Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Homes of Classic Hollywood Stars: Four Vintage Postcards

Here's Cary Grant's beach home in Santa Monica, California. The postcard was manufactured by Western Publishing & Novelty Co. of Los Angeles. The house was originally built for Norma Talmadge in 1929, but Grant lived there from 1939 to 1942 with housemate Randolph Scott. According to Wikimapia, lots of stars spent some time in this house, including Merle Oberon and David Niven. You can read all about the neighborhood and its classic stars in this article from Curbed Los Angeles.

This postcard shows Bing Crosby's Toluca Lake home in North Hollywood. Longshaw Card Co. of Los Angeles produced the card. The original house on the site burned in 1943, and the home seen above was built to replace it. Later owners included Andy Griffith and Jerry Van Dyke. According to the LA Times, the home sold in 2009 for $10 million.

Another postcard from Longshaw shows the Beverly Hills home of Hollywood bad boy, Errol Flynn. Like the three other cards, this one includes a picture of the star resident. It's hard to imagine Flynn getting up to his usual mischief in such a stately manor! The Errol Flynn Blog has a great list of places associated with the actor; as you might expect, he got around.

This last card is the only one that lacks a photo of the star, which is a shame, since it's also the only one depicting the home of an actress. This is Irene Dunne's Holmby Hills residence; Tichnor Art Company produced the postcard. Dunne lived in the home for more than 40 years, but it was demolished after her death and replaced (such a pity!). The Irene Dune Site has a nice collection of photos showing Dunne in the home in March 1950.

Personal Notes -

I found these while sorting through some of my late mother-in-law's belongings. They lay in a heap of vintage postcards that she probably inherited from her mother or grandmother, given that many were addressed to her grandmother and were from her uncle; I don't know if she actually knew that these were among the lot. You can imagine my delight at finding them! Scans of the postcards are already available online thanks to copies for sale on Amazon and Ebay, but I thought many of my classic movie friends might not know about them and would enjoy seeing them. I think I'm going to get them framed and put them up in my study.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: BLACK NARCISSUS (1947)

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger deliver one of their finest collaborations in the exotic melodrama of Black Narcissus (1947), which tells the story of five British nuns who travel to the remote Himalayas to found a convent. Gorgeous scenery provides a provocative backdrop for strong, complex performances from the leads, including Deborah Kerr, David Farrar, and Kathleen Byron, with support from Flora Robson, Sabu, and teenage beauty Jean Simmons. Like a delirious fever dream, the film moves back and forth between sense and madness, quiet and chaos, past and present; it lures the viewer in with its beauty but ultimately unnerves with the power of its most memorable scenes.

Deborah Kerr stars as Sister Clodagh, who leads the small group on their mission to start a convent in the mountains at the invitation of a Himalayan general (Esmond Knight). There they encounter the skeptical British agent, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), who gives them slim odds of success, as well as the old general's intellectually curious heir (Sabu). The sisters open a school and a medical dispensary, but their position in the community is tenuous at best, with crisis just around the corner. The sisters also struggle with internal strife and the psychological turmoil that results from their residence in a strange, desolate place far from home.

The theme here is how things fall apart, how reason and fortitude fail in spite of the most determined effort to maintain them. From the moment the Mother Superior gives Sister Clodagh her assignment, the mission has an air of doom, but that presentiment only grows stronger when the nuns arrive in their new abode. The convent's quarters were once the home of a previous general's harem; everywhere the nuns confront signs of a luxurious, erotic past, the very opposite of all they have sought to embrace in their chaste, well-ordered lives. Surrounded by the magnificent isolation of the Himalayas, the nuns fight a losing battle against the unfamiliar atmosphere. The Romantic experience of the sublime stirs long buried emotions in the sisters' hearts until loneliness and longing overwhelm them, especially the jealous, unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron). Mild Sister Philippa (Flora Robson), the convent's gardener, weeps over her past and plants flowers instead of produce, while Sister Clodagh succumbs to memories of the lost girlish love that drove her to become a nun. The result is a climactic collapse of sanity that teeters on the very edge of horror.

Black Narcissus relies heavily on Orientalist attitudes for its drama, which is not surprising in a British film from the 1940s, but the dated elements don't undermine the ultimate effect. This is by no means the first work of fiction to imagine the East as a place of strange temptations and tribulation; E.M. Forster's 1924 novel, A Passage to India, is another significant example of the type, as are the works of Rudyard Kipling. Several white actors get cast as Asians, most notably May Hallatt as the very irritating Ayah and Jean Simmons as the silent temptress Kanchi. The British characters view the natives as childlike, ignorant, and unpredictable, and the plot more or less bears out their opinion even as it ironically reveals that the Europeans can be irrational and dangerous, too. Sabu's sweet, sympathetic performance as the young general helps to counter some of those issues, and he looks glorious in his lavishly decorated costumes. If the young general falls for the charms of Kanchi, it's not really his fault, since she works hard to attract his attention, and she really is quite lovely. 

Two Oscar wins for Jack Cardiff's gorgeous cinematography and Alfred Junge's art direction highlight the sheer beauty of Black Narcissus. For more from Powell and Pressburger, see The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), and The Red Shoes (1948). Catch Sabu in The Thief of Bagdad (1940) and Jungle Book (1942); the Indian actor became a star in his early teens but died tragically young at the age of 39. Deborah Kerr has another exotic adventure in The King and I (1956), plays a nun again in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), and gets to unravel in a more Gothic atmosphere in The Innocents (1961). Although Black Narcissus features Kathleen Byron's most memorable performance, you can also see her in Powell and Pressburger's Stairway to Heaven (1946) and Hour of Glory (1949) as well as much later movies like Emma (1996), Les Miserables (1998), and Saving Private Ryan (1998).

The Criterion Collection offers excellent editions of Black Narcissus on both Blu-ray and DVD.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH (1964)

No genre lends itself to glorious badness like classic sci-fi horror, and director Del Tenney's The Horror of Party Beach (1964) makes for an excellent example of sublimely entertaining schlock. No, it isn't scary, thanks to stilted dialogue, flat acting, and some seriously DIY monster costumes, but it does wallow in the conventions of its type with gleeful abandon. If you enjoy really bad movies of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 variety, then The Horror of Party Beach is just your cup of radioactive monster-making sludge.

John Scott heads up a cast of unknowns as Hank Green, whose troublesome girlfriend, Tina (Marilyn Clarke), is the monsters' first victim. Hank doesn't seem to miss Tina; his scientist mentor's daughter, Elaine (Alice Lyon), readily jumps in as his new romantic interest, and the two set about trying to locate the monsters and destroy them before they kill off the entire town. Unfortunately, neither the scientist, Dr. Gavin (Allan Laurel), nor the local police can figure out how to defeat the creatures until dozens of residents have been killed, although the increasing body count doesn't seem to convince any of the locals to stay inside with the doors locked.

Monster movies are, of course, only as good as their monsters, and the weird ichthyoid menaces of this picture are very, very bad. Like Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959) and other B movies of this era, The Horror of Party Beach uses atomic age paranoia as its foundation, with plenty of pseudo-science to explain how its monsters come into existence. In this case, a boatload of radioactive waste spills over a shipwreck site, creating fish-headed freaks with human skeletons and a thirst for people's blood. The number of monsters increases over the course of the picture, but it's never clear if those are the transformed remnants of victims we see carried into the water or just more skeletons from the shipwreck. Dumping toxic waste into the ocean is definitely a bad idea, but even a ton of poisonous sludge would be hard-pressed to fuse marine life and human corpses in this fashion. The monsters have enormous fishy heads with mouths entirely unsuited to the drinking of human blood, and they're dumb enough to mistake shop mannequins for prey but smart enough to cover both exits at an ill-fated slumber party. Still, they have a certain silly charm, especially when bad actors run screaming from them in the dark.

None of the actors is good enough to warrant discussion, although the opening scenes with the biker gang are ridiculous and fun, and the obligatory beach party dancers seem to be having a good time in between murders. The Horror of Party Beach actually has enough dance numbers to qualify as a musical as well as a sci-fi horror film, with the Del-Aires performing half a dozen songs, including "Drag," "Elaine," and "The Zombie Stomp." They might actually be the most talented people involved with the whole picture, and they're certainly livelier than the wooden leads. The rest of the movie relies on cliches, casual sexism, and a very dated depiction of an African-American housemaid to keep things moving when the monsters aren't on screen. Fortunately, the creatures stay busy, attacking a slumber party, a car full of out-of-towners, a pair of drunks, and some shop girls walking home at night before anyone figures out that they're probably holed up at the deepest body of water in town.

The Horror of Party Beach has a 2.7 rating on IMDB, so let that be your warning about how bad a movie you're in for. It was, not surprisingly, the featured attraction on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but you won't need a professional peanut gallery to enjoy the absurd appeal of this film. Del Tenney's other notable contribution to cinema is The Curse of the Living Corpse (1964), which stars Roy Scheider of Jaws fame. For more mutated monsters, try Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), Fiend without a Face (1958), and The Alligator People (1959).