Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Ghost Breakers (1940)

Radio big mouth Lawrence Lawrence (Bob Hope) angers a mobster who asks to meet him at his hotel. When Larry visits, he witnesses an unrelated mob hit and mistakenly believes he killed the guy. He hides in the apartment of pretty Mary (Paulette Goddard) who inherited a spooky mansion on an island off of Cuba. Hiding in her luggage, they set sail.

Pretty Mary also has a back story. Spooky mansion is haunted and people say her life is in danger if she goes there. A man tried to warn her but was killed outside her apartment in a related mob hit. Larry likes pretty Mary so he decides to help her.

Playing Larry’s man servant is veteran racial stereotype Willie Best. I have seen him (and barely remember him) in the abomination General Spanky (1936) and the eminently forgettable The Monster Walks (1932). Speaking of minorities being allowed minor roles, Zorba the Mexican himself Anthony Quinn makes two brief appearances.

Somewhat similar to its predecessor The Cat and the Canary (1939), which I rewatched just prior, it pales somewhat in comparison in a couple ways. Primarily there were too many characters. It is not uncommon to introduce many possible suspects early in a film but they became hard to track. Also, red herring suspects are not a substitute for a good story. There are many story elements at play here, but the actual story is rather simple. The elements at best are a distraction.

But this is not to say The Ghost Breakers is a bad movie. It’s ok. Hope is as amusing as he was prior and Goddard just as charming. The pointless running around the haunted mansion seemed gratuitous, but in the end the film served its purpose. Bob and Paulette didn’t do any more films together probably because Hope already started his Road Movies with Bing. I like The Can and Canary better, but I liked this better than Road to Singapore. AMRU 3.
“Oh, you look like a black out in a blackout. This keeps up, I'm gonna have to paint you white.”

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Penalty (1920)

A young doctor makes the fateful decision to amputate the legs of an injured boy. His mentor sees that the younger doctor has made a rash decision but covers for him to the parents. But the boy knows the truth and grows up to be an evil criminal mastermind, bent on revenge.

Lon Chaney had his lower legs bound to achieve the illusion of being an amputee. Although he could not have them bound for more than ten minutes at a time, the illusion was quite successful. And his character was quite evil.

I waffle on calling The Penalty horror. I have a clear definition that grows muddier as time passes. An element of the supernatural is needed and regular old evil just won’t do. Chaney’s evil, however, is something special. Normally one can identify with his characters, even if just a little. Compassionate, flawed, and tragic. Here, not so much. Maybe as a boy who just lost his legs, but not during in the story proper. He bad.

Ethel Grey Terry played an agent sent undercover to get close to Chaney’s Blizzard, and there are strange parallels in the two actors real lives. Ethel was born six months before Lon and about four months after he passed she died from “an illness she'd suffered for over a year”, whatever that means. Both were veterans of silent cinema with one talkie credit each. Chaney’s a lackluster remake of a film he had done five years earlier, and Terry’s was a short done with her husband. Crime stories both. Terry’s Husband, it’s worth noting, retired from acting very shortly after her death, never remarried, and would commit suicide on the 35th anniversary of her passing. Chaney’s widow would die three years after him, on Halloween.

The Penalty strikes the right horror tone and Chaney’s performance is among his best. Overall, not among his best movies, but effective. AMRU 3.5.
“He’s gathered up his dance hall girls and he’s put them to work in his house - making hats - thousand of hats.”

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Red Shoes (1948)

A talented young ballerina (Moira Shearer) and a 40ish college student composer (Marius Goring) are given career breaks by the difficult head (Anton Walbrook) of a great ballet company. Soon young Victoria must choose between the man she loves and becoming a great ballerina. Can’t do both. That’s all explained in detail.

Despite the film’s initial lack of success, Moira Shearer became a sensation and parlayed that success into six more movies. One of which, fans may remember, was director Michael Powell’s other masterpiece flop: Peeping Tom. You remember, the film that ruined his career. All he did here was almost bankrupt the studio with a film that would take forever to break even. Had it not been for film nerd Martin Scorsese, The Red Shoes may have been forgotten.

Fans may remember Anton Walbrook as the husband in the 1940 version of Gaslight. Born in Germany, he high-tailed it out when the Nazis moved in. It seems he was 50% Jewish is 100% gayish. Nazis weren’t his crowd. Many of the ballet company members were actual dancers and not actors. This lent a certain air of authenticity.

The Red Shoes is a fantastic looking film. Still very early in the Technicolor era, it was heralded as its best example. The photography, the cinematography, and the performances were spot on and dazzling to look at. The story parallels that of the Hans Christian Andersen’s fable of the same name, that was also performed on screen near the end of the second act. It is clear why audiences of the day did not take to it. It is unconventional in tone especially for 1948. But it is a wonderful film to watch and I will again. AMRU 4.
“You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.”

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The House of Fear (1945)

Members of a rich mans club that meet in a spooky mansion in the Scottish country one by one receive an anonymous letter that contain only orange seeds. Shortly thereafter, they die tragically. Also, they have a spooky housekeeper. Holmes and Watson investigate.

It seems that each member had their life insurance policies changed so that the rest of the club is the beneficiary. Holmes recognizes one as a Doctor who was acquitted for killing his wife, so he becomes the all-too-obvious suspect. The House of Fear is based on but does not at all resemble Doyle’s “The Five Orange Pips”, which is a story and not the name of the world's most caucasian R&B band.

Other than our heroic duo the only recurring character in these films is the incompetent cockney Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey). Why a London cop is investigating a Scottish crime is the real mystery. In all he appears in six episodes. Doctor Suspect is played by Paul Cavanaugh, who made a career of playing dapper Englishman with a questionable past. He’ll be in a couple more of these.

Better than some and sure not to disappoint, but Boy-Howdy am I tired of these films. Time to move on for a while. With six more left, my self-imposed end of year deadline is in question. I shan’t lose sleep over it. October is for Horror and that will begin shortly. But for now, AMRU 3.5. I want a spooky mansion in the Scottish country.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Pearl of Death (1944)

Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) learns that notorious thief Giles Conover intends to steal the famous Pearl of Death (think Hope diamond except it’s a grey marble). And through his bumbling (you heard me right!) Conover manages to do just that. Conover ditches the pearl before being apprehended and our heroes try to locate it before the bad guys do.

One of the better episodes, but not a solid mystery in the traditional sense. The only real mystery was where Conover hid the pearl, and we were in the process of figuring that out fairly early. Still, a better story and me sleeping through the midsection is no reflection on it.

Evelyn Ankers plays the bad guy’s blond helper chick. She did a lot of Universal during the 40’s. She was the love interest in The Wolf Man, Elsa Frankenstein in Ghost of, and also in another Sherlock flick. Sadly, she would turn 40 and have to retire. Now I turn your attention to prolific character actor Ian Wolfe.

Ian Wolfe played the elderly shopkeeper, doctor, councilman, whatever in just about everything. If you don’t immediately recognize him then get yourself checked for face blindness immediately. He has over 300 acting credits, more than half feature films. This is the seventh film of his I’ve covered here and has appeared in a bunch more I should see, and also another Sherlock flick. Fourteen of his films were nominated for best picture with three winning. He played different characters in two episodes of Star Trek. He started doing TV in the late 40’s and continued until the late 80’s. His last film was Dick Tracy at age 94. Seriously, he was in everything.

The Pearl of Death (no Sherlock Holmes and ...) provides a fair amount of mystery along with the regular elements we have come to expect. I would be negligent if I didn’t admit that I am growing a little tired of the series, but on the whole they are solid entertainment. AMRU 3.5.
“If it isn't, I shall retire to Sussex and keep bees.”

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)

A British secret agent flies to Washington DC to deliver top secret plans but is captured along the way. Sounds like a case for Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone), and to a lesser extent, Doctor Watson (Nigel Bruce). George Zucco plays a bad guy yet again.

Not much of a mystery this time. No big third act reveal. Minor mysteries, like where did he hid the microfilm, are revealed early in the second act. From that point all we have is a cop drama. Since we know Homes wins in the end (oh, spoiler alert!) it’s not terribly interesting.

Henry Daniell plays a secondary baddie to Zucco’s big boss. I’ve seen him in six other films including Voice of Terror. He’ll be in another Holmes film. I presume its The Sea Hawk (1940) he is most known for, but he has appeared in a ton of excellent films.

The real headline here is that our heroes actually visit America. He even takes a tour of DC. I still find it slightly jarring to see him in the twentieth century, so I wasn't charmed by their jaunt across the pond. I am guessing WWII had something to do with that decision.

The consistency of tone of these films makes it much like a TV show. Even the background actors return in different roles. As remarkable as the consistency is, clearly some episodes are better than others. In Washington was fine, but otherwise unremarkable. AMRU 3.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)

Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) volunteers at the spooky Musgrave Mansion which was opened up to returning soldiers recovering from physical injuries and shell-shock (simple, honest, direct language - two syllables). First his assistant is attacked, then members of the Musgrave family. Holmes (Basil Rathbone) is brought in to solve the mystery.

Here is a better than fair mystery. Every character except our heroes are suspects. Add to that the mysterious Musgrave family ritual, and how it all ties together. Once the story resolves, everything makes sense and we aren’t left feeling cheated. Sadly, this isn’t often the case with B movie mysteries. I’m looking at you, Charlie Chan.

Loosely based on Sir Doyle's The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual, it takes many elements and invents many more. Principally regarding the injured war veterans. Originally the mystery revolved around disappearing domestics, which also happens. A young Peter Lawford can be seen in a bar. In the movie, I mean.

The tone and humor we have come to expect are all present in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death and the mystery element is very satisfying. Maybe the best in the series so far. AMRU 4.