Saturday, December 17, 2022

Classic Films in Focus: MURDER, HE SAYS (1945)

Fred MacMurray and Marjorie Main most famously appear together in the 1947 comedy classic, The Egg and I, but Murder, He Says (1945) offers an earlier pairing that pits the two against one another as hapless city slicker and unscrupulous backwoods crook. This comic mystery from director George Marshall bursts with physical comedy, sight gags, and cartoon peril that even the youngest viewers can appreciate; I first saw Murder, He Says many decades ago, and the memory of its loony fun has stayed with me ever since. MacMurray and Main are the chief attractions in this homicidal hoot, but the supporting cast features entertaining, offbeat performances from Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Peter Whitney, Barbara Pepper, and Helen Walker as MacMurray's attractive ally.

The story opens with locals concerned about the lawless Fleagle gang just as professional pollster Pete Marshall (MacMurray) arrives in town looking for his missing coworker. Pete soon discovers that his predecessor had a fateful encounter with the Fleagles, who also take Pete prisoner with the intention of murdering him. The Fleagle matriarch, Mamie (Marjorie Main), spares Pete so she can use him to get dying Grandma Fleagle (Mabel Paige) to reveal the location of a fortune in stolen cash, but Pete only acquires a confusing clue before the old lady expires. Everyone in the house rushes to find the loot while thwarting or betraying the others, but the confusion increases when two different women claiming to be Bonnie Fleagle turn up and demand the money.

The Fleagles are as nutty and sinister a gang as any madcap comedy could invent, but their wackiness overpowers their ability to terrorize. Main leads the pack as bad-tempered but duplicitous Mamie, alternating between imitations of human tenderness and cracks of her much-used whip. The role lets Main cut loose with an extreme version of her usual character type; Mamie is a rough matriarch with no heart of gold to redeem her brusque manner. Mamie's current husband, a mild-looking little man named Mr. Johnson, is played by comedy stalwart Porter Hall with sly amiability and amoral intentions. Peter Whitney does double duty as identical twins Bert and Mert, a hilarious gag that the picture fully commits to in repeated scenes that frequently have Whitney acting against himself. Of the other family members, Grandma and the real Bonnie (Barbara Pepper) make brief but memorable appearances, while Jean Heather gets a sympathetic but rather tragic role as Mamie's daughter, Elany, a pretty sort of Ophelia figure whose main job is to sing the nonsense song wherein the clue to the stolen cash is hidden. Together they're a lot to keep track of as the rapid action unfolds, especially in a house full of trap doors, secret passages, and even radioactive poison. Each character, though, is played with enough energy and comedy to be memorable, even if nobody can tell Bert and Mert apart.

MacMurray and Helen Walker play the sane characters in the midst of this mayhem, but their roles also have great comedy moments. Walker's tough act in her first scene gives way to her development as the hero's love interest and partner against the Fleagles, but she gamely keeps up the deception for much of the movie. While he starred in dramas and serious films like Double Indemnity (1944), MacMurray is also widely celebrated as a comedy lead in pictures like The Egg and I (1947), The Shaggy Dog (1959), and The Absent-Minded Professor (1961). Murder, He Says belongs very much to the second set, despite its title, which recalls a song written for the 1943 film, Happy Go Lucky, and predates the arrival of the Miss Marple comedy, Murder She Said, in 1961. As the unlucky but quick-thinking Pete, MacMurray is constantly on the move, falling into traps, climbing out windows, and always trying to stay one step ahead of the violent but incompetent Mert and Bert. His scenes with the imaginary ghost are especially fun and will remind viewers of Harvey (1950), which might well be intentional as the original stage version had appeared in 1944.

For more of Marjorie Main's comic roles, see The Women (1939), Heaven Can Wait (1943), and The Harvey Girls (1946). George Marshall's other comedy films include The Ghost Breakers (1940), Hold That Blonde! (1945), and Scared Stiff (1953). Look for Helen Walker in Brewster's Millions (1945), Cluny Brown (1946), and Call Northside 777 (1948). Jean Heather appears in supporting roles in Double Indemnity and Going My Way (1944), but her film career was cut short by a 1947 car accident that damaged her face. If the clue tune in Murder, He Says sounds weirdly familiar, you probably listen to NPR's All Things Considered, which features an identical song as its theme music.

You can find Murder, He Says on DVD or stream it on The Criterion Channel (as part of the December 2022 Screwball Comedy lineup).

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Classic Films in Focus: YOU NEVER CAN TELL (1951)

I've seen a lot of unusual classic movies, but You Never Can Tell (1951) might be in a class all by itself when it comes to animal themed reincarnation private detective mystery comedies. Directed by film writer Lou Breslow, this offbeat picture stars Dick Powell as a murdered German Shepherd who comes back to earth as a human private detective in order to reveal the identity of his killer. If that sounds like a lot to process, there's also a reincarnated racehorse (Joyce Holden) along for the trip to serve as his assistant! Imagine Angel on My Shoulder (1946) mixed with The Shaggy Dog (1959) and Murder, My Sweet (1944) and you begin to get an idea of You Never Can Tell. As bizarre as that sounds, the whole thing comes together to create a delightful romp with some hilarious performances from Powell and Holden as the animals in human form. Those who enjoy oddball comedies will find plenty of laughs in this wacky gem, and it's definitely zany enough to hold the attention of younger viewers who are used to cartoon antics.

Powell plays private detective Rex Shepherd, who was previously known as King before his untimely demise thanks to a killer who slipped the dog a fatal dose of poison. King was murdered because he inherited the immense fortune of his misanthropic owner, and public opinion says his caretaker, the lovely young Ellen Hathaway (Peggy Dow), is the most likely culprit, since she inherited the money after King's death. Determined to expose the real murderer, King asks to return to Earth as a human being, where he presents himself to Ellen as a private eye who can clear her name and get justice for King. The racehorse Golden Harvest comes with him to be his sidekick, Goldie (Holden), but the two have a limited amount of time before they must either return to animal heaven or be stuck living out second lives as human beings.

There's not really much mystery about the killer's identity here, since King/Rex knows who poisoned him, but the noir angle lets Powell play the hard-boiled detective type again after his 1944 outing as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet and subsequent noir roles. Rex looks and talks like a detective but also enjoys snacking on dog food, chasing balls, and sitting on previously forbidden chairs. His biggest problem is convincing the cops that he's not insane, a criminal, or both, since he can't exactly explain his situation to them. Powell is having fun here, but Joyce Holden proves a scene-stealer as Goldie, and she gallops off with the picture at every opportunity. Her costume, complete with ponytail, straw hat, stirrups belt, and horseshoes under the soles of her pumps, is funny on its own, but Holden's performance goes all in on the Kentucky Thoroughbred persona. The regular human characters are pretty tame in comparison: Peggy Dow has ample charm and warmth as Ellen, but Charles Drake is a bit bland as dog trainer turned suitor Perry Collins. We don't see him for long, but it's also worth mentioning that King is played by animal star Flame the Wonder Dog, here nearing the end of his acting career after starring as Shep, Rusty, and Pal in a string of features and shorts.

Rex watches as Goldie surveys the latest racing news.

The scenes on Earth feature constant gags and comic takes on the private detective plot, but the weirdest moments of You Never Can Tell take place in the afterlife, where King joins other dead animals to appear before their ruler/god, who is, of course, a lion. The cinematography for this segment makes the setting even stranger, and the scene goes on longer than you might want or expect, especially if you're showing this movie to kids who will immediately ask if animals have souls or go to heaven. The picture's commitment to this sequence is impressive, though, and it does show us why King wants to return to Earth and what he's giving up to do that. It also sets up the idea that other animals have become humans before (the movie even has an unwieldy portmanteau name for them - "humanimals"), so we aren't too surprised when Goldie identifies some of these animal people later in the picture. 

If You Never Can Tell sounds like a treat, check out other animal themed comedies like Francis (1950), Rhubarb (1951), and The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964). Lou Breslow was primarily a film writer; in addition to the story for You Never Can Tell, he also worked on A-Haunting We Will Go (1942), Murder, He Says (1945), and Bedtime for Bonzo (1951). Dick Powell rose to fame in musicals like 42nd Street (1933) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), while Peggy Dow also appears in Harvey (1950) and Bright Victory (1951). Look for Joyce Holden in The Milkman (1950), Iron Man (1951), and Private Eyes (1953).

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Classic Films in Focus: THE DIVORCE OF LADY X (1938)

While not on par with the greatest of the screwball comedies, The Divorce of Lady X (1938) delivers a thoroughly engaging British take on the genre with notable performances from two iconic stars. Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon lead a fairly small cast in this second adaptation of Gilbert Wakefield's play, Counsel's Opinion, the first having appeared under that title in 1933. Alexander Korda produced both versions and even brings back Binnie Barnes, who previously had Oberon's role, as one of the supporting characters, while Tim Whelan provides direction. Gorgeous Technicolor brightens the scenes, especially a fancy dress ball at the beginning of the picture, and the absurd comedy of the mistaken identity plot keeps the mood lively and light, even though Olivier's dialogue occasionally veers into sexist rants about the nature of womankind. Fans of the two stars and screwball comedy in general will appreciate The Divorce of Lady X for its madcap romance and the chance to see Olivier and Oberon paired in a lighter setting than the more famous Wuthering Heights (1939), which would be the last time the two shared the screen.

Olivier plays barrister Everard Logan, who specializes in divorce cases and has returned to London for an important trial when a heavy fog brings the entire city to a standstill for the night. He nabs the last room at a nearby hotel just before a mob of trapped party guests descends on the front desk demanding places to sleep. Unwilling to share his suite with a group of ladies, Everard nonetheless finds himself giving up his bed and his pajamas to the relentlessly charming Leslie (Merle Oberon), who tells him that she's a married woman and refuses to disclose her last name for the sake of discretion. When an incensed Lord Mere (Ralph Richardson) later appears in Everard's office to demand a divorce from his wife, the circumstance lead Everard to assume that Leslie is actually Lady Mere, making him the co-respondent in the impending trial.

Despite accounts of their dislike for one another, Olivier and Oberon generate plenty of chemistry onscreen, perhaps because love and loathing both radiate palpable energy that can be hard for the viewer to differentiate. Oberon's feline smile and wide eyes suit the scheming Leslie perfectly; like most screwball heroines, she takes control of the romance from the start and then upends every aspect of the hero's life. We learn quite early on that Leslie is not Lady Mere and is, in fact, a single young lady and perfectly acceptable love interest, but the ironic comedy of watching Everard suffer under his assumptions delights Leslie and the audience. Our introduction to the barrister sets him up as a selfish cad with a history of questionable liaisons, so we don't judge Leslie too harshly for manipulating him and then forcing him to prove his devotion repeatedly. Everard needs to be taught a few lessons, and Leslie, the granddaughter of a powerful judge, is just the girl to teach them. It's also great fun to watch Olivier, so lionized now for his serious Shakespearean roles, fumble about in pajamas or try to hide his face from the notice of Lady Mere's maid. His physical comedy here never rivals that of Cary Grant or Henry Fonda in their best screwball parts, but Everard has a lot in common with David Huxley and "Hopsy" Pike as he careens between pleasure and panic.

The reveal scene at the end falls a bit flat, and the movie feels like it could do more with its supporting characters, especially Binnie Barnes as the real Lady Mere and Morton Selton as Lord Steele, but the biggest hiccups are the moments of sexist nonsense. Everard has one scene where he humiliates a woman in court solely because of his frustration with Leslie; he rants about the deceptive, irrational nature of women and how they don't deserve independence and respect. Later, when he's happy, he gives the reverse of the same speech, now lauding women as helpmates and loving companions to men but still not recognizing them as human equals in any capacity. Everard wants to read Leslie - and all women - as either evil temptresses or angels in the house, but Leslie's character throughout the movie defies both categories. She's a bit of each, depending on the moment, but mostly she's a very intelligent, ambitious young woman who has no chance of her own career but sees Everard as husband material with potential for greatness. In a modern setting Leslie could be ambitious for herself, and she'd certainly make a cunning lawyer or politician with her ability to talk a complete stranger out of his room, his bed, and his pajamas for the night. It's grating to think that Everard can understand so little about her even after their misadventures end in mutual affection.

Olivier's big pictures following The Divorce of Lady X include Rebecca (1940), Pride and Prejudice (1940), and That Hamilton Woman (1941), but if you like him as a romantic comedy lead try The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), which pairs him with Marilyn Monroe. Merle Oberon also stars in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), The Cowboy and the Lady (1938), and That Uncertain Feeling (1941). Oberon and Binnie Barnes both get beheaded as wives in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), which came out the same year that Barnes played Leslie in Counsel's Opinion. Although he's hamming it up here as the foolish Lord Mere, Sir Ralph Richardson is remembered as a great Shakespearean stage actor whose extensive film credits include Anna Karenina (1948), The Heiress (1949), and Doctor Zhivago (1965).

Monday, November 7, 2022

Classic Films in Focus: OUT OF THE FOG (1941)

Director Anatole Litvak's Out of the Fog (1941) delivers on the promised atmosphere, with fog heavy piers and dark alleys providing a moody setting for this story of Brooklyn's waterfront working class, but the tone veers away from true noir thanks to the sympathetic and often very funny characters played by Thomas Mitchell and John Qualen. Adapted from a play called The Gentle People by Irwin Shaw, the movie also features compelling performances from John Garfield and Ida Lupino as more typical noir types, with Eddie Albert in a supporting role, but the title of the original work suggests that the characters played by Mitchell and Qualen, two old men who dream only of boats and fishing, are the real protagonists here. Still, Garfield and Lupino fans will find plenty of scenes with the stars to appreciate, and the picture's message about standing up to a bully is a pointed commentary on the looming American entrance into World War II.

Mitchell and Qualen play Jonah Goodwin and Olaf Johnson, two working men who are saving their money to buy a seaworthy fishing boat for a long imagined trip to Cuba. Their dream is threatened when small-time racketeer Harold Goff (John Garfield) forces them to pay protection money for the little boat they already own. Goff also takes up with Goodwin's restless daughter, Stella (Ida Lupino), who chafes at her bland future with boyfriend George (Eddie Albert) and is attracted by the money and excitement Goff offers. With Goff trying to steal both his savings and his daughter, Goodwin becomes increasingly desperate to make a stand against the dangerous gangster. 

Garfield's crook is a grinning menace, bright enough to cause trouble and make himself untouchable by the local law while happily spending his ill-gotten cash. In an especially ironic moment, he uses the money he just extorted from her father to buy Stella a bottle of perfume. Even Stella knows Goff is headed for a violent end, but she likes the excitement of being around him after her humdrum days as a telephone operator and nights on predictably cheap dates with George. Garfield and Lupino don't give us the impression that these two characters share any genuine romance; they're just thrill seekers using each other for their own ends. If they really loved each other this would be an entirely different, and much darker, story because it's clear that nothing good can come out of their relationship. George would undoubtedly be better off with a steadier girl than Stella, especially as a wife, but she doesn't seem any more devoted to him than to Goff. She's a young version of the two older women we see in the picture: her mother, played by Aline MacMahon as a shrill hypochondriac, and Caroline (Odette Myrtil), the domineering owner of the restaurant where Olaf works. Domestic bliss is a myth in this world.

Counterbalancing the classic noir setup are Mitchell and Qualen as the kindly old men, whose scenes without Garfield generally involve fussing about their boat, dodging their disagreeable women, and debating the merits of making a stand against Goff. Mitchell, a brilliant character actor with iconic appearances in Stagecoach (1939), Gone with the Wind (1939), and It's a Wonderful Life (1946), deftly navigates the shifts between gentle comedy, paternal suffering, and hardened resolution. Qualen acts more as his sidekick but perfectly embodies the cook's mild-mannered, philosophical nature. Given the noir atmosphere of the picture the two seem destined for victimization, but the third act sees them rally against their oppressor, first through the useless court of law and then through their own devices. Throughout the narrative they make an argument to the audience about the importance of pushing back against an insatiable antagonist who only takes more and more if left to operate unchecked. The parallels between Goff and Nazi Germany aren't meant to be subtle, especially with Jonah and Olaf frequently punctuating their conversations with discussions of what America ought to be.

Lupino and Garfield also starred in The Sea Wolf (1941) the same year they made Out of the Fog. Garfield would go on to a particularly memorable noir role in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), while Lupino would star in The Man I Love (1946), Road House (1948), and On Dangerous Ground (1951). Thomas Mitchell is easy to find given his prominent roles in some of Hollywood's greatest hits, but look for more of prolific supporting player John Qualen in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Casablanca (1942), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Anatole Litvak also directed the noir classic, Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Director for The Snake Pit (1948). Moontide (1942) makes a particularly good follow-up to Out of the Fog because it reunites Lupino and Mitchell in another waterfront noir, this time costarring Jean Gabin and directed by Archie Mayo.

Friday, November 4, 2022

Classic Films in Focus: THE DARK CORNER (1946)

Henry Hathaway directed the very solid Fox noir, The Dark Corner (1946), which features genre standouts like Mark Stevens, William Bendix, and Clifton Webb, but most viewers will be drawn to the picture for Lucille Ball, an actress not normally known for noir roles but perfectly at home as the loyal heroine of this romantic detective mystery. The love story between the private eye and his secretary lightens the overall mood in a tale of betrayal, deception, and revenge, but we get plenty of hard-boiled action thanks to Stevens' scenes with Bendix, who knows how to make the most of a tough guy role. With plenty of double crosses and twists to keep the audience guessing, The Dark Corner has everything a noir fan could want, even if it doesn't spin as nasty a plot as some of the genre's darkest gems.

Mark Stevens stars as private detective Bradford Galt, who's trying to rebuild his life after a frame job by a crooked former partner in San Fransisco stuck him with a two year prison sentence. He's making good progress with his new office and his attractive secretary, Kathleen (Lucille Ball), at least until it looks like his old foe, Jardine (Kurt Kreuger), is back to torment him again. Galt's efforts to to learn the truth about his latest string of bad luck set him on the trail of Jardine, a shady henchman (William Bendix), and a wealthy art collector named Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb), whose beautiful wife is Jardine's latest conquest.

Stevens is well cast in the detective role, which requires him to shift between hard-boiled violence and budding romance with Ball. His good looks and jawline make him an attractive leading man, and he's equally capable of making eyes at his leading lady and throwing punches at his male costars. Ball, of course, already has that star power about her, and her Kathleen quickly emerges as a very compelling character, practical but good-hearted, and smart enough to be the detective herself. Too often noir detectives ignore Kathleen's type in favor of smoky-eyed femme fatales, but luckily for Kathleen she doesn't have any competition in that department. It's always fascinating to see Lucille Ball in her roles before TV stardom made her an icon; we think of her now as a goofy comedian, but she can be glamorous and serious when the role allows.

The supporting players spread out our attention between them fairly evenly, partly in order to keep us guessing about their motives and relationship to Galt's predicament. Kurt Kreuger is suitably smooth as the blackmailing serial adulterer who makes wealthy married women pay for falling in love with him, and Clifton Webb oozes his trademark sinister charm as the art lover who has acquired a much younger and very alluring wife. Cathcart's obsession with his wife, Mari (Cathy Downs), recalls that of Robert Browning's speaker in "My Last Duchess," particularly when we see him pull back a curtain to reveal a portrait whose subject looks remarkably like her. If Mari read more poetry she might know better than to tempt Cathcart's jealous wrath. Bendix enjoys a little more screen time than his fellow cast members because he handles the dirty work of persecuting Galt, but he's so good as a heavy that the audience can't complain. Reed Hadley drifts into the picture for a few scenes as policeman Frank Reeves, a local cop who wants to make sure Galt sticks to the straight and narrow path of legality after his prison stint.

If you like Lucille Ball in The Dark Corner, be sure to see her in Lured (1947), in which she plays a dancer who turns detective to help Scotland Yard catch a serial killer. Mark Stevens' other noir films include The Street with No Name (1948), Between Midnight and Dawn (1950), The Big Frame (1952), and Time Table (1956). William Bendix earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Wake Island (1942), but be sure to see him in Lifeboat (1944), The Blue Dahlia (1946), and, for contrast, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1949). Don't miss the scene-stealing Clifton Webb in Laura (1944), The Razor's Edge (1946), Sitting Pretty (1948), and Cheaper by the Dozen (1950). Henry Hathaway was primarily a director of Westerns, but his other notable noir films include Kiss of Death (1947), Call Northside 777 (1948), and the outstanding Marilyn Monroe noir, Niagara (1953).

Monday, October 31, 2022

LEGO Tribute to NOSFERATU (1922)

Happy Halloween! This year I decided to celebrate spooky season with a LEGO tribute to one of the greatest horror movies ever made, Nosferatu (1922). Max Schreck created an iconic character as the creepy, plague carrying Count Orlok, the film's replacement for Count Dracula (because they couldn't get permission to make an actual adaptation of Stoker's novel). While the setting here is not strictly faithful to the familiar shots of Orlok in the doorway, I felt that the rats and spiders helped to convey the mood of the picture (you can't have Nosferatu without rats!).

Just like a vampire, this great silent movie rose again from the dead after Stoker's estate demanded that the prints be destroyed, and we're lucky to be able to watch Nosferatu today. The original film was remade in 1979 (with Klaus Kinski), celebrated in song by Blue Oyster Cult in 1977, and parodied to great effect in the 2000 film, Shadow of the Vampire, with Willem Dafoe earning an Oscar nomination for his delightfully weird performance as Max/Orlok.


Thursday, October 6, 2022

From Phantom to Phenom: The Evolution of Uncle Deadly

Uncle Deadly made his first appearance in the Vincent Price episode of The Muppet Show in 1977, but the four decades since have seen him evolve considerably from a periodic secondary character to a core member of the ensemble with major roles in several of the more recent Muppet productions, including the feature film The Muppets (2011), the 2015 ABC series, The Muppets, and Disney’s 2020 shortform streaming series, Muppets Now. As his significance has grown, so has the development of his personality. He first appeared as a monster character who occasionally contributed to situations that called for the creepier members of the extended cast, but the Uncle Deadly of today is quite a different fellow from the menacing thespian fiend of the distant past. Indeed, Uncle Deadly might be one of the Muppets’ most dynamic characters, partly because his ascension to central player status arrived so long after his original introduction. More recent productions have taken advantage of his potential and room for development to create a very modern Uncle Deadly, one who still has his roots in his theatrical, macabre past but also embodies twenty-first century sensibilities regarding fashion, social media, and sexuality.

Uncle Deadly began his existence as a tribute to classic horror, and his early appearances on The Muppet Show highlighted his connection to that genre. Michael K. Frith designed the character, Dave Goelz built him, and Jerry Nelson created his voice and manner as an homage to classic horror icon John Carradine. The notoriously hammy Carradine inspired the character’s Shakespearean bent and theatricality and also underscored his identity as the embodiment of a certain kind of horror, not the bloody slashers so prominent in the mid-1970s, when The Muppet Show first aired, but B monster movies like House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), and The Black Sleep (1956). Carradine, in other words, was a king of horror camp, especially after appearances in low-budget 1960s pictures like Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966), Blood of Dracula’s Castle (1969), and Madame Death (1969). It’s entirely appropriate, then, that Uncle Deadly made his initial appearance on the series during the Vincent Price episode, where he played the horror star’s “beautiful assistant” during a New Year’s Eve sketch called “House of Horrors.” Price, another icon of the genre, was a natural choice to pair with Uncle Deadly; Price would even go on to star with John Carradine in The Monster Club in 1981 and House of the Long Shadows in 1983, and Price would be reunited with Uncle Deadly when the Muppets took over The Tonight Show in 1979 to promote The Muppet Movie, even though Uncle Deadly had no real part in that film. 

Uncle Deadly and Vincent Price

Uncle Deadly’s second appearance on the show, and his formal introduction by name, came in the first season Twiggy episode, where he haunted the cast as The Phantom of the Muppet Show, a Shakespearean actor who had died onstage thanks to bad reviews of his Othello. Many of the great horror stars had similar theatrical backgrounds, including Carradine, Price, Basil Rathbone, and Boris Karloff. Price had even starred as a Shakespearean actor driven mad by critics in the 1973 film, Theatre of Blood. As a theater phantom, Deadly tapped into the rich legacy of The Phantom of the Opera, from the original novel by Gaston Leroux and the 1925 Lon Chaney film to the much more contemporary Phantom of the Paradise, the 1974 cult musical directed by Brian De Palma and starring Paul Williams, an important Henson collaborator who had also been a first season guest on The Muppet Show. In 2017, the Muppets hung a lampshade on this connection by casting Uncle Deadly as the actual Phantom in the Penguin paperback, Muppets Meet the Classics: The Phantom of the Opera. Thus, even as a minor character, Uncle Deadly came heavily invested in a particularly rich mix of literary, theatrical, and cinematic influences, which possibly explains how he could capture viewers’ imaginations so thoroughly with so little screen time on the original television series and films. 

Despite his promising beginning, The Muppet Show never quite figured out what to do with the character, and he made only a few additional appearances on the original television series, including two installments of a melodrama parody that had him terrorizing an imperiled Miss Piggy. He never became a key figure for the show and ceased to be featured after the third season, making his appearance on the 1979 episode of The Tonight Show all the more noteworthy, and almost certainly solely due to Price’s presence as the episode’s first guest. While he turned up occasionally in other Muppet media, mainly print publications, he ceased to be a performed character, with Nelson’s last credit for him taking place in 1979. Just like a phantom, Uncle Deadly more or less disappeared, and his comeback would take decades to materialize.

Of course, the 2011 Disney movie, The Muppets, marked a comeback for all of the characters, who had not starred in a theatrical release since Muppets from Space in 1999, but none more so than Uncle Deadly, who burst into greater prominence than he had ever enjoyed before. According to Ryan Roe of the Muppets fansite, Tough Pigs, the picture’s director, James Bobin, was a fan of the sinister blue monster who wanted Uncle Deadly in the story, which cast him as a henchman to villainous oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). Performed by Matt Vogel, this new iteration retained the core elements of his original personality but traded his phantom rags for a neat if somber suit that fitted his role as the lackey of a wealthy businessman. Deadly’s self-described “terrifying name and evil English accent” made him a more traditional villain sidekick than his co-henchman, Bobo the Bear, even though Bobo had already filled the same function in Muppets from Space a decade earlier. It was nothing like a major role compared to those of the core characters, but it proved to be a particularly dynamic one. At first depicted as an accessory to Richman’s evil schemes, Uncle Deadly dramatically rejected the villain and embraced his identity as a Muppet. Longtime Uncle Deadly fans, Ryan Roe and myself included, cheered this development and looked forward to Uncle Deadly’s continuing presence as a more important character, but the 2014 sequel, Muppets Most Wanted, didn’t seem to know how to use him if he wasn’t going to be a villain anymore, and he was once again reduced to a minor cameo role.

Uncle Deadly schemes with Bobo and Tex Richman.

Luckily, a return to television was just around the corner for the now Disney-owned characters, and Uncle Deadly’s evolution persisted in surprising but utterly appropriate ways. No longer a phantom or a fiend, Deadly took up the job of wardrobe manager for Up Late with Miss Piggy, the fictional talk show setting for the short-lived 2015 ABC series, The Muppets. The show had a troubled start, with The New York Times calling it “mundane” and “overwrought,” and The Guardian describing it as “cynical” and “heartbreaking.” Most of the complaints focused on the core characters, especially a depressed and joyless Kermit, but the retooling the show underwent after the first ten episodes brought major changes that extended to Uncle Deadly, as well. Initially a background character - yet again - with relatively few scenes and lines, Deadly blossomed into a fully realized member of the cast after the tenth episode. He was not only the wardrobe manager for the show but a talented fashion designer and, most importantly, the chief confidant and friend of Miss Piggy, who had long suffered from the boys’ club nature of the core Muppets cast and her own treatment of other female characters as professional and romantic rivals. Piggy had always needed a scene partner who could appreciate her perspective and also push back against her temper while still maintaining their relationship, and Uncle Deadly turned out to be a perfect choice. With new, dapper costume changes that suited his sartorial sensibility and large chunks of screen time with Piggy, Uncle Deadly was suddenly even more developed and integral than he had been in the 2011 film. He was witty, wry, and still an old theater ham at heart, but he also brought much needed emotional grounding to Piggy, allowing her to move beyond the one-note diva depiction that had plagued her since the original show. In late season episodes like “A Tale of Two Piggies” and “Got Silk?”the friendship took center stage, with Deadly actually returning to the stage in full Alicia Silverstone costume for a production of Clueless that he was directing. Unfortunately, the series makeover came too late to convince Disney and ABC to greenlight a second season, but the evolution of Uncle Deadly stuck as one of the best outcomes of the canceled show. 

Since the 2015 series, we’ve continued to see this new version of Uncle Deadly in a variety of media. He joined Twitter in January 2016, where his account bio reads “Get thee to Twitter where I, Uncle Deadly, deliciously dish about great acting, high fashion, and absolutely everything in between.” The account is still active in 2022, where the most recent post on September 3rd says, “All fans of fashion know that one of the best places for outfit shopping is the thrift store. You just might find absolutely anything there! Well... not ANYTHING. For instance: you'd never find Miss Piggy there.” He provided fashion advice and witticisms on the YouTube “Muppet Thought of the Week” series from 2017 to 2018. He appeared at the Disney media event, D23, in 2019, and made appearances along with other Muppets for a variety of special performances. He then returned as Piggy’s constant companion for the 2020 Disney+ series, Muppets Now, which also saw him getting back to his theatrical roots by teaching Walter about stage combat. His significant presence on Muppets Now was particularly noteworthy because the six episode show, a stripped down production that dropped to streaming in July 2020, in the midst of the first year of the Covid pandemic, featured a very small cast of core Muppet characters. Uncle Deadly had clearly arrived as a beloved major character, one whom fans expected to see in any Muppet project. 

It was surprising, then, to see Disney relegate Uncle Deadly to a cameo role once more for the 2021 Disney+ Halloween special, Muppets Haunted Mansion, which ought to have been the one place the character absolutely deserved a major presence. Disney certainly knew that Uncle Deadly belonged in such a setting; he had served as the host for the 2021 Disney Parks video, “A Self-Guided Tour of the Most Mystifying Attractions Around the World,” which covered the various incarnations of The Haunted Mansion in Disney theme parks. Uncle Deadly’s horror connections overlapped with those of the famous Disney dark rides, especially Phantom Manor at Disneyland Paris, which Vincent Price had provided the original English language dialogue for and which to this day features Price’s iconic laughter. It seems painfully obvious to any fan of the Muppets and The Haunted Mansion that Uncle Deadly ought to have played the Ghost Host for the special. The elegant cast member costume, the Host’s sepulchral and darkly comedic voice, his identity as one of the resident specters, and the ride’s intentional evocation of classic horror atmosphere all pointed to Uncle Deadly as the perfect choice, but Disney chose instead to cast Will Arnett in the important role and have Uncle Deadly appear only as the Justice of the Peace during the wedding scene. In an otherwise delightful Halloween special, this slight stood out as an attempt to return Uncle Deadly to the background, and I hope it proves to be an aberration and not a sign of things to come with future Muppet productions. 

Having looked at the long, dynamic history of the character, we can see that Uncle Deadly has evolved much more markedly than many of his fellow Muppets. He has been particularly well-positioned to do so by his tremendous potential and his early role as a background character without as much baggage to dictate his development over the decades. The original core cast, like Kermit, Piggy, and Fozzie, have been more fixed over time because their personalities and roles were so clearly established in the 1970s. The negative reaction to a depressed Kermit on the ABC series shows how viewers expect those characters to remain true to their earlier selves even as studio owners, puppeteers, and decades change. Other minor characters with less compelling personalities have stayed in the background or mostly disappeared; think of Hilda, the original wardrobe manager on The Muppet Show, or Wayne and Wanda, or Bobby Benson’s Baby Band. The Muppets cast is full of weird characters who have never broken into the inner circle, even though we do see the occasional newcomer, like Rizzo, Pepe, and Bobo, rise to prominence, and sometimes fall out again, as Rizzo seems to have done with the contentious departure of creator and performer Steve Whitmire. Uncle Deadly has already survived the transition from original performer to second generation, even though his somewhat uneven prominence over the last decade suggests that his position as a top tier character is not yet secure, at least in the eyes of the Disney studio bosses. His rise, however, suggests how much the Muppets need a character like Uncle Deadly, who can change with the times by building on his original traits rather than erasing them. He fills gaps in the original core without negating what we already know about him. Like Gonzo, he’s a bizarre character associated with performance, counterculture, and the arts, but his horror roots give him a more grandiose, elegant personality and an ego that makes him an ideal equal and foil to Miss Piggy. Deadly’s evolution as a fashion icon fits with those traits, too, especially given the Gothic extravagance of many of his costumes, which would have looked just as appropriate on Vincent Price in his best horror roles. Vanity, after all, is a trait long associated with both preening stage actors, maniacal villains, and fashion designers. 

Uncle Deadly and Miss Piggy, BFFs.

There’s another aspect to this evolving Uncle Deadly that also fills a gap in the core cast and merges a variety of subtexts from his history, and that’s the way in which the character has increasingly leaned into an identity that we recognize as queer. Disney has carefully avoided making this aspect of Uncle Deadly explicit, but it surges through the undercurrent of his personality and function. His original persona, inspired by scenery chewing horror heavies, already contained the seeds of queerness because queer-coded villains in classic horror, film noir, and science fiction were often depicted in the same way, with their suspect sexuality expressed by their sinister yet refined demeanor, their fastidious fashion sense, and their penchant for theatricality. The representation, while certainly problematic in many respects, simultaneously made space for gay and bisexual actors who built their careers on such roles, including Clifton Webb, Laird Cregar, Charles Laughton, and Ernest Thesiger, while actors like Peter Lorre, George Sanders, Claude Rains, and, of course, Vincent Price, capitalized on their ability to channel the same energy into villainous characters. 

The more modern depiction of Uncle Deadly moves beyond the villain stereotype even as it steps into the territory of the queer-coded character as “gay best friend” to a female protagonist, a trope familiar from films like Clueless (1995), My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), and The Devil Wears Prada (2006). There’s a reason, after all, that Deadly is directing a stage production of Clueless in the “Got Silk?” episode of the ABC series. He gets more screen time in the recent series largely because Piggy needs a scene partner and he can talk to her about the things that interest her, namely herself, her appearance, and her outfits. As Deadly dishes about fashion and acting on Twitter, TV series, and YouTube, he performs an identity familiar to modern viewers from Queer Eye, Legendary, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and other productions where fashion and queer sexuality connect as the central themes. On the plus side, Deadly’s frequent appearances in online media allow him to embody those traits without being an accessory to Miss Piggy, and he gets to command our attention as the true star of the scene. As a character who originally had his own independent function as a character, Deadly is proving that he can still stand alone and appeal to audiences without being tethered to Piggy, even though his relationship with the diva has driven much of his recent development. 

At this time, it’s difficult to say what comes next for Uncle Deadly. His Twitter account still posts new content frequently, and Matt Vogel is still very much involved with the Muppets as a performer, so we can hope that he won’t disappear again as he did in 1979. In spite of his reduced presence, we did see him feature in a key scene in Muppets Haunted Mansion in 2021, and the Disney Parks Haunted Mansion video shows that Disney sees him as a good fit for spooky or Halloween content. However, the Muppets present an embarrassment of riches similar to those of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars when it comes to Disney project opportunities. We know that the next Muppet production coming to Disney+ will be Muppets Mayhem, a series focusing on The Electric Mayhem and a supporting group of human characters. Deadly may or may not appear in the series, depending on the extent to which it incorporates characters beyond the actual band members. The Muppets YouTube channel, while still up and full of older content, last saw a new post six months ago, and two years have passed since Uncle Deadly’s last appearance there. Because the Muppets are now just one property within the ever-expanding multimedia Disney juggernaut, projects featuring them have to compete with other brands for development, streaming opportunities on Disney+, and theatrical releases. We’ve already seen Disney cancel Muppet series after a single season or abort them mid-development, as happened with the planned 2019 series, Muppets Live Another Day. It’s possible that Disney might relegate Deadly to the background again as it focuses on different Muppet projects, which are themselves of less importance to the studio than the wildly lucrative Marvel and Star Wars properties.


That would be a shame, too, because I, for one, can imagine many projects where Uncle Deadly’s particular talents could be employed to great effect. His personality and history would make him ideal for productions highlighting theater, fashion, the arts in general, and light horror. Even though the Uncle Deadly’s House of Badness TV concept for a kid-friendly horror show never got off the ground back in 2000, the idea still has merit, especially since the enduring appeal of Hocus Pocus ought to prove to Disney that family appropriate horror can have tremendous appeal. Uncle Deadly would be a perfect horror host for tales of the weird and eerie, but he would also fit in perfectly in Muppet adaptations of Shakespeare, or as the host and star of a Muppet makeover show where various characters or human guest stars get their looks updated. A return to theatrical releases of literary adaptations would also provide rich possible roles for Uncle Deadly, from the obvious Phantom of the Opera to Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, and even Robin Hood, with Deadly in any of the roles previously filled by kindred spirits like Carradine, Karloff, Price, Basil Rathbone, or Christopher Lee. With a character as rich and versatile as Uncle Deadly, only a failure of imagination on the studio’s part can limit his future with the Muppets cast. 

* This essay was originally written for and presented online at The Evolution of Jim Henson's Puppetry: From Analog Craft to Digital Franchise symposium.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Searching for Silent Treasure on Paramount Plus

We signed up for Paramount Plus to watch Star Trek, which is probably why most people subscribe to the streaming service, but it has turned out to be a very interesting opportunity to watch classic movies that don't necessarily appear on other streamers. Classic movie fans still mourning the loss of Filmstruck mostly find their content on HBO Max, with its TCM hub, or the Criterion Channel, but the collapse of the DVD market has made old movies harder to find in general as streamers focus on original content instead of large libraries full of hidden gems. Venerable old studio Paramount, however, has less original content to offer and instead fills out its catalogue with lots of iconic and obscure features from its distant past, including a surprising number of silents. If you're looking for classic movies you haven't seen before, and especially if you're looking for silents, Paramount Plus might be worth your while, but the interface leaves the hard work of finding its buried treasure to you.

I originally wrote about classic movies on CBS All Access, as it was then called, back in 2020, so I wanted to follow up with a look at its current catalogue under the Paramount Plus moniker. The service still has quite a large collection of classic movies on offer, ranging from comedies and dramas to horror and Westerns, although your best method of finding them is to search the entire category A-Z for each genre because you can't search the library using people's names or general terms like "silent" or "classic." Mixed into the groups are numerous silent features, but you'll only identify them as such if you recognize the titles or click on them to get to a brief info page that includes the release date. You can follow one listing to a group of similar films, so once you find a silent picture you can more easily turn up others, but it's a haphazard method of discovery, for sure.

In spite of the effort it takes to find them, Paramount Plus does have some real gems tucked into its collection. Here are a few of the silent movies currently on offer:

The Mark of Zorro

The Lost World (1925)

Little Annie Rooney (1925)

The Black Pirate (1926)

Sparrows (1926)

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)

The General (1926)



         The Thief of Bagdad 1924) 

         The Eagle (1925)

         Blood and Sand (1922)

        Orphans of the Storm (1921)

The films themselves come from several different studios, but the prints included on Paramount Plus seem, after a casual survey, to be generally good quality, unlike the unwatchable prints sometimes offered up by Amazon Prime. Thus far my experiences watching silent movies on the service have been good ones, even if I would really like a better way to search for them and better information about them in their listings. 

Have you watched classic movies on Paramount Plus? Have you uncovered any hidden gems from the silent era lurking in its collection? I'd love to hear about it in the comments!

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Five Favorite Films: Claude Rains Villains

With his distinctive English voice and intensely intelligent manner, Claude Rains made himself at home in a wide variety of memorable roles, although he was more often the heavy or a supporting character instead of a leading man. Born in London in 1889, the actor grew up in the English theater scene but made an indelible mark with his first big film role as the unseen protagonist of James Whale's horror classic, The Invisible Man (1933). He would go on to be nominated for four Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and even though he never took an Oscar home he became one of classic Hollywood's iconic stars. Rains didn't always play villains, but his dark characters are delightfully complicated, so my list here compiles five of my favorite Rains rascals, each a slippery cinematic sinner worthy of your time.

The Invisible Man

It's no surprise that Rains would become a favorite Hollywood heavy after his breakthrough performance in this Universal horror adaptation of the novel by H.G. Wells. Completely unseen except for the last shot of the picture, Rains nevertheless triumphs as the increasingly insane Dr. Jack Griffin, who uses himself as a test subject for his invisibility formula. Even more than his other horror films for Universal, The Invisible Man lets director James Whale indulge his very dark sense of humor, and Rains goes over the top with Griffin's murderous, mad antics.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Rains is just one of many great stars packing into Sherwood Forest for this glorious Technicolor adventure, but his Prince John is a villain you'll love to hate. Sadistic, petty, and vain, the prince usurps the English throne in the absence of his brother, King Richard (Ian Hunter), only to be plagued by the rebellious Robin (Errol Flynn) and his merry band. Fans of the Disney version from the 1973 animated Robin Hood will enjoy comparing the vocal performance of Peter Ustinov with Rains' live action incarnation.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Director Frank Capra spins a story of political idealism clashing with corruption and cynical power in this beloved picture. James Stewart stars as naive newcomer Jefferson Smith, who is suddenly thrust into the machinations of the US Senate. Rains plays Joseph Paine, the senior Senator who is Stewart's hero and mentor, but he turns out to be far less noble than Jefferson originally believes. Paine is one of Rains' more realistic antagonists, not so much outright evil as self-interested and jaded, but Rains gives a terrific performance in the role and earned his first nomination for Best Supporting Actor as a result. 

Notorious (1946)

Rains gets to be a subtler, more devious sort of villain in this Hitchcock thriller, but he's still delightfully bad as the Nazi Ingrid Bergman is asked to spy on by the US government. Rains' character, Alexander Sebastian, marries Alicia (Bergman) but is also willing to murder her in order to protect himself and his secrets. His duplicitous nature gives Rains plenty of opportunities to be both charming and chilling, especially in scenes with Alexander's sinister mother (Leopoldine Konstantin). The role earned Rains his final Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

The Unsuspected (1947)   

This noir mystery from director Michael Curtiz is another role that makes great use of Rains' fantastic voice by casting him as the popular host of a radio mystery show. Unfortunately, Rains' suave radio star, Victor Grandison, goes from just talking about murder to actually committing it. Rains has a much more central role in this picture as the "unsuspected" murderer of the title, but it's pretty obvious from the beginning, in spite of the title, that Victor is up to no good. The movie also stars Joan Caulfield, Audrey Totter, Constance Bennett, and Hurd Hatfield.

For more of the darker side of Claude Rains, see Kings Row (1942), Phantom of the Opera (1943), and Angel on My Shoulder (1946). Get a sense of his range with The Wolf Man (1941), Casablanca (1942), Mr. Skeffington (1944), and Caesar and Cleopatra (1945). Rains made his final screen appearance as one of the greatest villains of human history, King Herod the Great, in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

LEGO Star Wars: Be My BBY

People who know me in real life or who read this blog frequently already know that I love combining my passions for LEGO and movies. As a Gen Xer I have a particular soft spot for the original Star Wars trilogy, and of course I love Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. The daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, Carrie was a true princess of Classic Hollywood as well as an icon in her own right. I've been enjoying the appearance of young Leia on the new Obi-Wan Kenobi series on Disney+, and I think casting did a great job choosing Vivien Lyra Blair. 

Here's a recent LEGO MOC that celebrates my love for A New Hope and the love we fans feel for Princess Leia and her scruffy looking nerf herder, Han Solo. I know Han and Leia didn't get together until later, but the pun was just too good to resist, and this piece was built for a Valentine's Day themed contest in my club, TNVLC. Here we see Han and Leia (or maybe it's Harrison and Carrie?) stealing a kiss just before the Battle of Yavin.




Thursday, April 28, 2022

The What-If Alternate Timeline of CRUELLA (2021)

When it first arrived, Disney's 2021 reboot of the various films based on 101 Dalmatians was widely discussed as yet another "prequel" to a well-known Disney property, but in order to appreciate Cruella fully you have to stop thinking about it as a prequel and instead consider it as an alternate timeline narrative similar to the multiverse arcs now at work in the Marvel franchise. This is NOT the story of how the villain of the 1961 animated movie became that character, and it's not the story of the villain from the 1996 live action movie, either. Instead, Emma Stone's version of Cruella is a character with a narrative arc all her own, distinct from those of the other Cruellas but still affected by many of the same elements with alternate versions of the same characters. She's much like the central Loki character played by Tom Hiddleston in the Disney Plus series; she is one of many possible Cruella variants, some of whom are truly villainous and some of whom are dynamic enough to become protagonists in their own right rather than merely antagonists to more conventionally heroic characters. When read this way, Cruella becomes a much more interesting and engaging movie, one that rewrites the iconic villain, sure, but also one that reaches deep into the sources of inspiration that formed the original Disney character.

Fidelity to the 1961 animated classic is already an odd demand, not only because live action versions of that story were already made in the late 90s but because the original Disney movie is itself unfaithful to its source material in several significant ways. Dodie Smith's beloved 1956 children's novel features many characters and scenes that aren't in the Disney film. A third adult Dalmatian (the one actually named Perdita) is removed completely, with a dog originally named Missus assuming her name and erasing her from the story. The novel's Roger is wealthy because he is a "financial wizard" and not a struggling musician, so the family can afford all of their Dalmatians even when they end up with 101 of them (note that the 101st Dalmatian of the novel also isn't in the movie because he's the liver spotted love interest of the original Perdita). The Cruella of the book is more explicitly demonic and even more vicious than the movie version; she is also married to a submissive furrier who enables her obsession with fur coats. The changes don't make the Disney adaptation a bad movie, but they do make it a significantly different story from the novel. The live action versions get farther afield still, making Roger an American video game creator, Anita a fashion designer, and Cruella a fashion house owner and Anita's employer. In fact, the versions are so different (and set in different eras to boot) that the 2021 movie cannot possibly function as a true prequel to any of them.


Instead, Cruella is its own story, a reinvention of the character that combines her most iconic traits with bits and pieces of the previous versions in order to make her a dynamic protagonist rather than a static villain. The movie does not attempt to make us like or forgive the other Cruellas; we like this new Cruella partly because she isn't them. Our glimpse of her childhood recalls the schoolgirl connection with Anita from the novel, her mannerisms are taken from the 1961 Disney film, and her fashion career is borrowed from the 1996 movie, but she is not simply a younger version of any of these characters. Disney opts to do something different by mining the tradition of the anti-heroine as filtered through one of the most important inspirations for the 1961 Cruella, the legendary actress and all around hellraiser Tallulah Bankhead. The film even signals the affiliation with a clip of Tallulah demonstrating her distinctive, throaty laugh in Alfred Hitchcock's 1944 thriller, Lifeboat. We see it play on a television set in a room with Estella/Cruella early in the story. Bankhead, known for her genius, self-destructive behavior, terrible driving, and theatrical personality, was definitely no saint, but this new version of Cruella has her charisma and charm as well as her less likeable qualities. It's refreshing to see a complicated, difficult, too-much female character be the heroine of her own life without having to be either a traditionally good person or a completely amoral anti-heroine of the Becky Sharp variety.

Because this Cruella is not the same as the previous versions, she can make different choices and develop different values. She loves fashion but isn't specifically obsessed with fur. She has a found family that she mistreats at times but ultimately loves, which includes several dogs. She is even the person who gives Pongo and Perdita to Roger and Anita, which she certainly wouldn't do if she wanted to make Dalmatian fur coats. Near the end of the movie, Cruella says about the Baroness: "The good thing about evil people is that you can always trust them to do something, well, evil." Cruella, despite her name, is not that kind of person, because her Estella side makes her capable of doing good. Currently, a sequel to the movie is in the works, and most fans and critics seem to expect it to launch us into the more familiar dog-napping, coat-making territory of the original story, but I really hope it doesn't go in that direction, because this Cruella deserves better. It's certainly possible that she might become a newer version of the Baroness, the murderous mother whom she deposes in the film, and therefore ruthless enough to become a full-blown villain, but it would be much more satisfying to see her continue to make bold new choices for herself, to continue to be the future she embodies in Cruella and not the past that she sees as the Baroness. To rope this Cruella back into the framework of the original story would be a grave disservice to her and to viewers who fell for her eccentric, outlandish personality.

I've watched Cruella a couple of times now, and while I have concerns about Disney's persistent efforts to strip mine its own properties, I think this movie is one of the best live action treatments of a classic Disney story and far more interesting and fun than the previous attempts to cash in on the Dalmatians' popularity, largely because it isn't about the dogs. It's fun, it's visually engaging, it features terrific performances from Stone and Emma Thompson, and it offers us a Disney "heroine" who is very different from the usual crowd of princesses and whose transgressive modernity is part of her appeal. I don't care that it isn't actually a prequel to 101 Dalmatians; that's why it works. This Cruella might well be brilliant and bad and a little bit mad, but she's more 70s counterculture rock goddess than maniacal puppy murderer, and I'd like to see any additional films about her continue to give her the freedom to be her own version of herself.


Sunday, April 10, 2022

Classic Movie Duos: Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant only made four movies together, but each one is worth watching for the formidable duo and the ways in which they are markedly different from one another. Two of their collaborations, Bringing Up Baby (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940), are highly regarded and much beloved, but their other two pictures, Sylvia Scarlett (1935) and Holiday (1938), are less celebrated, and, in fact, three of their four movies together were originally box office duds. With only four films to get through, it's a worthwhile project to sit and down and watch all of these movies as a group in order to appreciate the ways in which the stars work together and the career trajectories that they were charting when these pictures were being made.

Hepburn and Grant in Sylvia Scarlett (1935)

Hepburn and Grant first worked together on the most obscure of the four films, the gender-bending dramedy, Sylvia Scarlett (1935), in which Hepburn takes the title role and Grant plays the English conman who becomes her mentor and travel companion. George Cukor, who directed all but one of the pair's collaborations, is at the helm here, too. This is the only one of the four movies in which Hepburn and Grant do not play romantic partners, and in retrospect it seems odd that they don't get together here, especially since Sylvia's partner of choice, an egotistical painter played by Brian Aherne, seems just as problematic a mate as Grant's slippery but ultimately compassionate con artist. For Grant the movie was a step along the way to stardom, but for Hepburn it came during a troublesome slump that saw her cast in one flop after another. It's not a perfect movie, but Hepburn's cross-dressing provides a delightful opportunity for the star to show off her athleticism and escape the glamorous trap of a typical leading lady role. 

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

The second outing, Bringing Up Baby (1938), switches to Howard Hawks for direction, but that change did not save the screwball comedy from a bad box office showing on its release. Hawks thought that the movie flopped because all of its characters are crazy, but it has since soared to the status of a beloved masterpiece of its genre. The wacky story of a free spirit socialite (Hepburn) who wrecks the measured life of a paleontologist (Grant) casts our two stars in very different roles from their previous collaboration, and each gives a fantastic performance. Hepburn makes the leap to full-blown comedy and is simply hilarious, while Grant embodies a meeker personality driven to distraction by the outrageous obstacles he faces. While the movie didn't immediately pull Hepburn's career out of its slump, it has become a favorite film for her fans, and it set the two stars up for more romantic pairings in their next two films.

Holiday (1938)

(1938) came out shortly after Bringing Up Baby but found the two stars and director George Cukor at Columbia instead of RKO, which had made the two previous films. Once again the movie failed to gain traction with audiences, although the critical response was more positive. Adapted from a hit play by Philip Barry, the story once again put Hepburn and Grant into a mix of comedy and drama but this time set them up as characters who are obviously destined to get together, never mind that Grant's upwardly mobile protagonist, Johnny Case, opens the movie as the intended groom of the wrong sister. Hepburn once again plays a free spirit socialite, but this time family pressure has kept her penned in and unhappy until Grant arrives as a breath of fresh air in the oppressively lavish mansion. Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon also liven up the place as Johnny's friends, and Grant gets to show off a little of his acrobatic skill with Hepburn very game as his partner. While it's not as hellbent for hilarity as Bringing Up Baby, Holiday deserves attention for its compelling performances and its artful casting of the two leads, who are each just right for the parts they play.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Hepburn fans already know that the last of the duo's collaborations, The Philadelphia Story (1940), proved to be her big comeback. The romantic comedy from MGM picked up six Oscar nominations, including nods for Hepburn, Cukor, and supporting actress Ruth Hussey, with Jimmy Stewart winning for Best Actor and Donald Ogden Stewart taking home the award for Best Screenplay. Like Holiday, this movie was adapted from a play by Philip Barry, but in this case the original role had been written specifically for Hepburn, who also owned the film rights thanks to Howard Hughes. The story opens as if it might be a sequel to Holiday, with Hepburn and Grant's romance gone sour and the lovers now divorced, but Grant's character, C.K. Dexter Haven, isn't willing to give up his ex-wife to a new groom without a fight. Tracy Lord is another of Hepburn's socialite roles, beautiful and smart but rather spoiled, although Tracy is not about to be bossed around by anyone, especially her wayward father. 

Although only the final film proved to be a box office success, each of the Hepburn-Grant collaborations contributed to that last production in different ways, whether by building the relationships between the stars and their director, refining the character types the stars played, or establishing that Philip Barry's work was a good fit for the pair. Hepburn would make one more film adapted from a Barry play, Without Love (1945), which was also originally written for her, but in that picture her costar would be her longtime companion and collaborator, Spencer Tracy. While Hepburn and Grant would each make many more films, their work together ended on a high note with The Philadelphia Story.

Monday, March 7, 2022

Classic Films in Focus: THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963)

Although the story really comes from H.P. Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Roger Corman's The Haunted Palace (1963) bills itself as one of the director's Edgar Allan Poe films and features all of the familiar trappings of those Gothic horror tales. Vincent Price is, as usual, in the lead, here playing a dual role as an evil warlock and his identical descendant, with Debra Paget making her final screen appearance as the descendant's long-suffering wife. The constant fog, gloomy period setting, and well-established genre tropes ensure that fans of Corman's other films will find plenty to appreciate here, but the chief attractions beyond Price and Paget are a gaggle of creepy mutant villagers and supporting performances from Lon Chaney, Jr. and Elisha Cook, Jr. The Haunted Palace is one of five films Corman directed in 1963, and it's not the first Corman picture anyone should see, but it's a fun outing for its iconic stars and worth the time if you enjoy the other Corman and Price collaborations.

Price appears first as the powerful necromancer Joseph Curwen, who conspires with his mistress, Hester (Cathie Merchant), to bewitch young women and bring them to his castle for unspeakable occult practices. The local villagers form a vigilante mob and burn Curwen at the stake, but not before he curses them and their descendants. Over a century later, Curwen's identical great-great-grandson, Charles Dexter Ward, inherits the castle and arrives in the town of Arkham with his lovely wife, Ann (Debra Paget). The village men (played by the same actors who appeared as their ancestors) make the Wards unwelcome, but Curwen's spirit soon possesses Charles and resumes his diabolical schemes of necromancy and revenge.

The dual roles of Joseph Curwen and Charles Dexter Ward give Vincent Price plenty to do, especially when he gets to play the two personalities warring for dominance over Ward's mind. Greenish makeup on the warlocks' faces helps us know when Curwen has control, but Price embodies the shift convincingly without the visual cue. Ward is a perfectly normal gentleman who loves his wife and doesn't believe in supernatural curses, while Curwen is a cunning sadist who is more than willing to murder anyone who crosses him. Of course, Curwen is destined to get the upper hand and wreak havoc, which ensures that Price can cut loose with his villain and make the most of a thoroughly terrible character. His sudden cruelty to his devoted wife leads her to suspect that evil is at work in the castle, but over time Curwen gets better at impersonating Ward so that he can continue his schemes in the secret chambers underground.

Debra Paget gives a solid performance as the worried wife, although she's the only developed female character in the whole story and spends most of her time looking frightened. Curwen is supposed to be obsessed with his dead mistress, Hester, but we don't see enough of her to understand his determination to resurrect her even though it's a distraction from the mission he and the other necromancers are supposed to be accomplishing. Lon Chaney Jr. has several scenes with Price but is subdued throughout; by 1963 he's long past his heyday as a horror star and not really credible as a fiendish immortal necromancer. The villagers, both past and present, are played by Leo Gordon, Elisha Cook, Jr., Frank Maxwell, and John Dierkes, and of the lot Maxwell has the most scenes because his doctor character tries to befriend and assist the Wards, although Cook is probably the most fun to watch because he plays fear-induced panic so brilliantly. Almost all of the named characters are rather dramatically upstaged by the deformed mutant villagers, descendants of the women Corwen bewitched and the ancient godlike thing he keeps locked in his underground lair. Cook's character, Peter, hints at the way the unholy mating has tainted the bloodlines of Arkham by revealing his own webbed hand, while Gordon's Edgar Weeden keeps his violent mutant son imprisoned in his home. Sadly, we don't know what, if anything, becomes of the mutants at the end of the story, since the Curwen/Ward conflict dominates the third act.

Different Corman fans will have their own favorites, but I recommend House of Usher (1960), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) if you want to see some of the best of the Poe adaptations with Vincent Price. You'll find both Price and Debra Paget in The Ten Commandments (1956), while Elisha Cook Jr. and Price both appear to great effect in William Castle's classic shocker, House on Haunted Hill (1959). See Lon Chaney Jr. in better times in his most memorable role as the ill-fated Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), or check out his dramatic roles in Of Mice and Men (1939) or High Noon (1952).