The Green Knight of the story is the most famous incarnation of the Green Man, a mythological figure who represents the natural world and is usually shown as a man's face surrounded by or even made out of vegetation. You'll find him everywhere in the UK, even in churches, but he appears in many different cultures going back as far as the 2nd Century. Here's an article about the Green Man on Historic UK if you want to read more.
Wednesday, December 15, 2021
Thursday, December 9, 2021
Five Favorite Films: Christmas Movies
Every Christmas brings new holiday movies, especially with streaming services like Netflix cooking up batches of them like trays of cinematic sugar cookies, but the classics are those we return to year after year. They become beloved traditions in many families, and ours is no different. I know there's plenty of debate about what makes a "classic" or even what counts as a Christmas movie, but here are five favorites that my family revisits every year, along with lots of suggestions for other seasonal stories you might try.
This musical delight starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Vera-Ellen, and Rosemary Clooney is THE family Christmas movie at our house. We usually watch it for the first time right after Thanksgiving, and we often make three or four viewings by the New Year. Everything about White Christmas is perfect Yuletide cheer, but at our house it's all about Danny Kaye, one of our favorite classic movie stars. "The Best Things Happen When You're Dancing" has nothing to do with Christmas but is so catchy and fun that I hum it for days after every viewing. Dean Jagger and Mary Wickes also help to make this movie the top pick on our nice list. If you're looking for more classic Christmas comedy, follow this one up with Christmas in Connecticut (1945) and Bachelor Mother (1939).
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Here's another favorite that the whole family has to watch at least once, often on Christmas Eve. I'm a huge fan of A Christmas Carol in general - both the original story and its many adaptations - but this is my favorite of the lot. Gonzo makes a fabulous Charles Dickens, with Rizzo as his audience and sidekick, and Michael Caine is clearly having a ball as the miserly Scrooge. In spite of the Muppets in most of the roles, this film is surprisingly faithful to its source material and has some of the best Ghosts of Christmas in any production, especially the luminous and childlike Ghost of Christmas Past. I remember seeing this movie in the theater back in 1992, and I have loved it ever since. Make sure you watch the extended version with the restored scene featuring the song, "When Love is Gone," which was cut from the original theatrical release. The Muppets made several other Christmas specials, but for sheer delight follow this one up with Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas (1977).
Bill Murray offered his own take on Scrooge a few years before the Muppet version, and this 80s tale of Christmas redemption holds up really well. The Ghosts played by David Johansen and Carol Kane always crack us up, and "Niagara Falls!" has become part of our family's extensive movie quote language. Richard Donner directs a fantastic cast that also includes Karen Allen, Bobcat Goldthwait, Robert Mitchum, John Forsythe, Buddy Hackett, and Alfre Woodard. It's by no means the first Christmas Carol adaptation you should watch, and it's not really for kids, but we come back to it every year and enjoy it all over again. For a behind-the-scenes story about Dickens' enduring tale, try The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017), which shows Dickens being haunted by his characters as he tries to write the book.
A Christmas Story (1983)
Speaking of highly quotable 80s Christmas movies, who can forget "You'll shoot your eye out" and "It's a major award!" This one rose on our family list over the years as our kid got older and fell in love with its wacky, nostalgic look at childhood yearning and misery. Now we watch it every holiday season and wait for our favorite scenes, most of which feature Ralphie's elaborate fantasies. "It was... soap poisoning!" Darren McGavin is a cranky delight as Ralphie's dad, and Melinda Dillon is wonderful as the long-suffering mother, but Peter Billingsley carries the picture as few child actors could. Be wary of showing it to little ones if you don't want to explain the "fudge" scenes, but for just about anyone else this is a surefire hit. They made a sequel to this picture in 2012, but I've never seen it, and on IMDB it only has a 3.3 rating.
Yes, I know, some people insist that Die Hard isn't a Christmas movie, but it's a great choice for those who need an antidote to the sugary sweetness of most holiday fare. As the rest of this list proves, we're fans of somewhat perverse or at least comedic takes on Christmas, and this Bruce Willis action comedy delivers the quotable lines, humor, and Gen X sensibility that appeal to us at the holidays. It's lighter than The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) and slightly more realistic than Gremlins (1984), both of which also tend to make our annual viewing schedule. Alan Rickman makes a brilliant film debut as Hans Gruber, and Bonnie Bedelia is excellent as the hero's almost ex-wife. If you want to explore the debate and pop culture surrounding Die Hard as a Christmas movie, check out the new Netflix film, Love Hard (2021), a rom com that takes its name from this picture and that much more romantic holiday hit, Love, Actually (2003).
This list only scratches the surface of the holiday movie genre, and there are dozens of films out there to suit different tastes and moods. What are your five favorite holiday films? Let me know in the comments!
Thursday, November 18, 2021
Five Favorite Films: Marvel Movies
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
As a classic movie fan I'm a sucker for the 1940s setting of this first Captain America adventure, but it's the heart of this picture that brings me back again and again. Chris Evans is perfectly cast as an old-fashioned good guy with a steady moral compass, and I simply adore Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter (I'm still bitter about the cancellation of Agent Carter). Sebastian Stan begins a long but engrossing character arc as Steve's friend, Bucky, and it's refreshing to go back to this first outing and see him before his dark period in the Winter Soldier role.
Even though Edgar Wright left the project and was replaced by Peyton Reed as the director, Wright's distinctive sense of humor is still readily apparent in this smaller scale Marvel hero origin story. The zippy comedy, heist movie tropes, and casting all make this one a hit for me, and I also love its soft center theme of fathers who love their daughters. Paul Rudd, recently crowned the 2021 Sexiest Man Alive by People Magazine, deserves a lot of credit for merging the comedic and dramatic demands of his role as Scott Lang. The supporting cast of loser ex-con buddies is so much fun that it's great to see them reunited in Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018), and I hope we'll see them again in the upcoming Quantumania sequel.
Doctor Strange (2016)
Here's another pick that has a lot to do with my personal preferences as a fan; I love the supernatural side of both DC and Marvel comics, and I really enjoy Benedict Cumberbatch's work in general, so Cumberbatch joining the MCU as the Sorcerer Supreme is a real treat. The What If...? Disney Plus series has shown us that Stephen Strange's journey could have taken a much darker route, but in the main timeline story we see him develop as a character and overcome his hubris, despair, and frustration. Benedict Wong is a scene stealer as Wong, and I really enjoyed seeing him return for Shang-Chi. I also appreciate the fact that Dr. Strange saves the day not by fighting and punching but basically by annoying his opponent until Dormammu finally gives up. In a universe full of muscle gods, a hero who thinks his way through a problem deserves special attention.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Speaking of muscle gods, here's Chris Hemsworth back in the fray as Thor in the third and by far the best of the Thor stories to date. A hilarious script and direction by the brilliant Taika Waititi make all the difference in this picture, although it also has a fantastic cast, great action scenes, moments of grand dramatic gravitas, and some truly inspired use of Led Zeppelin. Jeff Goldblum runs away with his scenes, giving regular scene stealer Tom Hiddleston a run for his money, and Tessa Thompson is brilliant as Valkyrie. Cate Blanchett radiates gleeful malevolence as Hela, an Asgardian so dangerous and twisted she makes Loki look like a saint. If I were ranking these five films by preference rather than release date, Thor: Ragnarok would be my top pick. It's just that much fun.
Black Panther (2018)
It's not just respect for the tragically short career of Chadwick Boseman that makes me include this movie in my five favorites; it's a gorgeous, riveting action picture with a fabulous cast and a fascinating glimpse of Afrofuturism that sets it apart from all of the earlier Marvel movies. Boseman is pitch perfect as T'Challa, but the movie provides such good roles for women, too, especially Danai Gurira as Okoye and Letitia Wright as Shuri. The MCU has come a long way from Black Widow as the only girl in the boys' club, but Black Panther does a particularly good job of showcasing different female characters, with different talents, attitudes, and relationships, and even though I will miss T'Challa I'm excited to see where Wakanda Forever will take the remaining characters.
I thoroughly enjoyed Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and it might well displace one of these older movies in my top five over the next few months, but it's too early to say how many times I'll feel drawn to rewatch it. 2022 will bring us a lot of sequels featuring heroes we've already met, so we'll see if those stories can beat the appeal of the previous installments!
Monday, October 25, 2021
Killing Bill: Female Vengeance in THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE (1962)
The women's revenge narrative often hinges on rape as an obvious expression of masculine violence and misogyny, although mutilation and other forms of physical harm are also depicted. Hannie Caulder (1971), a Western that partly inspired Tarantino's Kill Bill movies, is one significant example of the first, while Gloria Grahame's disfigured moll in The Big Heat (1953) provides an example of the second. In The Brain That Wouldn't Die, Jan (Virginia Leith) is actually deprived of her entire body by her fiance's mad obsession. After he causes a car crash by driving recklessly toward his remote medical laboratory, Bill (Jason Evers) retrieves Jan's head from the wreckage and keeps it alive with his unethical experimental treatments. Jan has previously been shown as a woman who lives very much in her body; she can't wait to marry Bill and have children, and she demonstrates her physical desire for him very clearly. The loss of her body deprives her of these expected pleasures while also revealing to her the true nature of the man she planned to marry. Bill's scheme to acquire a new body for Jan offers her no comfort, since she realizes that he intends to murder an innocent woman to get it, and she feels very strongly that the transplanted body would be an unnatural horror.
|Before the crash, Jan is fully alive and eager to marry.|
We often talk about women's consent in sexual terms, in both fiction and real life situations, but medical consent is another component of women's bodily experience, especially when we look at the frequency with which women were denied medical autonomy in the past (and still are today, especially where their reproductive care is concerned). Bill assumes/usurps the right to make medical decisions for Jan. He keeps her head alive against her will, even when she begs for death. He intends to put her head on a stolen body of his choosing - one selected for his own prurient enjoyment - despite her objections. When Jan protests, Bill tapes her mouth. He feels that his authority as a man/surgeon/fiance gives him the right to violate Jan's wishes again and again, not to mention those of Peggy (Marilyn Hanold), the artist's model whose body Bill has decided to claim for Jan. While Bill provides an extreme example, there is plenty of real life history behind it. Well into the 20th century husbands, fathers, and other male relatives made medical decisions for women without their consent and often even without their knowledge. Women were considered too fragile or emotional to be in charge of their own medical care, and many dying women weren't told about their prognosis by "caring" men. Rex Harrison, for example, knew that his lover and then wife Kay Kendall was dying of leukemia, but he and her doctor told her it was just an iron deficiency. That took place from 1957 to 1959, so Jan's plight in the 1962 film is by no means outdated.
|Jan hates Bill for keeping her alive as a head in a pan.|
Deprived of her body and her ability to make her own decisions, Jan seems like a helpless victim, and Bill certainly thinks he has all the power, but Jan realizes that the experimental chemicals give her an uncanny ability to communicate with one of Bill's previous victims, a mutated captive made of amputated limbs and grafted tissue. She and the nameless prisoner plot their revenge against Bill and his complicit assistant, which they eventually accomplish in appropriately bloody fashion. Jan's hysterical laughter, existence as a disembodied head, and yearning for revenge present her as a monster, which is how she sees herself, too, but it's worth noting that Jan's moral compass is never compromised. Bill, the real monster, lacks empathy and see other people as his playthings, but Jan is determined to save Peggy while also punishing Bill. In the last scene of the movie, the mutant carries Peggy to safety while Jan remains in the burning lab with Bill's corpse, content with death and the justice she has wrought. This finale is also in keeping with the women's revenge narrative, although Jan has much more reason than most of her fellow avenging angels for being satisfied with her own death as the conclusion. Unlike the protagonist of Promising Young Woman (2020), for example, Jan is really already dead, and her release is what she herself has wanted all along.
|Bill plans to get a "perfect" body for Jan by killing Peggy.|
When we look at it from Jan's point of view, The Brain That Wouldn't Die becomes a fascinating variation on the women's revenge story, one that addresses some very real horrors for women in a pervasively misogynist culture that denies women bodily autonomy and free will. Jan is not a monster, despite her extreme physical condition; she's a heroine who overcomes disability and an abusive relationship to assert her right to dictate the terms of her own existence. She stops a madman's sadistic, ego-driven rampage and prevents him from claiming more victims. She liberates Bill's tortured captive, saves Peggy from being murdered, and unknowingly gets revenge for all of the other women Bill tried to abduct. The movie might be best known today as an example of cheap "schlock" horror, but there's a lot more going on in the tortured mind of The Brain That Wouldn't Die than one might at first expect. We just have to see it from the perspective in the pan.
Monday, October 18, 2021
Five Favorite Directors: Classic Horror
Even people who don't care for classic horror movies have probably heard of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Vincent Price, but behind every horror classic there's also a director asking for heavier fog, more menacing closeups, and louder screams. Alfred Hitchcock, although not primarily a horror director, might be the most familiar to modern viewers thanks to Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), and more recent masters of the genre include George Romero, John Carpenter, and Wes Craven, but my personal favorites tend to be the earlier icons whose work influenced everyone after them. Most of the films from these directors are light on gore and heavy on atmosphere, which is how I like my creepy midnight thrills, and many worthy contenders aren't listed here only because I limit myself to five. These are the directors I most often turn to when I want something spooky to send a shiver down my cinematic spine.
Browning is best remembered today for two horror classics, Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932), but his directorial career started with silent shorts in 1915, and he helmed a number of notable silent horror pictures before his date with Dracula. Browning's movies with Lon Chaney, "the man of a thousand faces" and a master of silent horror, are especially good; try The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown (1927), and West of Zanzibar (1928) for a sense of Browning's work before Dracula.
Like Browning, James Whale is best remembered today for his iconic Universal monster movies, including Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Whale's work combines the usual elements of horror with a very dark sense of humor that sometimes tips right over into black comedy, especially with Claude Rains in the lead role for The Invisible Man. In between these more famous films Whale also directed The Old Dark House (1932), a wonderful spooky house picture with his usual flair for mixing giggles with screams.
As the son of French director Maurice Tourneur, Jacques Tourneur grew up in the movie making business in both France and the US; his career really took off when he teamed up with RKO horror boss Val Lewton for films like Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Leopard Man (1943). Later Tourneur would make memorable pictures in a number of genres, but he returned to horror for Night of the Demon (1957) and The Comedy of Terrors (1963). Cat People is justly celebrated today for its moody ambience and loaded subtext, but I'm also very fond of I Walked with a Zombie for its imaginative revision of Jane Eyre.
Like Tourneur, Robert Wise enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with Val Lewton early in his career, even though he later became more famous as the Oscar-winning director of musicals like West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). His work in horror remains an important part of his oeuvre and the genre as a whole, with early Lewton projects like The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945) laying the foundation for the horror masterpiece, The Haunting (1963), which is so good that it alone justifies Wise's place in this list. Watch it with the lights out and the sound turned up, and you won't sleep a wink.
Roger Corman directed more than 50 movies, many of them low-budget shockers and now cult classics, and Corman has lived long enough to see himself become a true Hollywood legend. As much as I enjoy a really ridiculous B-movie romp like Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), my favorite Corman horror films are the Poe adaptations he made with Vincent Price, some of them more faithful than others but all of them very entertaining. House of Usher (1960) kicked off the series, but two later entries, The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) are probably my top picks for being less campy and more evocative of Edgar Allan Poe's works than a picture like The Raven (1963), even though that one is also a lot of fun.
Looking for even more classic horror directors? Try F.W. Murnau, Mario Bava, Mark Robson, and Terence Fisher for additional thrills and chills.
See also: "The Kiss That is the Kill: Sex and Death in Three Classic Vampire Movies"
Friday, October 8, 2021
Five Favorite Films: Halloween Treats
The Ghost Goes West (1935)This British production is probably the least well-known entry in this list, but it's absolutely worth tracking down. It has a number of plot points in common with the later picture, The Canterville Ghost (1944), but in this story the haunted castle gets moved to the United States by a wealthy American businessman (Eugene Pallette), and the ghost (Robert Donat) is forced to come along. Donat plays a double role here as both the ghost and his modern day descendant, which is handy for leading lady Jean Parker. More romantic comedy than ghost story, this is such fun that it deserves to be seen by more people, which is why I include it here. It also features the marvelous Elsa Lanchester in a supporting role.
I Married a Witch (1942)
Veronica Lake stars as Jennifer, the witch in question in this hilarious screwball comedy with a supernatural twist, and Fredric March is the cursed descendant of the man who burned her and her father (Cecil Kellaway) at the stake many centuries ago. When their spirits awaken from a long slumber, Jennifer and her dad intend to resume their persecution of the stuffy, wealthy Wooley family, but love upsets the plans for revenge. Fun special effects, a wicked sense of humor, and a fantastic cast make this a perfect pick for the season.
Cary Grant might not have liked his work in this adaptation of the darkly hilarious stage play, but audiences loved him and it so much that it has been a perennial favorite for decades. Frank Capra directs a pitch perfect cast, many of them reprising their roles from the stage production, and Jean Adair and Josephine Hull run away with every scene as the dotty old aunts whose "charity work" involves poisoning elderly men. Although there's nothing supernatural about the characters, the story takes place on Halloween and costars horror regular Peter Lorre; Raymond Massey plays the murderous brother whose role in the original play had been filled by Boris Karloff, but Karloff wasn't able to to reprise the role in this film.
The Canterville Ghost (1944)
Loosely adapted from the story by Oscar Wilde, this is a ghostly comedy with lots of laughs and a surprisingly sweet heart, thanks to charming performances by Charles Laughton, Robert Young, and Margaret O'Brien. Laughton stars as the ghost, Sir Simon, who hopes to break the curse of his long, lonely existence by demonstrating the courage that eluded him in life. When a group of American soldiers are stationed at the Canterville family castle during World War II, Sir Simon meets Cully (Young), who might be able to help him. O'Brien's role as a central character and the themes of courage and friendship make this movie a great choice for younger viewers.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Universal was happy to transform its iconic monsters into comedy stars for this wonderful installment in the Abbott and Costello series of pictures, in which the duo play Chick (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur (Lou Costello), two hapless freight handlers who unwittingly get tangled up with Dracula (Bela Lugosi), the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.), and Frankenstein's monster (Glenn Strange). Hilarious antics ensue as the monsters scheme to remove Wilbur's brain and use it to restore Frankenstein's creature. Even if kids haven't seen the original Universal movies starring these characters, they'll recognize the monsters and get a kick out of this delightful film, but it's a must-see for classic horror fans of all ages.
For even more fun Halloween classics, try Topper (1937) and its sequels, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), Bell Book and Candle (1958), and The Comedy of Terrors (1963).
Monday, September 20, 2021
Five Favorite Films: Bette Davis
Of Human Bondage (1934)
Davis' big breakout role was one she had to fight for, but she proved herself more than capable of playing Mildred, the opportunistic working class girl who seduces Leslie Howard's aimless protagonist and then spirals into self-destruction. Davis begins the drama as a pert, attractive waitress but deteriorates horrifically as her character turns to alcohol, drugs, and prostitution; never content to play only glamorous parts, she would continue to embrace such challenging roles throughout her career. She picked up her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress for this picture but would not win until the next year for her leading role in Dangerous (1935).
|Of Human Bondage (1934)|
Released the year before Gone with the Wind (1939), this Civil War tale of a Southern belle bad girl stars Davis as stubborn, headstrong Julie, who wrecks her relationship with her beau (Henry Fonda) by violating the social norms of their community. Julie then wants to mend the damage but finds a Northern bride has filled the spot she carelessly abandoned; an outbreak of yellow fever throws her set into a panic but gives Julie a long-desired opportunity to show how much she has changed. While the plantation setting of the story raises problems for modern audiences, I do like the redemptive arc for Davis' protagonist and her great performance, which earned her second and final win for the Best Actress Oscar.
Now, Voyager (1942)
Davis shines in this beloved melodramatic romance, in which nervous, oppressed Charlotte Vale gets a makeover and a second chance at happiness after she's whisked away from her domineering mother for treatment at a sanitarium. Paul Henreid plays the unhappily married love of her life, who can't bring himself to leave his difficult wife but takes comfort in the bond that develops between Charlotte and his troubled young daughter. Davis achieves one of her many remarkable transformations during the early part of the picture, culminating in a polished, elegant Charlotte whom her relatives hardly recognize. She picked up her seventh nomination for Best Actress for this role, while Max Steiner won for the picture's excellent score.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Always willing to be ugly for the sake of a juicy role, Davis is relentlessly awful in both appearance and manner as the titular Baby Jane in this hagsploitation classic. While some dismiss it as camp, the tragedy and horror of the picture are very real in the roles played by Davis and Joan Crawford, who famously clashed during production. Baby Jane, undeniably deranged and even violent, at first comes across as simply villainous but slowly reveals the grief, pain, and confusion that have driven her to such a state. Davis picked up the final Best Actress nomination of her career for this performance, which I appreciate more the older I get.
|The Whales of August (1987)|
The Whales of August (1987)
I find this quiet drama deeply moving every time I revisit it, and Davis gives a brilliant performance in this, her penultimate role and the last picture she actually completed; she walked off production of Wicked Stepmother (1989), which would be her final screen credit. Davis and silent star Lillian Gish play elderly, widowed sisters spending the summer in a New England cottage, and the rest of the characters are also played by iconic stars in their own twilight years. Gish actually plays the younger of the sisters even though she was 93 at the time, but Davis had survived breast cancer, a mastectomy, a massive stroke, and a broken hip, which made her utterly credible as the frailer elder sister. Davis made dozens of movies that are more celebrated, but this one is special for showing how her talent and determination to keep working stayed with her in spite of everything else that happened in her long career.
This is by no means a list of Bette Davis' five best films; it's a list of personal favorites that reflect my own tastes. Other Davis fans might offer a completely different list of favorites, and there are plenty of outstanding options to choose. For more Bette Davis hits, see The Petrified Forest (1936), Dark Victory (1939), The Letter (1940), and All About Eve (1950).
You'll find more full reviews of Bette Davis' films in my book, Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching, available in the Amazon Kindle Store.
Thursday, September 16, 2021
Five Favorite Films: Val Lewton
Cat People (1942)
The most famous of Lewton's pictures and arguably the best, Cat People features direction by Jacques Tourneur and a terrific performance from Simone Simon, who stars as the Serbian bride of a bland American engineer (Kent Smith). The couple can't consummate the marriage because Irena fears that doing so will transform her into a murderous cat, but the strain on the relationship also threatens to drive her to extremes. Female monsters are rare in classic horror, which makes Irena even more important, as she struggles with many of the same fears and doubts that plague Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) in The Wolf Man (1941).
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
Tourneur also directs this dreamy post-colonial revision of Jane Eyre, which stars Frances Dee as a Canadian nurse who travels to the West Indies to care for the comatose wife of a plantation manager (Paul Holland). Local rumors say that the wife has been turned into a zombie, which sets Nurse Betsy on a quest to find out the truth about her patient and cure her if possible. Important supporting performers include the calypso musician Sir Lancelot and Edith Barrett as the manager's mother. This one is a must for fans of the many Jane Eyre inspired movies that followed the success of Rebecca in 1940.
Tasked with crafting a sequel to the successful original, Lewton instead produced this completely different story about a lonely little girl (Ann Carter) and her "imaginary" friend, using the love triangle from the original as the setup for the adult characters. Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) is still a bland stick but has replaced the dead Irena with more conventional wife Alice (Jane Randolph), and they don't know what to make of their sad, misfit daughter, Amy. Only the ghostly Irena (Simone Simon) brings the child company and comfort, but Irena might not be able to help Amy against the paranoid threat posed by a kindly neighbor's mentally unstable daughter. Robert Wise, who was brought in to finish the picture, earned his first directing credit for this film.
The Body Snatcher (1945)
Wise is also the director for this adaptation of a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, which features horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi as well as Henry Daniell as a doctor who benefits from the infamous corpse stealing trade of 19th-century Edinburgh. The story capitalizes on the notoriety of the Burke and Hare crimes of the period and provides a truly menacing role for Karloff as Cabman John Gray, the body snatcher of the title. Karloff would end up getting some of his best roles in Lewton pictures and was perfectly suited for the more intellectual, artistic brand of horror that the producer specialized in making.
This original story about the infamous 18th-century London madhouse is a personal favorite; Lewton got the idea from William Hogarth's Bedlam scene in The Rake's Progress and even stages a shot to recreate the image. Anna Lee stars as feisty comic actress Nell Bowen, who makes enemies of the wrong people and is thus falsely identified as a madwoman and locked up in Bedlam, where the villainous keeper (Boris Karloff) grossly abuses his authority. Mark Robson directs this unabashedly artsy period piece, which might not appeal to everyone but hits all the right buttons for those familiar with Hogarth's prints and the history of the notorious asylum.
For even more films from Val Lewton, check out The Leopard Man (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), and Isle of the Dead (1945). Lewton might have made more great films but died tragically young of a heart attack in 1951, at the age of 46.
See also: "Hogarthian Gothic: Imagining the Madhouse in Val Lewton's Bedlam"
Thursday, September 9, 2021
Five Favorite Films: Leslie Howard
Howard plays the lead in this adaptation of the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, which also provided a breakout role for Bette Davis as the opportunistic young woman who almost destroys her lover as well as herself. Hapless artist Philip is exactly the kind of dramatic role that suits Howard; he's full of good intentions but not particularly strong against temptation or inertia, an easy mark for a schemer like Davis' Mildred.
Although Howard is not an actor we really associate with the swashbuckler, he delivers a delightful performance in this adaptation of the classic adventure tale. It's especially fun to watch Howard simper in his character's public persona as a vain, shallow fop in order to protect his real passion for rescuing victims of the Reign of Terror. Merle Oberon plays Sir Percy Blakeney's conflicted French wife, who reluctantly agrees to help capture the Scarlet Pimpernel without realizing that her own husband is the hero himself.
|Bette Davis and Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest|
The Petrified Forest (1936)
Howard had starred in the original stage version of this story before Hollywood decided to film it, and it was his insistence that his stage costar Humphrey Bogart also reprise his role that finally launched Bogart's successful film career. Howard plays a world weary writer whose aimless wandering brings him to a moment of purpose and tragedy on the edge of the Petrified Forest, where he meets both an artistic young girl with dreams of Paris (Bette Davis) and a dangerous gangster at the end of the line (Bogart). Alan Squier is another perfect Leslie Howard role, a mix of weakness, intelligence, and disaffection with the world with whom we sympathize in spite of his obvious flaws.
It's Love I'm After (1937)
This clever little comedy reunites Howard with leading lady Bette Davis and brings Olivia de Havilland into the mix as a starstruck fan who has fallen in love with Howard's character. Howard and Davis play a pair of actors whose stormy personal relationship spills over into their performances, but even more chaos ensues when Howard agrees to behave as badly as possible to cool his fan's ardor so that her fiance (Patric Knowles) can get her affection back. This delightful, underrated gem is well worth tracking down for fans of any of the three leads.
Howard earned his second and final Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance in this film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's influential play, in which Howard plays the irascible Professor Henry Higgins to Wendy Hiller's Eliza Doolittle. Hiller also picked up an Oscar nod for her role, and the two make for an electric pair as they battle their way through Eliza's transformation from Cockney flower girl to polished society lady. This is another film where Howard gets to demonstrate his talent for comedy, although his Higgins can be so nasty and selfish that he's by far the most unlikable of the characters in this list. If you like My Fair Lady (1964), you definitely need to see this earlier version of the same story.
Leslie Howard's film career was cut tragically short in 1943 when his plane was shot down by the Nazis during a trip to support the British cause against the Germans. Howard had been an outspoken advocate for Britain against the Nazis, leading to speculation that the plane was intentionally targeted because of Howard's presence. In addition to stage roles, he left behind 33 film appearances, so there are numerous other movies where you can see Howard in action, including The Animal Kingdom (1932), Berkeley Square (1933), and Romeo and Juliet (1936).
Tuesday, September 7, 2021
A Tallulah Tribute in CRUELLA (2021)
One small detail that endeared the movie's creators to me is the inclusion of a quick but much appreciated tribute to Huntsville native and stage legend Tallulah Bankhead, whose throaty laugh, mannerisms, and infamous London driving inspired the Disney animators who first brought Cruella to life on screen. In an early scene in Cruella, the young Estella is in a room where Tallulah appears on a small television screen, her head thrown back as she delivers her deliciously raucous laugh. The scene on the television comes from Tallulah's most memorable film, Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944), in which Tallulah stars as a reporter trapped on a small vessel with other survivors of a German U-boat attack. It's the best place for modern viewers to see the legendary star in action, although she also made memorable appearances in Stage Door Canteen (1943), A Royal Scandal (1945), and the 1960s Batman TV series.
The Cruella of the 1961 Disney film is an absolute villain who schemes to make fur coats out of puppies, but the Cruella embodied by Emma Stone is perhaps more like Tallulah herself, a complicated, flawed, sometimes bad and sometimes mad woman riding a tidal wave of misadventures through an unconventional but always interesting life. In fact, a biopic about Tallulah Bankhead would make an amazing movie and probably present an Oscar opportunity for the actress able to play her. Until some studio decides to make that movie, or adapt one of several stage plays about her life, Cruella is as close as we're going to get.
For more about Tallulah Bankhead:
"Tallulah Bankhead's Huntsville Roots: Maple Hill Cemetery"
Friday, April 30, 2021
Classic Films in Focus: THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE (1958)
Dee fills the title role as Jane, an American teenager who comes to London to visit her English father, Lord Broadbent (Rex Harrison), and his new wife, Sheila (Kay Kendall). Unfortunately for Jane, Sheila is goaded by her gossipy cousin Mabel (Angela Lansbury) into launching Jane into the debutante season, partly because Sheila never got to be a debutante herself due to World War II. Jane finds the English boys a bore, especially the tiresome David Fenner (Peter Myers), whom Sheila wants Jane to steal from Mabel's daughter Clarissa (Diane Clare) and marry. Instead Jane falls for fellow American and professional drummer David Parkson (John Saxon), a far more attractive contender but not at all what Sheila has in mind.
Much of the humor underpinning the plot revolves around the silliness of the debutante season (though never explicitly addressing its patriarchal treatment of young women as commodities). Jimmy Broadbent is run ragged by the whole affair as his wife whips them from ball to ball in pursuit of the vicarious social triumph she never had, but the ball scenes run together for the audience as much as they do for the inebriated and sleep-deprived lord. I find it odd that Jane doesn't know anything about debutantes or "coming out" to society, since wealthy Southern families widely practiced this elaborate custom when I was growing up, and here in Huntsville the local symphony guild still indulges in the presentation of well-heeled young ladies as part of its annual events. Jane's ignorance gives the movie an excuse for the exposition, but it hardly seems necessary. Even more troublesome is the cavalier attitude toward David Fenner's attempts to force himself on Jane; it turns out that he's a habitual offender, too, only nobody seems to care because he's exactly the sort of privileged young male who gets away with awful behavior. I'd like the movie better if the ending involved some comeuppance for this repulsive character.
The thin, dated nature of the plot keeps The Reluctant Debutante in the minor leagues of classic movies, but the cast makes it worth watching in spite of its flaws. Harrison and Kendall, who had recently married in real life, have a lovely chemistry together, which the viewer experiences as bittersweet after learning that Kendall would be dead of leukemia a year later, and that Harrison knew she was dying but kept the truth from her. Kendall's Sheila has so much energy and zest for life that she's an irresistible force of nature; Jimmy and Jane never have a chance of withstanding her, and all they can do is go along while trying to nudge her into changing course. Sandra Dee, still at the very start of her film career, has ample sweetness and charm as Jane, and it's easy to see why audiences fell in love with her, while John Saxon is solid if understated as her love interest. Peter Myers is actually quite funny as David Fenner when he's droning on about traffic routes instead of assaulting young women, but most of his later career was in television rather than film. The role of Mabel is a waste of Angela Lansbury's boundless talent, even though she's perfectly capable of leaning into an unlikable character.
If The Reluctant Debutante leaves you eager for more of Kay Kendall, try Les Girls (1957) or Once More, with Feeling! (1960), which would be her final completed film before her death in 1959. Rex Harrison would go on to marry three more times and win the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in My Fair Lady (1964). Sandra Dee and John Saxon also starred together in The Restless Years (1958) before Dee found fame with Gidget (1959) and Tammy Tell Me True (1961), but Saxon enjoyed the more durable career with nearly 200 roles, many of them in horror films, before his death in 2020 at the age of 83. Vincente Minnelli had won his Best Director Oscar for his previous film, Gigi (1958), which appeared the same year as The Reluctant Debutante, but Father of the Bride (1950) might make for a better double feature of his films.
Wednesday, March 17, 2021
Classic Movie Stars on THE MUPPET SHOW
For many viewers who were kids in the 70s, these guest spots might well have been their first introduction to entertainers from their parents' or grandparents' eras, which means that Gen Xers in particular might have been meeting Milton Berle, Edgar Bergen, Danny Kaye, and Gene Kelly for the first time. Other stars were much more familiar to the average 10 year old of 1978, including Mark Hamill, Don Knotts, and Rich Little, while many of the British guests would have baffled American children and adults alike (the show was filmed in London, so British guests were much easier to acquire). Of course, today even the "current" stars of 1978 look like classic ones, but every season of the show mixed classic stars, current American celebrities, and British talents to provide a weirdly educational cultural smorgasbord for unsuspecting child viewers. Singers and dancers had obvious appeal, as did comedians, but that didn't stop the show from featuring action stars like James Coburn and Roger Moore or magician Doug Henning. The classic movie stars were just part of the mix.
Each season has at least one classic star, although some were better known in the 70s than others thanks to musical careers, television roles, or later film roles. In Season One, you can see Rita Moreno, Lena Horne, Peter Ustinov, Vincent Price, and Ethel Merman. Season Two offers Don Knotts, Milton Berle, Edgar Bergen, George Burns, Julie Andrews, Peter Sellers, and Bob Hope. Showing up in Season Three are Danny Kaye, Harry Belafonte, and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Season Four is comparatively light on classic movie stars but includes Liza Minnelli, while Season Five ends the series with James Coburn, Tony Randall, and Gene Kelly. Each of these is worth watching, but the episodes with Moreno, Price, Andrews, and Belafonte are particularly good, so start there if you're a classic film fan but not someone with a lot of previous experience with The Muppet Show.
A handful of the classic film stars who appear on the series also have cameos in the original 1979 film, The Muppet Movie, where you can spot Bob Hope, Milton Berle, and James Coburn along with Orson Welles, Telly Savalas, and many younger stars who also appeared as guests on the show. Many of the Muppet films are also streaming on Disney Plus, so if the classic stars on The Muppet Show whet your appetite for more of Kermit and the gang, there's plenty of content available.
Want to know everything there is to know about The Muppets? Head on over to my friends at Tough Pigs to find news, articles, podcasts, and commentary! You can also check out the essay anthology, Kermit Culture, that Anissa Graham and I edited; it's available in paperback and Kindle editions at Amazon. Our second anthology, The Wider Worlds of Jim Henson, looks at films and other productions like The Dark Crystal, Fraggle Rock, and Labyrinth.
Friday, February 19, 2021
Classic Films in Focus: THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (1934)
Howard stars as the English gentleman Sir Percy Blakeney, who rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine in the bloodiest days of the French Revolution. To protect his mission, Percy presents himself as a vain, foolish lightweight in London, where French spies are doggedly trying to unmask the hero and his band. Even Percy's beautiful French wife, Marguerite (Merle Oberon), doesn't know the truth, which leaves her unhappy with her seemingly shallow husband. When the villainous Chauvelin (Raymond Massey) offers to trade Marguerite's captured brother for the Pimpernel, she doesn't know that her husband's life is on the line. Percy, meanwhile, launches his own effort to rescue his brother-in-law and other prisoners of Robespierre's merciless regime.
He might not be engaging in any sword fights, but Leslie Howard is very much the star of this picture, and he gives a delightful performance as both daring, brilliant hero and outrageously refined fop. The playboy act that hides a secret identity is, of course, well-known to fans of Zorro and Batman, but Howard's Percy takes pains to be as vapid and useless as possible. He abandons any interest in preserving his dignity or reputation, even to his own wife, mainly because he believes that she exposed a French family to arrest and execution before her departure from France. The tension between Howard and Oberon crackles as they alternately long for and distrust one another; they duel with sharp glances and burning hearts rather than swords, but they're really the chief combatants in this tale. Merle Oberon is perfectly cast as the passionate, fascinating Marguerite; we understand why Percy loves her even when he thinks the worst of her, and she carries the third act in truly heroic fashion. Sir Percy fights with his disguises and schemes rather than weapons, which makes him a more cerebral hero than some of his swashbuckling brethren, but his penchant for dressing up connects him with Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Zorro, and other clever tricksters, and the intellectual nature of the Pimpernel's heroism suits Howard really well.
While it eschews the violence of duels, The Scarlet Pimpernel endeavors to convey the horrors of the French Revolution as poignantly as possible, especially in the opening scenes of the film. You won't actually see heads chopped off and held high for the cheering crowds, but you might think you did because of the careful way the shots are constructed. The most powerful scene unfolds in the prison where the former aristocrats await their fate; the camera lingers especially on women and young children, some innocently playing or passing the time, others posed like martyrs with their eyes turned toward Heaven. Here we are introduced to Suzanne de Tournay (Joan Gardner) and her parents, whom the Pimpernel risks his own life to save. They help us invest in the plight of the overthrown aristocrats and sympathize with Sir Percy's cause even if we know the gross inequality and lofty ideals that first set the Revolution in motion. The movie ends with the Revolution still underway, but most people know that the mastermind, Robespierre, who in the film gives the fictional Chauvelin his orders, would meet the guillotine himself in 1794. By the end of the Reign of Terror, almost 17,000 people had been executed.
A TV movie adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel appeared in 1982 and is beloved by many Gen Xers; it's well worth tracking down if you want a different take on the story. If you enjoy seeing Leslie Howard in quirkier roles, see It's Love I'm After (1937) and Pygmalion (1938). Howard returned to a Pimpernel inspired role in Pimpernel Smith (1941), this time rescuing victims of the Nazis in Germany. Don't miss Merle Oberon in The Dark Angel (1935), Wuthering Heights (1939), and The Lodger (1944). Harold Young, who directed The Scarlet Pimpernel, is not particularly well known today, but his career includes some minor horror entries like The Mummy's Tomb (1942), The Frozen Ghost (1945), and The Jungle Captive (1945).
Thursday, February 11, 2021
Classic Films in Focus: THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS (1960)
Cushing plays the real life receiver of the corpses, Dr. Knox, who doesn't much care how he gets the cadavers that supply his medical students with "subjects" for study. Knox's constant demand for fresh bodies keeps the local grave robbers busy, but Burke (George Rose) and Hare (Pleasence) stumble into the trade when one of Burke's lodgers dies still owing the rent, and Hare realizes that there's an easy way to turn the loss into a gain. Soon the pair are dispatching lodgers and locals at a brisk pace and lining their pockets with Knox's guineas, even as Knox's assistant, Dr. Mitchell (Dermot Walsh) begins to suspect the cadavers' origins. Meanwhile, Knox's troubled student, Chris (John Cairney), discovers a different part of Edinburgh's underbelly when he begins a romance with prostitute Mary (Billie Whitelaw), but the lovers prove to be too close to the murderers' orbit for their own good.
The performances of the main characters drive the interest here, with Rose and Pleasence like a comedy duo from hell as the opportunistic killers. They're almost cartoonish in their exaggerated appearance and mannerisms, but once they start knocking off their neighbors they become really unnerving. The attacks on Mary and Daft Jamie (both real victims of the historical killers) drive home the violence of the acts but also highlight the differences between the two murderers, with Hare feverishly unhinged and Burke brutally cruel. Both men are monsters without any humanity in them, but they're fascinating monsters nonetheless. Cushing provides some contrast to the pair as the erudite but ethically questionable doctor, with the actor as reliable as ever in his role. Still, the film pulls its punches with Knox, trying to invest him with some redeeming qualities through the devotion of his niece (June Laverick), his assistant, and his many students. Neither the situation presented in the picture nor the historical record justify Knox's escape from punishment for his part in the crimes, and the scenes of Knox's domestic life do nothing to advance the plot. Of the secondary characters, Mary is the most interesting and tragic, even though every viewer starts the picture knowing that a hard-drinking prostitute has very little life expectancy in this kind of story.
The Flesh and the Fiends would be a better picture without the niece's romantic subplot and with more emphasis on the other characters who aid or fall victim to the killers' schemes, and its artificial studio atmosphere doesn't do the sublime creepiness of period Edinburgh justice. The nudity of the continental cut was provocative for 1960 but pretty tame even by the standards of the 1970s and thus not a real concern for a modern audience. The horror of the murders and the sad fate awaiting the victims are the compelling elements of the story, although the rough justice meted out to the killers provides some satisfaction while also highlighting the extreme privilege that protects men like Knox. In short, this isn't the best Burke and Hare picture of the lot, and it's certainly not the best of Cushing's horror roles, but there's enough here to warrant a viewing for fans of the genre and its primary players. Pleasence alone is worth the time and effort required.
John Gilling, who wrote and directed The Flesh and the Fiends, also made The Gamma People (1956), Fury at Smuggler's Bay (1962), and The Mummy's Shroud (1967). If you're interested in more horror inspired by Burke and Hare, try The Body Snatcher (1945), Horror Maniacs (1948), Burke & Hare (1972), or Burke and Hare (2010). A visit to modern Edinburgh reveals the enduring appeal of the gruesome history of Burke and Hare, where you can find their crimes recreated at The Edinburgh Dungeon or see the actual skeleton of William Burke on display at the Anatomical Museum. You can also find walking tours devoted to tracing the steps of the murderers and their victims.
As of February 2021, The Flesh and the Fiends is available for streaming on the horror subscription service, Shudder.
Friday, January 29, 2021
2020 Movie Log in Review
As we all know, 2020 was a year unlike any other. With the pandemic raging and constant political crises unfolding, we needed movies to comfort us more than ever but couldn't leave the house to enjoy them. My 2020 movie log reflects the fact that I usually had company on the couch and that our collective tastes leaned toward movies that took our minds off the overwhelming problems of the day. With that in mind, here's the log for 2020.
But I'm a Cheerleader! (1999)
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017)
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)
Big Business (1988)
How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
The Spiral Staircase (1946)
The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)
Night of the Comet (1984)
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
To All the Boys: PS I Still Love You (2020)
Birds of Prey (2020)
The Fog (1980)
Shaun the Sheep: Farmaggedon (2019)
Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)
Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
Galaxy Quest (1999)
Tremors (1990) - yes, again
Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
The Mask of Zorro (1998)
Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (2020)
Smoke Signals (1998)
The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
The More the Merrier (1943)
The Women (1939)
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Star Trek Beyond (2016)
Star Trek Nemesis (2002)
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Star Trek: Generations (1994)
Escape from New York (1981)
Hail, Caesar! (2016)
Soap Dish (1991)
The Vast of Night (2019)
Batman Forever (1995)
The Princess and the Frog (2009)
The Haunted Mansion (2003)
The Invisible Man (1933)
Clash of the Titans (1981)
Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
The Creeping Flesh (1973)
Madam Satan (1930)
Mortal Kombat (1995)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
The Avengers (2012)
Jurassic Park (1993)
Jurassic World (2015)
Extra Ordinary (2020)
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Feel the Beat (2020)
Steel Magnolias (1989)
Jumanji: The Next Level (2020)
Emo - The Musical (2016)
Bill and Ted Face the Music (2020)
Countess Dracula (1971)
Twins of Evil (1971)
Stage Mother (2020)
Wonder Man (1945)
The Sons of Tennessee Williams (2010)
Fade to Black (1980)
Valley Girl (1983)
Suburban Gothic (2014)
Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
Paris is Burning (1990)
Theater of Blood (1973)
The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
The Monster Club (1981)
Vampires vs. the Bronx (2020)
Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1989)
The Addams Family (2019)
The Selling (2011)
How to Survive a Plague (2012)
The Petrified Forest (1936)
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
The Red House (1947)
Tremors: Shrieker Island (2020)
The Babysitter's Guide to Monster Hunting (2020)
Now, Voyager (1942)
The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010)
The Late Edwina Black (1951)
Hello, Dolly! (1969)
That Touch of Mink (1962)
Return of the Jedi (1983)
White Christmas (1954)
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Jingle Jangle (2020)
Rogue One (2016)
Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009)
A Christmas Carol (1938)
The Prom (2020)
Christmas Chronicles 2 (2020)
A Christmas Story (1983)
Die Hard (1988)
The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
The Two Towers (2002)
(And the first movie of 2021 was, of course, The Return of the King!)
Total movies watched in 2020: 128
Side note on 2020 viewing: We also watched all four seasons of Star Wars: Rebels this year, which was time well spent. Other TV series for 2020 included Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Lower Decks, The Mandalorian, Bridgerton, and the British comedy/quiz series, QI, which became a favorite bedtime show for the whole family.