Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Classic Films in Focus: A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1938)


I'm generally a fan of adaptations of Charles Dickens' holiday standard, even the loose and the weird ones, but the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol from MGM strikes me as a bowdlerized, lightweight entry into the category, pleasant enough but not really willing to get to the heart of the story lest it dampen the audience's Yuletide cheer. The desire to keep things merry leads the film to make big changes to the source material, expanding the roles of the likable Fred and Bob and downplaying the darkness of Scrooge's journey. If you're looking for a spooky, thoughtful, or faithful adaptation of A Christmas Carol, look elsewhere; this one is more punch and pudding than poltergeists and poverty. That said, classic movie fans will enjoy the presence of stars like Reginald Owen and the Lockhart family, and I'm sure this gentle, condensed version has its ardent admirers.

Owen leads the cast as the cranky old miser, Scrooge, who berates his cheerful nephew, Fred (Barry MacKay), for enjoying the season and then fires his mild-mannered clerk, Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart), for accidentally hitting him with a snowball on Christmas Eve. Throwing economy to the wind, Bob then surprises his family with a lavish holiday feast and makes the best of the celebration while Scrooge endures his encounters with the various spirits, starting with his deceased partner, Jacob Marley (Leo G. Carroll). Scrooge's ghostly guides repeatedly take him to spy on the domestic lives of Fred and Bob, which inspires Scrooge to become invested in their welfare and wish to be included in their happiness. After his supernatural adventure, Scrooge makes Fred a partner in his firm and rehires Bob at double his old salary, thus forming around himself a happy circle of families who will benefit from his newfound generosity.

I genuinely enjoy inventive revisions of the Dickens story, but I like for them to be transparent about it. You know The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) is going to take liberties with the story because most of the characters are Muppets, and even then it ends up being a surprisingly faithful version that leans into some of the darker elements of the narrative. The 1938 film, directed by Edwin L. Marin and with a screenplay by Hugo Butler, plays fast and loose with its source but keeps the atmosphere, the setting, and the most familiar bits of dialogue, making it seem like a faithful retelling even though it's not. For me the worst problem with this kind of adaptation of the Dickens text is its pandering to an audience that wants to identify with the sympathetic characters and not confront the uncomfortable truth that is central to the original story - WE ARE SCROOGE. Dickens didn't want or need to change the hearts of the Tiny Tims and Bobs and Freds; he wanted to confront the financially comfortable, the people who begrudgingly pay taxes and don't see "the poor" as their problem. If audiences don't feel called out by A Christmas Carol, then that version of the story is doing it wrong. Vastly enlarging the parts of Bob and Fred, diminishing Scrooge's meanness, and cutting out or radically altering whole chunks of the narrative lets the audience off the hook. We're left with a feel good story that won't even for a second consider the ruinous financial consequences of Bob's shopping spree. In Dickens' time the Cratchits would have been out on the street before New Year and the brood of children dispersed to the workhouses, as Dickens himself was when he was a child. The specter of real poverty haunted Dickens and haunts his stories, and it ought to be lurking under the robe of every Christmas Carol adaptation if one is going to do right by the story and its author, even if that particular scene about Ignorance and Want gets left out of most film versions.

I won't lay the blame for these shortcomings at the feet of the film's actors, for each of them embodies the watered-down versions of their characters as well as they can. Reginald Owen's Scrooge is pinched but never very terrible, and he melts like a snowball when confronted with his own childhood. He's a cranky, fussy, little old man, and Owen gives him lively feeling in his more childish moments. Barry MacKay's Fred is a handsome if conventional romantic lead, the first character we meet in the opening scene and thus more central to the story than is typical, while Gene Lockhart plays Bob Cratchit as genial, round, and playful. One of the more interesting tidbits of this picture is the presence of the gathered Lockhart family, including Gene's wife, Kathleen, as Mrs. Cratchit, and introducing classic TV favorite June Lockhart in an uncredited role as the Cratchits' daughter, Belinda. Of the ghosts I think the most convincing is character actor Leo G. Carroll as Marley, but Ann Rutherford makes an attractive Ghost of Christmas Past, even if she looks nothing like the apparition imagined by Dickens. Terry Kilburn's Tiny Tim doesn't seem particularly frail aside from his obligatory crutch; he's downright hearty as Tiny Tims go, but that decision is entirely in keeping with the rest of this picture, and thus it's no surprise that the end of the movie feels no need to reassure us about his continued existence.

As one of the most popular texts for adaptation, there's a Christmas Carol movie for every fan's taste, but the 1938 picture doesn't suit mine. Those who love it are welcome to it, but if it isn't for you, either, try the 1951 adaptation starring Alistair Sim, which is considered by many to be the gold standard of Christmas Carol movies, or the more recent live action versions starring George C. Scott (1984) or Patrick Stewart (1999). I'm deeply fond of the Muppet treatment, mainly for Michael Caine's dead serious performance as Scrooge and the fantastic puppetry that brings the Christmas Ghosts to life, but I also love the modernized Bill Murray version in Scrooged (1988) because it brings the themes of Dickens' story into the 20th century in a thoughtful, funny, and provocative way. There's also the fictionalized account of Dickens' experience writing the story in The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017), which takes its own liberties with Dickens' biography but works beautifully as a commentary on the heart of his story and the personal history that inspired it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Classic Films in Focus: BARBARELLA (1968)

I have frequently declared my affection for movies that are more entertaining than they are good, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that I enjoy the bizarre spectacle of Barbarella (1968) even if it makes no effort to make any sense. Produced by Dino De Laurentiis and directed by Roger Vadim, this adaptation of a French comic book is very much of its era, with sex on its mind and shag carpet covering every inch of its hedonistic heart. It doesn't take itself seriously, and the viewer shouldn't take it seriously, either, but its silliness is part of its appeal, along with the undeniable charms of the very lovely Jane Fonda as its eponymous heroine.

Fonda plays the enlightened space navigatrix who ventures onto a barbaric planet in search of the missing scientist, Durand-Durand (Milo O'Shea). Startled at first by the primitive sexual practices of the locals, she soon develops an appreciation for old-fashioned coitus and proceeds to enjoy encounters with a hairy child catcher (Ugo Tognazzi) and a beautiful blind angel (John Phillip Law) before reverting to her own culture's use of pills for a mind melding tryst with the freedom fighter Dildano (David Hemmings). She eventually makes her way to a city of pure evil where both Durand-Durand and the sadistic ruler, known as The Great Tyrant (Anita Pallenberg), attempt to destroy her and her new friends.

That's pretty much it for the plot, but along the way there are delightfully mad scenes that one only finds in truly weird science fiction films, like the opening spacesuit strip tease, the feral children and their toothy, flesh-eating dolls, the sled pulled by a giant manta ray, the BDSM city where dissipated locals have orgies and smoke "essence of man" from huge hookahs, and the seriously kinky looking pink spaceship that Barbarella pilots. You also get Marcel Marceau in a speaking role as Professor Ping, a casting choice that perfectly sums up the movie's illogical logic. Try to analyze it too much and the whole thing collapses like a house of cards, which makes it difficult to argue whether Barbarella is sexist for Fonda's objectification or feminist for liberating its heroine from mid-century ideals about female chastity and monogamy. It's most likely both at the same time, just like it's both a really bad movie and a really fun one for the right sort of audience, which is true about most pictures that achieve cult status. 

Whatever one's critical opinion of Barbarella, its title as a cult classic cannot be disputed, thanks to its own wacky but memorable images and its influence on the iconic 80s band, Duran Duran, who named their group for its villain and even doubled down on the connection with the 1997 single, "Electric Barbarella." The picture provides an intriguing alternative to the male dominated science fiction adventures that preceded it in both comics and film, including Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, but it also draws from a deep well of influence in the literary and cinematic history of women's sexual escapades, whether that be a pornographic classic like Fanny Hill (1748) or a Pre-Code picture like Madam Satan (1930). Jane Fonda would go on to earn seven Oscar nominations for Best Actress with two wins, which better fit with her legacy as the daughter of Henry Fonda, but her performance as Barbarella is no less entertaining for being out of line with the rest of her career, though it does overlap in several ways with her work in Cat Ballou (1965), another genre comedy that never takes itself seriously. 

If Barbarella is your idea of a good time, revel in the weird charms of other cult sci-fi classics like The Blob (1958), Fiend Without a Face (1958), The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962), or The Horror of Party Beach (1964). Terry Southern, who wrote the screenplay for Barbarella, earned Oscar nominations for his work on Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Easy Rider (1969), and he wrote the original novel that was adapted into the sex-fueled 1968 film, Candy, where you'll find a host of familiar stars and Anita Pallenberg. Roger Vadim, who was married to Fonda when they made Barbarella, also directed the 1960 vampire picture, Blood and Roses, which I recommend if you're a fan of variations on Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Classic Films in Focus: SABRINA (1954)

After her breakout success in Roman Holiday (1953), Audrey Hepburn cemented her image as a charming romantic heroine with Sabrina (1954), in which she plays a beautiful ingenue who pines for affection from a wealthy, older man. Along with its love story, Sabrina offers a very tame exploration of upstairs downstairs concerns unfolding in a world of extravagant power and privilege, but few people come to the movie looking for thoughtful class analysis. Instead, Sabrina offers the irresistible appeal of Hepburn herself and the love triangle created by William Holden and Humphrey Bogart as the two brothers who both fall for her. As its "once upon a time" opening makes clear, Sabrina is a modern fairy tale, a Cinderella story about a chauffeur's daughter and a New York prince, and if fairy tale romance is what you seek then this picture certainly delivers. I enjoy Sabrina mainly because of Hepburn's powerful charisma as its star, but I'm not romantic enough to ignore its various flaws.

Hepburn plays the title character, who grows up on the estate of the fabulously wealthy Larrabee family where her father (John Williams) serves as the chauffeur. From childhood Sabrina has yearned for the younger of the two Larrabee sons, the feckless playboy, David (William Holden). He finally pays attention once she returns, all grown up, from two years at cooking school in Paris, even though she arrives just before his intended marriage to a socialite whose family interests will merge beautifully with the Larrabee empire. Elder brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart), eager for the match and its financial benefits, decides to intervene by courting Sabrina himself, but he ends up falling in love with her for real, much to his dismay.

I admit that I'm always bothered by the frequent decision to pair Hepburn with much older men, and it spoils some of my enjoyment, even if the leading man is as fine an actor as Humphrey Bogart (or Cary Grant or Fred Astaire). There's no ignoring the 30 year difference between Hepburn and Bogart in Sabrina; Bogart looks every year of it, especially when contrasted with the much younger Holden, who seems like a better match in spite of his bad habits. That said, Bogart's performance is still a Bogart performance, full of world weariness and lost chances that make Linus a sympathetic character even though he spends most of the movie deceiving Sabrina about his intentions. Holden is having a lot more fun as the younger brother, just like the baby of such a family would, but we know his track record with wives ought to be a warning about his ability to change for Sabrina. Neither brother is really a perfect match, but they're the only contenders on offer, since Sabrina apparently managed to spend two full years in Paris with only an elderly baron for company.

A fairy tale, however, isn't really about the princes; Sabrina Fairchild is the one we're meant to care about, and Hepburn is radiantly lovely in the role, full of wistful yearning and ardent feelings even after her transformative time in Paris. She comes back with sufficient sense of irony to name her pet poodle David but is still naive enough to fall for him all over again the minute she sees him. Once she returns to New York, Sabrina appears to advantage in beautiful clothes that suit Hepburn perfectly, but I like her just as much in the simple black outfit that she wears to Linus's office near the end. Like many other Cinderella heroines, Sabrina is motherless but enjoys the devotion of almost every member of the household, among whom we find familiar character actors like Ellen Corby and Nancy Kulp. Their enthusiasm for Sabrina's cause provides a nudge in case we need help overlooking her willingness to disrupt David's marriage, but they seem just as happy with Linus as long as Sabrina gets her promotion to American princess. Since Sabrina always maintains her romantic innocence, she never comes across as a Becky Sharp sort of opportunist, ready to hook either rich brother for the bank account he embodies, but I do wonder how a handsome young gardener or stable groom might have altered the course of this story.

Sabrina netted Oscar nominations for Hepburn as Best Actress and for Billy Wilder as Best Director, along with three additional nominations and a win for Best Costume Design, so there was no shortage of love for the picture from the Academy. Although she's best remembered for movies like Funny Face (1957), Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), and My Fair Lady (1964), I particularly like her more dramatic performance in Wait Until Dark (1967), which brought her fifth and final nomination for Best Actress. For a more age appropriate romance with Humphrey Bogart, see him in The African Queen (1951) with that other iconic Hepburn, Katharine, or find Audrey and William Holden reunited for another round in Paris When It Sizzles (1964). Sabrina got the remake treatment in 1995 with Julia Ormond in the title role and Harrison Ford and Greg Kinnear as the smitten brothers, but you're better off with the original.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Classic Films in Focus: THAT TOUCH OF MINK (1962)

 It's hard to imagine a more charming duo than Cary Grant and Doris Day, and That Touch of Mink (1962) is a perfectly entertaining example of their respective talents in the romantic comedy genre, even if both stars made more memorable outings in other pictures. Director Delbert Mann's comedy of errors is more upfront about sex - especially the extramarital kind - than many movies of the 40s or 50s could have dared, but it's all talk and no action as the protagonists constantly fail to consummate their intended tryst. Grant and Day have plenty of delightful comedic moments as the wealthy businessman and out-of-work single girl trying to get together in spite of their own moral objections, but the supporting cast also brings the laughs with fun performances by Gig Young, Audrey Meadows, John Astin, Dick Sargent, and John Fiedler. 

Grant plays philanthropic tycoon and playboy bachelor Philip Shayne, who meets the energetic but unemployed Cathy Timberlake (Doris Day) after his luxury car splashes mud on her raincoat. When a smitten Philip proposes a romantic getaway, Cathy thinks he means marriage but then manages to talk herself into agreeing to a fling, against the advice of her roommate, Connie (Audrey Meadows). The affair, however, doesn't go as planned, with Philip and Cathy repeatedly trying to get together or calling it quits until Philip's friend, Roger (Gig Young), convinces Cathy that running off with an unsuitable suitor (John Astin) will shake Philip into a real proposal at last.

The leads are the main attraction, of course, with Grant giving a very fine late career performance and Day still in her prime. They're both a good bit older than their characters ought to be, but as a pair they look natural together, which a is a nice change from the many May-December couples of late 50s and early 60s romances. Day's Cathy is quite a hothead, which gives her plenty to do in her best scenes, especially when she gets the star players of the New York Yankees - including Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra! - thrown out for arguing with the umpire. She's also horrified that people will know about her intended intimacy with Philip, and one of the funniest bits in the picture occurs when Cathy imagines that everyone knows as each conveyance she rides in becomes a bizarre replica of the bed where the deed is meant to be done. Grant's character unbends somewhat later in the picture, but when he finally takes off after Cathy and her pretend paramour he really gets to come undone. His appearance in nothing but a towel as he rushes to a taxi proves that late career Grant still has "it" in spades and makes the audience understand why Cathy might agree to that fling, morals notwithstanding.

Of the supporting players, Gig Young has the best part as Roger, Philip's friend and right hand man. Roger is a delightful mess, a neurotic alcoholic who wants to quit his job with Philip but is too in love with the luxurious life it brings. His unscrupulous therapist milks Roger for stock tips as well as hourly sessions, which gives rise to a running joke in the second half of the picture that might well come across as homophobic, even if the misunderstanding reflects much more on the therapist than Roger. Cathy's loyal friend Connie is perfectly played by Audrey Meadows, an actress best remembered for her TV role as Alice Kramden on The Honeymooners, and classic TV fans will also delight in seeing John Astin of The Addams Family as Cathy's sleazy suitor and Dick Sargent of Bewitched in a brief appearance. John Fiedler, a character actor with hundreds of roles but most beloved as the voice of Piglet in many Disney productions, has a small but funny part as a bridegroom whose marriage consummation is interrupted by a case of mistaken identity.  

If you find Doris Day as irresistible as I do, check out some of her earlier work in Romance on the High Seas (1948), Calamity Jane (1953), or Pillow Talk (1959). Cary Grant made only three more films after That Touch of Mink, but Charade (1963) would be an enduring favorite with fans; Father Goose (1964) and Walk, Don't Run (1966) would follow as his final bows before retirement. Gig Young, who took that stage name from his character in The Gay Sisters (1942), also appears with Doris Day in Young at Heart (1954), Teacher's Pet (1958), and The Tunnel of Love (1958), but his talent for playing alcoholics on screen sprang from tragic familiarity with addiction in real life. For another gem from director Delbert Mann, see the truly captivating Marty (1955), which earned Mann the Oscar for Best Director.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Classic Movies on CBS All Access

We picked up CBS All Access to watch the new Star Trek shows, which are worth the price of the service by themselves, but I've been pleasantly surprised by the classic movie offerings in their library. Streaming services have not generally been interested in the classic film audience, and those that specifically catered to us met premature ends for not raking in as much money as the owners wanted (Alas, Warner Archive and Filmstruck, our time together was too brief). CBS All Access might avoid the fates of those services since it offers exclusive new shows like Star Trek: Discovery, Picard, and Lower Decks and other more recent feature films, but it has the ability to give classic movie fans some great content as it launches its new Paramount Plus name in 2021 with a massive expansion of the available titles. Right now, though, you can get a taste of the pleasures that might be on the horizon by sampling the classic movies CBS All Access already has in its catalog.

Now owned by ViacomCBS, Paramount Pictures goes way back to the silent era, with a full century of movies in its vaults. That means that classic movie fans could get easy access to a lot of lesser gems from the golden age of Hollywood, including the Bulldog Drummond series of the 30s, the Hopalong Cassidy films, and the Hope and Crosby road pictures, not to mention big hits from director Preston Sturges, the classic noir genre, and dozens of great comedies, Westerns, and dramas. A quick perusal of the movies made by Paramount over the decades shows the depth and breadth of the titles that could be made available as the service seeks to increase subscribers by opening the treasure chest of offerings.

Early signs indicate that Paramount Plus WILL open that chest, even if classic movies aren't its core content. In the first place, it has too much good material not to use it, and, in the second place, some of those goodies are already on its current CBS All Access service. You can watch the 1927 silent hit, Wings, which won the First Oscar for Best Picture, or catch Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March in The Desperate Hours (1955). Sunset Blvd (1950), Sabrina (1954), The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1943), That Touch of Mink (1962), Father Goose (1964), and Teacher's Pet (1958) are also in the current library. With many of Hollywood's most iconic classic stars in its pictures, Paramount Plus can be sure that its older movies will appeal to casual viewers of the classics as well as diehard fans. You don't have to live and breath classic movies to appreciate Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn!

While Netflix continues to dominate the streaming market, it has zero interest in satisfying the tastes of our niche of viewers, and Amazon Prime can be very difficult to navigate when it has multiple bad prints of public domain films dumped into its catalog and a smattering of quality classics mixed in without a grouped category to make them easy to find. (I can spend HOURS hunting through Amazon in the hope of finding a decent print of a movie on Prime, and most of the time I don't have much luck.) Lately I've stopped trying to find something on the other services because CBS All Access has been more than happy to offer me a nice collection of classic movies that I can enjoy. I am hopeful that the relaunch in 2021 will bring me lots of options and make Paramount Plus the streaming service I know it has the library to become.

(PS - If you already have CBS All Access, go watch That Touch of Mink immediately! It's a delightful comedy with an absolutely adorable performance from Doris Day.)

Monday, November 16, 2020

Classic Films in Focus: HELLO, DOLLY! (1969)

Big, colorful musicals are my favorite antidote to troubled times. As much as I enjoy the black-and-white productions of the 30s, there's just something about a bright, splashy palette that makes everything else in a musical seem more cheerful. That's certainly the case with Hello, Dolly! (1969), which looks like a candy store with its rainbow of period costumes and sprightly dance sequences. Directed by Gene Kelly and headlined by Barbra Streisand, this adaptation of the Broadway show has its flaws and failures, to be sure, but it benefits from Streisand's magnetic screen presence and truly amusing performances by Michael Crawford and Danny Lockin as two store clerks set loose on the big city.

Streisand stars as widowed matchmaker Dolly Levi, whose entrepreneurial zeal extends to all kinds of business but is primarily invested in securing her own marriage to grumpy shop owner Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau), who in turn has his sights set on an attractive hat maker named Irene Molloy (Marianne McAndrew). Dolly thwarts Horace's plans by setting up Irene and her assistant, Minnie (E.J. Peaker), with Horace's two clerks, Cornelius (Michael Crawford) and Barnaby (Danny Lockin). At the same time, Dolly also thwarts Horace's desire to keep his niece, Ermengarde (Joyce Ames), away from her ardent beau, Ambrose (Tommy Tune), even though Dolly has been hired by Horace to make sure the lovebirds are separated. When everyone finally meets up at Dolly's old stomping grounds in New York City, the various romances play out against a backdrop of dancing waiters and musical chaos.

Despite its seven Oscar nominations and three wins, and its popularity at the box office, Hello, Dolly! still hammered nails into the musical genre's coffin because it was too expensive to be profitable, and it does have a certain late-stage quality about it. It's overlong, especially in the second half, thanks to extended dance sequences that don't advance the story, and most of the songs are nice enough but not really memorable (the title song excepted, of course). Ermengarde and Ambrose disappear completely for such a long time that it's a bit of a shock when they finally turn up again for the conclusion, and honestly it's never clear why on earth Dolly wants to tie herself to such a sourpuss as Horace, even if he does have enough money to provide a comfortable life. That might have something to do with the obvious lack of chemistry between Streisand and Matthau, who just don't look or act like they belong in the same room, much less the same marriage. Streisand is, undoubtedly, too young for the role, which had been played on Broadway by Carol Channing, and the age difference between Streisand and Matthau only increases the feeling that Dolly is settling for an unsuitable spouse for the sake of financial security.

Those problems, however, don't keep Hello, Dolly! from being genuinely charming and enjoyable, and Streisand holds its all together from start to finish. Dolly is in complete control of the narrative throughout the story, and Streisand is simply captivating in her performance, resplendent in red hair and a stunning array of grandiose hats and gowns to match. She's such a glorious presence that we understand the excitement when she returns to the Harmonia Gardens for the final act, where waiters leap into joyful chorus lines at the mention of her name. Streisand gets her best support from Crawford and Lockin as the clerks who take Dolly's advice and end up having the time of their lives; they have a delightful rapport with each other and their respective love interests, which goes a long way to make up for the absent Ambrose and Ermengarde. The mood of the whole picture is sunny and energetic, with a youthful enthusiasm that makes every obstacle seem surmountable, especially when it comes to love. It has that same charming if utterly fictional turn-of-the-century atmosphere that pervades at Main Street USA in Disneyland, where parasols and a can-do attitude are equally necessary equipment.

Given that comparison, it's fitting that you can currently stream Hello, Dolly! on Disney+, which is also appropriate because of the film's significance to the title character in the 2008 Pixar hit, Wall-E. Hello, Dolly! was Barbra Streisand's second feature film appearance, the first being Funny Girl (1968), which earned her an Oscar for Best Actress. She would go on to star in The Way We Were (1973), A Star is Born (1976), and Yentl (1983). I enjoy Walter Matthau more in other films, especially The Odd Couple (1968). Michael Crawford would become best known for his leading role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage production of The Phantom of the Opera, but Danny Lockin's career was tragically short and ended with his murder in 1977, when he was just 34 years old. If you enjoy the musical exuberance of Hello, Dolly!, try The Music Man (1962) or Paint Your Wagon (1969) for more of the decade's offerings in the genre.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

A LEGO Treat for Frankenstein Fans

I'm always excited when my two obsessions - LEGO and classic movies - overlap, and when they do it's usually related to classic horror. This year LEGO has added something especially fun in time for Halloween, a new Brickheadz set for an official Universal Frankenstein! Fans are hoping that more licensed Universal monster characters will follow, but right now we just have the iconic creature first played on the big screen by Boris Karloff in James Whale's 1931 film. 

The Brickheadz line has been very popular the last few years, running about $10 for a set that builds one character with an oversized head. Licensed characters have been especially plentiful, including lots of Star Wars figures, but seasonal ones like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny have also been frequent additions to the lineup. Frankenstein's monster is a delightful new part of this series, rendered in shades of gray and black to better reflect the image of the Universal version of the character. If you're not into complex builds, don't worry; the Brickheadz take just a few minutes to assemble and make perfect cubicle or desk adornments and will also fit neatly onto a display shelf with your other classic horror collectibles. The box art is also wonderful, with Karloff's version of the creature prominently featured.

Over the years LEGO has released a number of sets and themes with obvious ties to classic horror, and they've always been fun, but this new, official connection with Universal makes me hope that we will see even more Brickheadz and minifigure scale sets in 2021. Right now the Hidden Side theme is my favorite collection of sets because of the spooky atmosphere and ghost figures, but a Dracula's Castle set would be a dream come true (it should have armadillos, of course, just to be extra faithful to the film). If and when LEGO releases information about upcoming Universal Monster sets, I'll be sure to let you know about it here on the blog!

If you want your own Frankenstein Brickheadz, you can find him on the LEGO Shop at Home website for $9.99. I don't have a LEGO store nearby, and with COVID it's difficult to travel to the closest one in the next state over, so I don't know if you can find the set at LEGO Stores, although I assume that you can if you have one near you. If you visit the website, be sure to check out the other fun Halloween items, including the Hidden Side theme and the gorgeous (but so expensive) Haunted House exclusive set.

Related Posts:

10 Classic Movies Directed by James Whale


LEGO Monster Fighters: Making AFOL Dreams Come True 

Die Toten Reiten Schnell

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Classic Films in Focus: THEATER OF BLOOD (1973)

As gruesome as its murders are, Theater of Blood (1973) belongs much more to the genre of pitch black comedy than horror, given the gloriously ludicrous nature of the whole picture, but it's a dark comedy whose best jokes can only be appreciated by those with a knowledge of Shakespeare that goes well beyond the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet musing to Yorick's skull. For English literature majors whose tastes also run to absurd horror comedy and Vincent Price, Theater of Blood is basically a perfect film, and since I'm squarely in that demographic I have nothing but praise to offer for this weird, wonderful gem from director Douglas Hickox and screenwriter Anthony Greville-Bell. It's a good thing, too, since I wouldn't want the vengeful spirit of Edward Lionheart to come after me for trashing his performance.

Vincent Price plays Lionheart, a demented Shakespearean actor who returns after his apparent suicide to exact revenge on the theater critics who panned his acting and denied him their highest prize. Aided by a group of meth addled homeless people and a mysterious sidekick, Lionheart lures his detractors to suitably Shakespearean fates that recreate scenes from the plays in his final performance season. As each new murder occurs, the surviving critics become more and more anxious about their own safety, but the London police seem utterly unable to protect them from Lionheart's grisly schemes. Meanwhile, Lionheart's daughter, Edwina (Diana Rigg), claims that her father is really dead and protests her ignorance of the crimes to the police and the head critic, Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry), the only one of the bunch who seems to acknowledge some karmic justice at work in Lionheart's actions.

Price is the main attraction throughout, but several of the supporting performances are also memorable, especially Diana Rigg as Lionheart's loyal daughter. She never exhibits the hammy lunacy that Lionheart revels in, but Edwina's sang froid proves to be just as unnerving in its own way, especially as the third act reveals its barely hidden secrets. Ian Hendry is the most significant of the critics, partly because Devlin lives longer than the others and thus gets more screen time, but Robert Morley is absolutely scene stealing as the gluttonous dog lover Meredith Merridew, who dies in a truly bizarre recreation of the most bizarre of Shakespeare's plays, Titus Andronicus. Also noteworthy is Jack Hawkins in one of his final screen appearances as Solomon Psaltery, whom Lionheart tricks into strangling his wife (Diana Dors) in a jealous rage, just like the murder of Desdemona in Othello. Most of the other victims die too quickly to have that much to do, but fans of classic British films will appreciate the presence of Dennis Price, Harry Andrews, Coral Browne (who would become Price's third wife), Robert Coote, Michael Hordern, and Arthur Lowe, as well as Milo O'Shea as the baffled police inspector.

Theater of Blood goes all in on its Shakespearean theme, loading little jokes and references into the names of both people and places, but since the murders hinge on specific scenes from the plays it's more important to know those than to know why the derelict theater is named the Burbage (for Richard Burbage, the Elizabethan actor) or that Edwina's disguise is a nod to the popularity of the "breeches roles" in the Bard's canon. The movie doesn't content itself with the most familiar and frequently performed plays, choosing instead to depict scenes from Troilus and Cressida, Cymbeline, Henry VI, Part One, and Titus Andronicus as well as more popular works like Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Richard III, and The Merchant of Venice. Aside from the Titus Andronicus murder, the most entertaining of the lot might well be the drowning of Oliver Larding (Robert Coote) in the vat of wine, mainly because it was Vincent Price himself who met the same end when he played the Duke of Clarence in the 1939 film, Tower of London, as well as then playing Richard III in Roger Corman's 1962 remake, also called Tower of London. That's a lot of meta-humor packed into a single segment of the movie, but it's the kind of thing that becomes possible thanks to Price's long career and penchant for both period dramas and campy horror roles. (Do take a moment to enjoy the prominent placement of the name "Clarence" over the door of the shop where the wine tasting occurs.) The ending reworks the father and daughter pathos of King Lear with Edwina as a rather ironic Cordelia but Lionheart very much in the right mode as the mad monarch, although Lear hadn't committed a series of inventively ghoulish murders as part of his particular brand of insanity. I won't say that Lionheart is more sinned against than sinning, but he, like Lear, probably would.

If skewed Shakespeare suits your taste in films, try pairing Theater of Blood with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (1990), Scotland, Pa. (2001), or the memorably terrifying Throne of Blood (1957), which is Akira Kurasawa's Japanese interpretation of Macbeth. For more murderous obsessions let loose, check out Fade to Black (1980), in which classic movies serve as the subject of the killer's fixation. Vincent Price's career spanned more than fifty years, but for other horror films from the early 70s try The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), or Madhouse (1974). Dame Diana Rigg, who died in September of 2020, is particularly remembered for her iconic roles in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) and the TV series, The Avengers (1965-1968), but I'm personally very fond of her in The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and the delightfully droll series, The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries (1998-2000).

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Classic Films in Focus: THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964)

 The Masque of the Red Death (1964) is another of Roger Corman's loose adaptations of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe with Vincent Price in the starring role, this time as the debauched and heartless Prince Prospero, a ruler who holds lavish parties while his people die of a horrific plague. Like most of the Poe films it takes many liberties with the source material and also incorporates the characters and plot from another Poe story, "Hop-Frog," but its deviations don't detract from its delights as a film. Lurid, lavish, and full of the usual Corman elements, it's a grim but entertaining morality tale that depicts the just desserts meted out to cruel and uncaring oligarchs who foolishly believe themselves to be immune to the afflictions that stalk their subjects.

Price is in high villain style as the sadistic Prospero, who shuts himself and his cronies off from the plague stricken countryside for a massive party inside the safety of the castle walls. He abducts a beautiful young village girl, Francesca (Jane Asher), with the intention of corrupting her innocence and seducing her into the service of Satan, and he uses her captured father (Nigel Green) and lover (David Weston) as leverage to keep her by his side. Prospero's jealous lady, Juliana (Hazel Court), dares the ultimate sacrifices to Satan to ensure her own position with the prince, even as the gathered nobles drink and debase themselves throughout the castle. Little does Prospero guess that a mysterious red robed figure is slowly but surely bringing doom to the revelers.

The romantic plot involving Francesca and her intended, Gino, delays the fate that awaits the corrupted court, but there's never any doubt about the ending of this tale. We only wonder whether Francesca and Gino, along with Hop Toad (Skip Martin) and the diminutive dancer Esmeralda (Verina Greenlaw), will escape the punishment so richly deserved by the rest. The personified Red Death opens the film with the promise of liberation for the people, but it's soon clear that liberation from Prospero might also mean liberation from life. Plagues, as we know, aren't very precise when it comes to such matters. The build up, then, is more about how much the story can make us anticipate and enjoy Prospero's downfall; we see him burn the village, murder the people, humiliate his courtiers, and even murder his followers when the mood strikes him. He is utterly faithless and without redeeming qualities of any kind. He delights in the suffering and debasement of others but believes himself untouchable. Thus, when the third act finally arrives, we have to cheer as Prospero first glimpses that flash of forbidden red in the midst of the masquerade.

Price, of course, makes for a delightfully satisfying villain, by turns preening and predatory in his sumptuous robes. Prospero is one of his more serious horror heavies, neither hysterical nor ludicrous, but very much in his comfort zone during this period of his career. Hazel Court makes a solid costar as the increasingly desperate Juliana, although she spends a lot of her screen time staring at Prospero or his Satanic altar, but Jane Asher seems a bit dazed as Francesca, which might be intentional but drains her of the ability to express the horror and disgust one might expect her to show. The bad dubbing for Verina Greenlaw undermines the pathos of her big scene with Skip Martin as Esmeralda and Hop Toad plan their escape, but Martin has some very good moments with Patrick Magee as the secondary villain, Alfredo.In fact, Hop Toad's revenge on Alfredo might be the most shocking scene of the picture, especially if you haven't read Poe's story. 

You might make a double feature of The Masque of the Red Death with Vincent Price's other 1964 movie about a plague, The Last Man on Earth, which has been remade several times. For more of Corman's Poe films with Price, see House of Usher (1960), Pit and the Pendulum (1961), and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). You can get a look at Price's early excursions into the horror genre with Dragonwyck (1946), House of Wax (1953), and The Fly (1958), or catch scream queen Hazel Court in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Premature Burial (1962), and The Raven (1963). For more classic movies about plagues, see The Seventh Seal (1957) or Vampire Circus (1972), or branch into different territory with the yellow fever outbreak in Jezebel (1938).

Monday, July 20, 2020

Classic Films in Focus: MADAM SATAN (1930)

Cecil B. DeMille's 1930 musical extravaganza is hard to classify in terms of genre and even harder to describe in terms of sheer spectacular weirdness, but Madam Satan is one of those Pre-Code pictures you really need to see for yourself in order to appreciate the extent to which it revels in a "more is more" approach to cinema. Slow and creaky at times, especially in the early stages, it switches into high gear for a third act that more than makes up for its flaws, with a wild costume party aboard a floating Zeppelin and a full throttle descent into passion, chaos, and disaster. It's not the pinnacle of DeMille's oeuvre, but it certainly showcases the director's taste for excess, and Kay Johnson is a delight once she abandons her role as martyred wife to become the titular - and titillating - Madam Satan.

Johnson plays the much put upon Angela Brooks, a loyal and respectable wife to the wealthy but utterly unreliable Bob (Reginald Denny). Angela turns a blind eye to most of Bob's failings, but when she discovers his infidelity with the gold-digging Trixie (Lillian Roth) she decides first to leave him and then to fight to get him back. Angela uses a lavish costume party thrown by their friend Jimmy (Roland Young) as an opportunity to disguise herself as the worldly and seductive Madam Satan in order to lure Bob back into her arms. Fate, however, has a shock in store, as a violent storm pitches the Zeppelin and its occupants into peril.

We should probably agree up front not to take marital advice from 1930s Hollywood, which tends to advise injured wives to ignore spousal cheating and blame themselves for male infidelity. Madam Satan is squarely in this camp, with Angela accused of causing Bob to stray by acting like an adult in a serious relationship. To a modern viewer it's clearly Bob who ought to change his irresponsible party boy behavior, and I admit to being a little disappointed that Angela doesn't shoot him or push him out of the collapsing Zeppelin (who would have known? It would have been the perfect murder!). It's a mystery to me why she wants him back at all, but that's the goal that drives the rest of the picture, with the literally angelic wife, Angela - get it? - having to become a sexy devil in order to coax her wayward husband back into the marital fold.

As tiresome as that sexist ideology is, Angela does become a lot more entertaining when she stops crying over her idiot spouse and shows up at the Zeppelin shindig ready to gyrate her way into his heart, if his heart is actually involved in this scenario at all. The picture is loaded with innuendo and double entendre to remind us which of Bob's organs Angela is really supposed to capture. The costume party, which is basically an orgy of excess, is a perfect setting for this effort, with scantily clad women, leering men, an auction of sexy ladies, and a bizarre musical number about electricity that might be the result if Tesla had directed porn. Johnson really revels in the Madam Satan persona, and she and Lillian Roth engage in such spirited combat that the male actors just fade into the background. It's a shame, really, when Angela reveals her identity to Bob and goes back to being the love starved wife desperate for attention from a man who doesn't deserve her, but the ending suggests that a bit of the devil in Angela has come to stay.

For a comparison of Madam Satan with DeMille's other work in the early 1930s, see The Sign of the Cross (1932), or go straight to The Ten Commandments (1956) for his final towering achievement. You'll find Kay Johnson in Thirteen Women (1932), Of Human Bondage (1934), and Son of Fury (1942), while Reginald Denny, whose film career began in 1915, also appears in Of Human Bondage as well as Romeo and Juliet (1936), Rebecca (1940), and a number of the Bulldog Drummond films as Algy Longworth. Look for Lillian Roth in Animal Crackers (1930) and Ladies They Talk About (1933), but be sure to take note of I'll Cry Tomorrow, the 1955 biopic starring Susan Hayward that chronicles Roth's struggles with alcoholism. Roland Young is probably best remembered for the title role in the Topper films, but he's also very funny as Uncle Willie in The Philadelphia Story (1940).

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Night of the Living (LEGO) Dead!

We're still in the grip of this endless pandemic, so I've been spending a lot of my time with my massive LEGO collection, where my love for classic horror movies often provides inspiration. Here's a zombie horde that would make George A. Romero happy! The zombie cheerleader is one of my all-time favorite LEGO figures.

If our real world viral catastrophe has you bored and stuck at home this summer, escape to the gruesome fun of classic zombie movies like White Zombie (1932), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), or Night of the Living Dead (1968). Masks won't help, but you'll definitely want to keep at least six feet between you and the walking dead!

They're dead, they're underfed, and they're looking for tiny plastic brains.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Classic Films in Focus: MARTY (1955)

Somehow I've managed to miss seeing Marty (1955) in my classic movie viewing up until this month, when I happened to find it hidden in the depths of the Prime streaming catalog on Amazon. I'm glad I finally discovered it, though, because this modest romantic drama is as sweet and compelling a picture as one could possibly want in troubled times. At only 90 minutes long, it's the shortest movie ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, but it packs those minutes with feeling in its story about a lonely butcher (Ernest Borgnine) who finds a chance at love with a shy teacher (Betsy Blair) who has also been unlucky at romance. Directed by Delbert Mann, this low-budget gem collected eight Oscar nominations and won four, with Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay in addition to the Best Picture win.

Borgnine takes the title role as Marty, a 34 year old butcher in New York whose numerous siblings have all already married and started families. Marty's old-school Italian mother (Esther Minciotti) harangues him about finding a wife of his own, but Marty's friends are only interested in conventionally attractive women who won't give Marty the time of day. Depressed about the prospect of living the rest of his life alone, Marty nonetheless ventures out to a ballroom with his friend, Angie (Joe Mantell), where he sees a heartless date ditch plain Clara (Blair) after judging her to be a "dog." Marty steps in with sympathy, and a romance blossoms between the two, but Marty's friends and family prove to be less excited about his choice than he might have expected.

With its humdrum middle class working world and plain protagonists, Marty is a welcome antidote to swoony romances of impossibly beautiful people meeting on elegant transcontinental cruises or in the streets of Paris. It doesn't try to throw a veneer of glamor over its situations or its characters, but it does examine the unrealistic ideals that both men and women, but women especially, are held to in order to be deemed worthy of love. Marty's friends are constantly leering at girlie magazines and talking about the "dames" who appear in Mickey Spillane novels, and it's clear that they have internalized the messages from those mediums. Marty might also have been looking for love in the wrong places by following their lead, and when he finds a kind, smart young woman who takes an interest in him, both his friends and even his mother are quick to criticize her for not being beautiful. Marty has to push back against that criticism and recognize the value of the opportunity that Clara represents or else risk losing it forever.

The performances by Borgnine and Blair draw us into sympathy with each of them and suggest a lot more than they actually show, which makes the short movie equal far more than the sum of its minutes. When Clara reacts negatively to Marty's awkward play for a kiss, we understand intuitively that she's frightened because she has probably never been kissed before, while Marty - still struggling with the old, bad examples that have been presented to him - opts for ardent aggression when gentleness is required. As newcomers to romance they have to stumble through their mistakes and doubts toward one another, but it's delightful to see them open up, laugh, and connect over their long first night together as they wander from place to place. Neither of them is beautiful in the classic sense, but their yearning toward one another is exquisitely so, with Clara's silent tears near the end as moving and heartbreaking as any you'll see on film.

Marty originally aired as a 1953 televised play starring Rod Steiger in the lead; online and DVD versions of that production are available if you want to compare the two. The big screen remake was the first film for director Delbert Mann, whose later work includes Desire Under the Elms (1958), That Touch of Mink (1962), and Fitzwilly (1967). Ernest Borgnine, who continued working right up until his death in 2012, can be found in films and TV series all over the place, including Johnny Guitar (1954), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), McHale's Navy (1964), The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969), and Escape from New York (1981). Look for Betsy Blair in Another Part of the Forest (1948) and The Snake Pit (1948); her career stalled after she was blacklisted, but she got the role in Marty thanks to the demands of her husband at the time, Gene Kelly, who was able to insist that the studio use her.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

CMBA Spring Blogathon: Classics for Comfort

The Classic Movie Blog Association is holding its Spring Blogathon this week, and the theme is Classics for Comfort, which we could all use right now! CMBA members are posting their "Top 5" comforting classics, which means we'll probably be picking a lot of comedies and musicals, but I'm excited to see what everyone else picks. As for me, I have definitely been going back to my comfort zone for movies since the pandemic sent us all into crisis mode back in March. I don't want to watch anything that makes me more anxious than I already feel, but my comfort zone encompasses both classic musicals and comedies, classic Disney films, and fair bit of science fiction (especially Star Trek - I have watched SO MUCH Star Trek lately because it always gives me hope for humanity's future). In keeping with the CMBA theme, here are my top five go-to classic movies for trying times, presented in chronological order because I really don't want to try to rank these favorites!


I absolutely adore everything about this wacky screwball comedy starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. I've seen it many, many times, and it still makes me laugh, even though I can recite almost all of the dialogue from memory. I love life-affirming, joyful comedy, which means the screwball genre is far and away my favorite, but this one holds a special place in my heart for being my childhood introduction to Katharine Hepburn. Hilarious physical comedy and outstanding supporting players keep the laughs coming from beginning to end. I especially love to show this one to kids because the leopards and the dog are chaos agents that really young viewers can appreciate, even if they don't grasp the romantic themes.


Errol Flynn's swashbuckling classic is another great choice for kids, but it holds plenty of charm for adults, too. The gorgeous Technicolor cinematography carries me away to Sherwood Forest, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's score is absolutely perfect. I love its stars and its supporting cast, especially the delightful chemistry between Flynn and Alan Hale and the hilarious character comedy of Una O'Connor and Eugene Pallette, but Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone are also brilliant as the bad guys. Although many other Robin Hood films have been made, this one is the cornucopia of delights that I love best, and if you haven't shown it to your kids you should put that one your to-do list right now.


I'm sure this iconic musical will turn up on a lot of the CMBA bloggers' lists, but I have to include it here for the sheer joy it always fills me with when I watch it. My kid was a huge Gene Kelly fan when she was little, and this was her favorite movie, so much so that she sometimes ran around the house impersonating Lina Lamont. Debbie Reynolds' energy and pep are irresistible, and you just have to grin watching Kelly and Donald O'Connor dance. I'm a big fan of the colorful, upbeat musicals of the 40s and 50s in general, but this one brings the perfect cast together in such a blitz of wonderful numbers and hilarious comedy that it definitely deserves its place in movie fans' hearts. Once again, this is a great classic movie to show kids; just be prepared for the Lina Lamont impressions and tap dancing likely to ensue!


I'm not much of a Disney princess fan, although I love the gorgeous animation of Snow White (1937) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). I'm much more enamored of Disney's classic animal tales, and Lady and the Tramp is the one I especially love to go back to for its sweet, soulful depiction of a dog's life. The charming setting, the lovely animation, and the wonderful voice performances all delight me with each new viewing. I find most of Disney's classic animal movies comforting because I loved them as a kid and then loved watching them with my kid, but this one remains a favorite with both of us, and we almost always watch it when one of us is sick and needs something familiar and cheerful to watch while convalescing on the couch.


I realize I'm skirting the definition of "classic" for some people, but the original Star Wars trilogy holds a deep and special place in my heart, and I will almost always go back and watch A New Hope again when I need a serious morale boost. Just a few bars of John Williams' powerful score can send me into a reverie of memories and feelings about a galaxy far, far away. The movie itself is full of hope and courage and self-sacrifice, but it also connects me with my younger self, the lonely, hopeful farm kid I used to be, who also dreamed of escape and a different life. I return to Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo as old friends, familiar if frozen in time on the screen, and the sorrows of the time that has passed (how we miss you, Carrie Fisher) make the experience sweeter still.

 I guess from this list you could probably deduce that I take a lot of comfort in music, color, adventure, and happy endings if not outright comedy. For comfort I gravitate toward movies that are gentle enough to watch with the family but exciting enough to keep the plot rolling, and romance is a welcome part of the equation as long as the heroines are plucky. These are all movies that make me feel happy when I watch them; they remind me that joy, friendship, laughter, and courage all exist in the world even when things look bleak. I'm sure my fellow CMBA bloggers will have lots of interesting choices on their lists if my five picks aren't your cup of tea, so make certain you check out the rest of the blogathon posts!

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Following Along with Film and Narrative

I haven't posted a classic movie review here in several weeks because the pandemic means that my movie watching is more a group activity than my choice alone. Normally I have Monday nights to myself to watch old movies and weeks together when the spouse is away on work travel, but right now we're all at home and trying to make the most of family time! That means a lot of more recent movies that appeal to the spouse and kid and fewer films that make good blog posts for Virtual Virago. We are, however, watching movies together, especially because one of the kid's classes this term is Film and Narrative, with a different movie assignment each week. Watching a college student work through someone else's course has been really interesting to me as a former college professor, and I've enjoyed - but sometimes really questioned - the choices for this film course.

We've watched Hot Fuzz (2007), Smoke Signals (1998), Jaws (1975), Rashomon (1950), and Edge of Tomorrow (2014) together as part of the kid's film course, with the last one being the only odd choice of that lot. Sure, it's got the whole non-linear, time looping story line set against a sci-fi version of the Normandy invasion, but it's still a Tom Cruise movie and not the most original or provocative example one might have chosen. The spouse and I had seen all of these films before, of course, but they were all new to the kid, who really liked Smoke Signals and Jaws but was wishing the syllabus had more comedy to balance to out the drama and action.

The professor had the students pick a final film on their own, preferably something outside their "comfort zone," and the kid asked me to suggest some comedies for the assignment. Off to the DVD closet we went! We ended up watching The Women (1939), which was a huge hit thanks to the gleefully awful performances of Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford. It definitely provided something different from the films on the syllabus, and it gave the kid plenty to write about for the assignment. Sadly, we're now at the end of the semester, so we don't have any more movies to watch for the course.

Following along with the kid's film class got me thinking about what movies I would put on a syllabus for a similar course. This happens to be the second college film and narrative class the kid has taken; the first was as a dual enrollment student at the local university. The first class provided the students with a list to choose from for each unit, which I think worked better and created a lot more opportunity to delve into different interests, while this second class only had the one open option and all the rest assigned (which they normally watched in class as a group). I wonder if a film and narrative class works better if it sticks to a theme as opposed to being a little of this and a little of that, all over the cinematic map, but I realize it's an introductory level course and not a special topics section.

The kid's most recent class watched:

The Cameraman (1928)
 Cat People (1942)
 Batman Returns (1992)
Hero (2002)
The Way Way Back (2013)
Creed (2015)
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Hot Fuzz (2007)
Smoke Signals (1998)
Jaws (1975)
Rashomon (1950)
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
(WALL-E from 2008 was also on the original syllabus but got dropped due to the pandemic closing campus and sending students home.)

Most of this list is pretty good, really, but I would definitely make some changes. For one thing, I'd like to see a little better representation of women as protagonists here, not just supporting characters. There are obvious boxes being checked in terms of minority and international representation, but some of those choices could be better (why come in with Creed for a bunch of kids who probably haven't seen any of the earlier Rocky films?). Here are the substitutions I might make:

Batman Returns (1992) - Change to Blade (1998) because it's not a sequel, features a black comic book hero with a great female lead, too, and taps into the enduring interest in vampires

The Way Way Back (2013) - Change to The Breakfast Club (1985) because I feel like John Hughes needs to be in here somewhere and the ensemble cast gives lots of teen types to explore. I also don't love having really recent movies in the mix because 1) kids are more likely to have seen them anyway and 2) they need more time to shake out into "important" and not so much.

Creed (2015) - Change to The Color Purple (1985) because Blade gets you a black male superhero fighter and this list still needs more women's stories in it. Even Hidden Figures (2016) would be great if one is just determined to have really recent films on the list.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014) - Change to Dark City (1998) because it still has lots of mind-bending weirdness and sci-fi cred but also tech noir cool and was Roger Ebert's favorite film of 1998. It's more original but less obvious than The Matrix (1999) and offers lots of opportunities to talk about film noir and science fiction and the nature of identity and memory. I will probably put Dark City on any syllabus where it makes any sense to have it because it's just that fantastic. I used to teach it as part of my film noir unit, and it always went over really well.

What 12-13 movies would YOU put on a film and narrative syllabus? I'd love to see your lists in the comments section!

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Classics for Coronavirus: Robinson Crusoe

The world is staying home this spring as a pandemic spreads through our countries, leaving many people to cope with the unfamiliar experience of social isolation. Literature and film are suddenly lifelines to adventure, community, and knowledge, and some of them can really teach us a few things about how to live while cut off from the rest of the world. As I keep up with the news this month I find myself thinking especially about Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe's iconic castaway and master of social distancing. Defoe's original novel, published in 1719, has inspired many subsequent books, films, and television series, and there's never been a better excuse or time to explore them. Here are some of my favorite Robinson Crusoe revisions and adaptations.

1) Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) - This is probably my favorite of the films inspired by the novel because it takes Defoe's story and mixes it into 60s sci-fi, Paul Mantee stars as the castaway astronaut on the red planet, but you'll also find Adam West in a supporting role early in the film. Try this one if you're already a fan of classic sci-fi or you really loved The Martian (2015)!

2) The Martian (2015) - Matt Damon's turn as a castaway astronaut on Mars isn't a direct adaptation of Robinson Crusoe, but it certainly owes a lot to Defoe, and it makes a perfect double feature with Robinson Crusoe on Mars. When he gets left behind on Mars, Mark Watney uses science and creativity to survive. You'll really learn to appreciate potatoes!

3) Cast Away (2000) - If you want to come back to earth for your isolation, try the Tom Hanks hit in which a FedEx employee survives a plane crash and is stranded on a remote island. This is very much a modern Crusoe tale, although Crusoe's eventual companion, Friday, is a lot more useful than the soccer ball that Hanks' character names Wilson. Hanks, of course, has been in the news recently after being diagnosed with COVID-19 while filming in Australia, but I hope his time in medical isolation was a lot less traumatic than being marooned on an uninhabited island!

4) Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - Defoe's original story inspired the 1812 family classic, which is also worth handing to your kids while they're at home, but the 1960 Disney film adaptation is probably the best known of the numerous film treatments. John Mills and Dorothy McGuire star as the parents of a shipwrecked family with several sons, and this one makes a good family pick for kids who are too young for the films I've already listed. Best of all, you can stream it on Disney Plus if you're already sick of the two Frozen movies!

5) Lost in Space (1965-1968) - The Crusoe family tree adds another branch with this 60s TV revision of Swiss Family Robinson, which gave the world the iconic line, "Danger, Will Robinson!" Make your kids watch the 1960 Disney film first and then introduce the 60s TV series, the 1998 feature film version, or the newest 2018 TV series version (although the 1998 film is not particularly good, the new series is getting high marks).

Whether you're an adult looking for interesting ways to spend your time at home or a parent trying to craft educational but fun activities for kids, an exploration of Robinson Crusoe's literary and cinematic legacy is a timely choice. The original story is a good place to start if you have the patience for 18th century literature - it's a good read and a true classic with enormous influence. Otherwise try jumping in with any of the films and TV series listed here.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Classic Films in Focus: OLD ACQUAINTANCE (1943)

Old Acquaintance (1943) is primarily famous today for a scene in which Bette Davis violently shakes her off screen nemesis Miriam Hopkins and then offers a very insincere "sorry" to her victim, but if you watch the entire film you'll be completely on Bette's side about Miriam needing to be shaken. Directed by Vincent Sherman, this romantic melodrama stars the two feuding actresses as lifelong friends who weather ups and downs and disappointment together, but Miriam's character is just about the worst, most annoying frenemy a woman could imagine, leaving the viewer to praise Bette's heroine for just shaking her instead of opening up on her like Leslie Crosbie at the beginning of The Letter (1940). The picture is a compelling depiction of life with an emotional vampire, with a great performance from Davis and very solid support from John Loder, Gig Young, and Delores Moran, but Miriam Hopkins is the one you'll love to hate for her role as selfish, shallow, envious Millie Drake.

Davis plays up and coming novelist Kit Marlowe, who returns to her hometown at the beginning of the film and is reunited with her childhood friend, Millie (Miriam Hopkins). Jealous of Kit's success, Millie then becomes a writer of pulpy romances and enjoys immense wealth but still envies Kit's critical praise. As the years pass, Millie makes her husband, Preston (John Loder), miserable, and he yearns for a second chance at happiness with Kit, who also acts as a substitute mother for Millie's daughter, Deirdre (Dolores Moran). Kit is torn between her loyalty to Millie and her love for Preston, and her decision has lasting consequences for everyone involved.

Although she could play the diva as well as anyone, Davis is the straight arrow here, modest, loyal, practical, and self-sacrificing. Kit embodies the writer as a quiet intellectual, determined to make great art even if it only brings modest success. Millie, on the other hand, craves the limelight and the show of wealth; she churns out frothy popular romances like sausages, as one journalist (played by Anne Revere) accurately but too candidly observes. The public eats up Millie's romances, but Millie never outgrows her persistent jealousy of Kit. Hopkins chews the scenery with her tantrums and hysterics while everyone else has to react to them and attempt to placate Millie, who manages to make other people apologize for her bad behavior. The film wants us to accept that this friendship is important enough for Davis' Kit to make huge sacrifices to maintain, but modern audiences might be too keenly aware of the danger signs of unhealthy relationships to think either Kit or Preston should put up with Millie's emotional blackmail and constant theatrics.

Like numerous other romantic melodramas of this era, Old Acquaintance takes place over several decades and offers us scenes from different key points in the characters' lives. I admit to being a sucker for this kind of story because I love to see the ways in which the costumes, makeup, and lighting try to make young girls out of grown women and then continue on to show them as they grow old. Davis moves from a college girl's suit and energy at the opening to a matronly World War II uniform and a prominent gray streak in her hair near the end, while Hopkins' Millie never gives up her preference for showy, floating confections no matter how old she gets. The decades offer us an opportunity to contemplate what changes and what remains constant in the characters' lives, and for the two leads the passage of time is more distinctly emphasized by the growth of baby Deirdre into a young woman with romantic aspirations and frustrations of her own. Kit in particular is forced to think about herself in contrast with Deirdre when she finds out that Deirdre is in love with Kit's much younger boyfriend, Rudd (Gig Young). The situation puts Kit on the spot once again as she has to choose whether to fight for her own happiness or prioritize her loyalty to another woman.

If you enjoy the pairing of the two rivals, be sure to watch The Old Maid (1939), which also stars Davis and Hopkins as women tied together by jealousy and love. For more decades spanning stories with Bette Davis, see Mr. Skeffington (1944) and Payment on Demand (1951). Miriam Hopkins also stars in The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), Trouble in Paradise (1932), and Becky Sharp (1935), the last of which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

See also: In Praise of Women's Pictures

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Reasons to Keep a Movie Log

A page from my movie log
Do you keep a record of the movies you watch? Should you? A movie log is a great way to keep track of your viewing over time, and it can be a helpful memory jogger when you're trying to think about which Oscar contenders you saw as soon as they came out and what year you finally discovered that overlooked gem that became a personal favorite. You can make a log as detailed or as basic as you like, but I think even a simple record has real benefits for the serious cinephile.

I have kept a simple movie log since June 2009, when I first started with a small ringbound journal. I'm still using that journal more than a decade later because I only list the year and month, the name of each film, and the release date of the film. When I first started the log I tried to be more detailed and include a mini review with a star rating, but I quickly realized that I was more likely to keep the log current if I just stuck to the basic information. I was watching a lot of movies each month back then (27 in August 2010!) because I was getting paid to write frequent columns for the now defunct and was still discovering a lot of classics for the first time thanks to the internet, Netflix DVD rentals, and more time at my disposal.

There are several websites you can use to keep a movie log if you are so inclined, including Letterboxd, but personally I prefer the old school paper journal because I like being able to flip through the pages and make notes in the margins when necessary. The written journal feels more intimate, and I can see at a glance if I got hooked on a particular star in April 2012 (Henry Fonda) or became obsessed with a series in November 2016 (I watch Star Trek and Star Wars when I'm depressed or anxious, and I watched A LOT of Star Trek in November 2016).

At the end of each year I can easily tally the total number of films I watched and note which ones I saw both in the theater and at home when they came out on disc or streaming. I could also break down my viewing by month and see which months are my busiest for movie watching, although I know it's generally around Halloween, when I watch a lot of classic horror favorites, and Christmas, when I have must-see holiday traditions and more time with the family at home to watch new movies together. I don't keep track of TV series episodes, just feature length films and shorts where relevant, but you could certainly include those in your own list if you want to be thorough.

Here's the record for January 2020:

The Black Cauldron (1985)
But I'm a Cheerleader! (1999)
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Bombhsell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2015)
Troop Zero (2019)
MIB International (2019)
Blinded by the Light (2019)
Master of Dark Shadows (2019)
Payment on Demand (1951)
The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
Old Acquaintance (1943)

It's very simple and straightforward, but the list gives me plenty of information about my general viewing activity for the month, and the minimal record is enough to jog my memory later if I need to think about the films. You can also see blog posts summarizing my movie log for a full year, if you want to see a complete list:

2019 Movie Log in Review
2018 Movie Log in Review
Film Log for 2017

If you aren't already keeping a movie log, I do recommend giving it a try, whether it's on Letterboxd, in a document on your computer, or in a notebook. If you do keep a log, I'd love to know what information you include and what you learn about yourself and your habits by keeping track!