Thursday, April 14, 2016

Classic Movies for Cat Lovers

Cats have been on my mind a lot this month. In March, our family adopted two kittens, Ginger Peach and Earl Greyer, having mourned the deaths of our senior dog, Tess, in January, and our 20 year old cat, Grendel, back in October. Ginger has indeed been a peach, but little Earl quickly succumbed to a fatal disease that could not have been identified until the symptoms appeared (it's called FIP, or feline infectious peritonitis, and it's about the worst possible thing that can happen to a cat). The day Earl died I found myself thinking about that scene in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), where young Martha's kitten is killed by her vicious aunt (Judith Anderson). Martha then promptly murders her aunt, and the audience doesn't feel sorry for the old hag one bit. If I could push FIP down a flight of stairs I certainly would. Having held a dying kitten in my arms, that scene's emotional trauma now resonates for me in a very personal way.

Earl Greyer and Ginger Peach
Life, however, has to move on. Maybe Martha wouldn't have grown up to be such a rotten incarnation of Barbara Stanwyck if she could have just gotten a new kitten. Ginger sits in my lap as I type this post, purring and biting my arm, and next week we expect to welcome another kitten into our home. I'm still thinking about movies and cats, but brainstorming names for the new little guy makes me think more about movies with especially significant cat characters. Here are a few of those movies, in case you also find yourself thinking about naming a new kitty in the near future.


If I were getting a black female cat, I'd be seriously tempted to name her for Simone Simon or her character, Irena, in this iconic Jacques Tourneur horror made under the supervision of genre maestro Val Lewton. Simon plays an immigrant bride who fears that consummating her marriage with her American husband will cause her to transform into a huge, bloodthirsty cat. As it turns out, she's right to be worried. We don't really see much of Irena in panther form, but the movie just oozes feline atmosphere, and it's one of my very favorite Lewton films. Horror is eternally obsessed with cats, especially black ones, but they often skulk around the scenery without ever being named. This movie's existence offers two great names in its star and its protagonist, and really Simone and Irena would be perfect for a pair of kitten sisters.


It's not much help in the name department as far as the actual cat is concerned, but Carol Reed's brilliant film noir does have a very important cat character. In one of the movie's many iconic scenes, the presence of the presumably dead Harry Lime (Orson Welles) is revealed when his devoted cat comes up to his hiding place on a shadowy street. Given his disappearing Cheshire grin act, Harry Lime would actually make a great name for a cat, and Orson is pretty good, too, especially if the cat seems likely to get chunky as he ages! Cats on Film has a very interesting post about the cat in The Third Man, with some discussion of the cat's thematic and Freudian significance.

RHUBARB (1951)

This Ray Milland vehicle is the best place to appreciate cat actor Orangey, who appears in several memorable pictures but here takes the title role. While Orangey is not the most original name for a reddish orange cat, Rhubarb is definitely a good choice. This is a great movie for cat lovers, and it's packed with funny scenes. Unfortunately, Orangey doesn't get a name at all in his other most famous film, Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), where he's just called Cat. My friend Terry at Shroud of Thoughts has a really excellent post about Orangey and his career, if you want to know more about him.


Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak star in this supernatural romance, made the same year as their most famous pairing in Vertigo. The cat in this instance is Pyewacket, a Siamese who acts as Novak's familiar. The name comes from an account in Matthew Hopkins' 1647 pamphlet, "The Discovery of Witches," which also contains gems like Elemanzer, Greedigut, and Peck in the Crown. If you subscribe to the T.S. Eliot theory of cat naming, Hopkins seems like your go-to source for unique feline monikers, and he's even a movie character himself, played by Vincent Price in the 1968 horror, The Conqueror Worm (aka Witchfinder General). Pyewacket is a good name for a Siamese or any cat who has that supernatural vibe, and it seems like it might work equally well for a boy or a girl. If you want to know more about this particular movie cat, Cinema Cats has a nice discussion of Pyewacket's history and the making of the film.


Here's another movie about black cats, this time from Japan. This is a strange, supernatural tale about two women who become murderous cat spirits after they are brutally raped and murdered by a group of samurai. It's also a tragic love story; the protagonist is the son of one victim and the husband of the other, and the women must struggle between their desire to be reunited with him and their sworn quest for vengeance. Obviously, Kuroneko is a name for a black cat only, since it means "black cat" in Japanese! If you need an additional Japanese cat name, you might go with Onibaba, which is also the title of a 1964 film by Kaneto Shindo, the director of Kuroneko. According to Wikipedia, Onibaba means "demon hag," which works pretty well for a cat.


Eventually all discussions of movie-inspired animal names turn to Disney, and The Aristocats is the richest single source for cat names in the studio's history thus far. We have white, fluffy Duchess (voiced by Eva Gabor), tough orange tomcat Thomas O'Malley (Phil Harris), and the kittens: Marie, Toulouse, and Berlioz. There's also a swinging cat band that includes Billy Bass (Thurl Ravenscroft) and Scat Cat (Scatman Crothers). For more Disney cat names, you could go with Thomasina of The Three Lives of Thomasina (1963), Bagheera of The Jungle Book (1967), or Oliver of Oliver & Company (1988). In general, Disney gives more love to dogs than cats, but they do provide some good names that would work for cats, especially in their villains. You could name your cat Maleficent, Ursula, or even Chernabog!

Of course, you could also name a cat after a classic movie star. Tallulah, Veronica, Bette, and Elsa Lanchester would all make great names for female cats; for boys you could go with Valentino, Bela, Boris, Basil, or Errol Flynn. Have any of you out there named a cat for a film character or star? Tell us about it in the comments!

Monday, April 11, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: THE LITTLE FOXES (1941)

The Little Foxes (1941) reunites stars Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall with director William Wyler after their collaboration the previous year in The Letter (1940), in which Davis had also played a morally bankrupt wife who wrecks Marshall's life. The original stage version of the play by Lillian Hellman had starred Tallulah Bankhead, who hailed from Alabama, where the story takes place around the turn of the last century. The movie version pulled in a whopping nine Oscar nominations, with Teresa Wright and Patricia Collinge actually pitted against each other for Best Supporting Actress, but the lack of any wins is more a testament to the year's embarrassment of cinematic riches than a reflection on the merits of this picture. Smart, sharp, and ruthless in its depiction of a truly awful trio of ambitious siblings, The Little Foxes is a must for Davis and Marshall fans.

Davis leads as the heartless Regina Giddens, who hopes to rake in riches by convincing her husband, Horace (Herbert Marshall), to go in with her two brothers (Charles Dingle and Carl Benton Reid) on a cotton mill scheme. When Horace refuses, his shifty nephew, Leo (Dan Duryea), steals valuable railroad bonds from Horace's safety deposit box to get enough money to proceed with the plan. The brothers also hope to consolidate the family's wealth by marrying Leo to Regina's innocent daughter, Alexandra (Teresa Wright), a plot strenuously resisted by Horace and Alexandra's unhappy aunt, Birdie (Patricia Collinge).

The Hubbard brothers and their sister make most dysfunctional families look like the Brady Bunch. They share a Shakespearean hunger for importance and wealth, and destruction falls on anyone who stands in their way. Eldest brother Ben (Dingle) hides his grasping avarice beneath a veneer of Southern geniality, while second son Oscar (Reid) berates and belittles his alcoholic wife after marrying her for her family's name and property. Shut out from the Hubbard inheritance because of her sex, Regina competes with her brothers by manipulating her ailing husband and pushing relentlessly for the largest share in the cotton mill scheme. Davis, Dingle, and Reid are at their best when they get to be the worst; they really send chills up the spine with their cold eyes and their infinite greed. Davis in particular freezes the heart when Regina watches Horace succumb to a heart attack without lifting a finger to help him. It's murder by sitting still, but the look on Davis' face speaks volumes. Dan Duryea makes a perfect heir to the Hubbards' black nature as the corrupt but spineless Leo; if he lacks the grandeur of his elders, he is, at least, everything that they deserve.

The siblings behave so badly that the movie would be unbearable without the relief provided by the sympathetic characters, particularly Herbert Marshall's dying Horace and Teresa Wright as his devoted daughter. Wright's Alexandra is the dynamic character of the narrative; her elders have already made the decisions that dictate their fates, but she has the opportunity to reject their choices and strike out for a life of her own. She has several key figures to help her, including her father and her playful love interest, David (Richard Carlson), but the good women around her also show her the way. Her Aunt Birdie serves as a tragic object lesson in the dangers of letting the Hubbards control her, and Patricia Collinge plays the character beautifully, so that we see her failings but forgive them because of her sweet nature and her suffering. More importantly, Alexandra has a true mother figure in Addie, played by Jessie Grayson with quiet fortitude and unshakable poise. She might be a paid household servant, but Addie makes the single greatest difference in Alexandra's life, having obviously raised her to be a generous, sincere person in spite of her mother and uncles. The most moving scene in the film unites all of these good characters at a table outside the house, where they form a kind of quiet resistance to the devouring evil of Regina and her brothers. The elders might not be able to save themselves, but they support one another and do their best to protect Alexandra, who is the heir to their humanity just as Leo is the heir to the Hubbards' depravity. Worlds collide when Alexandra eventually stands up to Regina, especially in the movie's powerful final scenes.

Bette Davis already had two Oscars by the time she got her nomination for The Little Foxes. She would end her career with eleven nominations in all, including wins for Dangerous (1935) and Jezebel (1938), both of which were also directed by William Wyler. Wyler won his own Oscars for Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and Ben-Hur (1959). For more of Herbert Marshall, see Trouble in Paradise (1932), The Enchanted Cottage (1945), and Angel Face (1952). Don't miss Teresa Wright and Patricia Collinge playing daughter and mother in Shadow of a Doubt (1943); Wright, who also appears in The Best Years of Our Lives, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Mrs. Miniver. If you want to know how the Hubbards got to be such a rotten crowd, you might track down the prequel, Another Part of the Forest (1948), in which Dan Duryea plays the younger Oscar and Ann Blyth plays Regina. Other films adapted from Lillian Hellman's plays include Watch on the Rhine (1943) and The Children's Hour (1961).

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: THE BEAST MUST DIE (1974)

The Beast Must Die (1974) is not a good horror movie, but it's an entertaining one, assuming that its odd collection of elements appeals to a certain kind of classic horror enthusiast. This Amicus production throws together plot threads from The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1945) as well as a gimmick straight out of a William Castle picture and performances from a couple of familiar players sure to lure in Hammer fans. Chief among the actors is Peter Cushing, playing a Van Helsing sort of lycanthrope expert, complete with accent, but The Beast Must Die also features Michael Gambon, Charles Gray, and the charismatic blaxploitation star Calvin Lockhart, here inhabiting a role very similar to the kind often played by Christopher Lee.

Lockhart opens the film as eccentric millionaire Tom Newcliffe, who brings an assortment of guests to his compound with the hope of revealing one of them to be a werewolf. Newcliffe intends to unmask and then kill the monster, but his unwilling house guests are understandably upset by his plans. Even his wife, Caroline (Marlene Clark), recoils from his obsession, but Newcliffe presses forward with his schemes, and inevitably his companions begin to die from werewolf attacks. With advice from the werewolf expert, Dr. Lundgren (Peter Cushing), Newcliffe devises tests to reveal the killer among them, but the flaws in his thinking make themselves tragically clear.

The movie is a mixed bag of the usual failings of its type and some surprisingly engaging performances from a capable cast. This is not a high-budget production, as the frequent day-for-night shots repeatedly prove, and there are plot holes big enough to drive a truck through. The clunky "werewolf break" gimmick invites the audience to guess the identity of the monster just before the big reveal near the end, but it's really no mystery to anyone who is paying attention. The werewolf, a large dog with some extra hair thrown on, is scarier for the aftermath of its attacks than the attacks themselves, and we never get a proper transformation scene; the werewolf reveals only a hairy hand before it changes into its fully canine form. None of these problems reflect on the actors' performances, which are generally quite good, and Lockhart's intensity as Newcliffe pushes the silly narrative forward in spite of itself. Gambon, Gray, and Cushing all pretend they're in a much better movie and help to give the picture its Agatha Christie atmosphere, although the weirdest of the lot is certainly Tom Chadbon as the fey, cannibalistic Paul Foote.

While it isn't by any means an essential example of the werewolf genre, The Beast Must Die does play with its conventions in some interesting ways. The werewolf might be a killer, but the real monster throughout the picture is Tom Newcliffe, whose obsession with hunting this supernatural prey surpasses any concern for the lives of others. The movie opens with Newcliffe, a black man, being chased through the forest by armed soldiers, but we then find that he's just testing his own surveillance and trapping systems for the impending werewolf hunt. Thus the picture creates and then thwarts expectations; it wants us to know that we're never on sure footing about what we're seeing or who is behind it. Newcliffe acts like his captive house guests deserve their fate for being potential monsters, but none of them is a terrible enough person to warrant such treatment; the real werewolf hasn't chosen to become a killer, and Newcliffe's persecution puts everyone else in danger of dismemberment, death, or infection from a scratch or bite. There's some poetic justice in the finale, at least as far as Newcliffe is concerned, but a lot of innocent blood gets spilled before he sees the error of his ways.

If you want to see the best of the werewolf genre, stick with Werewolf of London (1935), The Wolf Man (1941), and An American Werewolf in London (1981). Peter Cushing was a busy actor in 1974; his other films from that year include From Beyond the Grave, Madhouse, and Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. You'll find Calvin Lockhart in Halls of Anger (1970) and Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), while Charles Gray is probably best remembered for his role as Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever (1971). Michael Gambon is familiar to Harry Potter fans as the second actor to play Albus Dumbledore; he has enjoyed a long and varied career, but The Beast Must Die is an unusual entry even in his diverse filmography. He is still hard at work in 2016, with three pictures in post-production at the time of this post.