Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Stars of the Stands: Classic Hollywood at the Kentucky Derby Museum

We jaunted off to Louisville, Kentucky, last week for a few days' respite from the holiday blues, hoping to recapture our enchantment with the city from a previous visit years before. While this year's trip had its hits and misses, one unexpected treat was an exhibit about classic Hollywood and the Kentucky Derby at the Kentucky Derby Museum. The exhibit, called "Stars of the Stands," included photographs and movie clips that demonstrated the long standing fascination of Tinseltown types with the glamorous gambling at Churchill Downs.

The exhibit introduced its topic by talking about the simultaneous growth of the Derby and Hollywood in the 1930s, when actors and studio heads began to flock to the Kentucky Derby in greater numbers. The allure was partly the spectacle and the chance to be seen by reporters and the public, but the interest of the stars and the moguls also led to movies being made about the Derby and horse racing in general. At the same time, the adoration of celebrities for jockeys helped to make the jockeys themselves into celebrities.

Stars featured in the exhibit included Joe E. Brown, Ann Sheridan, Bob Hope, and Jayne Mansfield, all of whom attended the Derby. According to Jim Bolus, author of the book, Derby Fever, Brown was a regular Derby attendee who liked to joke that the Kentucky Derby was his "favorite charity." Photos depicted stars watching the race, celebrating or lamenting their gambling luck, and hobnobbing with favorite jockeys, trainers, and owners.

In a small theater area, a string of newsreel clips revealed dozens of other stars at the Derby, from Claudette Colbert to Ronald Reagan (although by the time he was shown attending Reagan had already moved on to politics). Movie clips showed bits of pictures with a local racing angle like In Old Kentucky (1935), starring Will Rogers, and Kentucky (1938), starring Loretta Young, Richard Greene, and Walter Brennan, Other movies about horse racing in general also got some play, including Thoroughbreds Don't Cry (1937), starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. There were also shorts on display, with Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen turning up for At the Races (1934). Among the featured cartoons were Gallopin' Gals (1940) and the Goofy short, They're Off (1948).

While the exhibit constituted only a small part of the Kentucky Derby Museum, it was really fascinating to see how the history of the race had influenced and been impacted by Golden Age Hollywood. It's always fun to discover a tribute to classic movies and their stars where you don't expect it, and the Stars of the Stands exhibit elevated my experience at the museum and made it even more memorable. If you happen to visit Louisville anytime soon, do drop by the Kentucky Derby Museum and enjoy the Stars of the Stands as well as the many other excellent exhibits.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Scenes from a LEGO Western

If you have been reading this blog much over the years, you know that I love classic Westerns. I grew up watching them with my father and grandfather, and I've always had a nostalgic love for the Old West. You also know that I love LEGO and am an active member of a large LEGO hobby club for adults. For our show this weekend at a local science museum I decided to combine those passions and create a Wild West LEGO display. Here are a few photos of the results!

Plenty of classic Westerns focus on the cattle drive, so I've got one going on in my display. Two cowboys and their dog are driving the herd across the desert frontier, but it looks like they've found a good watering hole. In the background you can spot the Lone Ranger and Tonto off to save the day and Stinky Pete the Prospector mining for gold.

Western towns are rough and tumble places, but the Sheriff's office looks popular. Of course, if the sheriff gets thirsty, he's right next to the saloon. I wonder if it's John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, or Gary Cooper wearing the badge in there? Maybe one day I'll recreate Destry Rides Again or My Darling Clementine.

The gunfighter is more spaghetti Western than Hollywood. He's definitely a tough character, but I think the sheriff can take him. I also have robot cowboys to stage a Westworld shootout later on!

If you like the LEGO movie stuff, you might also have a look at my LEGO Dracula post. There are a couple of tributes to classic film noir, too.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: ON AN ISLAND WITH YOU (1948)

The buoyant charm of Esther Williams drives all of her musical comedies, but some work better than others, and On an Island with You (1948) mostly sinks rather than swims. Its plot, in which an obsessed fan demonstrates his passion for a movie star by kidnapping her, disturbs and confounds, especially since it's played off as romantic fun, with Peter Lawford as the relentless admirer who bribes his way into getting close to the object of his obsession. A vague, stagy Pacific Island setting does little to enhance the picture, although it showcases the figures of Williams and Cyd Charisse in skimpy sarongs. With all its flaws, On an Island with You is definitely not the first Esther Williams picture anyone should see, but it offers some modest compensations in the presence of suave Ricardo Montalban and a funny, sentimental performance by vaudeville veteran Jimmy Durante.

Williams plays Hollywood star Rosalind Reynolds, who is shooting a picture on location in the Pacific Islands with her costar and fiance, Ricardo Montez (Ricardo Montalban). When a young Navy lieutenant, Larry Kingslee (Peter Lawford), is brought on set as a consultant, he pursues Rosalind in spite of her refusal of him and her engagement to another man. Eventually, Larry makes off with Rosalind and carries her to a remote island, where the natives prevent their departure by stealing parts from their plane. The kidnapping throws the movie production into chaos, with assistant director Buckley (Jimmy Durante) torn between his desire to rescue Rosalind and his friendship with Larry. Meanwhile, Rosalind's costar, Yvonne (Cyd Charisse), pines for the attention of Ricardo, both onscreen and off.

Lawford's performance is not particularly compelling in a role that would be difficult to pull off for any actor, but the more serious problem with the movie is its reliance on a frankly sexist and creepy plot. The message here is that "no" might actually mean "yes" if the man just doesn't give up, even when his attentions cross the border from merely annoying to criminal. In a thriller or a horror movie this kind of plot can be very effective, but as a driver for romance it's wildly inappropriate. Williams' heroine collapses into a rapid case of Stockholm Syndrome, even lying to protect Larry from the consequences of his own inexcusable actions. In spite of some paternalistic posturing toward the end of the movie, Ricardo Montalban's character still seems preferable to Lawford's wooden stalker fan, and Montalban at least has some chemistry with Williams and a hefty dose of sex appeal.

The scenes with Montalban and Williams provide some relief from the awkward thrust of the narrative, and the swimming duets are particularly interesting, with the pair performing an aquatic courtship of synchronized strokes. Cyd Charisse has several energetic dance numbers that break up the action, and Xavier Cugat and his orchestra are also on hand to distract us from the dreadful plot with lively musical interludes. Cugat also has a running gag involving a tiny Chihuahua and Jimmy Durante, which is cute even though it has nothing to do with either the central story or the movie within the movie. Durante turns out to be the best thing about the picture; his character, Buckley, is both funny and sympathetic, a sadder and a wiser clown whose glory days are far behind him. His musical numbers hark back to vaudeville days, but he also gives the story its only sincere moments. He might not be as young and handsome as either of the leading men, but he's far more likable, even if he also lets Lawford's character get away with outrageously bad behavior.

Be sure to note young Kathryn Beaumont, the voice of Disney's Alice and Wendy, as the very British Penelope Peabody. For better outings with Esther Williams, see Bathing Beauty (1944), Neptune's Daughter (1949), and Dangerous When Wet (1953). Richard Thorpe, who directed On an Island with You, is best remembered for Ivanhoe (1952) and Jailhouse Rock (1957), but he also made silent Westerns in the 1920s and Tarzan serials in the 1930s and 40s. Peter Lawford is more fun to watch in Easter Parade (1948), while Ricardo Montalban flexes his noir muscles in Border Incident (1949). See more of Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon (1953) and Brigadoon (1954), and catch Jimmy Durante spoofing Harpo Marx in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942).

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955)

The Gill Man returns for a second shot at interspecies romance in Revenge of the Creature (1955), a direct sequel to the 1954 Universal horror, Creature from the Black Lagoon. Jack Arnold also comes back to the fish man out of water story as the director, but this time the action moves from the Amazon to coastal Florida, where the Gill Man becomes a captive tourist attraction and the unwilling subject of scientific experiments. Although it lacks the novelty and eerie atmosphere of the original picture, Revenge of the Creature is nonetheless an entertaining follow-up, especially for fans of 1950s sci-fi horror. Genre regular John Agar is on hand as the scientist hero, with Lori Nelson as the lovely lady icthyologist who attracts the Gill Man's unrequited affection.

Agar stars as animal psychologist Clete Ferguson, who travels to Florida to run tests on the Gill Man after a hunting party captures the creature in his Amazon lagoon. Graduate student Helen (Lori Nelson) becomes the professor's assistant as well as his love interest, despite some competition from Joe (John Bromfield), the macho hunter who trapped the Gill Man and brought him to the United States. Chained in a tank at a marine park, the Gill Man endures shock training and captivity until his inevitable escape. He then terrorizes Jacksonville as he attempts to make off with Helen, while Clete leads a massive search to save the girl and kill the marauding creature.

Like much sci-fi horror of its era, Revenge of the Creature is as much about human hubris as anything. The Gill Man lives quietly in his lagoon, eating birds and leaving the human world alone, until the hunters show up and enslave him. Dragged to Florida and put on display, the creature tries to fight back, but his scenes of violence are less unnerving than the way he sits mournfully on an anchor in his tank, clearly pining for his freedom and his peaceful Amazonian home. The film makes a point of telling us that the Gill Man is almost human, and certainly human enough to regard Helen as an object of desire, but the scientists never confront the burden of responsibility that places on them for their mistreatment of him. When Helen visits the tank, the creature regards her intently, staring through the glass with an alien face but a human sense of loneliness and longing. If the film has a single dominant flaw, it lies in the human characters' refusal to admit the wrong that they have done by forcing the creature to be their guinea pig and spectacle; the Gill Man lacks an advocate to articulate his side of this story, although the camera tries hard to make the audience imagine what he must feel.

In other aspects, too, the picture relies on familiar tropes and figures to carry the action along. There's plenty of scientific talk, mingled with casual sexist assumptions, in the dialogue between Clete and Helen. Numerous set piece scenes display panic and pandemonium when the creature breaks loose, including the obligatory child left in peril. Like King Kong before him, the Gill Man carries off his lady and leaves havoc in his wake, but his need to be close to water keeps him from straying too far ashore. Luckily for him, the coast of Florida offers water in abundance, although the movie doesn't explain how a freshwater river creature survives in a salt water marine tank or the Atlantic Ocean. The performances of John Agar and Lori Nelson as the primary human characters are solid if not brilliant, but the movie really belongs to the lovelorn Gill Man, played in the water by Ricou Browning and on land by Tom Hennesy, both uncredited in spite of their excellent work in the awkward costume.

The Gill Man makes a third appearance in The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), and you'll also find him in Fred Dekker's 1987 love letter to Universal monsters, The Monster Squad. Jack Arnold's other directorial efforts include It Came from Outer Space (1953), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and The Mouse That Roared (1959). John Agar was still getting started as a sci-fi B movie star in 1955, but fans know that he went on to become a staple of the genre in pictures like Tarantula (1955), The Mole People (1956), and Attack of the Puppet People (1958). Look for Lori Nelson in Bend of the River (1952) and Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki (1955); she and John Agar were reunited for the low-budget horror sci-fi spoof, The Naked Monster (2005), in which Nelson also plays Helen Dobson and Agar appears again as Clete Ferguson. For a different, and more articulate, take on the Gill Man type, check out Abe Sapien in Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008).

Post Script Trivia - Oddly enough, Revenge of the Creature marks the screen debut of Clint Eastwood, who has an uncredited role as one of the lab scientists.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

My Favorite Bond

Roger Moore was my first Bond, and, decades later, he remains my favorite version of the iconic British spy. The first 007 movie I ever saw was a cable television edit of Live and Let Die (1973); I remember being delightfully terrified by Geoffrey Holder's Baron Samedi, and I was young enough that the exploitation aspects of the film went right over my head, along with most of the sexual innuendo. To me (I was about nine years old at the time), James Bond was exciting, funny, and fun. I still prefer that version of Bond today, even though most hardcore 007 fans seem to like the darker, more brutal incarnations of the character. Watching the Moore films again in 2015, thanks to a collection of Bond pictures currently streaming on Hulu, I'm reminded why I like Moore's tenure in the role so much.

Moore's Bond movies never take themselves very seriously; they might as well come with a disclaimer up front that says, "The following movie is just for larks." Everything that already existed in the Connery films - the megalomaniac villains, the naughtily named nymphs, the non-stop action - gets turned up to eleven in the Moore pictures. They are unabashedly over the top, and they know that we know it. Call that camp, if you like, but it makes the movies like a roller coaster ride, with the audience laughing and whooping through every twist and loop. Is fun the highest aim of cinema? No, but the Bond movies never set out to win Oscars. Roger Moore's Bond is fun to watch, and that's all he means to be. If things get rather silly at times - and they do, indeed, get very silly - that's part of the appeal.

Moore himself plays Bond as a charming cad, not at all the "blunt instrument" that Ian Fleming originally imagined in his books. He has real feelings, too, and he isn't afraid to acknowledge them. He delivers his endless double entendres with a knowing smirk, and he certainly has an eye for the ladies, but he can also be quite sentimental. We find him visiting his wife's grave at the beginning of For Your Eyes Only (1981), showing that he hasn't forgotten her in the arms of other women. The scene also sets up his empathy with the film's heroine, Melina Havelock, in her quest for revenge against the villains who murdered her family. He might be a cad, but he has his limits; in one very amusing scene, Bond finds the tables turned on him as the teenage Bibi Dahl tries to seduce him.

There are other delights in the Moore Bond outings, including outrageous settings and serendipitous reversals. In Moonraker (1979), Bond becomes a sci-fi hero, cashing in on the popularity of Star Wars (1977) and other late seventies hits in the genre. Of course, what everyone remembers about that film today is Jaws, the oversized, metal-mouthed henchman played by Richard Kiel. He's a crazy example of the Bond bad guy type, but even better, he's not all that bad. He actually changes sides and helps Bond after he falls for a pig-tailed blonde. It's ridiculous, yes, but it's awfully heartening to think that even scary bad guys can have a change of heart. Grace Jones does the same turnaround in A View to a Kill (1985) when she realizes that Christopher Walken's evil psychopath doesn't care what happens to her. Along with Baron Samedi, those characters help to make the Roger Moore run stranger but also more fun. They're kooky, weird figures, and cartoonish in a Dick Tracy way, but the movies wouldn't be the same without them.

Everyone is entitled to like the Bond that works for them; I really enjoy Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights (1987) and Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye (1995), but I haven't been a fan of the Daniel Craig films. They're too dark for my taste, and not nearly as much fun. (I wanted Judi Dench and Albert Finney to run away together at the end of Skyfall. Hey, I like happy endings for older women characters.) So, instead of seeing Spectre in the theater this month, I think I'll stick with my Roger Moore marathon on Hulu. At least that way I know I'll have fun.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: TWICE-TOLD TALES (1963)

Borrowing both the star and the literary atmosphere of Roger Corman's Poe adaptations, Twice-Told Tales (1963) offers a trilogy of stories from Nathaniel Hawthorne, with Vincent Price taking the lead in all three segments of the film. Like the Corman pictures, this anthology of horror drips with Gothic period atmosphere and relies heavily on Price's irresistible appeal, but for Price devotees the actor's presence more than justifies the movie's existence. Given the genteel 19th-century quality of the tales, there aren't really any shocks on offer, but the Hawthorne stories do present abundant examples of irony and even a little of the supernatural. The third piece, "The House of the Seven Gables," is the most truly Gothic of the three, but both "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" and "Rappaccini's Daughter" have their charms.

In "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," Price stars as Alex, an old friend of  Carl Heidegger (Sebastian Cabot), whose lifetime of mourning his lost love takes a strange turn when the pair discover water with the power to restore youth and life. Price then plays the sinister father in "Rappaccini's Daughter," using his botanical science to transform his child (Joyce Taylor) into a poisonous vessel of death. "The House of the Seven Gables" features Price as prodigal son Gerald Pyncheon, who brings his wife (Beverly Garland) back to his family's haunted estate to search for the wealth in a hidden vault.

Hawthorne's favorite themes are very much on display throughout the trilogy; he has a finer, less macabre sense of horror than Poe, and his works often hinge on moral considerations. Each of the anthology segments makes significant changes to Hawthorne's original texts, but they still retain the spirit in which the stories were conceived. The first two are basically weird tales wrapped in the crushed crimson velvet of American Romanticism; they are almost, but not quite, science fiction, but both concern themselves more with questions of irony and ethics than scientific speculation. Price, of course, is a master at registering a character's dawning sense of the tragically ironic, although he's far less campy in all three segments than in many of his most iconic horror roles. Each of his characters fails Hawthorne's moral tests and richly deserves his fate, but Price also invests the first two with sincerity and regret; the third, Gerald Pyncheon, is a fully realized Gothic heavy, a scheming wastrel who defies a vengeful ghost in spite of the danger to himself and his innocent wife. Price's performance in that part harks back to his role as Nicholas Van Ryn in Dragonwyck (1946), although Price had actually played a very different Pyncheon character in the 1940 feature length adaptation of The House of the Seven Gables.

Price's costars in each segment benefit from his screen presence, with the women in particular standing out in their performances. Mari Blanchard is lovely if less than innocent as Sylvia, Dr. Heidegger's long lost bride, while Joyce Taylor conveys the anguish of Beatrice Rappaccini, a Rapunzel trapped in her garden by her father's poisonous love. Beverly Garland and Jacqueline deWit provide foils for one another, as well as obstacles to Price's Gerald Pyncheon, as Gerald's wife, Alice, and formidable sister, Hannah. Garland appears as the heroine and deWit as a variation on the sinister Gothic housekeeper, the person who knows the family's darkest secrets. The other men are generally less memorable, although Sebastian Cabot gives a very fine performance as the heartbroken Heidegger. Brett Halsey and Richard Denning, both playing straight romantic leads, are mostly there to pine after the ladies and get in Price's way, but their characters suffer from the usual flatness of their type.

For a double bill of Vincent Price horror anthologies, pair Twice-Told Tales with Corman's Tales of Terror (1962). The actor had a busy year in 1963, which also saw the release of The Raven, The Haunted Palace, and The Comedy of Terrors. Sebastian Cabot is best remembered today for the TV series, A Family Affair, and for his voice acting roles in Disney films, including The Sword in the Stone (1963), The Jungle Book (1967), and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977). Be sure to catch Beverly Garland in The Alligator People (1959), and see Richard Denning in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Sidney Salkow, who directed Twice-Told Tales, mostly worked on television episodes and Westerns, but his career stretched all the way back to the 1930s. He also directed Bulldog Drummond at Bay (1947), Sitting Bull (1954), and four episodes of The Addams Family.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE (1962)

A low-budget cult classic, The Brain that Wouldn't Die (1962) offers all the twisted delights one could ask for in a science fiction horror movie of this type. It's sleazy, gruesome, and short, with a parade of scantily clad women and a mad surgeon hellbent on attaching his girlfriend's severed head to the best body he can find. Although its cut corners and abrupt ending keep it solidly in the realm of the B movie, The Brain that Wouldn't Die benefits from some surprisingly effective acting and several creative, if ghoulish, approaches to its material. Fans of drive-in horror won't need the popular Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment of this particular picture to appreciate its many macabre charms.

Jason Evers (billed as Herb) stars as transplant surgeon Dr. Bill Cortner, who attempts strange experiments to advance his science in spite of the warnings of his mentor father. When Bill's girlfriend, Jan (Virginia Leith), is conveniently decapitated in a car wreck caused by Bill, the obsessed surgeon grabs the head and revives it in his secret lab. Jan doesn't appreciate being kept alive in this state, but she finds she has gained telepathic powers from the serum Bill uses to sustain her, and she forms a bond with a hideous failed experiment that Bill keeps locked in the lab's closet. Bill, meanwhile, roams the town looking for an attractive body to go with Jan's head. He finds disfigured body model Peggy (Marilyn Hanold), whose scarred face and perfect figure make her a seemingly perfect fit for Bill's insane plans.

The film packs a wealth of provocative material into its 82 minute package, and its science fiction elements reflect both its era and its cinematic roots. Brain movies proved popular in the 1950s and 1960s, with pictures like Donovan's Brain (1953) and Fiend without a Face (1958) exploring different aspects of the theme. The Brain that Wouldn't Die definitely cashes in on that trend, but it also borrows heavily from the 1930s Frankenstein films. Bill's first creation is very like Frankenstein's creature, a menagerie of stolen parts grafted together and condemned to a tortured mockery of life, while Jan becomes the Bride, intended not for the monster but for Bill himself. The quickie B movie lacks the class of James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein, but, given that director's very morbid sense of humor, it's not hard to imagine Whale loving the bizarre spectacle of "Jan in the Pan." The 1962 feature also has the freedom to go a lot farther with its gore, although later TV and video versions often cut the bloodiest scenes. The death of Bill's assistant, Kurt (played by Anthony La Penna under the name Leslie Daniel), revels in macabre irony, even if its effects elements seem simplistic by modern horror standards. The movie also reveals a prurient interest in women's bodies, with Bill cruising strip joints and city streets for potential donors to Jan's reconstruction. He looks them over carefully, the camera following his gaze as he assesses all the key parts of each woman's figure. Luckily, the plot also adopts a female revenge angle that justly punishes Bill for his lecherous hubris.

There are many glaring flaws in The Brain that Wouldn't Die, including a car accident that doesn't actually show a car, a head that can laugh without lungs, and an ending that leaves one particularly obvious thread dangling, but the performances themselves are much more energetic than one often finds in movies of this kind. Evers has just the right obsessive conviction as the crazed surgeon; we only wonder why Jan likes him in the first place, since he seems pretty far gone from the start. Even in the slower opening scenes, which lay out the medical explanations and ethical questions for the transplant experiments to follow, Evers gives Bill an intense, driven quality that also reveals his deep-rooted psychological need to rebel against and surpass his more cautious father. The creepy appeal of the picture, however, really depends on Virginia Leith's bodiless vengeance as Jan. When we first see her, she glows with adoration for Bill, but her conventional personality vanishes along with her limbs. As a head, she becomes something unnatural, powerful, and filled with seething hatred for the egomaniac who forces her to live. Leith's husky whispers and piercing laughter dominate every scene in the lab, and they're what the viewer will remember after the final shot ends.

For a freakish triple feature, follow up with The Man with Two Brains (1983) and Re-Animator (1985). Joseph Green, who directed The Brain that Wouldn't Die, was primarily a distributor of low-budget pictures rather than a filmmaker, but his one hit cult wonder has ensured his place in horror history. Jason Evers was primarily a television actor, but he turns up in The Green Berets (1968), The Illustrated Man (1969), and Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971). Look for Virginia Leith in Stanley Kubrick's Fear and Desire (1953), Violent Saturday (1955), and A Kiss Before Dying (1956).

In February of 2015, Wired ran this interesting article about the reanimation genre of horror and The Lazarus Effect (2015); The Brain that Wouldn't Die gets plenty of credit for its influence on subsequent films.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: DEMENTIA 13 (1963)

Whatever the outcome, there's something fascinating about the combination of Roger Corman and Francis Ford Coppola, the producer and director, respectively, of the low-budget shocker, Dementia 13 (1963). While the movie leaves a lot to be desired, thanks in part to disagreements between the two and tinkering by Corman, there's enough going on to make it watchable, and even mildly entertaining, for the brief seventy five minutes that it runs. This is absolutely a B movie of the drive-in variety, the kind of horror slasher that amorous teenagers of the era only half-watched in between their make out sessions, with periodic flashes of violence and gore to make the audience look up. Still, if you're interested in the influence of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), Dementia 13 provides a good example of the way in which the earlier picture helped to establish the visual vocabulary of the slasher genre.

Luana Anders stars as Louise Haloran, a greedy bride who covers up her husband's death from a fatal heart attack in order to cash in on his part of his mother's will. Luana then goes to work on Lady Haloran (Eithne Dunne), who still grieves the drowning death of her youngest child, Kathleen. Louise promises Lady Haloran that Kathleen's spirit speaks to her and will soon show the obsessed mother a sign, but Louise finds out that she isn't the only person on the estate with sinister secrets. There's a killer on the loose, one who also has an obsession with the long dead Kathleen. Is it one of the brothers, Richard (William Campbell) and Billy (Bart Patton), or the unnerving Dr. Caleb (Patrick Magee) who wields the deadly ax?

Stylistically and thematically, Dementia 13 resembles the work of William Castle more than it does either Corman or Coppola; its original theatrical release even included a gimmicky introduction that supposedly justified the otherwise nonsensical title. It borrows liberally from Psycho but never achieves the narrative tension of the Hitchcock film, even though its black-and-white cinematography does occasionally provide some very effective images. The first murder makes particular use of Hitchcock's visual style, imitating the iconic shower scene in its editing, its characters, and its use of blood and water. Later, an onscreen decapitation delivers a gory shock but doesn't really advance the story, since the character being killed has nothing to do with the central plot. More indicative of things to come are the attack on Lady Haloran in Kathleen's abandoned playhouse and the gruesome reveal of a semi-nude corpse hanging in a shed; moments like these become more or less obligatory in the slasher films that follow.

The characters assembled for this fatal gathering lack really insightful development but do offer hints and suggestions of interesting psychological issues. Louise is very much an anti-heroine, heartless and manipulative, and Luana Anders plays her sly self-interest well. Billy suffers from nightmares and some kind of post-traumatic disorder, having witnessed his sister's death when he was just a child, while the taciturn Richard avoids any discussion of the family tragedy, even with his fiancee, Kane (Mary Mitchel). Both actors in the surviving brother roles do their best with the material at hand, although Peter Read, who plays John, has to make the most of his opening heart attack scene. A more talented actress might have made something really Gothic out of Lady Haloran, but Eithne Dunne at least looks the part; her scene in the playhouse is definitely her best moment in the picture. She and Patrick Magee are both actually Irish, although neither of them sound like it, and there's something very unsettling about Magee's performance as the doctor. Some of the bizarre behavior is simply misdirection, meant to keep the audience guessing about the killer's identity until the end of the movie, but even necking teenagers in the backseats of cars probably figured it out long before the final reveal.

Roger Corman's other films from 1963 include The Terror, The Raven, and The Haunted Palace, all of which he directed and produced. Francis Ford Coppola went on to fame and Oscar glory as the director of The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979), but he revisited horror with Dracula in 1992. Luana Anders, William Campbell, and Patrick Magee can all be found in Corman's The Young Racers (1963), on which Coppola also worked as the second unit director. You can see more of Anders in Corman's 1961 Poe film, The Pit and the Pendulum. William Campbell had the longest and most varied career of the movie's cast, but his most memorable role might be as the Klingon Koloth in the Star Trek episode, "The Trouble with Tribbles." At the time that they made Dementia 13, actors Bart Patton and Mary Mitchel were married in real life; they divorced in 1980.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945)

Long a staple of high school and community drama programs, Agatha Christie's stage version of And Then There Were None is a little less murderous than the original novel but still packed with good parts. The 1945 film adaptation, directed by Rene Clair, stocks those parts with truly memorable character actors, including Walter Huston, Judith Anderson, Barry Fitzgerald, Mischa Auer, and Richard Haydn, each in fine form as one of the condemned guests of the mysterious Mr. Owen. Invested with a mischievous sense of humor as well as a constantly growing heap of corpses, And Then There Were None moves quickly and handles its large cast well, giving each at least one good scene before the murderer removes that player from the game. The result is great fun, even if the viewer already knows the identity of the killer before the opening credits roll.

Eight guests and two house servants gather to spend the weekend on a remote island estate at the command of the secretive Mr. U.N. Owen, whom none of them seem to know. A recording soon informs them that their host is privy to their terrible secrets; each is accused of causing the death of another person and getting away with it. The guests are then rapidly dispatched, each in a way that corresponds to the nursery song, "Ten Little Indians," and every death is accompanied by the destruction of another Indian statue on the dining room table. Realizing that one of them must be the killer, the shrinking group of survivors tries to identity the murderer, but alliances within the group both help and hinder the process.

It's difficult to say very much about the mystery itself without giving away the ending, although most viewers who come to the movie will already know it from previous encounters with the frequently performed play. The conclusion does differ significantly from that of Christie's 1939 novel (the title also differs, and for good reason), although most of the characters carry over in somewhat altered forms. Christie's premise has been copied, parodied, and reworked countless times, but it's still a very good setup for a mystery, and the criminal conduct of most of the guests makes us fairly nonchalant about their deaths. The absence of a proper detective - Roland Young's dense Mr. Bloor definitely doesn't count - leaves the nervous survivors to figure things out for themselves, while the audience makes it own guesses as each new death removes another suspect from the list. No two deaths are exactly the same, although, this being Agatha Christie, there is a decided preference for poison overall, which helps to keep the women and older male characters in play as potential killers.

For movie buffs, the real pleasure of this particular production is the large and impressive cast, including Walter Huston as the alcoholic Dr. Armstrong and Barry Fitzgerald as Judge Quincannon. Both of those actors are celebrated for their strong character performances, and here they simply revel in their delightfully suspicious roles, especially when they join forces in the third act. Judith Anderson, best remembered as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (1940), plays the sanctimonious Miss Brent with heartless hauteur, while C. Aubrey Smith is rather tragic as the elderly general. Richard Haydn and Mischa Auer both play their characters for laughs, with Haydn as the long-suffering butler, Rogers, and Auer as the "professional house guest" prince. Sadly, Auer's character is the first to go, but he makes the most of his brief time on screen. Louis Hayward and June Duprez play the attractive young couple who fall for each other even as the murderer closes in, and they have fine chemistry together, especially when each suspects that the other might be the killer. Rounding out the crowd are Roland Young as the ineffectual Mr. Bloor and Queenie Leonard as the housekeeper, Mrs. Rogers, whose early death the other characters lament mainly because it deprives them of their cook.

If the black comedy of And Then There Were None appeals, follow up with Murder by Death (1976) or Clue (1985), both of which take their cues from Christie's plot. For more film adaptations of Agatha Christie, try Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and The Mirror Crack'd (1980). Rene Clair also directed The Ghost Goes West (1935), The Flame of New Orleans (1941), and I Married a Witch (1942). See Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way (1944), where his performance earned nominations for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor (he won the latter). Walter Huston won an Oscar for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), but don't miss his wild performance in Kongo (1932). Look for both C. Aubrey Smith and June Duprez in The Four Feathers (1939), and catch Louis Hayward in The Man in the Iron Mask (1939). Oddly enough, both Richard Haydn and Queenie Leonard, who play a married couple in this film, provided voices for the 1951 Disney classic, Alice in Wonderland.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

CMBA Blogathon: THE HARVEY GIRLS (1946)

The theme for this year's CMBA Blogathon is "Planes, Trains, & Automobiles," which makes the 1946 musical, The Harvey Girls, an obvious choice. The movie won an Oscar for its train themed song, "On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe," and it depicts, in a fictionalized and colorful way, the importance of the train in bringing women to the American West. Adapted from a novel by Samuel Hopkins Adams, The Harvey Girls stars Judy Garland, Cyd Charisse, and Virginia O'Brien as three young women who head West on the train to find new opportunities and romance. While it's not a perfect picture, this is a fun, lively musical that tells an often unknown story about women's part in settling the frontier, made even more entertaining by the presence of outstanding actors like Angela Lansbury, Marjorie Main, Ray Bolger, and John Hodiak.

The Harvey Girls were real people; these young women went West to staff the Harvey Houses that sprang up along the railroad lines in the late 19th century. Fred Harvey recruited young women with good backgrounds and civilized manners to work in his establishments, where train passengers found a short rest and a good meal during their stops. For women of that time, there were few respectable job opportunities out West, but the Harvey Houses provided good wages along with room and board. The crisp uniforms and cheerful manners of the Harvey Girls brought a wholesome, civilized femininity to rough country, and their presence helped to tame wild frontier towns. One notable Harvey House location was the Grand Canyon, where the Fred Harvey Company provided concessions and visitor services until 1968. Today, the El Tovar Hotel at the South Rim includes a display honoring the Harvey Girls and the 1946 film tribute to their legacy. Becoming a Harvey Girl changed the lives of many women who yearned for independence and adventure. Over 100,000 young women took the opportunity that the Harvey Houses offered, and you can learn more about their stories by watching the trailer for the 2013 documentary film, The Harvey Girls: Opportunity Bound.

In the movie, Judy Garland's character, Susan, doesn't set out to be a Harvey Girl at all. She responds to a call for a mail-order bride, but when she meets the intended groom (Chill Wills) she jumps at the chance to become a Harvey Girl like the other young women on her train. Marjorie Main plays a funny but effective chaperone and manager for the young ladies in her charge, while Cyd Charisse and Virginia O'Brien appear as two Harvey Girls who befriend Susan. The girls encounter a different type of Western womanhood in Angela Lansbury's saloon singer, Em, who doesn't appreciate the competition or the straitlaced morality of the new arrivals. Susan attracts the interest of the bar's owner, Ned Trent (John Hodiak), while Virginia O'Brien's character, Alma, engages in an awkward but entertaining romance with Chris (Ray Bolger). Sadly, O'Brien disappears from the movie in the third act, thanks to shooting delays that made her pregnancy impossible to hide, but she does get in a particularly funny performance with the song, "The Wild, Wild West."

If The Harvey Girls romanticizes the real experiences of the women who staffed the restaurants on the Santa Fe lines, it also depicts women as individuals who went West for many reasons, and not just as daughters, wives, or prostitutes. Women's Westerns have been few and far between in Hollywood history, but when they do come along they reveal fascinating hints at stories that have largely been left untold. As a musical comedy, The Harvey Girls is lighter and sweeter than Westward the Women (1951) or cattle queen dramas like The Furies (1950) and Johnny Guitar (1954), but it does a great job leaving the viewer wanting to know more about the real women who took that chance for a new life out West. Trains made Harvey Houses necessary, and Harvey Houses made a place for young women to earn a living and lead independent lives. That's a theme worth singing about!

You can find a full-length review of The Harvey Girls in my book, Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching, available on Kindle at For more about The Harvey Girls, try the 1994 book by Lesley Poling-Kempes, The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958)

Along with A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) is one of the most popular Hollywood treatments of a Tennessee Williams play, although the author himself was not a fan of the changes that had to be made to get his story onto film. In spite of Williams' understandable frustration with Hays Code homophobia, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof garnered six Oscar nominations and helped to boost the popularity of its stars, Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, who both picked up Academy Award nominations for their performances. The movie still packs a punch nearly sixty years later, thanks to Newman and Taylor's tortured chemistry as well as truly memorable turns by Burl Ives, Judith Anderson, and Jack Carson. Like most Tennessee Williams stories, this one deals with a deeply dysfunctional Southern family, which provides plenty of explosive material without the missing theme of Brick's suppressed homosexuality, and the stars in each major role give their all in bringing their complicated, conflicted, and flawed characters to life.

Newman plays alcoholic football has-been Brick Pollitt, who returns to his family's plantation home with his wife, Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor), for the birthday of the ailing Pollitt patriarch, Big Daddy (Burl Ives). Brick breaks his leg in a drunken attempt to relive high school glories, but his real problems are the recent death of his best friend, Skipper, and his subsequent estrangement from his wife, whom he punishes for her role in Skipper's death by withholding sex. Brick's brother, Gooper (Jack Carson), and his aggressively fertile wife, Mae (Madeleine Sherwood), spend their time eavesdropping on Brick and Maggie and plotting ways to get a bigger piece of Big Daddy's considerable estate, while Big Momma (Judith Anderson) clings to the hope that Big Daddy's illness is not as serious as everyone else suspects.

Newman and Taylor set the screen on fire with their depiction of a fraught relationship on the very edge of annihilation; they are both impossibly sexy, prowling around in states of undress and simultaneously tempted to tear each other's clothes off or tear each other apart. The film makes a point of Brick's heterosexuality by having Newman secretly bury his face in Maggie's nightgown even as he rejects her from behind a closed bathroom door. He wants her badly but feels driven to hurt both her and himself because of his guilt over Skipper. Taylor's Maggie, the titular cat, never stops fighting to win Brick back, but she also has to contend with Goober and Mae and their brood of obnoxious children; her genuine sympathy for Big Daddy and Big Momma contrasts with her loathing for Goober's family, which can sometimes make her seem shrill. Brick proves the more dynamic of the pair, since he has to come to grips with his alcoholism, his marriage, and his relationship with his father during a condensed period of time. The symbolic shift occurs when he breaks his crutch while trying to flee the plantation in a pouring rain; his guilt, his booze, and his anger are all crutches that he'll have to give up if he wants to survive.

The supporting cast members have less attractive but equally complex roles to play. Burl Ives, best remembered today as the jovial voice of the Snowman in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), gets a chance to demonstrate his belligerent side with Big Daddy, a bad-tempered old tyrant who bullies and harasses his family but doesn't know how to love them. He and Judith Anderson both walk a very fine line in playing characters who are often difficult and even exasperating but ultimately have to be sympathetic. The film shows us the warts first and then asks us to understand these wounded, yearning older people; in one especially powerful scene, a heartbroken Big Momma holds Big Daddy's birthday cake and laments, "In all these years you never believed I loved you. And I did." Anderson invests her character with equal parts foolishness and anguished affection, and in lines like that her performance goes straight to the heart. Less likable are Jack Carson and Madeleine Sherwood as Gooper and Mae, both grasping and disingenuous schemers who treat reproduction like an arms race. Carson gets to redeem Gooper just a bit near the very end, but Sherwood's Mae is an unrepentant bitch, and her performance is gloriously vicious throughout, with Mae getting a lot of the movie's best lines. You'll itch to slap the insufferable "Sister Woman" cockeyed, especially after that crack about the "Punch Bowl," and her comeuppance is one of the finale's sweetest payoffs.

Richard Brooks, who directed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, returned to Williams material and Paul Newman with Sweet Bird of Youth (1962); Brooks also directed Elmer Gantry (1960), The Professionals (1966), and In Cold Blood (1967). For more film adaptations of Tennessee Williams, try Baby Doll (1956), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961). Elizabeth Taylor's third husband, Michael Todd, died in a plane crash during the production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, making this film a particularly difficult effort for her; see her in happier times in Lassie Come Home (1943) or in later roles in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Taming of the Shrew (1967). Don't miss Paul Newman in The Hustler (1961), Cool Hand Luke (1967), and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). For the sake of contrast, see Judith Anderson's terrifying performance as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (1940) and Jack Carson's comedy shenanigans in Romance on the High Seas (1948) and Dangerous When Wet (1953).

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Memorial Post: Grendel (1995-2015)

We said goodbye to our 20 year old cat, Grendel Graymalkin Kagemusha Sparks, this morning. He had been with me since he was just a few weeks old; he was born to a feral cat who lived under my grandfather's potato shed, and during Hurricane Opal he was rescued from the storm by my parents, who fed him and his two siblings with an eyedropper until they could catch the mother cat. In his prime he was an 18 pounder and an avid catcher of insects. He had fixed opinions about laps, fresh water, and the best spot to take a nap. He was, in the words of Samuel Johnson, "a very fine cat indeed," and we are going to miss him.

I don't think I can bear to watch them this Halloween, but if you happen to watch The Black Cat (1934) or The Black Cat (1941), spare a moment to think of our dear old boy, whom we were lucky to call our own for so many years.

Rest in peace, fuzzy kitty boy.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: BLACK SABBATH (1963)

Mario Bava's 1963 Italian-French horror anthology, Black Sabbath, is both lurid and literary, much like Roger Corman's Poe films from the same era, but without the cheeky black humor that pervades the Corman canon. Even more so than in Corman's loosest adaptations, the literary pedigrees of Bava's three chilling tales are hopelessly muddled, but their questionable origins don't diminish their effectiveness. Each story in this trio has something different to offer: the first is a subversive thriller, the second a Gothic vampire tale, and the third a ghastly story of otherworldly revenge. On hand as host and star of the second segment is genre icon Boris Karloff, delightful even when dubbed and looking truly terrifying as the family patriarch in "The Wurdulak." While not, perhaps, as perfect an example of Bava's style as Black Sunday (1960), this anthology picture makes a solid introduction to the Italian auteur, and it usually finds a place on lists of Bava's most significant works.

The collection opens with "The Telephone," in which a beautiful young woman (Michele Mercier) fears the threats of a murderous caller and enlists the aid of her former lesbian lover (Lydia Alfonsi) to keep the attacker away. In the second story, "The Wurdulak," a young gentleman (Mark Damon) meets a family horrified by the possibility that their patriarch (Boris Karloff) has returned home as a vampire intent on killing those he most loved in life. The final story, "The Drop of Water," depicts a nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux) who steals a ring from a dead woman, only to face a ghost's relentless vengeance.

Of the three stories, "The Wurdulak" is the grandest and the most like Bava's most celebrated feature length tales. It's awash in Gothic atmosphere but driven by a nihilistic attitude that leaves no potential victim off limits. The story is adapted from a novella by Aleksey Tolstoy, a cousin to Leo, but still a successful writer in his own right. Karloff looks terrifying as Gorca, especially in the later scenes, and Susy Andersen is lovely as his daughter, Sdenka. The third segment, "The Drop of Water," will delight fans of a sinister face, since its chief attraction is the ghoulish countenance of the dead woman from whom the nurse takes a valuable ring. It's definitely the stuff of nightmares, and the darkly ironic ending provides a touch of grim humor, too. The least compelling story leads the set; "The Telephone" is more straightforward thriller material, with lesbian sexuality shaking up the usual misogyny of such tales but not really alleviating our sense of Rosy, the attractive victim, as an object of voyeurism and violent desire. Very little can be made of the film's writing credits for either "The Drop of Water" or "The Telephone," except that Bava clearly wants to invest his anthology with a classy literary sensibility.

The horror anthology picture is a peculiar but enduring subgenre, and Bava's entry makes a useful companion to Corman's Tales of Terror (1962) and Sidney Salkow's Twice-Told Tales (1963), both of which feature Vincent Price as their primary star. Bava limits his signature star's screen time to bookend sequences and the middle story, but Karloff provides the same kind of cachet to the proceedings, just as Peter Cushing does in From Beyond the Grave (1974). Later examples of the anthology include The House That Dripped Blood (1971), Tales from the Crypt (1972), The Vault of Horror (1973), Creepshow (1982), and Cat's Eye (1985), which show the format's ongoing appeal as a way to give horror audiences a variety of shocks in a single theatrical experience. For Bava, the anthology approach allows for a more condensed exploration of themes he engaged over the course of his career; in addition to true horror pictures, he also made thrillers like The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) and Rabid Dogs (1974), so his inclusion of "The Telephone" in Black Sabbath makes sense, even if it seems very different from the other two segments.

Be sure to watch the original release version of Black Sabbath, known as I tre volti della paura in Italian; the English dubbed AIP version changes the order of the stories and makes drastic alterations to "The Telephone." For more of Mario Bava, see The Whip and the Body (1963), Kill, Baby, Kill (1966), and Baron Blood (1972). Boris Karloff's other films from 1963 include The Raven, The Terror, and The Comedy of Terrors, proving that the iconic star was still much in demand over forty years after his screen debut. You'll find Mark Damon in Corman's House of Usher (1960) and in later continental shockers like The Devil's Wedding Night (1973) and Hannah, Queen of the Vampires (1973). Michele Mercier is best remembered as the star of Angelique (1964) and its sequels, but she returns to the horror genre for Web of the Spider (1971).

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE (1959)

Like The Fly (1958), The Alligator People (1959) merges science fiction and horror with a premise about dangerous experimentation gone horribly wrong, although in the second movie's case the combination of animal and human traits is intentional rather than tragically coincidental. Thus we get Richard Crane, as the increasingly reptilian victim of medical innovation, wandering the Louisiana swamps with one seriously bad case of gator face, while Beverly Garland chases after him as a dedicated wife who just won't take "no" for an answer. Most horror fans will come to The Alligator People for Lon Chaney, Jr., who plays a drunken villain, or for another example of the drive-in sci-fi chiller that flowered in the 1950s, but additional attractions can be found in the direction of Roy Del Ruth and performances from experienced players like Bruce Bennett, George Macready, and Frieda Inescort, each of whom helps to nudge the picture beyond mere B-movie spectacle.

Garland is the story's protagonist, a newly married nurse named Joyce Webster whose husband, Paul (Richard Crane), vanishes from a train on their honeymoon. Joyce tracks Paul to his family's plantation in the swamps, where she meets his mother, Mrs. Hawthorne (Frieda Inescort), who gives Joyce an icy welcome and tries to force her to leave. Determined to uncover the truth, Joyce stays until her mother-in-law and a local medical researcher, Dr. Sinclair (George Macready), reveal that Paul is suffering the side effects of a radical treatment for injuries he sustained in a plane crash during the war. Joyce joins their efforts to reverse Paul's transformation, but chaos erupts when a loutish plantation worker, Manon (Lon Chaney, Jr.), transfers his violent hatred for alligators to the alligator man.

The Alligator People is by no means a great film, and it often makes choices that are typical of its genre, but it also offers pleasant surprises. The pseudo-science of the central plot is wrapped in a strange psychological setup that presents Joyce, now known as Jane, as a victim of trauma induced amnesia as a result of her experience. Bruce Bennett appears in the frame scenes as one of two sexist doctors who can't stop mentioning how attractive the nurse is even as they use hypnosis to dredge up her horrible past. On the plus side, the frame tale serves a practical purpose in that it lets the audience know right away that this story won't end well for the alligator man or his bride, much as the opening of The Fly sets that story on its unbending course toward tragedy. The sexism also gets a much appreciated rebuke in the stalwart devotion of Joyce, who refuses to give up her search or abandon her husband once she sees his monstrous transformation. She even goes after him at the end, screaming not so much at his freakish appearance as his awful demise. Sure, his alligator head looks utterly fake, and we can even see the seams in his bodysuit, but Beverly Garland's performance as Joyce helps us focus on the drama of the situation rather than its special effects budget.

The success of the movie depends mostly on Garland, who plays Joyce as an active, intelligent woman caught up in overwhelming horror, but several supporting performances are worth noting. Lon Chaney. Jr. makes his presence felt as the belligerent Manon, a far nastier role than the actor's best known characters in other horror films. With his hook hand and his lecherous eye, Manon is a true monster; he provides a telling contrast to Paul, who loses the appearance of humanity but retains its inner qualities, even to the bitter end. Frieda Inescort also turns in a good performance as Paul's distraught mother; her accent wanders a bit, but she navigates the emotional territory of her character with greater assurance, letting her stern rejection of Joyce melt into shared misery over a loved one's terrible fate. Richard Crane gets less screen time as Paul, since he mostly skulks around the bayou in hiding, but his opening scenes set the stage for his later anguish. Hold on to the subtle cues on his handsome face as he talks about his accident with Joyce; that subtlety is lost later, but its emotional impact endures. Bruce Bennett and George Macready are both somewhat underused in their roles, but they give their doctors far more animation than such characters usually have in these pictures.

Some sci-fi B movies of this era are beloved precisely because they are campy and badly done, but The Alligator People takes a more serious tone, and despite its faults it's really a much better picture than it probably has any right to be. Give some of the credit for that to Roy Del Ruth, who also directed Born to Dance (1936), It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947), and On Moonlight Bay (1951). See more of Beverly Garland in D.O.A. (1950), Not of This Earth (1957), and Twice-Told Tales (1963); she also enjoyed a long and varied television career and was even nominated for an Emmy. Lon Chaney, Jr. is best remembered for The Wolf Man (1941), but he plays supporting roles in many films, including The Black Castle (1952), The Black Sleep (1956), and The Haunted Palace (1963). Catch Frieda Inescort in Pride and Prejudice (1940), You'll Never Get Rich (1941), and The Return of the Vampire (1943). For similar 50s creature features, try I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), and Return of the Fly (1959).

Friday, September 18, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951)

Singin' in the Rain (1952) might be the most popular of Gene Kelly's musical films, but An American in Paris (1951) proved his biggest Oscar success. The Best Picture Winner, directed by Vincente Minnelli, took home six Academy Awards in all, including wins for Best Musical Score and Best Color Cinematography. Although it lacks the more robust, developed narratives of Singin' in the Rain and On the Town (1949), An American in Paris offers plenty of Kelly's energetic artistry as a dancer, with a memorable performance from Oscar Levant and a charming debut by Leslie Caron. Songs from George and Ira Gershwin, as well as a screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner, make this picture particularly popular with musical types, while the climactic ballet is a highlight for those devoted to the art of dance.

Kelly plays aspiring American painter Jerry Mulligan, who stays on in Paris after World War II to practice his art. There he catches the attention of the wealthy Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), who offers to sponsor Jerry but also has designs of a more romantic kind. When Jerry falls for a young French girl named Lise (Leslie Caron), Milo becomes jealous, but Jerry doesn't know that Lise is already engaged to Henri (Georges Guetary), a popular singer who took her in during the war.

Kelly's charisma carries the lightweight narrative, although he's in a more sentimental mood here than in his other best known roles. The funniest scenes pair him with Oscar Levant's character, the perpetual scholarship musician Adam Cook, who provides a link between Jerry and his unknown romantic rival, Henri. Jerry and Henri form a lovers' triangle with Lise, while Jerry finds himself in a second triangle with Lise and Milo. The two parallel situations reveal the double standard for men's and women's behavior, since Jerry pursues Lise with relentless attention but balks when Milo treats him the same way. Of course, Jerry will get what he wants eventually, but the story cuts Milo out of its ending, leaving us to wonder how Jerry's influential sponsor reacts to his defection. Leslie Caron is much too young, at nineteen, to be a credible love interest, but she shines in the dances and looks especially lovely at the artists' ball, where she appears like a fairy princess with stars in her hair and a white ballet gown.

Ultimately, it's not the story that really matters in An American in Paris. This is a musical with the emphasis firmly on its song and dance. Jerry's performance of "I Got Rhythm" with a group of French children is an entertaining highlight early in the picture, and the "By Strauss" number features a great combination of the distinct talents of Kelly, Levant, and Georges Guetary. The most important sequence, however, is the American in Paris ballet, which puts Leslie Caron's skill as a ballerina to particularly good use. The long musical piece transports viewers through a romantic fantasy of Paris and its art, including some memorable recreations of paintings by Manet, Utrillo, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Caron even appears in costume as Jane Avril, the can-can dancer who inspired Toulouse-Lautrec's most iconic work. Kelly also adopts a number of striking costumes for this sequence, most notably a very fitted white outfit that highlights his muscular dancer's physique. The ballet dominates the final segment of the film, with no dialogue and only a single concluding scene to bring us back to the narrative frame, but for those who most value Gene Kelly as a dancer it's the quintessential moment of his screen career. 

For more musicals from Vincente Minnelli, try Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Band Wagon (1953), and Gigi (1958), for which he won an Oscar for Best Director. Gene Kelly also stars in Cover Girl (1944), Anchors Aweigh (1945), and Brigadoon (1954). Leslie Caron is best remembered for Gigi, but you'll also find her in Lili (1953), Daddy Long Legs (1955), and Father Goose (1964). See Oscar Levant in Romance on the High Seas (1948), The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), and The Band Wagon (1953), and catch Nina Foch in Executive Suite (1954), The Ten Commandments (1956), and Spartacus (1960).

Friday, September 11, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: BORN TO KILL (1947)

The illustrious Robert Wise directs Born to Kill (1947), a sharp, smart noir drama that showcases the considerable talents of Claire Trevor as its morally ambivalent protagonist. It's an early foray into the genre for Wise, who would go on to direct The Set-Up (1949) and The House on Telegraph Hill (1951) before moving to Oscar winning projects like West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). Unlike those more famous musicals, Born to Kill allows Wise to explore some truly dark territory, and it provides interesting gender reversals of several noir tropes, with Trevor's character in the sway of Lawrence Tierney's menacing homme fatal. Memorable supporting performances from Walter Slezak, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Esther Howard also make this taut crime story worth seeking out, with Isabel Jewell making a brief but pivotal appearance as the good-time girl whose bad behavior sets the plot in motion.

Claire Trevor stars as the newly divorced Helen, who concludes her stay in Reno by discovering a pair of corpses and then skipping town without informing the police. On the train back to San Francisco, she meets the attractive but overbearing Sam (Lawrence Tierney), who makes overtures to Helen but then rapidly marries her wealthy foster sister, Georgia (Audrey Long). Neither Helen's engagement to Fred (Phillip Terry) nor Sam's marriage can cool their lust for each other, even though Helen begins to suspect that Sam is the murderer who left those bodies behind. Meanwhile, a private detective (Walter Slezak) hired by a friend of the dead woman arrives in San Francisco to investigate Sam's involvement in the crime, and Helen is torn between betraying Sam and keeping his dangerous secrets.

Trevor's Helen takes the place of the usual noir anti-hero; like Walter Neff or Frank Chambers, she has a sliver of conscience to struggle against the dark impulses that dictate her fate. Ironically, of course, one of her few generous actions, that of returning a little dog to its home, leads her to find the bodies and make the far less laudable decision to leave town without telling the police. Helen doesn't want to get involved, but soon she's involved so deeply that she can't get out. She knows perfectly well what kind of man Sam is, but she can't resist him, even after he marries her innocent sister. Tierney's male seducer is more brutal than a classic femme fatale; he's always just a breath away from losing his temper and killing someone, although his friend, Marty (Elisha Cook, Jr.), tries to keep him under control. Noir fans will instantly see the irony of having Cook, so often cast as the unhinged type himself,  play the sane one of the pair, while Tierney is really terrifying in his role, and it's clear that he's the inspiration for the picture's title. Moreover, we understand that Helen is a fool to think she can manage him or even survive her entanglement in this compulsive killer's web.

Cook is probably the most familiar of the supporting players, thanks to his many noir roles, but Born to Kill offers several other performances worth noting. Walter Slezak, sounding just a little sketchy with his Austrian accent, plays the detective, Arnett, a slippery philosopher who might or might not have any morals at the bottom of his corpulent soul. Isabel Jewell vanishes too soon as Laury, the girl whose infidelity first pushes Sam over the edge, but she gives the character enough life to highlight Helen's cold self-interest and Mrs. Kraft's devotion. It's Esther Howard as the older woman who proves the scene-stealer of the picture; as the tragicomic Mrs. Kraft, she's brassy and worn, but probably the most deeply sympathetic character in the whole story. Her confrontation with Cook's murderous Marty turns up the tension to an almost unbearable degree, first by forcing us to watch her walk right into a trap and then by making her fight for her life with desperate courage. She's funny, crass, loyal, and utterly heartbreaking in her grief over Laury's untimely death, a perfect foil to Helen's pitiless refinement.

Be sure to note Tommy Noonan in an uncredited role as the bellboy who knows that Mrs. Kraft cheats at cards and Ellen Corby of The Waltons as one of the household maids. For more of Robert Wise's films from the 1940s, try The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945), both made under the oversight of horror maestro Val Lewton. Claire Trevor won a much-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Key Largo (1948), but you'll also find her in Stagecoach (1939), Murder, My Sweet (1944), and Raw Deal (1948). Lawrence Tierney plays bad guys like the title outlaw in Dillinger (1945) and Jesse James in Badman's Territory (1946) and Best of the Badmen (1951). Don't miss Walter Slezak in the Hitchcock thriller, Lifeboat (1944), in which he puts that accent to especially unnerving use. Esther Howard turns up regularly in Preston Sturges comedies, as well as Murder, My Sweet and Champion (1949). You might recognize Isabel Jewell from her role as Emmy Slattery in Gone with the Wind (1939), but she also appears in Marked Woman (1937), Lost Horizon (1937), and The Leopard Man (1943).

Friday, August 28, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: BATHING BEAUTY (1944)

Although she makes appearances in two earlier feature films, Bathing Beauty (1944) marks the debut of Esther Williams as a fully realized Hollywood star, with plenty of opportunities to show off her attractive figure and her signature swimming skills. This light, frothy comedy from director George Sidney is typical of the wartime Technicolor musicals released to buoy public morale and entertain the troops overseas; it doesn't take itself very seriously, and its thin plot is as much an excuse for a series of musical set pieces as anything else. In spite of that, Bathing Beauty provides plenty of entertainment for those who enjoy its particular kind of musical comedy, with Williams looking lovely and quite game for her romantic high jinks with costar Red Skelton. Musical performances from Xavier Cugat, Harry James, and Ethel Smith also make this a fun film for fans of the era's big band sound.

Williams stars as Caroline Brooks, a swimming teacher at a women's college who falls in love with song writer Steve Elliot (Red Skelton) during a trip to California. When Steve's friend and employer, George (Basil Rathbone), breaks up the couple's wedding with a phony bigamy claim, Caroline goes back to her job at the school, and Steve enrolls there as a student in order to convince her of his innocence. The faculty conspire to get Steve expelled, while his musician friends and new college classmates work equally hard to help him out.

As slight as its plot is, there are moments when Bathing Beauty falters, mostly in the bizarre waste of Basil Rathbone as the cause of Steve's marital woes. Williams occasionally shows her inexperience, as well, but she has a natural charm that quickly wins the audience over. She's an all-American beauty, tall, athletic, but utterly feminine, and she's especially flirtatious in her underwater scenes. The movie originally belonged to Red Skelton, with the title Mr. Co-Ed, but Williams usurped him and caused the focus of the picture to be altered. In spite of being knocked to second place, Skelton still has all of the movie's funniest scenes, and his character remains the most interesting and developed figure in the story. His ballet sequence, complete with pink tutu, is a scream, but he's also a lot of fun in his musical number, "I'll Take the High Note," performed with the adorably spunky Jean Porter. Skelton, whose mentor at MGM was Buster Keaton, excels at an expressive, physical comedy that recalls the silent era; he has the sweetness of a classic clown rather than the brash bravado of a Pre-Code comedian or more verbal comedic leads like Jack Carson. There's something sincere and vulnerable about Skelton's character that causes us to root for him even in the most ridiculous circumstances, like the scene when his romantic rival's huge dog keeps him trapped in Caroline's house, and he resorts to wearing her clothes in order to fool the beast.

Musical sequences fill as much of the film's running time as the narrative itself, offering audiences across the country a chance to enjoy the performances of the era's biggest acts. Although they play themselves, the musical stars also contribute to the story line by interacting with the protagonists and trying to help Steve, but they're really there to show off their stuff. Band leader Xavier Cugat and his orchestra open the picture with a poolside performance, assisted by Carlos Ramirez singing "Magic is the Moonlight." Harry James and his orchestra also perform, with James tearing it up on the trumpet. More unusual is the appearance of organist Ethel Smith as one of the college's music teachers; her numbers, which emphasize her footwork and sense of fun, are especially entertaining. Disney fans might recognize Smith from her "Blame It on the Samba" segment in Melody Time (1948), and she turns up again in the 1946 Williams picture, Easy to Wed.

Be sure to note familiar character actor Donald Meek in a brief but significant role; he gives Steve the idea to enroll at Victoria College. For more from George Sidney, see Anchors Aweigh (1945), The Harvey Girls (1946), and Kiss Me Kate (1953); Sidney directs Williams again in Jupiter's Darling (1955). Esther Williams and Red Skelton both appear in Ziegfeld Follies (1945), Neptune's Daughter (1949), and Texas Carnival (1951). See Williams with different leading men in Easy to Wed (1946), Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949), and Dangerous When Wet (1953). Skelton had a long television career, for which he is best remembered today, but you can see his earlier work in films like Ship Ahoy (1942), Panama Hattie (1942), and Du Barry Was a Lady (1943).

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

An Ode to Film Noir

Where will you find the asphalt jungle?
In a lonely place,
Where danger lives -
There they drive by night,
gun crazy,
Lured by brute force
and the sweet smell of success.

Between night and the city,
Somewhere past Sunset Blvd.
You'll find the lady from Shanghai.
"Kiss me deadly," she moans.
Suddenly, in the moonrise,
You see her fallen angel face
And know that it's too late for tears.
"Besides," she says, "the damned don't cry."

What is her name, that phantom lady?
Is it Gilda, Laura, Mildred Pierce?
Out of the past she comes,
From the place where the sidewalk ends.
She's a bad blonde, a black angel,
Born to kill with a touch of evil.
She leaves you spellbound, possessed.
This woman is dangerous.

In the end it's the kiss of death,
the set-up,
You find yourself in the dark corner,
Facing the long goodbye
on dangerous ground.
Farewell, my lovely.
By the time the big clock chimes
you'll be D.O.A.

You're past the turning point.
There's no way out.
You've been a witness to murder
in the naked city.
Sleep, my love, and
Kiss tomorrow goodbye.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: THE BLACK CASTLE (1952)

Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, Jr., only have supporting roles in The Black Castle (1952), but their presence adds genre credibility to this minor period thriller directed by Nathan Juran, here making his directorial debut. Richard Greene, Stephen McNally, and Paula Corday are the real stars of the picture, playing a deadly game of deception in a Black Forest castle crowded with spies and Gothic atmosphere. Although it's by no means an essential example of its type, The Black Castle succeeds at providing a round of interesting performances and some modest chills, with Greene in fine heroic mode and Karloff amusingly inscrutable as the castle's secretive physician.

Richard Greene plays the Englishman Sir Ronald Burton, who comes to the Black Forest looking for the vengeful count (Stephen McNally) who killed his friends. Under an assumed name, Sir Ronald gains admission to Count Karl von Bruno's castle as a guest, but his investigation is complicated by his attraction to the count's beautiful wife, Elga (Paula Corday, also known as Rita Corday). When the count discovers the truth about Sir Ronald and Elga, their lives are in peril, but the sympathetic Dr. Meissen (Boris Karloff) offers them a dangerous chance to escape.

Greene, best remembered for playing Robin Hood in a 1960 TV series, makes a charming and likable protagonist, with an early sword fight scene establishing his heroic character. He looks good in his eighteenth-century costume, as well, so we understand why Elga might be attracted to the gallant Englishman instead of her sadistic spouse. Stephen McNally keeps his villain's rage more or less under control until the last quarter of the picture, but Karl still gives us plenty of warning that he's a very dangerous man, and when he finally cuts loose we see the real brute beneath the civilized facade. Corday is lovely as the forcibly wed Elga, although early on she doesn't act as though she understands the extent of her husband's cruelty, and shouldn't she know better than anyone? We get the strange idea that theirs is a chaste marriage, which might make The Black Castle more suitable for the matinee kiddies but doesn't at all address the horror of being married to a psychotic egomaniac.

The tame sexuality is a sign that The Black Castle isn't really a horror film at all, in spite of Karloff and Chaney lurking around the castle's dark corridors. The opening is the most horrific scene in the whole movie, with Sir Ronald and Elga about to be buried alive after taking a powerful drug to evade Karl's evil plans. The story then flashes back to show us how they ended up in such jeopardy. Karloff's Dr. Meissen wavers between good intentions and cowardice as he tries to help the pair escape from Karl, but he's mostly there to advance the plot, and Karloff has to make the most of what he gets. Chaney gets even less to do as the mute henchman Gargon; almost anyone could have lumbered around and grunted in the few scenes where he appears, looking like a cross between Igor and Quasimodo. The more interesting henchman roles go to John Hoyt and Michael Pate as Karl's fellow counts, Steiken and Ernst, with Pate basically reprising his role from The Strange Door (1951).

Be sure to note character actor Henry Corden in the role of Fender; he's best remembered today as the voice of Fred Flintstone. Nathan Juran went on to direct 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), and, as Nathan Hertz, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958). See Karloff give Count Karl a more sinister role model in The Black Cat (1934), and catch Chaney in a more talkative mood in Inner Sanctum Mysteries like Weird Woman (1944) and The Frozen Ghost (1945). You'll find Richard Greene in The Little Princess (1939), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), and Forever Amber (1947). Stephen McNally, who started his career as Horace McNally, was a regular in Westerns; look for him in Winchester '73 (1950), The Duel at Silver Creek (1952), and Tribute to a Bad Man (1956).