Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: A LETTER TO THREE WIVES (1949)

Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, A Letter to Three Wives (1949) sets up its domestic drama with a perpetually absent antagonist who forces a trio of women to consider the central problems of their marriages. This approach makes the homewrecker as mysterious as she is troublesome, but it frees up the screen time for our three heroines, played by Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, and Ann Sothern. For husbands we have Kirk Douglas, Jeffrey Lynn, and Paul Douglas, while the supporting cast consists primarily of memorable character actresses like Florence Bates, Connie Gilchrist, and an uncredited - but excellent - Thelma Ritter. Although some of its marital conflicts seem dated and even sexist today, A Letter to Three Wives offers a serious and insightful exploration of the hard work of maintaining a marriage, and its performances reveal the many fears and grievances that can cause a relationship to crack.

The unseen Addie Ross leaves town with a farewell note to her "friends" announcing that she has run off with one of their husbands, but the women won't learn which one until they return from a day long outing with a group of schoolchildren. Former Navy WAVE Deborah (Jeanne Crain) suspects that her uneasiness in the upper class society of husband Brad (Jeffrey Lynn) might have caused him to abandon her, while radio soap writer Rita (Ann Sothern) thinks that her schoolteacher spouse, George (Kirk Douglas), might have grown tired of her higher salary and late nights at work. Lora Mae (Linda Darnell) pretends that she only married Porter (Paul Douglas) for his money and doesn't care if he's gone, but her memories of their relationship reveal that she feels more for him than she cares to admit.

Each wife has a different kind of relationship to her husband and a different problem. Deborah is the most naive of the three, a Cinderella who has married her prince but doesn't know how to handle her new social status or the passive routine of her role as a wealthy man's wife. The film underplays Deborah's frustration at losing her independent, active life in the Navy, but it pulses beneath the surface nonetheless. She seems to pine for a purpose to restore her pride in herself, something her husband can't really give her. Rita has that purpose as a writer of radio programs, but her higher salary wounds her husband's ego, and he bristles at the concessions she makes to her demanding boss. Oddly, Rita and George are the only couple presented as parents, but we never actually see their twins; the movie can't handle the idea of a dual income household actively raising children as part of their juggling act. Like Deborah, Lora Mae is a poor girl who has married into money, but Lora Mae has done so with eyes wide open about the importance of status and wealth. Her husband, Porter, doesn't seem like much of a catch without his fat wallet, but the movie tries to make up for that with a sudden, unselfish act at the end, meant to show that the boorish businessman has a good heart after all.

With its small scope and little action, A Letter to Three Wives depends entirely on its performances, particularly by the three leads. Darnell has the most complicated character to play, and she succeeds admirably, making us understand Lora Mae's pragmatism and prickly nature. She's a beautiful girl in a man's world, and she'll do what it takes to escape the rattling shack by the railroad tracks, even if that means selling herself for a wedding ring. Crain rises above the pathetic quality of her character toward the end, but Deborah can be a bit of a sob sister, and we don't really see enough of her relationship with Brad to understand their marriage. Ann Sothern and Kirk Douglas probably speak the most to modern viewers with their performances; Rita and George are the most like us, striving for a partnership but not always getting there. Douglas has the most to do of the three men; he's more physically present in the story and more compelling than either of the others, and that helps us be more involved in the story of Rita and George. It's worth noting that the film also provides us with three older women to act as foils to our three young ones; Sadie (Thelma Ritter) is a single working woman, Lora Mae's mother (Connie Gilchrist) is a working class widow, and Rita's boss (Florence Bates) is a domineering career woman with a milquetoast spouse. None of the older women seem like models that the younger ones want to imitate, but they show how women have to make do and live on long after youth and love are gone.

A Letter to Three Wives won Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay and picked up a nomination for Best Picture. For more from director Joseph L. Mankiewicz try The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), All About Eve (1950), and The Barefoot Contessa (1954). Jeanne Crain appears in Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Pinky (1949), and People Will Talk (1951), and Linda Darnell has memorable roles in The Mark of Zorro (1940), Hangover Square (1945), and My Darling Clementine (1946). Ann Sothern, who started her screen career in 1927, went on to star in Maisie (1939) and its sequels, but don't miss her final, Oscar-nominated performance in The Whales of August (1987).

PS - Happy 100th Birthday this month to star Kirk Douglas, who celebrated a century of life on December 9! For more of his work from the 1940s see THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946) and OUT OF THE PAST (1947).

Monday, December 5, 2016

75 Years in CASABLANCA (1942)

It's December 1941 when Ilsa walks into Rick's Cafe Americain. "In all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world," he complains, "she walks into mine." It is not, however, simply chance, since Rick's Cafe occupies a border space between European chaos and American safety. Through that space Ilsa and her freedom fighter husband, Victor Laszlo, must journey if they are to continue the work of the resistance and survive. It's hard to believe that the story of Casablanca (1942) unfolds exactly 75 years ago this month, especially now, when we seem to be experiencing the history that the ignorant are doomed to repeat. Its message is suddenly seen not in the rearview mirror of nostalgia but up ahead of us, and terrifyingly close. There has never been a better time to visit this film again, but we have to look beyond the sentimental romance and consider the darker warnings that Casablanca sounds.

We generally celebrate Casablanca as a love story, albeit one with a triangular, adulterous twist. Even Lauren Bacall focused on that element in her recorded introduction to a video release of the picture; it's hard sometimes to get past the soft light on Ingrid Bergman's face and the wounded expression on Bogart's as they gaze at each other. There's "As Time Goes By" and that iconic scene with the plane. There are lines like "Here's looking at you, kid." These elements are an important part of the movie's appeal, but they're also the sweetness that helps us take our medicine. The film knows that. As Rick says, "It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

Around and behind the romance, Casablanca sounds an alarm about the chaos threatening to overtake the world, about the danger of being complacent or refusing to stick your neck out for anyone. Rick and Louis both start the film as morally ambivalent characters; while they don't become perfect men, they do ultimately figure out what side they need to be on and how to commit to the fight. As in any time of crisis, there are men who look only to profit from the misery of others, and there are those, like the Nazis, who are eager to command and destroy. Parasites, profiteers, and strongmen thrive on the collapse of civilization, at least in the short term. Ugarte and Ferrari hope to make fortunes on the letters of transit. The pickpocket warns of vultures even as he makes off with the wallets of the unsuspecting. Major Strasser looks to impose Nazi order on a supposedly neutral space and crush Laszlo's resistance. Indifference, selfishness, and outright cruelty abound.

At the same time, we are presented with evidence of the decency and spirit of innocent people trapped in this dangerous situation. Even at his most jaded, Rick stocks his cafe with refugee employees, including Carl and Sascha. He helps the young Bulgarian couple after the girl comes to him for advice about surrendering to the sexual coercion of Louis. There are other moments of humanity in the bar; they seem like minor scenes, but they reinforce the message we are meant to understand. Carl speaks kindly to the elderly couple who practice their English and hope for a better life in America. Yvonne rediscovers her love of country. Of course, Victor Laszlo embodies the noblest, most courageous values of the force for good. He has been captured, imprisoned, tortured, pursued, and threatened with all the fury of the Reich, yet he prevails with dignity and determination. He does not compromise with evil. The scene in which he leads the cafe patrons in singing "La Marseillaise" remains powerful even after 75 years. It is a moment of protest, courage, and hope in the face of unfathomable horror. That, to me, is the very heart of Casablanca and what it means.

Although the film was made after the United States entered the war, the original play, Everybody Comes to Rick's, was written before that, when the country had retreated into an isolationist position and left critical allies like Great Britain and France to face the onslaught alone. One wonders what Americans thought would happen once the Nazis and Japanese finished their march across the rest of the world. The events of Casablanca unfold in the last days of Americans' collective slumber. As Rick laments, "I bet they're asleep in New York. I bet they're asleep all over America." They would be rudely awakened on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. They would be fully conscious by the time Casablanca arrived in theaters in late 1942 and early 1943. It went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture in 1944. By the time people saw Casablanca  they could really understand the message it had to share; they were in the thick of the war and fighting for real. They knew that they, like Rick and Louis, would have to make a stand. They hoped for leaders like Victor Laszlo to show them the way.

It's important to remember that many of the supporting players who helped make Casablanca had personal stakes in its story well before Pearl Harbor. There are very few Americans in the cast. Conrad Veidt and his Jewish wife had escaped Germany in the 1930s because his very public opposition to the Nazis made him a target. (Read this wonderful tribute to Veidt on Birth.Movies.Death for more about his life and devotion to the Allied cause.) He played Nazi villains in Hollywood to highlight the danger they posed. S.Z. Sakall was a Hungarian Jew who fled Hungary for Hollywood in 1940; all three of his sisters died in Nazi concentration camps. (Paula's Cinema Club offers this excellent post about Sakall's life and work.) The film's director, Michael Curtiz, was also a Hungarian, although he had left Europe in the 1920s. Paul Henreid, an Austro-Hungarian, strongly opposed the Nazis and became a US citizen in 1941, while fellow Austro-Hungarian Peter Lorre, who was Jewish, left his acting career in Germany after 1933 and fled to the United States. Even Madeleine Lebeau, who played Yvonne, fled her native France as the Germans invaded. (The last surviving member of the cast, she died in May of this year. You can read her New York Times obituary here.) They were immigrants and refugees who knew too well the nature of the threat the world was facing.

These are things we can ponder as we watch Casablanca in December 2016, with the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor also happening this month. In this late age we again find fascism and authoritarian rule on the rise. Around the world, desperate refugees seek to escape war and chaos while the vultures gather to pick over their bones. Disinformation and self-interest keep many blind to the dangers we face, especially in the United States, which once prided itself on being a beacon for democracy, a light in the dark of a troubled world. People are in danger. Freedom is in peril. The basic human rights of millions, both at home and abroad, are being denied. Already we find ourselves facing the same choice as Rick, whether to stick our necks out or look out only for ourselves. We must look to the real world's Victor Laszlos for inspiration. I hope that for you, and for all of us, it will be the beginning of beautiful friendships with like-minded souls. In the meantime, we'll always have Casablanca.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Classic Movies for Courage

It's easy to think that art doesn't matter in the face of fear and oppression, but sometimes art can change the world, whether for better or for worse. Charles Dickens secured the future of Christmas with A Christmas Carol, while Leni Riefenstahl shored up Hitler's regime. Uncle Tom's Cabin helped to galvanize the North before the Civil War, and The Birth of a Nation (1915) helped to resurrect the KKK. Art can move the needle toward darkness or light. Mostly, though, I like to think that art works as a force for good in the world, especially over the long haul. In the last week I have seen Anne Frank's face and quotations from her diary all over social media, while Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is likely to stay stuck in my head for months to come. The power of art to console and inspire is more important than ever, and that means that films matter more than ever, too. We have to keep watching them and talking about what they mean, just as writers need to keep writing and painters need to keep painting and poets need to keep giving voice to the voiceless. We have to be consumers and supporters of art, and we have to be thoughtful critics of it, too, because what art says matters. Just watch The Monuments Men (2014) or Woman in Gold (2015) if you need a reminder of art's importance in times of global upheaval.

I'm thinking a lot about World War II right now (can't imagine why) and the great films that helped people in America and abroad through a dark time in global history. There were filmmakers who dared to challenge or even laugh at power when they knew the risk they ran. There were directors, writers, and actors who brought hope and resolution to the Allied cause, with stories about the soldiers in the field and the families left at home. There were even morale boosters, shot in Technicolor and filled with song, to give anxious people a respite from their fears. Sometimes people needed a shot of courage, and sometimes they needed an escape. Sometimes they needed to be reminded of what they were fighting to preserve.

If you need some classic films for courage right now, here are half a dozen I'd like to suggest. Feel free to add some of your own favorites in the comments section below.

1) THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) - I can think of no more powerful cinematic statement against hatred and war than Chaplin's daring comedy, which laughs at Hitler even as the outcome of the war is far from decided. Comedy is often an early target of authoritarian governments because power hates to be laughed at and mocked. Chaplin's final speech is a defining moment in film history and well worth hearing now:

"I don't want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible; Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other's happiness, not by each other's misery. We don't want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way."

2 ) TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) - I never tire of this Jack Benny and Carole Lombard comedy, which also dares to mock Hitler in the midst of the war. Director Ernst Lubitsch provides a brilliant mix of laughs and pathos, and you'll remember plenty of Benny's gags, but the rendition of Shylock's soliloquy will stick with you for the rest of your life. Lombard gave her life for the war effort, dying in a plane crash on a war bonds tour before the release of the film, but her performance here survived to inspire millions.

3) CASABLANCA (1942) - Sure, you've seen Humphrey Bogart make sad eyes at Ingrid Bergman a dozen times, but dig this Best Picture winner out of your DVD pile and watch it again. Some people become heroes by degrees, even if they thought they didn't care. There's even hope for Claude Rains' inscrutable Louis. 

4) MRS. MINIVER (1942) - This Best Picture winner focuses on a family in England during the Blitz, proving that daily life has to go on even during the worst of times. Audiences responded to it immediately; it won six Oscars in all and was nominated for another half dozen. Today we can watch it as an example of courage under fire, even for those who aren't holding a gun. Sure, it makes people weep, but sometimes tears can be cathartic, and it's good to cry for other people's suffering. Empathy is a powerful force for good.

5) THE GANG'S ALL HERE (1943) - Need a break from your anxiety, just for a little while? Servicemen and audiences at home loved Fox's morale boosting musicals, often starring adorable Alice Faye and the one and only Carmen Miranda. This one has everything, including Benny Goodman and his orchestra, but if you need more spiritual sunshine there's THAT NIGHT IN RIO (1941) and WEEKEND IN HAVANA (1941).

6) FOUR JILLS IN A JEEP (1944) - I'm not a fan of war movies in general, since they tend to be all boy affairs, but I like this patriotic depiction of USO entertainers doing their bit to keep up morale. Kaye Francis, Martha Raye, Carole Landis, and Mitzi Mayfair head to the front with Jimmy Dorsey and other stars. If this one makes you feel better go for seconds with HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN (1944).

Bonus: If you're up to handling the thorniest questions of social justice, prejudice, and bitter division, try Alfred Hitchcock's LIFEBOAT (1944). It might not make you feel better, but it will definitely give you a lot to consider. The ensemble cast is terrific, but Tallulah Bankhead gives the best performance of her film career.

Be well, friends, and keep courage alive wherever you find it.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: THE TINGLER (1959)

The Tingler (1959) is one of William Castle's most famous horror gimmick pictures, partly because of its star, Vincent Price, and partly because of its wacky use of wired seats and paid plants to elicit screams from the theater audience. Sadly, the modern home viewer can't enjoy the weird thrills of Percepto, but The Tingler is still a lot of fun. In addition to Price, always a pleasure even in his campiest roles, the picture offers Castle himself doing an intro bit, some wonderfully meta moments of the Tingler in a movie theater, and a striking climax that mixes color and black-and-white cinematography to lurid effect. For fans of the fun house sci-fi horror that flourished in the late 1950s, The Tingler is a must-see film, and it's certainly at the top of Castle's strange canon.

Vincent Price plays Dr. Warren Chapin, a pathologist who performs autopsies on executed criminals in search of the force that causes people to scream when they experience fear. During one such autopsy, he meets Ollie (Philip Coolidge), whose brother-in-law is Warren's latest subject. Warren is fascinated to learn that Ollie's wife, Martha (Judith Evelyn), is a deaf-mute who cannot scream even when terrified. He wonders what would happen to her if she were subjected to intense fear, and then she is, in fact, frightened to death. Warren discovers the parasitic Tingler gripping Martha's spine, but it turns out to be a lot harder to control than he expected, and he soon repents of his taboo research into the unknown.

There's actually a lot more going in The Tingler than its central plot suggests, and at times it's hard to tell the good guys from the monsters. Warren has a cheating, evil wife (Patricia Cutts), who would murder him if she could, and perhaps he has the same plans for her. He's obsessed enough to consider experimenting on the defenseless Martha and to take large doses of LSD. At the same time, he seems fond of his assistant and his sister-in-law, the movie's obligatory young lovers. The ambiguity is part of the fun; is Warren going over the edge? Who scares Martha to death? It's not a mystery story, really, but there's enough uncertainty about the central characters to keep us guessing until the end.

The tricky plot sustains the picture when it isn't relying on its gimmicks, but the tricks are Castle's calling cards, and the buzzing seats must have generated plenty of screams in pitch-black theaters back in 1959. The home viewer will have to imagine the scene as the screen goes black and Price's voice calls out to the audience to "Scream! Scream for your lives!" It's corny, yes, but Castle's films are like spook house rides, and that's what makes them so much fun. Home viewers won't have to stretch their imaginations during the scene where Martha is literally scared to death by a series of freakish events. The segment has a terrific silent film quality, something Castle cultivates by having Ollie and Martha run a silent movie theater, but its pièce de résistance is the final moment, when Martha sees bright red blood in a black-and-white bathroom, complete with a bloody hand emerging from a tub of crimson ooze. Poor Martha doesn't stand a chance. The effects of the Tingler itself, hopping across the floor on visible strings, are more typical of the hokey stuff we expect from low-budget shockers of this era, but for many classic sci-fi horror fans it's an endearing flaw, as essential to the genre as the scientist's hubris or the crazy pseudo-scientific dialogue. The Tingler offers plenty of those elements, too.

For another William Castle collaboration with Vincent Price, try House on Haunted Hill (1959). Castle's other pictures include Macabre (1958), 13 Ghosts (1960), and Mr. Sardonicus (1961). Look for more of Price's great camp roles in The Raven (1963), The Comedy of Terrors (1963), and Theatre of Blood (1973). You'll find Judith Evelyn in Rear Window (1954), Hilda Crane (1956), and Giant (1956). Philip Coolidge turns up in North by Northwest (1959) and Inherit the Wind (1960). Be sure to note former child actor Darryl Hickman, who plays Warren's assistant; you might recognize him from Men of Boys Town (1941), Leave Her to Heaven (1945), and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). Hickman enjoyed a long career that jumped to television, and he ended up doing voice work for a number of cartoons, including Pac-Man, The Biskitts, and Pole Position.

THE TINGLER is currently streaming on Shudder!

Monday, November 7, 2016


As I watched Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) again the other day, several things struck me that I hadn't given much thought to on previous screenings. One was that director H.C. Potter might have sped things up a bit, especially in the first quarter, where the scenes run more like documentary than comedy. Another was that the degree of marital intimacy in the picture is unusual; the protagonists, played by Myrna Loy and Cary Grant, sleep in chaste twin beds but share a bathroom even when one of them is showering. It's obvious from the context that Jim Blandings is getting an eyeful of naked Muriel when he hands her a towel, even if the movie doesn't make a big deal of it. Finally, and most importantly, I was struck by the extent of the Blandings' privilege and extravagance as they build their monstrous dream house in Connecticut. I realized that some of the absurdity that is lost on modern viewers would have been painfully obvious to audiences in 1948, while other aspects that jump out at us would have been more or less invisible to viewers who were accustomed to the race and gender norms of their era. Take both kinds of excess and privilege together, and you begin to see a very different picture overall.

Early in the film, the Blandings live in Manhattan in a very small apartment, with two bedrooms and just one bath. We learn that Jim makes $15,000 a year as an advertising executive, a very good income in those days. The Blandings have two daughters, both enrolled in a progressive private school, and a live-in maid/cook, Gussie (Louise Beavers), whose quarters we never see in either the apartment or the house. Muriel Blandings doesn't work, cook, clean, deal with children all day, or run a large house; mostly she seems to make plans with decorators and move Jim's clothes around so that he can't find them. The Blandings struggle to get themselves out of bed at 7:30 AM, but Gussie is there, dressed and busy and ready with their cups of coffee and their breakfasts. Jim says his office doesn't open until 9, and he never gets there before 10, but he seems very put upon about getting up and getting ready to go.

That setup already gives a modern viewer a lot to unpack. Why can't the Blandings simply move to a better apartment? It would be cheaper and more convenient than moving to Connecticut, but the "dream" of the title involves the American obsession with the ownership of property and houses. The Blandings want to live that dream, even if it bankrupts them and forces Jim to rise before dawn for his commute. They already have some of the most telling parts of that dream, as far as it was expressed in earlier times. Muriel lives a completely domestic life unencumbered by any of the actual work of running a family home; Gussie does all of that for her. The Blandings can afford tuition for two children at an undoubtedly pricey private school. Still, we're meant to see their situation in the apartment as an unbearable plight. We're meant to sympathize with their desire to move out to the country and live in a big house with its own land.

Of course, the Blandings get in over their heads almost immediately. The "historic" house they buy is a wreck that has to be torn down, and then they're really off to the races as they plan an even bigger and more elaborate new home that has to be built. Muriel insists that all of the four bedrooms in the new house have two closets and a private bath; it's never clear if the maid's room has a bath at all, however, since it's only briefly mentioned and then never discussed again. 21st century American homeowners, with their obsession for McMansions of ever-increasing size, might not see the folly of Muriel's demands, but in 1948 it would have sounded crazy. My own house, a modest rancher built in the late 1960s, originally had three bedrooms, each with one closet, and two baths. My grandmother's house, built in the 1950s, also had three bedrooms and two baths for a family of four. That was considered plenty for a comfortable middle class family. The Blandings, however, are not building a middle class home; they are building the 1948 version of a McMansion, and they're getting deep into debt doing it.

All of this is presented as comic mayhem throughout the picture, but the end of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House actually attempts to validate the Blandings' privilege and extravagance as admirable. Jim's career is saved, not by his own efforts, but by the clever ham slogan invented by Gussie, whose reward for saving the family's bacon is a $10 raise (still no word on that maid's room bath, or whether it has any closets). Jim and Muriel's friend, Bill (Melvyn Douglas), who has criticized their rash decisions throughout the story, ends up approving their madness and casting a warm glow over the conclusion, where we see the family, still served by Gussie, relaxing on the grounds of their lavish new home. Thus a picture that seems at times like a critique of suburban excess and consumerism ends up an advertisement for them, beckoning city dwellers to cast caution to the winds and invest every dollar in pursuing this particular American dream. Savings be damned! We're off to the suburbs!

I don't mean to ruin our enjoyment of the film by imposing modern standards on it; anybody who watches classic movies knows that they have to be judged with consideration for the era in which they were made. In this picture, however, audiences of 1948 would have seen issues we don't see, while we see other issues that they didn't really want to consider. We catch the subtexts about race and gender and are glad things are different now, but we fell hook, line, and sinker for the big house madness that would have made a lot of original viewers laugh out loud. These elements make Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House a really interesting film to show in an academic setting, perhaps in an American history course or a seminar on race, gender, and class. New Yorkers, too, especially those in Manhattan, might have their own unique perspective on the film. Is Mr. Blandings building a dream or embracing a nightmare? The movie wants to have it both ways. Luckily for Mr. Blandings, the housing bubble was still half a century from bursting.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: MR. SARDONICUS (1961)

Horror showman William Castle ventures into Gothic territory more familiar to Roger Corman and Hammer Studios with his 1961 feature, Mr. Sardonicus, which saves its trademark Castle gimmick, the Punishment Poll, for the very end of the film. Adapted from the story by Ray Russell, Mr. Sardonicus also includes visual and thematic nods to Dracula (1931), The Man Who Laughs (1928), and the frock-coated period horror that flourished during this era. Castle's version indulges his perverse sense of humor, especially when Castle himself appears on screen to open and close the picture, but there are some real horrors to be found, too, especially in sexual violence that is more suggested than shown.

Ronald Lewis stars as Sir Robert Cargrave, an English doctor who specializes in paralysis cases. He is called to remote Gorslava by his former flame, Maude, now the Baroness Sardonicus (Audrey Dalton), who begs him to cure her cruel husband, the Baron (Guy Rolfe), of an affliction that twists his face into a permanent and horrific grin. The Baron eventually reveals his history to Sir Robert to explain his disfigurement; he was once a simple peasant who robbed his father's grave to retrieve a winning lottery ticket, but the sight of his dead father's face caused his own to become frozen in a matching grimace. He then threatens to mutilate the beautiful Maude if Sir Robert cannot reverse the paralysis. Under duress and running out of time, Sir Robert struggles to save himself and Maude by restoring the Baron to some semblance of his former humanity.

Mr. Sardonicus includes all the usual elements one expects from Gothic horror, especially in the films of the 1950s and 1960s. It has a distant, crumbling castle in a strange Eastern European land, with villagers who live in fear of the aristocratic sadist who lurks there. It has damsels in distress, including scenes of torture tinged with sexual connotations. There's a very straight-laced hero type to foil the ghoulish villain, and, of course, there's a leering, sinister henchman, played in this production by character actor Oskar Homolka. Homolka's Krull, a one-eyed fiend with a thing for leeches, belongs to a caste that includes any number of characters played by Dwight Frye, Boris Karloff, and Bela Lugosi. His menacing presence reinforces the familiarity of the whole setup, from Sir Robert's ominous summons to the castle to the final twist that proves the hazards of having an evil fiend for a right hand man.

The big shock of the picture is the Baron's rictus grin, which we see only a few times because the prosthetics were too painful for Guy Rolfe to wear for very long. He looks truly gruesome - and uncomfortable. Just pay attention to Rolfe's eyes when he appears in the fully realized face. The excruciating disfigurement recalls Conrad Veidt's turn as the more sympathetic Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs, although Baron Sardonicus' condition is the result of psychological torment rather than sadistic Gypsy surgery. In a modern context, the Baron's backstory would be the origin of a super villain, which isn't much of a stretch for a man who put out his own henchman's eye and enjoys tying up his wife. Despite his sins, we see him as a dynamic figure and the real protagonist of the narrative, and in the subtext we get the sense that his issues have as much to do with his shrewish first wife as his descent into ghoulish grave robbery. What the Baron fails to understand is that he can't restore his lost humanity, his human goodness, just by restoring his human face. That makes him a tragic monster, as all great cinematic and literary monsters are. It might say something about our own monstrosity that Castle knew how we would vote in the Punishment Poll every time.

For more of William Castle's shockers, try The Tingler (1959), House on Haunted Hill (1959), and 13 Ghosts (1960). You can binge on Gothic castle horror from this era with Roger Corman's House of Usher (1960) and Pit and the Pendulum (1961), as well as Hammer's Horror of Dracula (1958) and Mario Bava's Black Sunday (1960). Look for Ronald Lewis in Scream of Fear (1961), and catch Audrey Dalton in The Monster That Challenged the World (1957). Oskar Homolka earned an Oscar nomination for his performance in I Remember Mama (1948), but if you prefer him being evil go with Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936). You'll find Guy Rolfe playing the vile Prince John in Ivanhoe (1952); he ended his career as something of a horror staple in Dolls (1987) and a series of Puppet Master films.

MR. SARDONICUS is currently streaming on the horror subscription service, Shudder.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: 13 GHOSTS (1960)

Modern viewers probably won't watch this William Castle haunted house feature with Illusion-O viewers, the way original audiences did, but 13 Ghosts (1960) is still a treat for classic horror fans. It's quintessential Castle fare, with low-budget thrills, a nutty gimmick, and all the features - or failings - of its genre and era, right down to its painfully stereotypical American family and pseudoscience mixed with the supernatural. Castle fans, however, embrace his pictures warts and all, and they have an enduring charm that makes them perfect picks for long Halloween evenings. 13 Ghosts boasts a baker's dozen of grotesque ghouls, some of whom are delightfully weird, along with performances by child star Charles Herbert, Martin Milner, and Donald Woods, but the icing on the creepy cake is the appearance of Margaret Hamilton as the family's inherited housekeeper.

Donald Woods plays Cyrus Zorba, the patriarch of a family with perpetual financial problems. Just as the Zorbas reach the bottom of their bank account, Cyrus inherits a furnished house from his reclusive uncle, who spent his life trying to see and interact with ghosts. Cyrus moves his wife and two children into the house but soon finds that the ghosts are inhospitable housemates. His uncle's attorney, Benjamin Rush (Martin Milner), urges the Zorbas to abandon the home, but young Buck Zorba (Charles Herbert) makes a startling discovery that holds both opportunity and danger for the family.

The movie revels in contrasts between the normal and the bizarre. The Zorbas are an aggressively typical clan, struggling to hold on to middle class aspirations even as the furniture is repossessed. Older sister Medea (Jo Morrow) is pretty and unambitious, despite her provocative name, while mother Hilda (Rosemary De Camp) just wants the ghosts to stop wrecking her kitchen. Cyrus, who works in natural history at the Los Angeles County Museum, is a devoted father and husband, if a little too inattentive to paying the bills. Only Buck possesses an interest in the supernatural, but his fascination with ghosts is passed off as perfectly normal for a young boy and not at all macabre. This is the family thrust into the freakish drama unfolding in the old house, where a headless lion tamer grapples with a ghostly lion, an Italian cook confronts his faithless wife with a cleaver, and old Dr. Zorba himself moans and walks out of his portrait. There's no psychological suspense here, and even with a looming death threat the Zorbas maintain their usual bedtimes and leave their kids alone in their own rooms. The whole situation recalls Eddie Murphy's old joke about white people and haunted houses.

The Zorba family might be dull, but the household ghosts are something else entirely. They can be ridiculous; the Italian ghosts, for example, talk like Cousin Itt, and the lion tamer seems determined to stick his headless neck into his lion's mouth. Others, like the ghosts that menace Cyrus in a secret room, are scarier, while the hanging ghost and the executing arms are more unnerving. We only get snatches of backstory for most of the spooks, just enough to pique our imaginations, although the biggest mystery is the identity of the 13th ghost, since there are only a dozen inhabiting the house when the family arrives. Which of the living characters will join the dead? If you're paying attention you'll see it coming a mile away, but it's all part of the fun. Occupying a space somewhere between the ghosts and the mortals is Margaret Hamilton's medium turned housekeeper, Elaine Zacharides, who warns the family of the peril the house brings. The film relishes a running gag about Elaine being a witch, an unsubtle nod to Hamilton's iconic role in The Wizard of Oz (1939), but Hamilton is game for the gag. The best moment of the whole picture might be its last, when Hamilton breaks the fourth wall to acknowledge the audience and her own stunt casting.

If goofy, fun horror of the Castle variety is your favorite Halloween treat, try The Tingler (1959) and House on Haunted Hill (1959) for more, or check out the 1993 love letter to kitsch horror, Matinee, which stars John Goodman as a Castle style showman. You can see Charles Herbert in The Fly (1958) and Houseboat (1958), although he mostly worked in television. Look for Donald Woods in A Tale of Two Cities (1935), Mexican Spitfire (1940), and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Martin Milner, best remembered for television roles on Route 66 and Adam-12, makes other big screen appearances in Life with Father (1947), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), and Sweet Smell of Success (1957).

13 GHOSTS is currently streaming on Shudder.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944)

Ostensibly a sequel to the 1942 horror classic, Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People (1944) is in reality a completely different kind of tale. It's not really a horror movie and not really a sequel to the original film, even though it brings back most of the characters from the earlier outing and carries over some of their concerns. RKO producer Val Lewton, along with directors Gunther V. Fritsch and Robert Wise, engage in cinematic sorcery to weave this sad, sweet story out of the leftover bits of a psychosexual nightmare, but there are still some moments of terror to be found, especially in the sinister performance of Elizabeth Russell as a daughter scorned to the brink of madness.

Ann Carter plays our young protagonist, Amy Reed, whose loneliness and dreamy ways frustrate her father, Oliver (Kent Smith), largely because of his obsession with normalcy after the tragic death of his strange first wife, Irena (Simone Simon). Amy's mother, Alice (Jane Randolph), also worries about Irena's legacy, which she thinks of as a curse visited on Amy, but both parents are counseled by Amy's teacher (Eve March) to have more patience with their only child. Longing for friends, Amy visits an eccentric old lady, Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean), but she also begins to see the kindly ghost of Irena, who comforts her when she feels most rejected and alone. When Amy follows Irena into a winter storm, she encounters real peril, especially when her arrival at Mrs. Farren's house leads to tragedy.

RKO wanted a sequel to Cat People to cash in on the low-budget horror's success, but as always Val Lewton had something different in mind. Instead of another story of sexual repression and bestial transformation, The Curse of the Cat People offers a ghostly fairy tale that delves into the psychology of children and their imaginary friends. Amy is a sad Alice wandering through a dismal Wonderland, where adults make little sense with their contradictory commands to believe and not believe what they tell her. Rejected by other children and keenly aware of her failure to be the child her father expects, Amy feels drawn toward Irena, who becomes a friendly playmate and confidante. We never know for sure if Irena is real or imaginary; she tells Amy things that suggest knowledge that Amy couldn't possibly have, but the ambiguity is typical of Lewton's best films.

Whether she's a cat woman, an imaginary friend, or a sympathetic ghost, Irena is never the source of terror in this story. The most frightening characters are Mrs. Farren and her daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), who make for a Gothic duo of feminine domestic dysfunction. Mrs. Farren likes Amy, but she's clearly mad, fashioned in the Miss Havisham mold in her creepy Victorian home. Russell, who had appeared briefly as a fellow Serbian cat woman in Cat People, here has a larger and more tragic role as the daughter whom Mrs. Farren rejects as an impostor, claiming that her real daughter died years ago. Jealous of Amy and driven to the edge of insanity by her isolation and suffering, Barbara swears she will murder the little girl for usurping Mrs. Farren's affection. Ironically, Barbara serves mostly as a foil for Amy, showing the consequences of parental rejection and neglect. Unless Oliver and Alice change their ways, Amy might become as damaged as Barbara, even if Barbara doesn't kill her. The ending underlines the ways in which Irena, Amy, and Barbara are all connected, and if it doesn't put a lump in your throat you haven't been paying attention.

Oddly enough, The Curse of the Cat People is also a Christmas movie, and it hints at Lewton's deeply literate sense of story with its references to Irving's Sleepy Hollow and the poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson. For more of Lewton's eerie best, see I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), and Bedlam (1946). Ann Carter's other work as a child actor includes The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) and Song of Love (1947), but she made her final film appearance at the tender age of 16. Look for the bewitching Simone Simon in The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) and La Ronde (1950), and see Kent Smith in The Spiral Staircase (1945) and The Damned Don't Cry (1950). If you want more classic horror with Elizabeth Russell, try The Corpse Vanishes (1942) and Weird Woman (1944); she also has an uncredited role as a ghost in The Uninvited (1944).

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Classic Movie Haunted Houses for Halloween

Last week we spent a few days in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where, at the insistence of my teenage daughter, we visited a commercial haunted house. It's called Mysterious Mansion, but there's nothing very mysterious about it. Visitors pay $16 a pop for 15 minutes of being jumped at and chased around by people in weird makeup and masks. There was the obligatory scary clown, some girls covered in fake blood, and a guy in a Grim Reaper outfit wearing jeans under his robes. My daughter had a good time, but for the adults the most entertaining part was watching a teen girl in the group ahead of us totally lose it and bail a third of the way through the house. The rest was just darkness, narrow spaces, and some irritating strobe lights. The underwhelming experience left me thinking about my favorite haunted houses in classic movies and why they're so much better than these attractions that pop up all over the place come Halloween.

For me, a good haunted house movie has several elements. One is atmosphere that I'm given time to appreciate. Another is a compelling narrative that explains the supernatural phenomena and creates a reason to care about the characters (including, ideally, the dead ones). I like weird effects more than gore; in fact, I'm not much on seeing anyone's intestines or brains, which is why I don't watch slasher films. I want my haunted house to have ghosts, not psychopaths (but I'll forgive the occasional psychopathic ghost). With those criteria, it's probably no surprise that my top shelf haunted house movie is...


Robert Wise's neurotically eerie horror classic wins hands down in the Haunted House Hall of Fame. It has everything, including deliriously Gothic atmosphere and a heroine who is going completely off the rails. Who can forget that moving door, an effect so simple and yet so unbelievable when you see it? I think everyone who runs a haunted house ought to be made to watch The Haunting a dozen times first (and don't let them anywhere near the dopey 1999 remake).


The slow burn of this ghost story might bore some viewers, but for me it's one of the best of the genre, combining elements of classic mystery with its spectral terrors. Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, and Gail Russell star as three people whose fates become entwined with that of a house inhabited by the spirits of the dead.  The Criterion Collection release of this film makes a grand Halloween treat for your plastic pumpkin.


OK, so this William Castle classic is not a very serious haunted house movie, but it's just so much fun, and it does offer a couple of great jump scares. That blind housekeeper gets me every time! Besides, Vincent Price and William Castle have to be on this list somewhere. It's just not Halloween without them. This is the go-to pick for a Halloween party where you want to laugh and shriek in equal measure.


Speaking of Vincent Price, I love the haunted house atmosphere and his Gothic villain in this supernatural tale, even if the adaptation of Anya Seton's novel has some structural issues. Gene Tierney plays Price's new bride, who only slowly comes to understand the ghostly terrors of her husband's home. This is a good one for Jane Eyre fans in particular; it was part of a wave of creepy Gothic romances that followed the 1940 success of Rebecca.

So, if you're looking for haunted houses this Halloween, I suggest you start with one of these instead of standing in line to hand over your cash for fifteen minutes with scary clowns. These are the movies whose worlds I wish a haunted house would take me through, where ghostly music plays and the things you don't see are a lot more terrifying than the things you do.

Looking for related classic horror posts? Try "The Gothic Influences of Disney's Haunted Mansion" and "The Housekeeper in the Gothic Film Tradition."

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Drug Store Delilah: Audrey Totter in TENSION (1949)

Audrey Totter is one of many actresses we naturally associate with noir; her best remembered films include noir classics like Lady in the Lake (1947) and The Set-Up (1949), and she also appears in a supporting role in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Less well known than these other pictures is director John Berry’s 1949 MGM film, Tension, in which Totter stars as one of film noir’s nastiest femmes fatales, an adulterous wife who drives her milquetoast husband to change his identity and contemplate murder. While noir devotees may disagree about the overall merits of the picture, Tension undoubtedly provides Totter with a fabulously unrestrained example of the bad girl type, and her Claire Quimby merits a place in the film noir hall of dangerous dames right alongside Phyllis Dietrichson, Kathie Moffat, and Elsa Bannister.

Totter’s character, Claire, is the wife of Warren Quimby, a mild-mannered pharmacist played by Richard Basehart. While Warren works the late shift at an all-night drug store, Claire carries on an affair with a hairy lug named Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough) because he has money and a more macho personality, and eventually she leaves Warren altogether. Humiliated by a confrontation with his wife’s lover, Warren plots an elaborate scheme to murder Barney, but his plans falter when he meets Mary (Cyd Charisse) and begins to fall in love with her, just as he finally realizes that his wife is no good.

From her very first appearance Totter oozes malice and selfishness; her viper’s eyes brim with disdain for her husband and the life he provides for them. Even the way she eats a sandwich reveals her crass, wasteful nature; she only takes a few bites of it before moving on to pie. For reasons we never quite grasp, Warren lives only to serve her, but she gives him the cold shoulder and sends him scurrying back to his customers. Freddie, the soda fountain jerk, recognizes her ability to wreck men’s lives without a second thought and begs her not to flirt with him. “Don’t stink me up,” he implores. Claire finds his fear of her amusing. “OK, Junior,” she says, even as she makes him lie to Warren when she leaves with another man.

Like many of noir’s bad women, Claire cares most about material possessions and status. “What’s better than money?” she asks early on, and she isn’t being sarcastic. Her eyes linger lustfully on a fur coat in a magazine, but she does nothing to help earn the money she wants to spend. She expects men to give her everything that she desires, and it’s clear that her husband isn’t measuring up. When Warren protests her appropriation of an expensive bottle of perfume from the pharmacy’s stock, she retorts, “A big guy would spend this much on me in one evening,” and then she proceeds to more or less take a bath in the stuff, daring her unhappy spouse to stop her. Claire dominates her husband with a baleful glare, constantly belittling and abusing him, even as she puts on her best, most feminine airs for Barney and, later, the homicide detective Collier Bonnabel.

In another key scene, Totter embodies the femme fatale’s rejection of bourgeois feminine ideals of domesticity and motherhood. Warren has secretly saved his money to buy the couple a real home in the suburbs, which he naively assumes is the kind of life Claire wants. When they arrive at the house, however, Claire refuses even to get out of the car. Once again giving Warren a poisonous stare, Claire drowns out his remonstrances and pleas by leaning on the car horn. She wants no part of middle-class monotony, and very shortly afterward she decamps with her lover, whose beachfront property offers something more like the constant party Claire imagines as the good life.

Audrey Totter’s performance really sells the depth and intensity of Claire’s rotten heart. She never lets us think that Claire has any real class; she’s a two-bit tramp through and through, ready to jump from one convenient lover to the next in order to look out for her own immediate interests. Like the painted doll she carries around with her, Claire is pretty but vulgar, and we’re not surprised late in the picture to learn that she has a long criminal record lurking in her past. Totter plays Claire without any redeeming qualities; she’s a lethal combination of vanity, greed, and deception. André Previn’s score also provides Claire with a slinky theme that highlights her lack of subtlety; whenever she enters a room the music reminds us that she’s all kinds of trouble, especially for Warren. Unlike many of noir’s other deadly dames, Claire never comes across as a strong character; instead, she is grasping and vicious because she is weak. A human parasite, she needs men to earn money for her, protect her, and lie for her, but even as she feeds off of them she poisons them with her own venomous nature.

Totter’s drug store Delilah makes Tension essential viewing for those interested in the femme fatale archetype, and the character provides a pointed contrast to Totter’s turn as the anguished, sympathetic wife in The Set-Up. Totter also offers a different take on the bad blonde in The Unsuspected (1947), in which she plays Claude Rains’ duplicitous, gold-digging niece. Although Audrey Totter never became a huge star, and her film career stalled in the 1950s, she made an indelible mark on film noir with her performances. When it came to being a bad girl, she was truly one of the best.

This essay originally appeared in The Dark Pages, a newsletter devoted to film noir. Follow the link to subscribe.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: OBSESSION (1949)

Released in the United States as The Hidden Room, Edward Dmytryk's Obsession (1949) is an unusual little gem of a thriller, a strangely polite and very English story of murder, jealousy, and revenge. It makes the most of its cast and its setting to craft a thoughtful tale of suspense that never becomes showy or overdone, with especially effective use of Robert Newton and post-war London. In fact, Obsession would probably have enjoyed enduring fame had it featured bigger stars or a different director, but don't let its obscurity dissuade you from spending some time with this unique film.

Robert Newton leads as psychiatrist Clive Riordan, who gets fed up with his wife's affairs and decides to murder the next man she takes on as a lover. Unfortunately for American Bill Kronin (Phil Brown), he happens to be the next man, and Clive soon has him imprisoned in a hidden room beneath a bomb damaged area of London. Clive's wife, Storm (Sally Gray), suspects that Clive has murdered Bill but can't prove anything to the police, while Clive keeps Bill alive as long as there's a chance that Scotland Yard might deduce his role in making Bill disappear. Bill, meanwhile, suffers loneliness and anxiety in his secret prison, even as he hopes that Clive's murderous plans will ultimately fall through.

The consequences and cultural shifts that followed World War II shape the subtext of the film and make it much more sophisticated than a simple murder plot. Like The Third Man (1949), Obsession takes advantage of the ruined landscapes of post-war Europe; Clive's plot hinges on the availability of abandoned and damaged buildings in which to hide his prisoner. The film also captures a strong feeling of English resentment toward American usurpation as a result of the war; not only is Bill poaching Clive's wife, but there are American sailors lolling in the streets, and at Clive's club the conversation inevitably turns to the strange colonials and their omnipotent dollars. Bill, the interloping young American, embodies all that Clive and his peers abhor about the new order of the world, but the American influence proves inescapable, even to the indubitably English Clive.

It's easy to imagine more illustrious stars in the roles, but each actor in the film delivers a compelling performance. Newton, a character actor best remembered as Long John Silver in Treasure Island (1950), here plays a role that would have perfectly suited Claude Rains, but Newton does such a good job that Rains' absence cannot be lamented. Newton keeps Clive in a low register throughout, so that he always seems like a perfectly reasonable human being who just happens to be dead set on murdering his wife's lover. His lethal plans aren't personal as far as Bill is concerned; in fact, he's unfailingly polite to his intended victim, even when Bill cracks under stress. With his slight build, all-American persona, and casual amiability, Phil Brown might be a stand-in for Henry Fonda as Bill, whose inherent decency becomes more apparent after he pays for his caddish dalliance with another man's wife, especially when he rescues Clive's persistent little dog, Monty, from becoming a test subject for Clive's acid bath. The beautiful but unfaithful Storm might have been played by any of the classic Hitchcock blondes, but Sally Gray has the perfect jaw and disdainful gaze to convey Storm's essential nature. Naunton Wayne arrives late in the picture as the Scotland Yard superintendent, Finsbury, but he adds another aspect of the English character to the proceedings as he corners Clive through a series of seemingly harmless exchanges. One can imagine Cecil Kellaway in the part, but Wayne is precisely right for it himself, and to English audiences he would have been quite recognizable from his appearances as the comical Caldicott in previous films.

Edward Dmytryk's directorial career suffered after he was caught up in the anti-Communist hearings of the late 1940s, but for more of his work see Murder, My Sweet (1944), Crossfire (1947), and The Caine Mutiny (1954). In addition to his appearances as Long John Silver in two films and a television series, Robert Newton can be found in This Happy Breed (1944), Oliver Twist (1948), and The Desert Rats (1953). Naunton Wayne turns up as Caldicott in both The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Night Train to Munich (1940), while Sally Gray appears in Green for Danger (1947). You might not recognize Bill Kronin as a young man, but you've certainly seen him; he had in small parts in The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and Superman (1978) but gained a measure of movie immortality as Luke's Uncle Owen in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977).

Monday, September 19, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: LIBELED LADY (1936)

Hollywood has always loved newspaper stories, especially when there's scandal and salacious tabloid gossip involved, and Libeled Lady (1936) delivers all that and more. Directed by Jack Conway, Libeled Lady is a screwball comedy times two, with four big stars in its leading roles, although William Powell and Myrna Loy steal the picture from Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow with their perfect comic dialogue and irresistible romantic chemistry.

Tracy opens the film as newspaper man Warren Haggerty, who has landed his publication in a huge libel suit thanks to a scandalous report about wealthy socialite Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy). Haggerty hires smooth operator Bill Chandler (William Powell) to set Connie up in a compromising situation that will derail her lawsuit. As part of the plot, Haggerty even convinces his own impatient girlfriend, Gladys (Jean Harlow), to marry Bill and then pretend outrage when Bill is caught with the unsuspecting Connie. Bill, however, throws a wrench in the plan when he actually falls for Connie, while Gladys begins to behave as if she really were Bill's jealous wife.

For classic film fans, the quadruple leads are the real draw, with Tracy and Harlow playing a rougher, more robustly hilarious pair and Powell and Loy doing their distinctively witty take on romantic comedy. The action moves along at a brisk pace. Tracy and Harlow are both very entertaining, especially when they argue, but the fireworks really go off when Powell and Loy get together. There's just something about them that the camera - and the audience - can't resist. Powell also exercises his talent for physical comedy in an especially funny scene in which Bill tries to fish his way into the good graces of Connie and her father (Walter Connolly). Much of the story is strikingly modern in the sense that it plays some rather shocking ideas for laughs; films of the 1930s often reveal a very casual attitude toward divorce, but here we also get a sham marriage and the threat of bigamy, and neither of them seems like a very big deal.

Jean Harlow gets top billing for this picture, and it's worth noting that the Harlow films - though sadly few in number - do offer some really interesting ensembles of iconic stars. Libeled Lady sets her up with two different leading men - Tracy and Powell - and gives her Loy as a female foil. In the same year, Loy also acts as a counter to Harlow in Wife vs. Secretary (1936), which presents Clark Gable and James Stewart as Harlow's two romantic opportunities. Dinner at Eight (1933), a true ensemble picture, pairs Harlow with Wallace Beery, while Bombshell (1933) sets her between Lee Tracy and Franchot Tone. Her pictures always seem to feature casts that revel in contrast, whether between Harlow and her fellow actresses or between the different men who vie for her affections. Like most of the studios of that time, MGM played mix and match with its stable of performers, but the Harlow movies almost always seem like particularly good efforts at getting the right group into the right roles.

Libeled Lady earned a Best Picture nomination at the 1937 Academy Awards, although a different Powell and Loy picture, The Great Ziegfeld (1936), took home the prize. The elegant duo gained their greatest fame playing Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man (1934) and its numerous sequels, although Powell is also justly celebrated for his performance in My Man Godfrey (1936). For more of two time Oscar winner Spencer Tracy's work in the 1930s, see Fury (1936), San Francisco (1936), and Captains Courageous (1937). Tracy and Harlow also appeared together in another 1936 picture, Riffraff, but Libeled Lady is the happier story of the two. Jean Harlow's career ended tragically in 1937, when the actress died of kidney failure at just 26 years old. See more of her with frequent costar Clark Gable in Red Dust (1932), China Seas (1935) and her last film, Saratoga (1937).

Monday, August 15, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: BRINGING UP BABY (1938)

Howard Hawks' quintessential screwball comedy fell flat at the box office when it first appeared in 1938, but today Bringing Up Baby is widely regarded as a masterpiece of the genre, with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in fine form as the unlikely couple thrown together by leopards, dinosaurs, and the relentless persistence of Hepburn's wacky heroine. The non-stop hilarity runs by so fast that it might take three or four viewings to catch all of the gags, but this is a picture that gets funnier every time you watch it. Outstanding supporting performances from Charlie Ruggles, May Robson, Barry Fitzgerald, and Walter Catlett add to the feast of furiously funny scenes, but the animal actors, including the titular Baby and Asta as George the dog, will have even the youngest viewers in stitches.

Grant stars as David Huxley, a scientist whose dry bones life and engagement to the very professional Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker) are upended when he meets flighty socialite Susan Vance (Hepburn). Both David and Susan hope to receive a million dollar gift from Susan's aunt, Elizabeth (May Robson), but Susan's interference keeps getting David into trouble. Susan loses a pet leopard meant for her aunt, David loses the last bone needed to finish his dinosaur, and everyone ends up in jail thanks to a series of misadventures and misunderstandings.

Bringing Up Baby offers enough cartoon physical comedy and sight gags to make it entertaining even to modern kids, with Grant and Hepburn romping about the Connecticut countryside and literally falling all over themselves. Grant, a vaudeville veteran, is in his natural element, with a talent for pratfalls and double takes reminiscent of the silent stars. His big round glasses, which evoke Harold Lloyd, further the comparison, especially when we see him carried off on the sideboard of a running car and stepping on the back of Hepburn's gown. As lovely and impossibly slim as she was at that age, Hepburn also dives right into the absurd antics; her "born on the side of a hill" bit is perfectly girlish, a moment of pure silly fun. More robust laughs erupt when the supporting players, especially Charlie Ruggles and Barry Fitzgerald, get their chance to react to the presence of Baby, the leopard on the loose, while George the dog, played by A-list canine star Asta, wreaks plenty of havoc, as well.

Beyond the obvious high jinks, however, the film offers a more sophisticated kind of comedy that springs from verbal sparring and the rapid delivery of naughty Freudian gags. David, after all, is a man who has lost his bone, and only a wild thing like Susan can help him get it back. Susan even goes to the extent of renaming David "Mr. Bone," which underlines the point rather forcibly. He's certainly sexually confused by all the chaos that Susan creates. Sabotaged by her desire to keep him around, David ends up in a feathery negligee, at which point he exclaims that he "just went gay all of a sudden!" Later, when Susan complains about losing her heel, Walter Catlett deadpans, "Don't worry about him." The characters deliver these zingers so rapidly that the Breen Office must have missed what they were saying, but at times it's a wonder that this film got past the censors at all. In a picture where Charlie Ruggles and May Robson exchange leopard mating calls by way of flirtation, almost anything can - and does - happen. This is a movie that proves its point about the love impulse revealing itself in terms of conflict, and not just in men.

Be sure to note Walter Bond looming over the other characters in a bit part as a motorcycle cop. For more of Hepburn and Grant, see Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Holiday (1938), and The Philadelphia Story (1940). Howard Hawks also directs Grant in His Girl Friday (1940), I Was a Male War Bride (1949), and Monkey Business (1952). If you love scene-stealing dogs, catch Asta in The Thin Man (1934) and its sequels and The Awful Truth (1937), which also stars Cary Grant.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Failure of Fathers in STRANGER THINGS

Warning: This essay contains spoilers! Read at your own risk.

The Duffer Brothers' 2016 Netflix series, Stranger Things, takes its cues from a bevy of 80s movies, most notably the films of Steven Spielberg and screen adaptations of the works of Stephen King. The mix also includes iconic pictures from the horror, science fiction, and teen genres like Alien (1979), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and the films of John Hughes. The television series reflects the culture of the 1980s as seen through the lenses of these pictures, creating a strong sense of nostalgia for Gen Xers in particular, who were the same age as the show's characters during the era depicted in the series. As a kind of period piece, Stranger Things offers us a chance to look back at the 1980s and consider its essential themes, from Cold War paranoia to the initial rise of geek culture as embodied by Dungeons & Dragons. One of the most telling themes incorporated into the series is the breakdown of the traditional nuclear family and the normalization of divorce, especially as those issues relate to absent or failed father figures in the lives of the children and teens. In fact, while Stranger Things depicts a number of father characters, almost none of its fathers manage to live up to the obligations of paternity, and substitute father figures must stand in to provide guidance and protection to the four young boys who function as the show's core characters.

The series focuses on a group of 12 year old friends who stumble into a bizarre government conspiracy after one of them disappears. Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) vanishes from the small town of Hawkins, but his mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), soon suspects that her son is both alive and held captive in some mysterious place, where he communicates with her by flashing electric lights. While the friends conduct their own search for Will, Joyce enlists the help of police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), who becomes convinced that a government lab near the town is connected to Will's disappearance. The boys unexpectedly find Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a girl whose strange abilities and sudden appearance link her to both Will and the secretive lab. Meanwhile, the teen siblings of two of the boys discover more clues to the mystery and realize that a bloodthirsty monster is also involved.

The four boys at the center of the story are Will Byers, Mike Wheeler, Dustin Henderson, and Lucas Sinclair. Only two of the four are shown to have fathers at all: Will has an absent, divorced father named Lonnie, while Mike has an older, sedentary father who spends a lot of his time sleeping in a Lazy Boy chair. We never see the fathers of Dustin and Lucas at all, although we can infer from the series that Lucas has a father who is a veteran of the war in Vietnam. Neither Lonnie nor Ted Wheeler can be called a good father in any meaningful sense, although Ted's failures are more sins of omission than anything else. Lonnie takes no interest in Will or older son Jonathan, and his ex-wife, Joyce, asserts that Lonnie used to deride Will as a "fag" before the parents broke up. When Lonnie does return after Will's disappearance, he turns out to be interested only in suing the quarry where Will's body was supposedly found; he doesn't actually care about his missing/dead son. Ted, who is still married to Mike's mother, Karen, and clearly has a good job, seems like a better father on the surface, but he has no emotional connection to his three children and doesn't seem to understand them at all. While Karen doggedly tries to earn the trust of both Mike and older sister Nancy while constantly caring for toddler Holly, Ted merely works and sleeps. He doesn't know how to talk to his children, doesn't seem to interact with them, and is shown in the last episode to be the only person sleeping in a hospital waiting room full of otherwise worried characters. If Lonnie is the stereotypical deadbeat dad of the 80s, then Ted is the stereotypical dad of the 50s and 60s, who leaves all the domestic and emotional work of parenting to his wife. Neither is the kind of father a child wants or needs, especially a boy on the cusp of adolescence.

Dr. Brenner with Eleven

Even worse than Lonnie and Ted is the manipulative Dr. Brenner, who adopts a paternal facade in his relationship with Eleven. Dr. Brenner is not the girl's real father, and no hint of a biological father's identity is provided, but he trains Eleven to call him "Papa" and to think of him as a parental figure. Lonnie and Ted are neglectful, emotionally distant fathers, but Brenner is actively evil and abusive. He encourages Eleven to rely on him, to obey him, and even to fear him, but he repeatedly hurts her and endangers her for his own ends. Part of Eleven's psychological journey in the series is her realization of Brenner's essentially bad nature and her ultimate decision to reject him. A stark contrast is provided for Eleven in the way that Brenner has treated her versus the way Joyce treats her in the seventh episode, "The Bathtub." Brenner has pushed Eleven to do dangerous things simply because he wants the power and knowledge, but Joyce asks Eleven to take risks to save her son. Joyce thanks Eleven for her bravery but also reassures her, holds her, and supports her, while Brenner dumps Eleven into the lab's sensory deprivation chamber and leaves her to confront the monster alone. Joyce's maternal behavior is utterly alien to Eleven; the scenes in the lab always show her surrounded by emotionally blank male scientists, with only Brenner's insidiously abusive relationship as a gross perversion of parenthood. Nonetheless, Joyce's brief relationship with Eleven clearly has a huge impact on the girl and helps her see the truth about Brenner. The last word she says to him is "bad," and the look on his face tells us that he understands that his hold over her has been broken.

Hopper and Sarah

Somewhere in the middle of the set we find Jim Hopper, the emotionally damaged police chief. Hopper has been a good father; we see that demonstrated in flashbacks of his daughter, Sarah. Tragically, Hopper's daughter contracted a terminal illness; her death destroyed his marriage, drove him to self-destructive habits, and closed him off emotionally until Will's disappearance resurrects his paternal instincts. Hopper was such a devoted father that the loss of his child wrecked him; it's clear that embracing the role means accepting the risk of loss and heartbreak. As he searches for Will, Hopper begins to revisit his grief and simultaneously regain his ability to be a strong father figure, even though the child he tries to help is generally unaware of his efforts. Trapped in the Upside Down, Will doesn't know how dedicated Hopper has become to finding him, but we see how Hopper adopts the paternal role that has been callously vacated by Lonnie, not only toward Will but toward Jonathan, as well. Hopper also takes the domestic role in relationship to Joyce, becoming her partner and emotional support. Despite his courage and resolution on Will's behalf, Hopper does not become an ideal father figure. He makes a Faustian bargain with Brenner to get Will back, one that directly endangers Eleven, so his paternal urge is limited in its scope. He is willing to trade one endangered child for another, even though he has learned that Eleven's mother never stopped trying to find her. It's ironic, on some level, that Hopper is willing to sacrifice the life of a girl to save a boy, given that he was himself the father of a daughter. He does, however, reach out to her in the series' coda, leaving food for her in a box in the woods. It might be too late - the show leaves us with a lot of questions about Eleven's fate - but at least Hopper continues to move back toward the role he once filled.

The absence of real fathers, whether physical or emotional, leaves the role to be filled by substitutes. Hopper becomes one surrogate father, albeit one with serious issues of his own, but other characters also volunteer themselves for the job. Will's older bother, Jonathan, steps in to fill the gap left by Lonnie, even though Jonathan still needs a father figure himself. Jonathan goes to school, works, helps to care for Will, and cooks for the family; he functions as a model for a newer, more invested kind of fatherhood that more closely resembles the multi-tasking required of mothers. He nurtures and supports Will, teaching him about music and bonding with him; Jonathan is the one who knows how to find Will's friends using the two-way radios. When Will goes missing, Jonathan searches for him and openly grieves; he is more in touch with his emotions than any of the previous generation of father figures. Jonathan and Nancy become younger parallels of the partnership embodied by Hopper and Joyce, both active, dedicated, and defined by their devotion to someone else. Jonathan's willingness to accept this burden makes us prefer him to Nancy's love interest, Steve, who is selfish and immature in comparison. The science teacher, Mr. Clarke, is also a surrogate father figure, although his role is less emotionally involved. All four boys have a close relationship with him; he provides them with the intellectual nurturing they cannot get at home and even tries to offer some emotional support after Will's disappearance. Ironically, Brenner's lab uses Clarke's dedication to the boys as a way to locate them; they pretend to be looking for talented science students for a fictitious state club. Clarke has no idea that he's actually betraying his favorite students to their enemies, but he - again unwittingly - makes up for it when he helps them design a sensory deprivation chamber for Eleven, even though it's Saturday night. Although the boys lack actual fathers in their lives who fulfill their parental obligations, the show depicts hope in the form of those who willingly take on such burdens, whether they are authority figures, male relatives, or teachers. If Mike, Will, Dustin, and Lucas become good men in their turn, it's because of characters like Hopper, Jonathan, and Mr. Clarke, not the men who sired them.

Stranger Things offers a dense narrative with many threads worth pursuing, especially in terms of its relationship to the culture of the 1980s, but the failure of fatherhood certainly seems to lie close to its heart. While mothers are generally shown as loving, dedicated figures - not only Joyce, but Karen Wheeler and even Terry Ives - fathers are seen as deeply flawed. They are absent, uninterested, clueless, or even cruel. They leave young boys to fend for themselves in a dangerous and uncertain world, even as the rules for what it means to be a man are in flux. They treat girls as things and betray them to suffering and peril. Still, there is hope. Where some men rush to vacate their roles as fathers, others step in. It will be interesting to see if Stranger Things revisits these themes with a second season or offers us a glimpse of the ways in which the four boys mature to become the fathers of another generation.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

I Feel It in My Bones: My Favorite Star Trek Character

With Star Trek Beyond out in theaters just in time for the 50th anniversary of the original show, I find myself thinking back about my lifetime of Trek experiences. I first saw the show as a little girl, when it was on in re-runs during the 1970s. I have been a fan ever since, seeing every movie and every new television series (although Enterprise never quite captured my attention like everything else). There's a lot to love about Treks old and new, from the progressive vision of humanity's future to the deep love of literature that balances its more obvious focus on science and engineering. Every fan, of course, has his or her favorite episode, movie, and character, and for me that character has always been the irascible Dr. Leonard McCoy, particularly as played by original series star, DeForest Kelley.

I've had some trouble adjusting to the new McCoy, played by Karl Urban, but mainly because my devotion to the original ran so deep. Urban finally won me over with his performance in Star Trek Beyond, thanks largely to his wonderful banter with Zachary Quinto's pitch-perfect Spock. Still, Kelley will always be the "real" McCoy as far as I'm concerned. His depiction of a future Southerner struck home for me as a little girl growing up in the Deep South; he was one of the only truly positive representations of Southern people I had seen. Usually Southerners were hicks on television; The Dukes of Hazzard was the worst offender, but even The Andy Griffith Show had a folksy, aw-shucks sensibility that galled me. I was a voracious reader, a bookish kid who loathed sports, but I was also defined by a distinctive drawl and a childhood spent on a farm. I never saw anybody like me on TV.

Something about Bones, though, spoke to me. He was cranky but humane, the voice of the heart to balance Spock's voice of the head. He didn't relish adventure and being transported across space, but you could rely on him in a pinch. He never gave up his drawl or his Southern manner, but he worked on an integrated starship where everyone was judged by his or her individual merits. He knew Shakespeare just as well as Kirk and Spock. He was instantly familiar but so different from any Southern TV character I had seen before. Most of all, his Southern identity felt authentic, and that's because it was. DeForest Kelley was born in Georgia, where he lived until he left for California to become an actor. His accent wasn't forced or feigned; it sounded like the people I grew up with and knew. I've talked about Southern identity in classic films and television before; it's rare to see an actual Southerner play a positively depicted Southern character. It means a lot to young people in particular to see someone like them get to be smart, forward-thinking, and part of the in-crowd of heroes and pioneers.

Bones was a doctor, damn it, as he often liked to say, but to me he's still the heart of Trek. I'm pleased to see the character continue in the new series, even if I'll always hold a special place in my heart for Kelley's original version. Do you have a favorite Star Trek actor or character? I'd love to hear about it in the comments section!