Monday, December 29, 2014

Classic Movie Tourist: The Ernest Hemingway Home in Key West

I spent the week of Christmas this year in the Florida Keys, where the warm weather and bright blue water worked hard to dispel my usual holiday malaise, despite a particularly wretched end of the year at home. As usual, I kept an eye out for classic movie connections during my travels. I didn't make it over to see the African Queen in Key Largo, but I did manage a visit to the Hemingway House in Key West, which bursts with its own significance for fans of golden age Hollywood.

As most cinephiles know, Ernest Hemingway wrote numerous works that were adapted for the big screen, including A Farewell to Arms (1932 and 1957), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), To Have and Have Not (1944), and The Old Man and the Sea (1958). The Hemingway House features nods to the movie adaptations with walls of posters in various rooms, while bookcases display copies of the novels themselves. For an English professor turned classic movie blogger, places like this are pure catnip.

Speaking of cats, the Hemingway House is also famous for its plethora of polydactyl felines, whose extra toes make them oddball celebrities in their own right. 52 cats currently make their home at the house, according to Rusty, our tour guide. Given Hemingway's importance to classic Hollywood, it's no surprise that many of the resident cats have been named in honor of iconic stars. My perusal of the cat cemetery turned up Kim Novak, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Errol Flynn, Jimmy Stewart, Joan Crawford, and Charlie Chaplin, just to name a few.

While a visit to the Hemingway House encouraged me to rewatch some of my favorite classic adaptations of Hemingway's work, it also made me curious about other classic movies with connections to the Florida Keys. There's Key Largo (1948), of course, but less familiar are pictures like The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), Mercy Island (1941), and Reap the Wild Wind (1942). I'm especially interested now in seeing The Prisoner of Shark Island, since we spent a day out at Dry Tortugas National Park, where Fort Jefferson once housed Dr. Samuel Mudd, who is played in the movie by Warner Baxter. The John Ford picture also stars Gloria Stuart, Harry Carey, and John Carradine. I have just added it to my Netflix queue, and of course I will write a review here on the blog once I finish watching it!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH (1932)

Lee Tracy was a popular star during the Pre-Code era; his fast talking banter made him a hit with audiences during the early days of sound, and he had a waggish quality that perfectly suited the looser moral attitude of the times. In The Half-Naked Truth (1932), Tracy plays the kind of role for which he was made, that of a scheming carnival barker whose ambitions are as boundless as his imagination. With Lupe Velez, Eugene Pallette, and Frank Morgan along for the ride, this corker of a comedy has plenty to offer fans of the Pre-Code period, and Gregory La Cava's direction keeps the action rolling from one ridiculous publicity stunt to the next. Slightly naughty, very silly, and bursting with Tracy's frenetic energy, The Half-Naked Truth aims only to entertain, but it succeeds admirably; it also makes a perfectly good introduction to Tracy and Velez for those who are new to the Pre-Code pantheon of stars.

Tracy plays Jimmy Bates, who starts out hawking the sideshow charms of hoochie coochie dancer Teresita (Lupe Velez) at a second-rate carnival. When one of Jimmy's schemes for publicity causes trouble, the pair head for the greener pastures of New York City with their pal, Achilles (Eugene Pallette), in tow. There they pass Teresita off as a Turkish princess until Jimmy manipulates a famous Broadway show director (Frank Morgan) into making Teresita one of his stars.

As the title suggests, the characters rely mostly on sex appeal and lies to get what they want. Lupe Velez shows quite a lot of skin in her skimpy harem costumes, and Tracy's protagonist couldn't tell the truth to save his own life. Neither one of them is a model of morality, but we like them in spite of that because they have a lot of spunk. Depression era Pre-Code characters need not be exemplars of righteousness to appeal to their audience; they just need to do whatever it takes to get by and have a little fun, and both Jimmy and Teresita embody that unsinkable can-do spirit. If one is a liar and the other a tart, well, who are we to judge?The movie encourages us to see Jimmy as a trickster in the same vein as Bugs Bunny; he's sometimes too smart for his own good, but he has his better nature, too, as the third act reveals. The cartoon sensibility of the picture might not be coincidental, since Gregory La Cava had started his career as a cartoonist.

The supporting players are probably more familiar to modern viewers than the stars, since Eugene Pallette and Frank Morgan both had memorable roles in later films. Pallette, who played the father of just about every leading lady in Hollywood at some point or other, is just as grumpy and rotund as we expect him to be; his character, Achilles, gets saddled with the stigma of being the Princess Exotica's castrated guard. Jimmy tells the staff at the Savoy, "You know, they have them in all Turkish harems. He's very sensitive about it." Poor Achilles doesn't even realize what Jimmy has done until the rumor undermines his romantic overtures toward a hotel maid. Jimmy also bamboozles and frustrates Frank Morgan's overwrought Merle Farrell, giving Morgan plenty of opportunities to bluster and react with his usual comic flair. Farrell is such a self-important big shot that we enjoy watching Jimmy outfox him, and the picture scene near the end really stands out.

For Gregory La Cava's best remembered work, see My Man Godfrey (1936), which features Eugene Pallette as Carole Lombard's father. Lee Tracy also stars in Blessed Event (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), and Bombshell (1933). Lupe Velez starred in a series of Mexican Spitfire films beginning in 1940, but for more of her early roles see The Gaucho (1927), Where East is East (1929), and Kongo (1932). Frank Morgan is best known today as the bombastic Wizard (and several other characters) in The Wizard of Oz (1939), but he earned Oscar nominations for The Affairs of Cellini (1934) and Tortilla Flat (1942). Eugene Pallette, with more than 250 screen appearances, is everywhere in classic film. Look for him in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Mark of Zorro (1940), and Heaven Can Wait (1943) for starters.

The Half-Naked Truth is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE BLOB (1958)

Science fiction movies of the 1950s offer plenty of strange alien menaces, but The Blob (1958) features one of the very strangest. You wouldn't think an oozy sphere would provide much of a threat, but the title monster of this cult classic is as mindless and unrelenting as death itself, an utterly inhuman being with which there can be no discussion or rapport. Given that it looks a lot like a ball of strawberry jam, the blob might not evoke much terror in an audience, but the movie delights nonetheless, for its weird creature, its imaginative effects, its Burt Bacharach title song, and, last but not least, the odd attraction of Steve McQueen as the blob's chief opponent.

McQueen plays teenaged Steve Andrews, who is enjoying a date with Jane (Aneta Corsaut) when the pair spot some kind of shooting star that lands nearby. They search for the object but instead find an old man (Olin Howland) whose hand is covered in bizarre goo, and their efforts to help him unwittingly provide the blob with more victims. Every time the blob consumes another person, it grows, until it becomes big enough to threaten the entire town. Steve and Jane enlist the aid of their friends as well as local cop Dave (Earl Rowe) to warn the citizens and combat the oozing horror, but nobody knows how to fight such a strange, unstoppable foe.

The Blob has a lot in common with dozens of low-budget science fiction productions of its era, and in many ways it is indistinguishable from them. Its director, Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr., made a handful of other B movies, but only The Blob enjoys much notoriety today. The acting is decent but not outstanding, and the plot depends on all of the usual genre cliches, which by 1958 were already well established as such. Why, then, is The Blob such a perpetual favorite? The answer begins with Bacharach's groovy title song, which tells the audience that the ensuing carnage is just silly fun. Then we get Steve McQueen, doing his best to act like a teenager even though he was 28 at the time. He's obviously much too old for the part but manages to be likable nonetheless. Aneta Corsaut, best remembered as Helen Crump on The Andy Griffith Show, is also more mature than her character but pretty and gentle enough that we let it pass.

As the title implies, however, the monster itself is the real star of this show, and it's primarily the blob that delights audiences decade after decade. Rather than put a guy in a rubber suit, the movie presents us with a creature that never reveals its zippers or strings. Stop-motion work and other tricks bring the creature to life, although the picture wisely avoids most of the actual death scenes for the victims. We know enough to guess at their fates and squirm, especially during the middle segment when the blob consumes the old man, the local doctor, his nurse, an auto mechanic, and a handful of other unlucky folks. The highpoint of the picture comes when the blob invades a movie theater packed with patrons for a midnight horror show. The screaming mob fleeing the theater has become one of B horror's most iconic moments; the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, where the segment was filmed, has re-enacted the scene many times and even hosts a Blobfest to commemorate the movie. There's an uncanny thrill in watching a movie in which people watching a movie are attacked by a hideous thing; we laugh even as we glance over our shoulders to see what might be sneaking up from behind. The Blob understands this and capitalizes on it, which makes it a much smarter picture than one might at first expect.

The Blob was remade in 1988 to celebrate the original movie's 30th anniversary, with all the added gore one might expect. Irvin Yeaworth's other cinematic efforts include 4D Man (1959) and Dinosaurus! (1960), while Steve McQueen is best remembered today for The Great Escape (1963), Bullitt (1968), and Papillon (1973). For more science fiction horror from the 1950s, try The Thing from Another World (1951), Donovan's Brain (1953), Them! (1954), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).