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!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: THE SPANISH MAIN (1945)

The Spanish Main (1945) revisits many of the same elements as earlier swashbucklers, especially Captain Blood (1935) and The Black Swan (1942), but this time instead of Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power we get Paul Henreid as the heroic pirate, and the actor gives a perfectly winning performance in the role. The picture suffers a bit in comparison with the greatest examples of the genre, and it certainly doesn't break any new ground, but Henreid and leading lady Maureen O'Hara make The Spanish Main an entertaining way to spend an evening. Gorgeous Technicolor costumes and supporting performances from Walter Slezak, Mike Mazurki, and the very engaging Binnie Barnes also add to the appeal.

Henreid plays Laurent Van Horn, a Dutch captain whose ship of immigrants to the Carolinas wrecks off the coast of Cartagena. Van Horn and his passengers become the prisoners of the foppish, corrupt viceroy, Don Juan Alvarado (Walter Slezak), but Van Horn escapes from the dungeons and reinvents himself as the notorious pirate known as The Barracuda. With his crew of former prisoners, Van Horn exacts revenge on Alvarado at every opportunity, but the best chance of all comes when the pirates take the ship carrying Alvarado's intended bride, the beautiful Francesca (Maureen O'Hara). Van Horn promptly marries Francesca to gall Alvarado, but his actions anger his pirate peers, especially the jealous Anne Bonney (Binnie Barnes) and his second-in-command, Mario (John Emery). With plots rising against him at every turn, Van Horn finds that he might actually be in love with his stolen bride.

Paul Henreid is, of course, best remembered for Casablanca (1942); in The Spanish Main he gets to play a more physical, roguish role, but his refined air softens his character in comparison with Tyrone Power's protagonist in The Black Swan. The juxtaposition of the two comes naturally because both actors play pirates engaged in a war of the sexes with Maureen O'Hara, who was classic Hollywood's go-to girl for gorgeous shrews. Henreid has an air of continental class, even when he's tied to the mast and being lashed, that makes us doubt the sincerity of Van Horn's misogynist threats, but the actor looks remarkably good in the period costumes, especially with his tousled blond curls. This is a sexier, looser Henreid, who looks like he's having a lot of fun. He's exciting to watch in the sword fight sequences, too, and the audience can certainly sympathize when Francesca falls for him. O'Hara is radiantly lovely in a series of dazzling gowns, but as usual her fiery spirit serves as her chief attraction, and she has some wonderful scenes in which her character gets to prove her mettle to Van Horn, even standing to a pistol duel and organizing the pirates' escape from Alvarado's treacherous clutches.

If the miniature ships and painted backdrops look a little obvious to modern eyes, the performances of the supporting players also help to make up for it, particularly Binnie Barnes in a delightful turn as the real lady pirate Anne Bonney. She's so feisty and fun that she could have carried her own movie, although the resolution for her character is one of the places where the picture falls flat. Walter Slezak makes for a preening, pompous villain as Alvarado; he would play a very similar role in The Pirate (1948), and in both pictures he's a perfect foil for the vigorous, virile hero. John Emery rocks his roguish hair and mustache as the slippery Mario, although he doesn't really have a lot to do until the last third of the picture, while Mike Mazurki proves the standout of the minor characters without ever uttering a word. Fritz Leiber, who had also appeared in The Sea Hawk, plays yet another priest character, and naturally he looks very much at home in the role, although he disappears toward the end of the movie as the action heats up.

Frank Borzage, a two-time winner of the Oscar for Best Director, made The Spanish Main toward the end of his career, which had started out during the silent era. He is probably best remembered today for A Farewell to Arms (1932) and the wartime morale booster, Stage Door Canteen (1943). For more of Paul Henreid, see Now, Voyager (1942), Deception (1946), and Rope of Sand (1949); he returned to piracy in Last of the Buccaneers (1950) and Pirates of Tripoli (1955). Maureen O'Hara plays more beautiful firebrands in The Quiet Man (1952) and McClintock! (1963), opposite frequent costar John Wayne, but for something different see her in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940). Catch Binnie Barnes in The Private Life of King Henry VIII (1933), The Last of the Mohicans (1936), and In Old California (1942). If you really want to loathe a Walter Slezak villain, see him at his worst in Lifeboat (1944).

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: IVANHOE (1952)

Adapted from the novel by Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (1952) makes a perfect companion to The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Both are rousing Technicolor adventures set during the days of King Richard the Lionheart, and Robin even plays a critical part in the later story. Robert Taylor might lack the insouciance of Errol Flynn's roguish Robin, but his Saxon knight is a bold hero, nonetheless, and Joan Fontaine matches her sister, Olivia de Havilland, as an alluring lady love. Director Richard Thorpe oversees the lavish production, which earned three Oscar nominations, and the film benefits from memorable performances by Elizabeth Taylor, George Sanders, and Finlay Currie.

Robert Taylor leads the cast as the heroic knight, who returns from the Crusades determined to free King Richard from imprisonment and restore him to his throne. Rejected by his Saxon father, Cedric (Finlay Currie), for his loyalty to the Norman king, Ivanhoe must contend with the treachery of Prince John and his supporters, especially the knights Sir Hugh De Bracy (Robert Douglas) and De Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders). Ivanhoe's adventures introduce him to the beautiful young Jewess, Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor), who falls in love with him in spite of his long-standing romance with Rowena (Joan Fontaine). All of Ivanhoe's friends, however, are threatened by the schemes of Prince John's allies, who hope to ensure that King Richard never returns to England alive.

Location shooting heightens the atmosphere and appeal of the picture, especially in the climactic sequence at Torquilstone Castle, where Ivanhoe and his companions are held prisoner by the Norman knights. Luckily for Ivanhoe, Robin Hood leads an army of Saxon men to lay siege to the castle, although in this film Robin is called only by the less familiar name of Locksley (played by Harold Warrender). The tournament scenes are also highlights; they exude pomp and excitement but also provide opportunities for each of the key characters to reveal themselves. Ivanhoe's first tournament, where he fights in disguise as the black knight, sets the stage for later conflicts between the Saxon hero and his Norman nemesis, De Bois-Guilbert, while their final battle brings their long rivalry to its destined end. The pageantry, shot in gorgeous Technicolor, rivals that of The Adventures of Robin Hood, although the mood of the later picture is more somber.

Taylor makes for a serious and mature Ivanhoe, but his performance sells the hero's commitment to his cause. The movie downplays the love triangle between him and the two women; Taylor and Fontaine are too well matched for any real doubt that Ivanhoe will stay with Rowena, but Elizabeth Taylor is so compelling as Rebecca that she makes us wish the story could end differently. She handles her scenes with emotion and skill, especially those that address the plight of Jews in Medieval England, and Felix Aylmer is also very good as her father, Isaac. Finlay Currie provides a different model of paternity as the stubborn Cedric, and he threatens to steal his scenes with his blustering resentment and underlying affection. George Sanders, an adept at playing the heavy, adds humanity to De Bois-Guilbert with the sincerity of his passion for Rebecca, but he's most in his element as the haughty foe. The rest of the Norman knights run together, particularly when they're dressed for battle, although Guy Rolfe makes the best of his few scenes as the despicable Prince John. Be sure to appreciate Welsh actor Emlyn Williams as Womba, the lowly serf whom Ivanhoe promotes as his squire; it's a shame that he disappears without much fanfare before the picture ends.

Ivanhoe picked up Oscar nominations for Best Picture as well as cinematography and score, but it had to compete with the likes of High Noon (1952), The Quiet Man (1952), and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). Director Richard Thorpe returned to the same territory the following year with Knights of the Round Table (1953), in which Robert Taylor plays Lancelot and Felix Aylmer turns up again as Merlin. For more from Thorpe and Taylor, try All the Brothers Were Valiant (1953) and The House of the Seven Hawks (1959). See Joan Fontaine and George Sanders in Rebecca (1940), and don't miss Finlay Currie in Great Expectations (1946) and People Will Talk (1951). If you want to catch Fontaine and Elizabeth Taylor in different roles, see them both in Jane Eyre (1943), in which Fontaine plays the lead and Taylor appears in an important but uncredited role as Jane's friend, Helen Burns.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: TOWER OF LONDON (1939)

Tower of London (1939) lacks the poetic grandeur of Shakespeare's Richard III, but the story remains more or less the same, with an atmosphere of horror injected into the historical drama through the appearance of genre icons like Boris Karloff and Vincent Price. As history goes, this is bloody stuff, indeed; it opens with a beheading and goes on as it begins, and there's certainly enough death and torture to satisfy the bloodthirstiest horror fan. Basil Rathbone brings gravitas and intelligence to the role of Richard, while Karloff plays the executioner henchman who helps him murder his way to the throne. A fine supporting cast includes Ian Hunter, Barbara O'Neil, John Sutton, and the lovely Nan Grey, but most fans will flock to this film for the irresistible trio of Rathbone, Karloff, and Price.

As Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Rathbone schemes and slays in a bid for the English crown. To get there, he must first get rid of everyone ahead of him in line, including his brothers, King Edward IV (Ian Hunter) and the Duke of Clarence (Vincent Price), and his young nephews, the king's sons with long-suffering Queen Elyzabeth (Barbara O'Neil). Assisting Richard is Mord (Boris Karloff), a torturer and executioner whose own deformed foot creates a kinship with the hunchbacked Duke. While Richard murders his way to power, the Queen's followers, John Wyatt (John Sutton) and Lady Alice (Nan Grey), struggle to keep their love alive and to defend the country from Richard's evil reign.

As the subject matter implies, this is really Rathbone's film, and he gives a terrific performance, even if he doesn't get to spout any Shakespearean soliloquies. His Richard is not merely evil and repulsive; he has courage, genius, and the military prowess to match his ambition. His strange relationship with Anne Neville (Rose Hobart) proves that he has a certain charisma, too, like a snake that charms before striking. The discovery of the real Richard III's body in 2012 made him a celebrity again and shed new light on the historical record, but in many ways Rathbone's performance seems ahead of its time, especially in comparison with the way the king is portrayed in Shakespeare's play. Rathbone also gets to exercise his celebrated swordsmanship in several sparring scenes, which again emphasize the active, aggressive nature of this incarnation of his character.

The rest of the performers help to make Tower of London a very solid example of its type. John Sutton is something of a stand-in swashbuckler as John Wyatt, one of Richard's most determined opponents, and Nan Grey has several good scenes as his lady love, though her best is probably her rescue mission to help John escape from Richard's dungeon. Barbara O'Neil radiates maternal devotion and fear as the mother of the doomed little princes, while Ian Hunter makes a hale but too trusting Edward IV. Karloff, of course, owns his scenes as Mord; he and Rathbone pair up perfectly and convey a lot about their relationship through their expressions and body language. Mord yearns to see combat on the battlefield, and he mostly enjoys his murderous occupation, but the scene in which he is sent to murder the young princes adds just a touch of humanity to his villainous soul. Vincent Price, still at the start of his career in 1939, has a fairly small part as the weak-minded Clarence, but he makes the most of it, especially in his fateful drinking contest with Richard. The role presages those he would play later in life, especially in the Corman pictures and the AIP horror of the 70s.

Rowland V. Lee, who directed Tower of London, made a number of historical action pictures late in his career, including The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), The Three Musketeers (1935), and Captain Kidd (1945), but he also directed Karloff and Rathbone in the excellent Son of Frankenstein (1939). For more of Rathbone's great villains, see The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Mark of Zorro (1940). Karloff is justly famous for his monsters and fiends; to get beyond his Universal classics from the 30s, try Val Lewton horrors like The Body Snatcher (1945) and Bedlam (1946), or catch him in a more sympathetic mood in Corridors of Blood (1958). Fans will recognize Barbara O'Neil as Scarlett's mother in Gone with the Wind (1939), while John Sutton and Nan Gray can both be found with Vincent Price in The Invisible Man Returns (1940). For a double feature starring the trio of Rathbone, Karloff, and Price, follow up Tower of London with the delightfully macabre The Comedy of Terrors (1963), which also stars Peter Lorre.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: STAGE FRIGHT (1950)

Released just before the wildly successful Strangers on a Train (1951), Stage Fright (1950) ranks among the minor entries in the Alfred Hitchcock canon. It lacks the screw tightening suspense of the best of the director's pictures, and its humor, while engaging, never reaches that pitch black, twisted level that fans adore in the most iconic Hitchcock films. That said, Stage Fright offers an assortment of entertaining performances from its cast, especially a collection of delightful character actors in supporting roles. Jane Wyman and Marlene Dietrich carry the lightweight murder plot, such as it is, but the scene stealers here are Alastair Sim, Sybil Thorndike, Kay Walsh, and Joyce Grenfell, each playing the sort of offbeat character you'll remember long after you forget the details of the fuzzy central narrative.

The film opens with aspiring actress Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) trying to help Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) escape a murder charge that he claims to have gotten mixed up in on behalf of the seductive stage star Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich). Charlotte's husband has been killed, with Cooper spotted leaving the scene by Charlotte's maid, Nellie (Kay Walsh). Eve enlists her father, Commodore Gill (Alastair Sim), as a confederate in hiding Cooper from the police, including the charming Detective Smith (Michael Wilding), for whom Eve rapidly develops some very inconvenient feelings. Determined to expose Charlotte as the real killer, Eve disguises herself as a mousy dresser named Doris, but her efforts are complicated by the constant appearance of people who know her as Eve.

Several elements make this movie a less than successful Hitchcock production. The most glaring is the flashback used at the beginning to create a set of expectations for both Eve and the audience. There's something not quite right about it, as later events prove. There's also not much suspense in the way that the action unfolds. Eve's deceptions provide plenty of comedy, but it's more straightforward than perverse, and she never encounters any seriously dangerous situations until the very end of the film. Contrast the pacing and mood here with those in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), for instance, and it's easy to see that Stage Fright wanders a bit and lacks real teeth as a proper thriller. More might be made of the uncertainty the audience feels about Cooper, who exploits Eve's unrequited affection to save his own neck, but Richard Todd's perfectly acceptable performance is overshadowed by the livelier character actors and the very engaging Dietrich, who makes a far more interesting murder suspect as the selfish, glamorous star.

What it lacks in suspense and narrative thrust, Stage Fright makes up for in the little things, and it's still a movie worth seeing if you're a fan of English character actors. Alastair Sim and Sybil Thorndike are delightful as Eve's eccentric, estranged parents, with Sim getting an especially juicy role. The scene in which Cooper asks to spend the night at Eve's home gives the pair a great scene together; watch their expressions and body language as they discuss where everyone is going to sleep. Kay Walsh is pricklier but no less engaging as the scheming dresser, Nellie, who lets Eve bribe her and then demands blackmail money to continue their ruse. She and Sim get big laughs when he brings the required funds to the garden party but fails to recognize their intended recipient. Joyce Grenfell, billed in the credits as "Lovely Ducks," has only one scene, but it's a corker, a sublime example of feminine physical comedy. Just watch how she fumbles and chatters her way through an attempt to load the Commodore's gun. Speaking of characters with limited scenes, be sure to note the director's daughter, Patricia Hitchcock, as Chubby Bannister, one of Eve's friends from the drama school.

With its English setting and characters, Stage Fright hearkens back to the films Hitchcock made before his move to Hollywood. Try The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) for a sense of that phase of the director's career. Jane Wyman won the Oscar for Best Actress for Johnny Belinda (1948); you'll also find her in The Yearling (1946), The Glass Menagerie (1950), and Magnificent Obsession (1954). Marlene Dietrich's other films from the 1950s include Rancho Notorious (1952), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and Touch of Evil (1958). Catch Michael Wilding in Torch Song (1953), and see Richard Todd take a more saintly turn in A Man Called Peter (1955). Although he appeared in more than fifty films, including Green for Danger (1947), An Inspector Calls (1954), and School for Scoundrels (1960), Alastair Sim is best remembered today for his performance as Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1951 adaptation of A Christmas Carol.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: MOONTIDE (1942)

Although its name doesn't telegraph anything about the plot, Moontide (1942) does give the viewer an accurate impression of its mood, which is dreamy but dark, yielding a seductive fantasy with noir's sharp edge, or perhaps a noir film with romance's soft center. France's Jean Gabin and rising star Ida Lupino take top billing as two bits of lonely flotsam washing up together into love and peril, and under the direction of Archie Mayo they drift across the screen into each other's arms, even as the treachery of an unlikely enemy threatens them both. Moontide is an unusual picture, not, perhaps, essential viewing for noir or romance fans, but certain to appeal to those who like their genres mixed with a side of European sensibility. Unexpected performances by Thomas Mitchell and Claude Rains have their own charms, while Gabin and Lupino have plenty to offer in their chemistry onscreen.

Gabin stars as Bobo, a French longshoreman who can't remember what happened after a long night of drinking near the California docks. His parasitic friend, Tiny (Thomas Mitchell), suggests that Bobo might have killed a man during his drunken stupor, which Tiny sees as reason for the pair to leave town quickly. Troubled by the idea but not convinced of his own guilt, Bobo instead takes a job running a remote bait barge, where he saves the desperate young Anna (Lupino) from suicide. The two fall in love and decide to marry, but Tiny proves dangerously jealous of Anna and her ability to affect Bobo's plans.

Moontide struggled with many problems during production, not least of which was the departure of Fritz Lang as the original director, but none of them diminish the film as it appears onscreen. Gabin has a great face for this kind of picture, broad and strong, but open and innocent in its own way; like everything else about the movie, he occupies the space where noir and romance meet. We believe that he might have strangled a man to death in a boozy rage, but we also believe that he might not. After all, he isn't sure himself. Lupino, having electrified the screen with her courtroom crackup in They Drive by Night (1940), here takes a turn as a fragile waif, a girl broken by life when we first meet her but strong enough to survive incredible suffering if only someone like Bobo will give her a reason to keep going. Her appearance in the film's poster makes her look like a juke joint floozy, but the dress is merely an odd gift of Bobo's; Anna is a kind, simple soul who yearns for a home and a place of belonging.

The fairy tale fog and isolation of the bait shack enhance our sense of this tidal fantasy as a story that exists outside of reality, and the supporting characters also add to that impression. Thomas Mitchell, a character actor best remembered for more genial or paternal roles, exorcises some inner demons as the trollish Tiny; he's rotten through and through, even if Bobo is too generous to admit it. The usually debonair Claude Rains becomes downright scruffy as Nutsy, a night watchman who befriends Bobo and Anna and encourages their romance. The names of the characters underscore their detachment from a realistic world of details and hard data; we don't know their real names, or where they came from, and tedious facts like those hardly matter. Other characters, including Jerome Cowan's lovelorn doctor and Henry, the bait barge's owner (Chester Gan), drift in and out of the plot as the moment demands. The third act sees a storm break over the lovers and their happiness; both Nutsy and Tiny have their roles to play as the climax hits like a typhoon, violent and terrible. A true noir would have ended differently, and a pure romance would never have gone to such a dark place at all, but the ending works within the context of this genre mingling.

Moontide picked up an Oscar nomination for Charles G. Clarke's dreamy cinematography but lost in a crowd of ten nominees to Mrs. Miniver (1942). For more from Archie Mayo, see The Petrified Forest (1936), It's Love I'm After (1937), and the delightfully wacky Charley's Aunt (1941). Jean Gabin, who spent only the war years in Hollywood, was a huge star in his native France, where he made films like Pepe Le Moko (1937), Grand Illusion (1937), and Port of Shadows (1938). Don't miss Ida Lupino in They Drive by Night (1940), High Sierra (1941) and On Dangerous Ground (1951). Thomas Mitchell won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor with Stagecoach (1939), but most people remember him best for Gone with the Wind (1939) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946). For more of Claude Rains' most unusual roles, try The Invisible Man (1933), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and Phantom of the Opera (1943).