Thursday, December 12, 2019

Classic Films in Focus: BUNDLE OF JOY (1956)

If you've already watched all of your regular Christmas classics, you might consider trying out some less familiar holiday fare, including the 1939 comedy Bachelor Mother and its 1956 musical remake, Bundle of Joy. Although the original movie is generally considered the better picture, Bundle of Joy has plenty of color and music to make it a satisfying seasonal sweet, especially with the adorable Debbie Reynolds stepping into the lead role first filled by Ginger Rogers. Bright, cute, and cheerful, Bundle of Joy makes for a nice break from heavier holiday classics like It's a Wonderful Life (1946), and the supporting cast includes extra gifts for classic movie fans with appearances by Adolphe Menjou and Una Merkel.

Reynolds stars as Polly Parish, a department store salesgirl who gets fired just before Christmas. While hunting a new job she picks up a crying infant on a doorstep, only to be mistaken for the child's mother.  The foundling home arranges to get her rehired on the condition that she claim and care for the baby, which Polly is at first extremely reluctant to do, but nobody will believe the truth. She catches the attention of the store owner's son, Dan (Eddie Fisher), and the two begin a sort of friendship that quickly snowballs into something more, but soon enough Dan finds himself on the wrong side of the bassinet as his father (Adolphe Menjou) believes that the baby is a joint production by Polly and Dan.

In 1956, audiences would have been expected to know that Reynolds and Fisher were newlyweds in real life, making the onscreen pairing especially appealing, and Fisher was a big singing star himself at the time. Those watching the picture today will immediately recognize Reynolds as the real star of the show and probably view the romance with Fisher as ironic, given his scandalous affair with Elizabeth Taylor and the couple's divorce in 1959. The pair's first child, actress Carrie Fisher, was born the same year that Bundle of Joy appeared, and in fact Reynolds was pregnant with her daughter during the making of the picture. Those biographical details color a modern viewing of the movie and lend it an edge that it doesn't contain within itself, where Reynolds' mega watt charms obliterate all shadows, even the social taboo against unwed motherhood.

Eddie Fisher strikes me as a bit flat in his role, there for his singing ability and marriage to Reynolds and not for his acting talent, but I might be biased by all that biographical baggage. More amusing than Fisher are the supporting players, especially Adolphe Menjou as the aspiring grandfather and Una Merkel as Polly's understanding landlady. Both of their characters are more than ready to fit Dan up for fatherhood, with Merkel's landlady giving Dan a very shrewd squint when she sees him and the baby together. Menjou lands the funniest line of the film when he exclaims, "I don't care who the father is, I'm the grandfather!" Tommy Noonan is also memorable as the irritating opportunist, Freddie, who refuses to be shaken off by Polly and hopes to benefit from her relationship with Dan. Nita Talbot has some fun scenes as Polly's friend, Mary, who helps to shoo Freddie away whenever he turns up to pester Polly at the store.

Bundle of Joy was directed by Norman Taurog, who won an Oscar for Skippy (1931) but is probably better remembered for Boys Town (1938). For more of the delightful Debbie Reynolds, see Singin' in the Rain (1952), Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), and The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). You'll find Eddie Fisher with his next wife, Elizabeth Taylor, in Butterfield 8 (1960), but after that his career fizzled. For more classic Christmas romance, try Holiday Affair (1949), It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947), Christmas in Connecticut (1945), and The Bishop's Wife (1947).

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Silver Screen Standards at Classic Movie Hub

If you enjoy my classic movie posts here at Virtual Virago, you might also enjoy my new column, Silver Screen Standards, at the fabulous Classic Movie Hub. Each month I have a new post there about a different film, star, genre, or other topic. So far I've written about The Wizard of Oz (1939), Margaret Rutherford, Boris Karloff, Lassie Come Home (1943), and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), with more posts to come every month in 2020. I'm delighted to be part of the CMH community and have really enjoyed reaching new readers with the Silver Screen Standards column.

While you're visiting CMH, be sure to check out regular columns by the other fantastic contributors to the site, including Noir Nook by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, Classic Movie Travels by Annette Bochenek, and Silents are Golden by Lea Stans. You'll find a full list of the CMH monthly columnists here!

My next post for Classic Movie Hub will be about the significance of the kitten in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). I'll also be posting more this month here at Virtual Virago - my move to a new house in October has kept me away from the computer much of the fall, but things have settled down now!

Monday, October 21, 2019

Tallulah Bankhead's Huntsville Roots: Maple Hill Cemetery

Tallulah Bankhead was born in Huntsville, Alabama, on January 31, 1902, and evidence of her Huntsville roots can still be seen around town, even though the infamous stage and screen star is long departed. There are numerous places and historical markers bearing witness to her family's impact on the city, but one of the more somber sites is the grave of Tallulah's mother, Adelaide Eugenia Bankhead, who died shortly after Tallulah's birth. Mrs. Bankhead is buried at Maple Hill Cemetery near Huntsville's historic district and downtown, not far from the house where Tallulah entered the world and her mother left it.

Perhaps Tallulah's life might have been different had her mother lived. Perhaps the early loss, which devastated her father, William, drove some of the darker elements of Tallulah's personality. It's impossible to say for sure, but knowing the dizzying heights and terrible lows of the actress' life one can't help but wonder when standing beside her mother's grave. In 1902 the infant Tallulah was baptized next to her mother's coffin, and she and her elder sister, Eugenia, were packed off to be raised by their paternal grandmother, their maternal grandmother having also died just after giving birth to their mother. Tallulah's mother was just 22 years old when she died; Tallulah died too soon at 66, but she packed a dozen lifetimes of success and suffering into those 44 years her mother never had.

Tallulah returns to Huntsville each year in spirit as one of the resident "ghosts" of the Maple Hill Cemetery Stroll, though she herself is buried in Maryland, where her sister lived. You'll find a costumed performer inhabiting the role of the iconic star near her mother's grave, waving a long cigarette holder and holding forth about her family and her own legendary exploits. The event is well worth a visit if you're in the area.

For more posts about Tallulah, see "Southern Voices on the Silver Screen," "Classic Films in Focus: LIFEBOAT (1944)," and "Classic Films in Focus: 101 DALMATIANS (1961)."

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

It's Alive! Touring the Kirk Hammett Collection

Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett is a dedicated classic horror and science fiction fan who is sharing his love for these movies through a touring exhibit of posters and other artifacts from his personal collection. "It's Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection" is currently on exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, where I caught up with it earlier this month for a delightful tour of gorgeous posters for some of of my all-time favorite films.

Hammett's collection features some amazing posters, including art for Frankenstein (1931), Island of Lost Souls (1932) Dracula's Daughter (1936), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and dozens of other films. The exhibit organizes the posters by film, era, genre, or star so that groupings have a common theme of some sort, with the major monsters and stars getting special areas that focus on them. The displays also include some three dimensional items like props, costumes, and several of Hammett's custom horror themed guitars. Particularly fun are the excellent wax figures of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff wearing costumes from their films. The exhibit stages a number of items so visitors can take selfies with them, which makes the experience even more fun.

My sister and I were the first people to visit the exhibit on our morning at the ROM, which allowed us plenty of space to take photos and talk about the movies. A true classic horror enthusiast can easily spend an hour in the exhibit, but it's small enough to tour in about 30 minutes if you're pressed for time. During our visit the accompanying soundtrack was a Hammett instrumental cover of Blue Oyster Cult's "Nosferatu," which played with a video in the section displaying Hammett's guitars. Because the exhibit was empty when we arrived I could hear the creepy, familiar opening notes of the song perfectly, which cast a tingle of delicious dread over the whole exhibit.

If you're able to visit Toronto in the near future, the Kirk Hammett exhibit is absolutely worth the trip and the extra admission price. The exhibit will remain at the ROM until January 5, 2020. It will then move to the Columbia Museum of Art in South Carolina and be available there from February 15 until May 17, 2020. If you can't get to the exhibit in person there's a gorgeous photo book of the collection available on Amazon for $20.97, which is a great deal compared to the amount you'd pay for it at one of the museum shops.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Classic Films in Focus: HANDS OF THE RIPPER (1971)

Hands of the Ripper (1971) is a gory Hammer horror foray into the much visited territory of Jack the Ripper mythology, this time focusing on the serial killer's imaginary daughter and the effects of being a witness to acts of extreme violence. While it has many of the customary elements of classic Hammer - namely bloody killings, a lush Victorian atmosphere, and buxom girls in various stages of undress - it comes up sadly short in the narrative department, mainly because its focus on Freudian psychoanalysis and compulsive behavior takes precedence over any effort to make its most important character actually interesting. The result is disappointing because Hands of the Ripper could be a much more sophisticated and engaging story than the one we get, in which a milquetoast and often catatonic girl suddenly becomes a killer every time the right stimuli occur.

Directed by Peter Sasdy, the film follows the psychologically damaged Anna (Angharad Rees) as she leaves a trail of corpses behind her. The daughter of Jack the Ripper, Anna witnessed her father murdering her mother but grew up an orphan with no memory of her past identity. Her murderous impulses are triggered when her employer, a fraudulent medium, accidentally recreates the stimuli that Anna experienced during her mother's gruesome death, but Anna is spirited away and protected by Dr. Pritchard (Eric Porter), who wants to study her using Freud's psychological methods. Soon members of Pritchard's own household are turning up dead, but the doctor cares more about his research than Anna's well-being or the lives of other people.

Visually there's a lot to like about Hands of the Ripper, from the flashing lights that mesmerize Anna to the delirious climax in the Whispering Gallery of St. Paul's Cathedral. The scenes of violence grow increasingly dreadful with each occurrence thanks to the persistent formula that stimulates them, with viewers waiting in suspense for the inevitable, innocent kiss that causes Anna to strike with the nearest sharp object. The scenes featuring prostitutes - and there's no shortage of them - are colorful and energetic in their earthiness, contrasting splendidly with the buttoned up, secret depravity of respectable gentlemen like Pritchard, Dysart, and even Jack himself.

Unfortunately, Anna remains a tabula rasa, a cipher without agency or personality, throughout the film, and outside her brief flashes of violence she does nothing at all. She's more like Conrad Veidt's sleepwalker in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) than Laird Cregar's tortured killer in Hangover Square (1945), and that's a shame because the monstrous is always more powerful when the viewer pities and understands the struggle of the person who becomes monstrous. Anna never puts up much of a fight and barely even registers that anything has happened, which leaves the viewer with Pritchard as the only character whose motivations can be pondered to any degree. Pritchard, however, is deeply unsympathetic from the moment he lets Anna murder the housemaid and then covers it up without warning his family that he's brought a dangerous, uncontrollable killer into their home. His behavior smacks of paternalism and misogyny, especially because it doesn't seem to matter to him that Anna's victims are all women... until, of course, he finds himself on the receiving end of her violent compulsion. Pritchard, Dysart, and Jack all use Anna for their own ends, making all of them far worse monsters than the girl who never has any say in her own fate, but we don't feel like justice is served or karma balanced by the ending because the original author of all this suffering, Jack himself, cannot be held accountable for his crimes.

If you're interested in more developed female monsters and killers in other classic horror films, try Dracula's Daughter (1936), Cat People (1942), or The Vampire Lovers (1970). Peter Sasdy also directed the Hammer films, Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) and Countess Dracula (1971). Eric Porter is best remembered for his leading role in the TV miniseries, The Forsyte Saga, while Angharad Rees starred in the 1970s TV series, Poldark. For more classic movies inspired by Jack the Ripper, you might try The Lodger (there are two films with the title, from 1927 and 1944, and both are about the Ripper) or the 1979 Sherlock Holmes thriller, Murder by Decree.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Classic Films in Focus: THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK (1962)

I'm a sucker for early 60s Gothic horror, whether it's Corman, Hammer, or Bava, which means my opinion of a picture like Riccardo Freda's The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962) is inclined to be positive in spite of its shortcomings. Yes, it's about a necrophiliac surgeon who like his bedmates totally incapacitated, and the dubbing is pretty ridiculous, as well, but it has that lurid charm that Gothic horrors of the period so often possess, plus there's Barbara Steele starring as the hapless second wife who little suspects her husband's sordid appetites. Suffused with references and allusions to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, as one might guess from the title, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock provides the viewer with ample entertainment and plenty to parse in terms of its relationships to other films.

Robert Flemyng plays Professor Bernard Hichcock, a London surgeon with a secret passion for dead women. His wife, Margaret (Maria Teresa Vianello, credited as Maria Fitzgerald), accommodates his desires by allowing him to anesthetize her before sex in a boudoir made up like a funeral chamber. Unfortunately for Margaret, Hichcock overdoses her one night and then leaves the country shortly after her interment in the family vault. Twelve years later he returns to London with his new wife, Cynthia (Barbara Steele), and resumes his medical practice as well as his lust for corpses. Cynthia soon suspects that Margaret is haunting the house with sinister plans for her replacement, but when Bernard discovers the truth about Margaret he makes lethal plans of his own to restore his first wife to her former place and beauty.

As Budd Wilkins observes in his Slant review of the film's Blu-ray release, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock borrows heavily from Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), with nods to Suspicion (1941) and Vertigo (1958), as well, but there's also a strong connection to 19th century literary works like Robert Browning's "Porphyria's Lover" and Edgar Allan Poe's "Ligeia." (For a discussion of Gothic texts and the theme of necrophilia, see my essay, "Gothic Angels: The Good, Dead Girl in Robert Browning's 'Porphyria's Lover' and Alice Cooper's 'Cold Ethyl'.") Bernard's obsession with beautiful corpses is the logical, if extreme, endpoint of the Victorian fantasy of the angel in the house. Margaret is more than happy to play this role for him, while Cynthia resists it, which puts her in danger of being made a corpse for real by the forces that seek to uphold the patriarchy's rule that women be utterly passive. While Cynthia has a bad habit of fainting every time something interesting happens, she is nonetheless determined not to succumb to the threats around her without a struggle, and the audience's sympathy lies entirely with her.

As is often the case with horror, the villain has the best role, and Robert Flemyng makes Hichcock an intriguing study in masculine selfishness, self-loathing, and irresistible sexual desire. The best scenes are the ones where Hichcock struggles against his urges but inevitably yields to them, drawn like a moth to a flame whenever a beautiful corpse lies nearby. He's the quintessential Victorian gentleman of horror, all propriety in public but pulsing with depravity in private, a Jekyll and Hyde figure whose hidden nature Cynthia doesn't suspect until it's almost too late. As the film opens we see him ruthlessly assault a grave digger in order to molest the body being buried; later, he performs surgery to repair the damage done to the very same man, with admiring proteges and a grateful family never dreaming that the same hands both harmed and healed. His duality makes him fascinating, though not particularly sympathetic, since even at his best he's a condescending, patriarchal ruler who expects everyone around him to obey his commands, whether they be student, servant, or wife. When Cynthia tries to tell him about the mysterious presence in the house he gaslights her and says that her nerves are coming undone, but once he knows it's real he just intensifies the gaslighting to keep Cynthia from realizing her peril. That alone makes him a monster, but his mad plan to restore Margaret at Cynthia's expense shows just how unbalanced he becomes by the film's fiery conclusion.

Director Riccardo Freda, who often worked under the name Robert Hampton, also made Lust of the Vampire (1957), Caltiki, The Immortal Monster (1959), and The Ghost (1963). Don't miss scream queen Barbara Steele in Black Sunday (1960) and Pit and the Pendulum (1961); she also stars - this time as a character named Margaret Hichcock! - in The Ghost, which makes it an obvious second choice for a Freda double feature. You'll find Robert Flemyng in Funny Face (1957), The Deadly Affair (1967), and The Blood Beast Terror (1968).

Monday, September 16, 2019

A Quick Trip to TIFF19

I've always wanted to attend film festivals, but they're few and far between where I live, and the timing has never worked out for me to get to the big one for classic movie fans, TCMFF. Luckily, my visit to my sister's new home in Toronto this month coincided with the second weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival. Even though this was just a quick visit to the festival, I enjoyed it very much, and it has only whetted my appetite to do more.

We didn't plan my trip far enough in advance to buy passes for the whole festival, but we were able to get tickets to see A Bump Along the Way, a comedic drama directed by Shelly Love and set in Northern Ireland. The story follows a middle aged, divorced mother and her teenage daughter, who both have a lot to handle when the mother unexpectedly gets pregnant after a one night stand. Both my sister and I loved this film and were so glad that we got to see it, particularly because it's not the sort of movie that's likely to turn up in wide release in the US. The film was a serendipitous discovery for both of us, which is exactly what you want to get from a film festival. We were sorry that we weren't able to get tickets for the big, sexy headliners like Jojo Rabbit, Knives Out, and Dolemite is My Name, but we know we'll get the chance to see all of those later.

Speaking of Dolemite, we did get to see a wonderful costume and prop exhibit for the film in the TIFF Reference Library, which we didn't know was there until we wandered in. We thought we were going to see the free, permanent exhibit, so the costume display was another surprise treat. They even had free sunglasses for visitors to take home!

In the TIFF Shop we found lots of tempting books and festival swag, but in light of my current downsizing efforts I limited myself to a Midnight Madness t-shirt and a small festival poster. They did have an excellent selection of books, however, and someone in a more acquisitive stage of life might well fill a suitcase with purchases. The shop was jammed full of customers when we visited, as were all of the venues and streets in the festival area. It's always exciting to look around and see lots of people who love the same thing you love, and all around us festival goers were chatting about the movies they had seen, the movies they were going to see, and the movies they wanted to see but couldn't get tickets.

Our day at TIFF might have been brief, but it was packed with delights. I think even a short visit to a festival is definitely worth it, and the festival experience was a highlight of my trip. With my sister now settled in Toronto for the foreseeable future, I'm optimistic that I'll get to return to TIFF and enjoy more of its offerings next year!

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Classic Films in Focus: THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932)

Of course it's a dark and stormy night when Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, and Melvyn Douglas stumble into a strange old house whose occupants are even more menacing than the raging floods outside, and director James Whale milks the atmosphere for all it's worth in this delightfully dire horror comedy. The Old Dark House (1932) delivers on all points, with thrills and giggles in equal measure thanks to the performers who make up the cast, including Boris Karloff, Ernest Thesiger, Charles Laughton, and Eva Moore.

Massey and Stuart play married couple Philip and Margaret Waverton, who, along with their traveling companion, Penderel (Douglas), literally wash up at the old dark house during a massive storm. They're not exactly welcomed in by the occupants, a strange brother and sister whose other family members haunt the upper floors of the gloomy mansion, but they settle in to stay the night and are soon joined by fellow refugees Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and Gladys (Lilian Bond). Things take a turn for the worse when the looming, mute butler, Morgan (Boris Karloff), gets drunk and releases the house's most dangerous resident, a pyromaniac murderer called Saul (Brember Wills).

If you're already familiar with Whale's sense of humor from Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), you'll appreciate more of the same in The Old Dark House (1932), especially with the crusty, deaf Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore) and her brother, the fey, nervous Horace (Ernest Thesiger). The brief appearance of their father, Sir Roderick, turns out to be a treat, too; the whole family is mad as hatters, which keeps the reluctant house guests in a constant state of confusion. Karloff's shambling Morgan is a scarier version of Lurch from The Addams Family; he spends a lot of time trying to molest Margaret, who has inexplicably changed out of her wet traveling clothes into the least practical evening dress one could possibly wear in a cold, damp lunatic asylum pretending to be a family home. The sense of impending doom is also lightened by the whirlwind romance of Penderel and Gladys, with Penderel seeming to nurse something of a foot fetish where his new love interest is concerned.

The atmosphere and cinematography also make this film a lot of fun, with fabulous camera shots lingering on Morgan's scarred face in closeup or building terrible suspense with just Saul's hand at the top of the stairs appearing in the frame. There's plenty of striking storm scenery, too, especially as the Wavertons wend their hazardous way through the deluge. Flickering candles and uncertain electrical lights add to the sense of dread; nobody wants the lights to go out in this house. The Gothic ambience and focus on crumbling heaps recall Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" but also Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto, and Whale shares Walpole's characteristic mingling of the ludicrous and the sublime. The joke of the title reveals the film's keen awareness of its place in relationship to earlier Gothic horror; the "old dark house" motif was a cliche of the genre long before 1932, but Whale's direction is always winking at us about the familiarity of it all.

Whale, Karloff, and Thesiger reunited for Bride of Frankenstein, while Gloria Stuart also stars in Whale's adaptation of The Invisible Man. Melvyn Douglas is not generally remembered for his horror films, but you'll also find him in The Vampire Bat (1933), and, much later, The Changeling (1980) and Ghost Story (1981). While Charles Laughton plays a solid fellow in this film, he really gets to work the horror vein in Island of Lost Souls (1932) and The Strange Door (1951). Don't miss Raymond Massey doing his own Karloff inspired turn in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). William Castle made his own version of The Old Dark House in 1963, so you could make a double feature of it by watching both adaptations of the novel by J.B. Priestley.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019


I first saw Phantom of the Paradise (1974) a few years ago and immediately became obsessed with it; I downloaded the entire soundtrack and listened to it constantly for weeks. I was delighted to be able to revisit the film this week thanks to the Shudder streaming service, where the film is currently available. If you have a subscription to Shudder, put Phantom of the Paradise on your watchlist and make time for it while it's still in the current rotation of offerings.

My second viewing of the picture left me just as impressed with the wry dark humor and literate sense of horror that the picture conveys. Brian De Palma's cult classic holds up extremely well, especially because it deals so provocatively with the same timeless themes that inspired Faust, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. This time I introduced my eighteen year old to the film, and she was just as entranced as I was; I'm hoping she will spread appreciation for it like a virus when she heads to college this fall.

You could easily build a whole mini film festival or graduate course around Phantom of the Paradise, starting with the 1925 Phantom of the Opera and F.W. Murnau's 1926 adaptation of Faust. (For a really short course on the Faust themes, you can also just watch the 1978 appearance of Alice Cooper on The Muppet Show - it covers all the basics.) Add in some later Phantom adaptations - the 1943 version with Claude Rains or even the 1989 version with Robert Englund - and then mix in some other great horror films depicting disfigured artists, like House of Wax (1953). One of the many great things about Phantom of the Paradise is the way it evokes and dovetails with so many other films.

While I appreciate the niche focus of Shudder, I'm often disappointed by its lack of classic horror; the appearance of Phantom of the Paradise has helped to make up for that limitation, and I hope this brilliantly bizarre cult favorite will remain in its catalog long enough for lots of new fans to find it.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Three Favorite Movies in STRANGER THINGS 3

*Warning! Mild spoilers ahead, but only related to minor incidents. No major plot points are discussed.

The third season of Stranger Things continues its love affair with all things 80s, including the movies of that decade and the heyday of the local video rental store, which gives the final episode of the season an opportunity to name drop a number of films that reveal aspects of the characters' personalities. A visit to the video store presents fan favorite Steve and new character Robin with an opportunity to name their three favorite films as a test of their movie knowledge and personal taste. Not surprisingly, Steve goes with some pretty obvious recent choices, while Robin plays the movie snob card by naming three classic films.

Robin (played by Maya Hawke) appears throughout the season as a new kind of girl in the character mix, but one with her own 80s movie roots. She's the edgy, prickly, smart girl who doesn't care about popularity or the usual high school status symbols. Sarcastic and bored with her job at Scoops Ahoy, she torments Steve but also proves herself to be a useful, loyal friend to the former high school golden boy. When asked to name her three favorite movies, Robin lists The Apartment (1960), The Hidden Fortress (1958), and Children of Paradise (1945). Her picks are especially esoteric for a teenager living in small town America in the mid 1980s, where it would have been difficult to see any of those three pictures, but they're intended to show her as a "serious" cineaste who leans toward foreign classics and film school standards. They immediately win the approval of the video store clerk, as well.

Steve's taste is, as Robin admits, "pedestrian" in comparison with her own. His picks, after much stumbling, are Animal House (1978), Return of the Jedi (1983), and Back to the Future (1985), the last of which Steve had just caught parts of during his misadventures with Robin, Dustin, and Erica. We've seen Steve grow a lot as a character since his initial appearance in Season One, but his first choice of Animal House reminds us of the kind of guy Steve used to be and might have remained if not for his experiences with the other Hawkins kids. He doesn't know the names of the specific episodes of Star Wars, either, and he loses even more credibility with the clerk by saying he likes "the one with the teddy bears" instead of going with the more fanboy approved The Empire Strikes Back. Ironically, Robin has included in her list Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, one of the films that George Lucas heavily borrowed from for A New Hope, thus showing that the best approach is to name not an actual Star Wars film at all but to show your depth of knowledge by picking one of its inspirations.

In a season packed with movie references, especially shout outs to horror films like Day of the Dead (1985), The Thing (1982), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 and 1978 are equally relevant), and Alien (1979), along with a heavy dose of The Terminator (1984), the final episode's video store scene is a chance for the show to engage the cultural significance of movies very directly and mention some films that fall outside its horror/action/80s frame of reference. Robin's list is more about a hardcore movie buff's idea of what matters, but Steve's list is more in tune with the specific cultural moment in which the show takes place.

Honestly, in retrospect, they're both perfectly good lists, just reflective of very different movie watching moods and perspectives. When I was 18, back in 1990, I certainly hadn't yet seen any of Robin's picks, but I had seen all three of Steve's (I only saw Animal House because I was in college by then and away from parents who strictly cut off my access to R rated films). My top three would probably have been something like The Princess Bride (1987), The Lost Boys (1987), and, yes, Return of the Jedi (I also like the teddy bears. Fight me.)

What were your three favorite movies when you were 18? Were they "classics" or things you had only recently seen for the first time? How does your knowledge of movies - from the 80s or otherwise - enhance your enjoyment of a show like Stranger Things? I'd love to see your thoughts in the comments!

PS - If you're interested in my early teenage experiences with serious cinema watching back in the 1980s, check out "My First Summer of Cinema - 1988."

Monday, July 1, 2019

Classic Films in Focus: CASANOVA BROWN (1944)

What does a viewer expect going into a movie that features multiple marriages, a burning mansion, a kidnapped baby, and a clueless new father on a crash course in infant care? Hilarity seems like a reasonable answer, but that's not what we get with Casanova Brown (1944). While its plot summary sounds like truly outrageous material for a screwball comedy, the end result is quite tame, with far quieter performances than one might expect in a story about characters who take everything to extremes. It's not a terrible film, but it's by no means a great example of the genre, especially when compared to Gary Cooper's better known foray into screwball comedy in the hilarious Ball of Fire (1941). Here Cooper lacks the high energy of a proper screwball heroine to react to, even though he has dueling leading ladies in Teresa Wright and Anita Louise. In the end, Casanova Brown is a modestly amusing picture that offers an instructive example of what makes screwball tick by leaving out an essential component.

Cooper plays Casanova Brown, a domesticated descendant of that other Casanova who stumbles into marriage rather more often than he should. On the eve of his wedding to the cosmopolitan Madge (Anita Louise), Cass discovers that his short-lived union with Isabel (Teresa Wright) has produced a child, whom Isabel plans to put up for adoption. Enamored at first sight of his newborn daughter and horrified by the idea of her being given away, Cass kidnaps the baby from the hospital and attempts to care for her while holed up in a local hotel. Meanwhile, both Madge and Isabel are searching for him with their fathers in tow.

There's certainly plenty of chaos and reversal on hand to fuel a screwball comedy. Cooper's Casanova is no Italian adventurer, much less a predatory seducer, but he still ends up at the altar with three different women. He seems to have a preternatural ability to create crises, as he does when his hastily hidden cigarette reduces Isabel's family home to a smoldering ruin, thus provoking the argument that ends his brief marriage. His reaction to Isabel's plan for their baby is to impersonate a doctor, make off with the infant, and then enlist half the hotel staff in his obsessive baby nursing efforts. Whatever the situation, Casanova Brown always seems to make exactly the wrong choice at the worst possible moment, and most of the film's best scenes rely on that disastrous trait.

The problem lies with the development of the two female characters, neither of whom clicks with Cooper or inhabits her role convincingly. I love Teresa Wright in other films, especially Shadow of a Doubt (1943), but here she seems so painfully young as a love interest for Cooper, and she's far too wounded and pitiful to be a proper screwball heroine. Her Isabel is a sad victim of her parents' foolishness, her groom's stubbornness, and her own inability to stand up for herself. Madge, meanwhile, who ought to be a scheming socialite man eater of the first order, is never even remotely awful enough to warrant being left at the altar. Moreover, Anita Louise looks far more age appropriate as a mate for Cooper than Wright (who was actually in her mid-20s in 1944 but looks so much like a kid that even Casanova mentions it), and one has to wonder about a man who prefers a childlike bride over an actual adult. The only real case made against Madge is the constant harping of her father (Frank Morgan) about how controlling and tight-fisted the Ferris women are, and it's clear that his resentment stems from his own greedy desire to run through his wife's fortune at the utmost speed. Louise might have made a more villainous Madge if the script provided any fodder, but Wright is flatly out of place, even if the role hadn't been so weakly written. Screwball needs screwy women to shake up the social order and disrupt expectations, and when they aren't present the picture falls flat.

Aside from Ball of Fire, try iconic screwball comedies like My Man Godfrey (1936), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Midnight (1939), or The Lady Eve (1941) to see the fireworks when everything goes right. Sam Wood, who directed Casanova Brown, was on firmer ground with more melodramatic material like Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), Kitty Foyle (1940), and Kings Row (1942), each of which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Director. Gary Cooper won Oscars for Sergeant York (1941) and High Noon (1952), while Teresa Wright won the Best Supporting Actress award for Mrs. Miniver (1942). You can see both of them, once again paired romantically, in The Pride of the Yankees (1942).

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Classic Movie Style: Cary Grant's Sunglasses

On my way home from a trip to the UK last week I happened to flip through the Holland Herald on our KLM flight from Edinburgh to Amsterdam, and I was delighted to find this little article about chic sunglasses inspired by those worn by Cary Grant in the 1959 film, North by Northwest. Cary Grant is still a style icon, and Oliver Peoples is celebrating his timeless cool with these classy glasses. You can find the glasses in both regular optical and sunglasses versions on the Oliver Peoples website. Unfortunately for us classic movie fans who aren't as rich as a Hollywood mogul, the glasses run from $380 to $475, but they'll look fabulous on anybody who can afford them.

Oliver Peoples also offers eyewear inspired by other style icons and classic Hollywood stars. There's a pair of glasses created in collaboration with the Peck Estate celebrating Gregory Peck's signature style in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), so you can wear spectacles just like Atticus Finch if you're so inclined.

Sadly, I didn't see any glasses designed for women with classic Hollywood connections, but I'd love to find a pair inspired by Edith Head's iconic eyewear or those worn by Marilyn Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). What other stars or characters in glasses would you like to see celebrated? Maybe Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound (1945) or the fabulously four-eyed Dorothy Malone in The Big Sleep (1946)? They definitely make glasses look good!

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Richard III and Disinformation in TOWER OF LONDON (1939)

One probably doesn't go looking for timely political commentary in a film like Tower of London (1939), which offers a mashup of history and horror in its retelling of the bloody rise and fall of England's most reviled monarch. Much of the plot is familiar to viewers thanks to broad cultural awareness of Shakespeare's version and, perhaps, renewed 21st century interest that resulted from the discovery of Richard's bones in 2012. Tower of London, which was released in 1939, is very much a Hollywood vision of the Wars of the Roses, with Basil Rathbone starring as the murderously ambitious Richard. It generally favors the lurid and romantic over the strictly historical, a bent indicated by the presence of supporting players like Boris Karloff and Vincent Price. It's striking, then, to recognize the way in which this film depicts the insidious use of disinformation and a weaponized mob to influence political forces. Just like the hidden political operatives who manipulate our elections today, Richard III and his henchman, Mord, utilize a massive, medieval version of social media to undermine their opponents and assist their own ambitions.

We might not, at first, recognize the importance of the disinformation campaign to Richard's ascent. Shocking physical violence often overshadows the subtler efforts that propel the repugnant royal toward the throne. In the film, Richard has his enemies executed, drowns one brother in a vat of malmsey, has his young nephews brutally murdered, and conspires in the deaths of numerous other rivals. While he is a skilled swordsman, he normally avoids holding the murder weapons himself, preferring instead to have Mord commit the crimes or to fabricate grounds to get his enemies sent to the scaffold. Richard's general preference throughout is for the most underhanded, devious means of accomplishing his goals; his double dealing keeps everyone around him off balance and guessing at his true motives.

That inclination toward secretive, secondhand villainy fits perfectly with Richard's deployment of the rabble to spread lies and gossip that support his rise to power. We see in the film how Richard conducts this propaganda campaign, with Mord once again as his intermediary. Richard gives Mord the funding and the message to circulate, which Mord then takes to a collection of beggars who function as his network of infiltrators and spies. Somewhat comically, we see the mob rehearse their assigned lines under Mord's direction and then repeat them as they pretend to be casual spectators interspersed among the crowds. They work exactly like modern Russian agitators and other operatives on social media, taking their orders from the top and then presenting themselves as independent, sincere peers to the unsuspecting community. Their misinformation and propaganda spread through the kingdom until citizens rally in support of Richard and demand that he be crowned king, never suspecting that their actions have been carefully manipulated for that very end. The people affected by Richard's lies don't seem to realize - or care - that he has the blood of so many people on his hands.

Fortunately for history, Richard's propaganda is only temporarily successful, and, as we now know, his thoroughly abused corpse ended up buried beneath a Leicester car park. Tower of London ends on a positive note, with Queen Elyzabeth (Barbara O'Neil) rejoicing that she has saved her daughters from Richard's murderous reign and will one day see an heir to her line once more on the English throne (in reality, her eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, would become Queen to Henry VII and the mother of Henry VIII). The bloodshed and damage, however, were not undone for the many who lost their lives during Richard's rise and fall, and modern viewers can't assume that a new Henry Tudor will show up to right the ship of state in our current global political crisis. While we might rightly relish the horror-tinged spectacle that Tower of London offers, we should also take to heart its dire message about the insidious efficiency of misinformation and the deliberate manipulation of the masses through whisper campaigns, whether they're conducted in a marketplace or on Facebook. Now is the winter of our discontent, indeed, and Richard's modern counterparts are hard at work to ensure that no glorious summer follows.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Classic Films in Focus: DARK WATERS (1944)

Somewhere between Lifeboat (1944) and Gaslight (1944) lies the plot of Dark Waters (1944), in which Merle Oberon stars as the survivor of a U-boat attack whose fragile sanity is tested by a collection of nefarious characters. All three pictures appeared in the same year, but the first two are decidedly better films, while Dark Waters holds interest primarily for its cast. Joining Oberon for this wartime swamp Gothic are Franchot Tone, Thomas Mitchell, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Fay Bainter, with Rex Ingram making sporadic but memorable appearances as a former employee who suspects that something is amiss at the old plantation. Dark Waters fails to deliver enough creepy atmosphere to achieve its Gothic ambitions, and the ending is more a hard stop than a proper conclusion, but Oberon is fascinating to watch as she tries to figure out whether she's going or being driven insane.

Oberon's perpetually imperiled heroine is Leslie Calvin, whose family flees the Japanese descent on Batavia (present day Jakarta) only to fall victim to a German U-boat attack at sea. Leslie survives many days in an open boat before ending up in a New Orleans hospital. After months of convalescence she travels to a nearby plantation owned by her aunt and uncle, where she hopes to recover from her post traumatic stress. She meets a handsome doctor (Franchot Tone), who quickly falls for her, but everything else goes awry as she is constantly exposed to situations that recall her ordeal and unsettle her sense of reality. Leslie begins to suspect that the manipulative Mr. Sydney (Thomas Mitchell) and his sidekick, Cleeve (Elisha Cook, Jr.), are tormenting her on purpose, but to what end?

Gothic mystery is a fine setting for Oberon's exotic beauty, but she gets better material to work with in both Wuthering Heights (1939) and The Lodger (1944), where her characters have more energy and more successfully developed plots. Franchot Tone's country doctor, George, doesn't spark much chemistry, but he seems to be the only available man in the area aside from Elisha Cook Jr.'s creepy Cleeve. It doesn't take two minutes to recognize both Cleeve and Sydney as the villains of this piece, and Thomas Mitchell has a handful of effectively menacing scenes, but Fay Bainter's Aunt Emily is neither disturbing nor reassuring, and it's hard to justify John Qualen's presence as Uncle Norbert, since he barely comes out of his room to utter a few lines at dinner. Fine actors inhabiting the background don't get enough to do, either, especially Rex Ingram and Odette Myrtil, who turns up as the mother of a large, friendly Cajun family.

There's enough potential in Dark Waters to see the movie it could be, and that warrants a viewing, especially for contrast with moodier explorations of similar plots and atmospheres. The Louisiana bayou makes an evocative setting, and the premise of Leslie's very justified anxiety about water and boats creates numerous opportunities for her to be tormented. We know from the beginning where the third act of this story will inevitably end (hence the title), but when the film finally reaches that point it seems in a hurry to wrap things up, and quite a few loose ends are left dangling. The pacing is more of a shock because there had apparently been plenty of time to linger on an earlier fais do-do sequence that adds nothing to the story. It's hard to say if director Andre De Toth or the writers are to blame for these issues, but De Toth certainly made tighter pictures over the course of his career.

Do pause a moment to appreciate the underused Nina Mae McKinney as the housemaid, Florella, who unfortunately disappears from the picture in the third act. For more of Merle Oberon, try The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), or That Uncertain Feeling (1941). See earlier roles for Franchot Tone in Bombshell (1933), Dancing Lady (1933), and Dangerous (1935). Thomas Mitchell is best remembered for more sympathetic characters in Stagecoach (1939), Gone with the Wind (1939), and It's a Wonderful Life (1946), while Elisha Cook, Jr. offers more of his usual type in The Maltese Falcon (1941), I Wake Up Screaming (1941), and The Killing (1956). For a more thoughtful and provocative treatment of a similar atmosphere, try I Walked with a Zombie (1943), or, for some really excessive gaslighting bayou horror, go for Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964).

* As of February 2019, DARK WATERS is available for streaming on Amazon Prime, but the print is rather muddy, especially in the outdoor night sequences.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

2018 Movie Log in Review

2018 was an exceptionally busy year for me beyond my usual activities, so it's no shock that I didn't watch as many films this year as I have in previous years. A part-time volunteer effort became a full-time job on top of homeschooling my high schooler and keeping up with other volunteer work, but I learned a lot and am really proud of the work I did in 2018, and I know most of the classic movies will still be waiting for me when I can get back to them, even if the dearly departed FilmStruck no longer graces my Roku homescreen.

The total number of films watched for 2018 is 114, which is really not much lower than my 2017 count of 120. Hopefully I'll get those numbers back up in 2019!

Here's the full list, including repeat viewings, for 2018.

The Long Hair of Death (1964)
Brides of Dracula (1960)
Crimson Peak (2015)
The Limehouse Golem (2017)
Calamity Jane (1953)
Mrs. Miniver (1942)
My Favorite Wife (1940)
East Side, West Side (1949)

The Shape of Water (2017)
The Lady Eve (1941)
Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Labyrinth (1986)
Dodge City (1939)
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Fallen Angel (1945)
Another Man's Poison (1951)
Black Panther (2018)
A Royal Night Out (2015)
Queen of Blood (1966)
The Monster of Phantom Lake (2006)
House of Ghosts (2012)
Dance, Girl, Dance (2017)
Coco (2017)

Ball of Fire (1941)
Decoy (1946)
Easter Parade (1948)
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Justice League (2017)
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Flash Gordon (1980)
The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963)
Crooked House (2017)
Ready Player One (2018)

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)
Sunshine Cleaning (2008)
Double Indemnity (1944)
Easy Virtue (2008)
Isle of Dogs (2018)
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Fiend without a Face (1958)
Fast and Furious (1939)

After the Thin Man (1936)

Found Footage 3D (2016)
Another Thin Man (1939)
All This and Heaven, Too (1940)
Black Panther (2018)
Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
Merry Andrew (1958)
The Wicker Man (1973)

Julia Misbehaves (1948)
Oceans 8 (2018)
Incredibles 2 (2018)
Queen Christina (1933)
Murder, She Said (1961)
The Ladykillers (1955)
Game Night (2018)

Whisky Galore! (1949)
Antman and the Wasp (2018)
Murder at the Gallop (1963)
The Time Machine (1960)
Panama Hattie (1942)
Blonde Crazy (1931)
Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)
To All the Boys I've Loved Before (2018)
The Man in the Iron Mask (1939)

Set It Up (2018)
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
Lady in the Lake (1946)
Sierra Burgess is a Loser (2018)
The Kid (1921)
Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
The Oblong Box (1969)
The Breakfast Club (1985)
The Man in Grey (1943)
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

The Set-Up (1949)
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)
Ball of Fire (1941)
Slice (2918)
High Spirits (1988)
The House That Dripped Blood (1971)
The Comedy of Terrors (1963)

The Devil's Bride (1968)
Tension (1949)
The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)
When Ladies Meet (1941)
HE Who Gets Slapped (1924)
Paper Moon (1973)
Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
Auntie Mame (1958)
Lili (1953)
Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)
White Christmas (1954)
Mamma Mia! (2008)
High Society (1956)
The Glass Slipper (1955)
Where East is East (1929)
Love, Actually (2003)

The Nutcracker (1993)
Beauty and the Beast (2017)
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)
A Christmas Story (1983)
Ghostbusters (1984)
Ghostbusters II (1989)
Scrooged (1988)
Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse (2018)
The Christmas Chronicles (2018)
Mary Poppins Returns (2018) 

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Classic Movie Tourism: King Kong on Broadway

Some 85 years after the great ape's original screen debut, King Kong has made a triumphant return to New York City, this time as the star of his own Broadway musical. There have been plenty of sequels, reboots, revisions, and reincarnations featuring the oversized cinema gorilla, but I've never seen anything quite like this version of the familiar tale. It's an amazing marriage of puppetry and performance that brings Kong to life in a completely new way while also issuing some loving correctives to the thornier aspects of the original film.

The result is truly breathtaking, even if the songs aren't quite as memorable as one might like. I didn't come out of King Kong humming any particular tune, but I did come out with a stunned sense of awe and a weepy teenager overcome by the emotional rapport the audience develops with the incredibly sympathetic Kong. The eponymous ape moves, grunts, and breathes like a living thing, but his soulful and expressive eyes are his most impressive feature. Once you see him, you believe in him, even though the talented puppeteers working his enormous body are always in view.

The new stage production keeps the setting and some of the primary characters from the 1933 film, namely the ape himself, heroine Ann Darrow, and ambitious filmmaker Carl Denham. It eliminates the heroic love interest so that the focus stays squarely on Ann and Kong, and this Ann doesn't need a big, strong man to come and rescue her anyway. She's a brave, kind, adventurous protagonist whose version of the famous Fay Wray scream is a war cry of empowerment rather than a distress signal. The musical also eliminates the racist elements of the movie - there are no human natives on this Skull Island - and goes one better by making Ann herself black. These changes sharpen the focus of the story and breathe new life into it, making this a Kong adventure that resonates with a broad modern audience.

The human performances also make this new incarnation worth catching while the original cast is still attached. Christiani Pitts is a firebrand Ann, feisty and capable, and she gives powerful voice to songs like "Queen of New York" and "The Wonder." Eric William Morris understands the slippery line required for the selfish but seductive Carl; we have to like him enough to see why Ann goes with him in the first place, but Carl is the closest the musical comes to a villain, since he's incapable of understanding the perspectives of Ann or Kong, much less appreciating that they might have equal claims to happiness and self-determination. Lumpy, played by Erik Lochtefeld, offers an antidote to Carl with his sadly sweet affection for Ann, though I couldn't tell if it was the character or the actor or both who strongly brought James Cromwell to mind during his scenes.

As a feminist with a lifelong love of classic movies, puppetry, and musicals, I'm probably the perfect audience for a show like King Kong, but even if you're only casually interested in one or two of those categories this is a production worth seeing. It offers a fresh and thoughtful take on a story most of us think we already know, and it shows how that story can continue to change and appeal to new audiences. 85 years later, King Kong is alive and well on Broadway, and I hope that this show will enjoy all of the success that it truly deserves. It's absolutely stunning, and my entire family loved it.

Related posts:

Classic Films in Focus: KING KONG (1933)

Classic Films in Focus: MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949)