1939), Tortilla Flat (1942), and Gentleman's Agreement (1947). Lana Turner turns heads in Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), and The Three Musketeers (1948). Don't miss Cecil Kellaway in Harvey (1950) and Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), and be sure to appreciate Hume Cronyn in Lifeboat (1944). Leon Ames is probably best remembered today as the Smith family patriarch in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), but you'll also find him in Lady in the Lake (1947) and Little Women (1949).

Monday, August 18, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1939)

Among adaptations of Alexandre Dumas' classic novel, this 1939 version is certainly a lightweight, and not nearly as elaborate an affair as the 1948 MGM production starring Gene Kelly. The Fox incarnation, directed by Allan Dwan, revises the original tale as a musical comedy vehicle for The Ritz Brothers, who had a brief film career in the late 1930s and early 40s. They never really took off, and here they prove more of a distraction than a feature. If you like Don Ameche, however, The Three Musketeers has its charms, since the movie provides the amiable star with the kind of swashbuckling role usually reserved for his Fox peer Tyrone Power. It also features worthwhile performances from Gloria Stuart, Binnie Barnes, and Lionel Atwill, as well as brief appearances by John Carradine and Douglass Dumbrille.

Ameche plays D'Artagnan, who arrives in Paris to become a Musketeer, only to pick quarrels with Athos, Aramis, and Porthos on his very first day. The heroic trio, however, succumb to a drinking contest with The Ritz Brothers, who assume their outfits and identities before D'Artagnan arrives to fight his duels with them. Along with D'Artagnan, the fake Musketeers are then swept along into a dangerous political plot involving Queen Anne (Gloria Stuart) and her lady-in-waiting, Constance (Pauline Moore). Their adventures bring them into direct conflict with the devious Milady De Winter (Binnie Barnes) and the scheming Cardinal Richelieu (Miles Mander) as they try to retrieve the queen's brooch before its absence sparks an international scandal and war.

The Ritz Brothers get some modest laughs, but the movie shows why they never really took off as screen stars. They are neither as violent as the Stooges nor as cerebral as The Marx Brothers. The "Chicken Soup" song that introduces them sums up their comedy style; there's a lot of winking and silliness but not much thought to the act. Kids might find them sufficiently entertaining, but most adults will wonder how they manage to merit top billing with Ameche. The movie also falters by wasting Douglass Dumbrille and John Carradine, both terrific character actors, in very small roles; Dumbrille barely has a single scene, and Carradine disappears after just a few minutes. Instead we get lots of shenanigans with The Ritz Brothers as they stumble through one mishap after another, never really varying their gags or developing their characters as anything more than props.

Ameche is the real attraction; he looks quite dashing in his period hair and costumes, and his infectious charm goes a long way to make up for the movie's failings. His D'Artagnan is a gleeful combatant and an energetic romancer, and he really seems to be having a good time waving his sword and playing the swashbuckling hero. Even if the songs are not that memorable, Ameche sings them with zest, especially the "Voila" number. His leading ladies also help to move the picture along. Pauline Moore makes a lovely Constance, and Gloria Stuart is beautifully regal as the imperiled Anne. Binnie Barnes doesn't vamp as much as some Milady actresses, and she has to endure a really awful search scene with the Ritz Brothers, but she sells the character's smiling menace to great effect. Sadly, Milady's worst crimes - and best scenes - are cut to keep the picture firmly in comedy territory. Lionel Atwill, another great character actor and a reliable heavy, gets a heftier part than Carradine and Dumbrille as De Rochefort, one of the schemers working against the queen.

The 1939 adaptation is by no means the place to start with Musketeer films, but it's worth visiting for fans of Ameche's charismatic persona. Try the 1948 version for a more developed, but still imperfect, classic adaptation. Allan Dwan, a prolific director and silent film veteran, also made The Iron Mask (1929) and Heidi (1937). See more of Don Ameche in Midnight (1939), That Night in Rio (1941), and Heaven Can Wait (1943). Gloria Stuart is probably best remembered today as old Rose in Titanic (1997), but her early career included The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938). If you really get into The Ritz Brothers, you'll find them in One in a Million (1936), The Gorilla (1939), and Argentine Nights (1940).

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Build-Your-Own-Blogathon: Bad Apples in BEND OF THE RIVER (1952)

This post is part of the Build-Your-Own-Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film and TV Cafe. It follows Caftan Woman's discussion of T-Men (1947), which shares its director, Anthony Mann, with Bend of the River (1952). Visit the Classic Film and TV Cafe for a complete list of the blogs participating in this blogathon!

"That kind can't change. When an apple's rotten, there's nothing you can do except throw it away or it will spoil the whole barrel." - Jeremy Baile

Director Anthony Mann collaborated with Jimmy Stewart on a number of excellent Westerns, including the 1952 film, Bend of the River, which takes the rugged country of the Pacific Northwest as its frontier territory. It's a story about gold fever, moral decay, and second chances, with Stewart as a former outlaw trying to turn over a new leaf as an honest man. Stewart's Glyn McLyntock is, of course, a good apple, no matter how shady his past, but the movie also presents us with a parade of foils and variations on the same theme. Jay C. Flippen and Chubby Johnson play for the angels as the movie's older good men, with Flippen especially crucial to Stewart's character as the leader of the Oregon settlers, but the less exemplary characters prove far more numerous. Arthur Kennedy and Rock Hudson play men whose moral compasses need more recalibration than Stewart's, while Howard Petrie depicts the rapid transformation of a good man gone wrong over gold, and Harry Morgan plays one of the dirtiest little apples ever seen in a Western barrel. These slippery, complicated performances help make Bend of the River a smart study of psychology as well as an exciting frontier adventure, and the bad apples inform our understanding of the hero's own inner struggle.

"$100,000 is a lot of money." - Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy)

Glyn's primary counterpart throughout the picture is Kennedy's Emerson Cole, a man who has so much in common with Glyn that Glyn tends to think of their destinies as inextricably linked. Cole shares Glyn's past as a raider, and he has enough integrity to appreciate it when Glyn saves his life, but Cole lacks the essential strength of character that sets Glyn apart. Cole likes fast living and violence; he's quick to draw his gun, even when lesser measures would suffice. Kennedy plays Cole as an enigma at first, encouraging us to like him even when we don't trust him, but the lure of wealth proves too much for him to resist. Even the love of Laura (Julie Adams) means nothing to him once a fortune comes within reach. Glyn offers him multiple chances at true redemption, but Cole succumbs to greed.

"You're real fast with that gun, kid, but you're soft." - Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy)

Hudson's handsome young gambler, Trey Wilson, makes the relationship between Glyn and Cole into a triangle. His essential nature is ambiguous early on; as a gambler, he is clearly a man who values money, but he doesn't like to kill. Cole even scolds him for being too soft-hearted. Trey throws in with Glyn and Cole without much thought, and he doesn't have to choose between them until it becomes clear that the two older men are moving in starkly different directions. Even then, Trey keeps his cards hidden, so that we're never quite sure which side he's on until the very end of the film. Trey actually fills two Western character types at once. Despite his worldly demeanor and flashy clothes, he is also this film's version of the Kid who has to decide which model of masculinity he wants to embrace; he can chase wealth and become like Cole, or he can do the right thing and emulate Glyn.

"I could get fifty times what you paid for that food. It's gold, do you understand, gold!" - Tom Hendricks (Howard Petrie)

Howard Petrie plays Tom Hendricks, the Portland official who first welcomes the settlers with open arms but later betrays their trust by reselling their winter supplies at wildly inflated prices. If Hendricks seems a little too friendly at first, that merely sets the stage for his later corruption, when we see him at his overflowing money table with a mad gleam in his eyes. Hendricks' fall mirrors that of the entire community; when Glyn and Jeremy (Jay C. Flippen) return to Portland looking for their supplies, they find the formerly pleasant town transformed into a filthy den of violence, greed, and lust. Hendricks is so far gone that he doesn't care if his double dealing costs the settlers their lives; he is even willing to kill Glyn and Jeremy to protect his financial interest. Tellingly, Cole doesn't seem to process the warning of Hendricks' fate; he's too busy shooting Hendricks' men while they try to run away.

"We're going to the gold camp with this food." - Shorty (Harry Morgan)

While most of the other flawed men in the film have some good qualities, Harry Morgan's Shorty is about as rotten as they come. Along with Red (Jack Lambert) and Long Tom (Royal Dano), Shorty never makes any move unless he's going to get paid for it. Shorty is a far cry from the uncertain but good-hearted character Morgan played in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). He's a dirty, narrow-eyed sneak, always watching for the opportunity to take advantage of the others. He and the other workers conspire to hijack the food supply and sell it at the highest possible price in the gold mining camp; like Hendricks, they don't care if the settlers starve to death as a result. Unlike Hendricks, Shorty and his pals were never good in the first place. Their worst scene comes when they intentionally drop a wagon on Jeremy, Glyn, and Cole in an effort to murder all three at once.

"Any man can make a mistake." - Laura (Julie Adams)

These men run the gamut in terms of moral character, and each one shapes his own fate through his choices. The corruption of the weaker men reminds us how much is at stake in Glyn's struggle for redemption. Glyn knows that the kind of life he once led can only end badly, but his determination to do right and take a harder path makes him a hero in this story more than any skill with a rifle or knife. While there are plenty of bad apples in Bend of the River, they only make the good ones look that much better.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE (1958)

James Stewart and Kim Novak starred in Bell, Book and Candle (1958) the same year they made Vertigo (1958), and both films illustrate the hazards of becoming obsessed with someone you don't really know. Bell, Book and Candle plays this set-up as fodder for supernatural comedy rather than psychological suspense, but there's still an air of menace about the proceedings. The fun depends mostly on sly, offbeat performances from Jack Lemmon, Elsa Lanchester, Hermione Gingold, and Ernie Kovacs, with Stewart and Novak perfectly serious about their magical game of cat and mouse. The result is an odd film, engaging but troublesome, especially in its insistence on an ending that enforces conformity and outdated notions of gender-driven power.

Stewart plays middle-aged publisher Shep Henderson, who becomes entangled with his strange neighbors, the attractive Gil (Novak) and her mischievous aunt, Queenie (Elsa Lanchester). Despite their unusual habits, Shep never suspects that the women are actually witches, living in modern day New York and more or less hiding in plain sight. Shep's fiancee, Merle (Janice Rule), turns out to be Gil's old school nemesis, which inspires Gil to steal Shep for herself by using her magic, even though she insists that she doesn't really care about him. Gil also casts a spell to bring occult author Sidney Redlitch (Ernie Kovaks) to Shep's office, but his arrival complicates matters when he enlists the help of Gil's feckless brother, Nicky (Jack Lemmon), to write about the modern witches of New York.

There is plenty to like about this picture, especially the unconventional community of witches and warlocks, who even have their own night club and generally seem intent on having a good time. They're a bohemian crowd, weird but not really ambitious enough to play more than pranks. Nicky bangs the bongos and switches off street lights, while Aunt Queenie enjoys breaking into Shep's apartment and snooping around. Only Gil is serious and talented enough to do real harm; she terrifies Merle with a conjured thunderstorm and turns Shep's life upside down. Lanchester and Lemmon are delightful and perfectly cast, while Hermione Gingold revels in her matriarchal character, the powerful Bianca de Passe. She has her best scene when Shep comes to her for help in breaking Gil's love spell, in which she mixes a horrific potion and commands the poor victim to drink it. Rumpled Ernie Kovaks also fits in like a natural; the existence of witches in New York is great news for Redlitch and his next book, and his enthusiasm for the community contrasts Shep's growing horror.

The breakdown of the fun happens in the third act, when it becomes clear that Gil's power is deemed unnatural and antithetical to her femininity. Having it all is not an option; she can be a witch and never love, or she can lose her power to become the kind of girl Shep might want to marry. This is similar to the premise set forth in the earlier I Married a Witch (1942), in which Veronica Lake's supernatural heroine becomes a mortal for the love of Fredric March, but Bell, Book and Candle is much more heavy-handed about its disapproval of the powerful, unconventional woman. When we first meet Gil, she wears black, goes barefoot, and sells bizarre tribal masks in her shop, but in order to win Shep for real she has to give up all of those things and conform to his rather narrow expectations. Is Shep really worth it? Would it be so terrible to end up like Aunt Queenie and Madame de Passe? Given the glaring age difference between Stewart and Novak, many modern women might well decide that Gil would have been better off keeping her magic and her cat instead of surrendering to middle-class values for a man old enough to be her father. One suspects that Nicky and the witches will be having a good time long after Gil has gotten tired of seashells, shoes, and a kitchen full of dirty dishes.

Bell, Book and Candle earned two Oscar nominations, for art direction and costume design. Director Richard Quine also worked with Jack Lemmon in It Happened to Jane (1959) and How to Murder Your Wife (1965), and Lemmon and Novak both appear in his 1962 film, The Notorious Landlady. For more of Kim Novak, see Picnic (1955), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), and Kiss Me, Stupid (1964). Jimmy Stewart's other pictures from the late 1950s include Night Passage (1957) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959). Don't miss Hermione Gingold in The Music Man (1962), and be sure to appreciate Elsa Lanchester's Oscar-nominated performance in Witness for the Prosecution (1957), in which she antagonizes her real-life husband, Charles Laughton.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Tribute to Lauren Bacall

I'm not tough. In fact, I'm really kind of a powder puff, the type of person who apologizes at the drop of a hat and can be made to feel bad for months with just a sharp word or a reproving look. Maybe that's why I have always loved the tough dames of classic Hollywood; they exude strength and a "Hell if I care" attitude that I can only dream of having. Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and Lauren Bacall could all cut a man dead with one hard look. Today we lost Bacall, the last of the great noir dames, and the world seems a sadder place without her.

What can you say about an actress who was known as "The Look"? Whatever IT was, she had it in spades. From her very first picture, To Have and Have Not (1944), she was great, feeding Bogart seductive lines and that comeback stare. No wonder he fell hard. Every man on earth must have learned to whistle in 1944, even if he wasn't named Steve (which, by the way, Bogart's character wasn't). Bacall was launched into noir legend and the arms of Humphrey Bogart at the tender age of 19, but you would never have guessed how young she was from the way she carried herself on screen.

She went on acting for the rest of her life. She did voice work, earned an Oscar nomination, went forward, and aged well. She survived the loss of Bogart in 1957, remarried, divorced, raised three children, and wrote multiple memoirs of her life in Hollywood. She was tough, yes, but elegant, too, and into her 80s she was more beautiful than most people can ever hope to be.

Tonight the classic movie fan community - and the world at large - join her family in mourning the loss of Lauren Bacall, but I'm so grateful that she was with us for such a long time, to show us not only how to be tough and 20, but how to be great at every age.

Thanks for everything, Betty Joan Perske. We'll never forget you.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE PIRATE (1948)

In the same year that she starred with Fred Astaire in Easter Parade (1948), Judy Garland partnered with Hollywood’s other reigning hoofer, Gene Kelly, in the Caribbean musical romance, The Pirate (1948). Garland and Kelly had already starred together in For Me and My Gal (1942), and they make a very lively pair in this odd, boisterous romp, which also benefits from Cole Porter’s songs and Vincente Minnelli’s direction. With its tropical setting and heated dance numbers, The Pirate pulses with sexual energy, but it moderates its plot about a young girl’s bedroom fantasies of kidnap and ravishment with liberal doses of comedy. Supporting appearances from Walter Slezak, Gladys Cooper, and the fabulous Nicholas Brothers also make this picture worthwhile for musical and comedy fans.

Garland stars as Manuela, whose arranged marriage to the much older Don Pedro (Walter Slezak) threatens to extinguish her hope for a life of romance and adventure. Her beauty attracts the admiration of Serafin (Gene Kelly), a traveling actor who pursues Manuela to her hometown and disrupts the wedding by claiming to be the infamous pirate, Mack the Black Macoco. Serafin’s ruse backfires, however, when the real Macoco connives to have the actor executed for the outlaw’s crimes.

The plot of the story is surprisingly lusty, with Manuela as both desired object and desiring subject. She yearns for the rough embrace of Macoco the pirate, primarily because she is bored with her conventional, sheltered upbringing and has no idea what an encounter with a real pirate would be like. Don Pedro, fat, rich, and determined to live a quiet life, represents the very opposite of everything that Manuela thinks she wants, but Serafin doesn’t live up to her ideal, either, since he’s merely a rakish entertainer. Manuela gets to live her fantasy, even if it’s just pretend, when Serafin poses as Macoco and demands that Manuela be delivered to him as a sacrifice to save the town. This is kinky stuff for 1948 and sweet-faced Judy Garland, but the movie treats the subject with such ironic humor that it gets passed off as a harmless lark. Still, it’s hard to imagine the production heaving with the same urgency without Gene Kelly in those delightfully tight pants, even if his wig looks a bit silly.

Several of the musical numbers contribute to the heady sexual atmosphere. Louis B. Mayer might have destroyed the alarmingly sexy “Voodoo” number that was meant to be in the picture, but the songs that remain give the audience plenty of heat. Kelly’s “Nina” number has him trying to make out with every girl in port, and the pirate ballet sequence shows off both his dancing ability and his naked legs. Garland waxes rhapsodically about “Mack the Black” and literally lets her hair down to fantasize about being carried off by the buccaneer. Other songs moderate the prevailing mood of the picture with comedy or more traditional romance; the best of the lot is the first performance of “Be a Clown,” which features Kelly with the incredibly talented Nicholas Brothers.

The Pirate succeeds at balancing sensuality with comedy thanks to its cast. Kelly is obviously having a ball as the waggish Serafin; he plays at being a swashbuckler like Douglas Fairbanks and hams up his theatrical bits like John Barrymore. Garland, already fragile and edging toward the end of her MGM career, still looks lovely and has the strength to hold her own against Kelly. The scene in which she throws a roomful of breakable objects at him is quite a spectacle. Gladys Cooper is both maternal and mercenary as Manuela’s Aunt Inez, while Walter Slezak has some very good scenes as the dour Don Pedro. George Zucco makes a brief but memorable appearance as the Viceroy who wants to hang Macoco, and Reginald Owen also turns up in a small supporting role.

For more of Garland and Kelly, see their third and final film together, Summer Stock (1950). Vincente Minnelli also directed Garland, who was his wife from 1945 to 1951, in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and The Clock (1945); he directed Kelly again in An American in Paris (1951) and Brigadoon (1954). For more of Walter Slezak, see Lifeboat (1944) and People Will Talk (1951). Don’t miss the Nicholas Brothers in Stormy Weather (1943), which offers a better and more extended example of their amazing technique.

BEYOND CASABLANCA is Free on Kindle This Week!

As promised in an earlier post, I am now running promos on the ebook version of BEYOND CASABLANCA. Beginning Monday, August 11, 2014, and running through Friday, the ebook is free on Kindle, and I hope you'll either consider the book for yourself or encourage friends to give it a try. It contains many exclusive reviews that you won't find here on Virtual Virago or on my Examiner column.

While you're at it, you might have a look at BEYOND CASABLANCA II, which offers 101 more classic movie reviews, or EVERYDAY MONSTERS, my newly released short story collection.

Thanks to everyone who takes the time to visit the Amazon link and helps me get the word out. I'd really love to give away a  lot of copies this week! The point of the book is to connect readers with great classic films, and hopefully the free promo will promote that aim.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Classic Movies and EVERYDAY MONSTERS

This weekend I got my short story collection, Everyday Monsters, posted on Amazon Kindle, where it now awaits the lavish praise of at least a dozen readers, not including my mother, who doesn't want me to become too conceited by thinking that I might be "all that." Everybody knows that short stories don't sell, but being obsessed with classic horror and shows like The Twilight Zone I wrote them anyway. A word of warning to you classic horror fans out there - this is the kind of thing that is liable to happen to you if you watch too much Boris, Bela, and Lon, not to mention too many episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Anyway, the seven stories in the collection represent a strange melange of influences from classic movies, literature, and my studies of feminist theory in graduate school. Here's a breakdown of some of the references and allusions in each story, which I hope will inspire at least three more people to go over to Amazon and have a look at the book itself.

"The Spinsters" - I have to be coy here to avoid spoiling the big twist, but I can say that there's a lot of Arsenic and Old Lace informing the characters of Louisa and Letitia. They're also based on my real-life dotty old aunts, Birdie and Sis, who were absolutely weird enough to fuel an entire career for any writer. I love wacky old ladies, especially in movies; I adore Una O'Connor, Hermione Gingold, Dame May Whitty, and all of their cinematic sisters. In this story, the little old ladies rule.

"Desiccated" - The Mummy and other later films often depict the protagonist's love interest as the mummy's reincarnated sweetheart, but in this story I do away with the male characters and let the heroine and the Ancient Egyptian princess become the focal characters. Margot definitely has a connection to Princess Ahmesahura, but their encounter has more complicated consequences than a simple substitution. Margot is also something a movie buff, since the horrible kids she has to chaperone remind her of The Omen, and she recognizes the encased mummy as a familiar figure from old films.

"Hoodoo Man" - Classic horror fans will immediately recognize that Cleophas Legendre has appropriated his surname from Bela Lugosi's character in White Zombie, which also informs the way that the zombies themselves are handled. These are classic zombies, not the Romero brain-eaters. I really admire the short fiction of Alice Walker and Eudora Welty, and I hope their influence comes through, but this story is particularly inspired by Zora Neale Hurston's "Sweat." It's also about the blues, especially Nina Simone's fantastic rendition of "I Put a Spell on You."

"Mama Doll" - I wanted to include stories about different kinds of oppressed characters finding some poetic justice through supernatural events, and I really liked the idea of the golem as a monster that we don't see that often. Carlita is a young Hispanic girl thrown into a corrupt foster care system, but her own creativity and will to live make her a surprisingly strong character. My sister and I used to make doll people like this one when we were kids; once we even hid my sister inside one and put her on the porch, where she came to life and terrified trick-or-treaters reaching for the bowl of candy in her lap.

"This is Not a Life" - Forbidden Planet is one of my favorite science fiction movies because of the way it revises Shakespeare's The Tempest as a Freudian fable, and I play with some of those ideas here, too. Isolated on his island paradise, William Prosper has mastered science that certainly looks like magic; instead of a daughter he has his wife, Perdita, who gets her name from The Winter's Tale. There's some Heart of Darkness going on, as well, plus a shout-out to Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I saw a Magritte exhibit in Montreal many years ago, and those trippy images seemed like the perfect complement to this story.

"Morning Comes After the Storm" - I used to teach Robert Browning's "Porphyria's Lover" all the time, and the ending always bothered me. Browning is intentionally ambiguous, but this story reveals what I like to imagine happening next. The dog recalls the beloved pet of Browning's wife, Elizabeth Barrett, who was already a famous poet when Browning started writing fan mail to her. You might say I'm recasting Browning's story according to the workings of Poe's universe. Hopefully that works.

"The Exorcism of Wendell Grove" - I love funny ghost stories like The Ghost Goes West (1935) and The Canterville Ghost (1944). Even Blackbeard's Ghost (1968) makes me laugh. This story is meant to be fun rather than scary, like riding The Haunted Mansion at Disney World, but it still pursues the theme of poetic justice. Frederica Island is inspired by St. Simons Island, in coastal South Georgia. I don't know what actual ghosts they have there, but the story includes a Southern belle, a slave woman, freaky poltergeist twins, gentleman duelists, a drunken frat brother, and a pirate.

Here's the link to the ebook in case you're one of those three people!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE FLY (1958)

The original 1958 version of The Fly was such a hit that it spawned multiple sequels and the well-known 1986 remake with Jeff Goldblum, but it’s actually a lot less horrific than first-time viewers might assume. That famous ending, with the hideous man-fly screaming for help, is certainly over-the-top horror hysteria, but the rest of the picture is more inclined to take itself seriously. At its heart, The Fly is a love story about a young couple whose happiness is shattered by the husband’s dangerous pursuit of science. It works, too, thanks mostly to the performances of David Hedison and Patricia Owens as the lovers caught in fate’s insidious web, although horror fans will also appreciate the presence of genre icon Vincent Price as the doomed inventor’s brother.

David Hedison (credited as Al Hedison) stars as Andre Delambre, a brilliant scientist who invents a matter transmitting device in his basement lab. His experiments go horribly wrong when he tests the invention on himself and unwittingly transports a fly at the same time. Hideously mutated and rapidly losing control over his insect parts, Andre asks his wife, Helene (Patricia Owens), to help him commit suicide and destroy all evidence of the dangerous research. When she complies, Helene faces a murder investigation, but Andre’s brother, Francois (Vincent Price), works desperately to save his sister-in-law and convince the police inspector (Herbert Marshall) that her story is the truth.

The film opens with the death of Andre, so the audience is never in suspense about his fate. As the scientist who transgresses against the boundaries of nature, Andre’s demise might even be warranted, although the film prefers to cast him as a martyr to scientific progress. Helene’s more personal struggle in the aftermath provides the narrative’s tension; will she be executed for murder or committed to life in an insane asylum? Both outcomes spell disaster for her and her young son, but her story, when she finally agrees to tell it, seems far too incredible to be real. Francois, who has long been in love with Helene, acts as the amateur detective trying to figure out the mystery of Andre’s death and Helene’s part in it. Unlike Inspector Charas, Francois knows enough about his brother’s research to believe that such an invention might have been possible, even if all of the evidence has been destroyed. The proof that he finally finds is so shocking that he and Charas are thrust into the same position as Helene, driven to destroy life in spite of their own principles.

CinemaScope photography gives a sense of grandeur to the bizarre story, even though most of the action takes place indoors. The actors also bring gravitas to the narrative with their serious performances. Vincent Price in particular plays it straight and fills the role of the thoroughly human Francois instead of the monstrous Andre. By 1958, Price had already starred in horror features like The Invisible Man Returns (1940) and House of Wax (1953), but he was not yet entrenched in the campier work of William Castle or Roger Corman; House on Haunted Hill (1959) would not appear until the next year, with Corman's House of Usher following in 1960. Herbert Marshall lends the movie even more dramatic weight by playing the skeptical police inspector; an actor known primarily for films like The Letter (1940) and Foreign Correspondent (1940), Marshall serves as an anchoring presence, assuring us that this tragic tale is meant to be taken to heart. Patricia Owens and David Hedison are at their best in the scenes that depict their happy marriage before the fateful accident; once Hedison dons the fly head, he has to project Andre’s misery through the use of his one human hand, while Owens must deliver the inevitable reaction shot when Andre’s inhumanity is finally revealed. It is Owens who gets to make the film’s most prescient, and perhaps ironic, statement about the speed at which progress changes human life. “I get so scared sometimes,” she says. “The suddenness of our age!” We have to wonder what she would think of the world nearly 60 years later.

Director Kurt Neumann made The Fly near the very end of his career; for examples of his earlier work try Tarzan and the Amazons (1945), She-Devil (1957), and Kronos (1957). Look for David Hedison in The Lost World (1960) and Live and Let Die (1973). Patricia Owens stars in The Law and Jake Wade (1958) and The Gun Runners (1958). Herbert Marshall also ventures into horror territory in Gog (1954), but be sure to appreciate him in the clever Pre-Code heist comedy, Trouble in Paradise (1932). Vincent Price reprises his role as Francois Delambre in the 1959 sequel, Return of the Fly. The final installment, Curse of the Fly (1965), continues the story of the Delambre family but stars Brian Donlevy and George Baker.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

BEYOND CASABLANCA 2nd Edition Ebook is Now Available

A while back my publisher at Westview announced some changes in the way they work. Sadly, the downside of the alteration is that the print version of BEYOND CASABLANCA is no longer available from online stores (I can still get print copies directly). On the plus side, I'm now able to run promotions and sales on the Kindle version of the book. As of August 6, 2014, the new ebook version of BEYOND CASABLANCA is available, and you can find it here.

The best part of releasing the new version is that I was able to fix a few errors that had been bothering me since 2012! I had a date wrong and an alphabetizing error, and both of those have just bugged the heck out of me ever since I first noticed them. All of the important content is the same, though, so don't worry if you already have a print or ebook copy.

This is a huge month for me as a writer; I have several projects coming to fruition, and I hope 2015 will be an exciting year of reaching new readers and finishing even more books. I do have another classic movie book in the works, but I have also been working on a novel and a short story collection. If you're interested in the wildly varied projects I have worked on, you can visit my Amazon Author Page.

Thanks to everyone who has supported and enjoyed BEYOND CASABLANCA. I hope it will find more readers and inspire lots of people to watch more old movies!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Modern Movies: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)

The newest Marvel comic book movie to hit theaters, Guardians of the Galaxy asks viewers to embrace otherwise obscure characters and get beyond the more obvious icons presented by The Avengers or DC's constant reworkings of Batman and Superman. Moreover, director James Gunn blatantly rejects the trend toward darkness by making a film that is almost silly enough to be a parody of the summer comic book blockbuster genre. Stephanie Zacharek of The Village Voice has already criticized the movie for being too "Fun!" and self-conscious of its own humor, but for those of us who have been sick to death of dark this and dark that Guardians is a welcome breath of fresh air. Yes, this movie is silly and Fun! - as Zacharek puts it - but it also has a surprisingly sentimental core, and in spite of some crude language and humor it's one of the most family-friendly superhero movies in a very long time.

Chris Pratt plays Earthling Peter Quill, who was abducted by aliens just after the death of his mother, when Peter was still a child. Twenty years later, he roams the galaxy as a thief and junk trader, and the action is set into motion when he steals a strange orb that everyone seems to want. Arrested and thrown into prison, Peter strikes up an uneasy partnership with green assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), tortured muscle man Drax (Dave Bautista), gentle tree being Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and bad-tempered talking raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper). The group become unlikely heroes as they try to protect the galaxy from the orb's power and the evil plans of Ronan (Lee Pace), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and the mysterious overlord, Thanos (Josh Brolin).

Like other comic book blockbusters, Guardians has plenty of explosions and CGI action. Aliens, spaceships, and exotic worlds are onscreen in abundance. It also has plenty of notable stars to swell its ranks: Glenn Close, John C. Reilly, Benicio de Toro, and Djimon Hounsou all make appearances, and of course there's a cameo by Stan Lee. (Joss Whedon fans will also be amused by totally unrecognizable cameos from Nathan Fillion and Alexis Denisof.) These are things that fans expect when they come to this sort of picture, and Guardians delivers them in spades.

The movie could have been a lot darker in the hands of a different director and cast, but Guardians goes for fun rather than self-important seriousness, and, Village Voice criticism aside, that's a great decision. Imagine the movie if Christopher Nolan had made it, and now see it as it actually is. There's plenty of room in which Guardians might have gotten heavy; the characters have all suffered terrible personal losses, both Nebula and Gamora have been turned into genetically altered killing machines, and even Rocket is the product of some unspeakably awful experimentation. The Collector is a terrifying being if you start dwelling on him and the lives of his prisoners. Guardians doesn't ignore these elements, but it leavens them with the characters' quirkier aspects and the life-affirming themes of friendship and the chosen family. Our characters might have succumbed to darkness, but they find each other, and that makes all the difference.

When I took my entire family to see the movie, we all laughed and even cried with these characters. My 13 year old daughter fell in love with Rocket and Groot, and the post-credits scene had us older comic book readers snorting with amusement. We have been waiting for this movie ever since the first "Hooked on a Feeling" trailer ages ago, and Guardians of the Galaxy delivered everything we were hoping it would bring. We had a lot of fun. Sometimes, honestly, that's exactly what people need.

Here's an excellent review by Movie Mom film critic Nell Minow, if you still need convincing to take the kids and see Guardians this weekend.