Sunday, September 25, 2016

Pandora’s Box (1929)

Lulu (Louise Brooks) is a promiscuous young woman in a relationship with an older, respected man. He must break off the scandalous relationship when he decides to marry his respectable fiancee. Lulu doesn’t play nicely and sabotages her lover’s respectable engagement. Things don’t go well for either.

Brooks was a nothing actress who walked out of her contract with Paramount to star in this Weimar silent film and became a huge star. The role of Lulu almost went to Marlene Dietrich, who had to settle on the role of Lola Lola to launch her career. Unlike Dietrich, who disingratiated herself with Hollywood over the next two decades, Brooks got it all done before the end of the 30s.

Lulu’s character is never in question. She’s a golddigger, woman of easy virtue, maybe prostitute. But she isn’t a bad person. But what strikes me most is her disconnect between her actions and their consequences to herself and others. Her friends, enchanted by her, follow the path to ruin to help her out. It’s all very tragic, but Lulu is the most tragic of all.

Had Pandora’s Box been a talkie, (like The Blue Angel), and had Brooks played nice a little better, she may be remembered as well as Dietrich is today. Maybe more. She had beauty and charisma and was set to explode in Hollywood’s golden era. Instead, she is principally known for this movie. But it’s quite a movie. She could have been so much more. AMRU 4.
“It's strange how you can get booze on credit but not bread.”

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is a lawyer who lost his drive when he lost his District Attorney position, so he spends his time mostly fishing and chatting with his alcoholic lawyer friend (Arthur O’Connell). He is urged to take the case of a young Army officer who murdered the man that raped his hot hot wife (Lee Remick). Urged mostly by his assistant (Eve Arden) who would like to be paid again.

Courtroom dramas can be problematic. Procedures and even the law itself is thrown out the window for the sake of drama. Quite a bit of that goes on here. Stewart’s Paulie must struggle to have the (alleged) rape admitted in the defense of his (allegedly) temporarily insane client. Things said in open court that should have been said in sidebar, and don’t get me started with the surprise witnesses.

All that aside, we wonder if the defendant was insane, or if the hot hot wife was actually raped, and what plot twist will come next. What the verdict will be, and what it should be, is always in question.

Older readers may recognize Eve Arden from Our Miss Brooks. I recognize her as Principal McGee from Grease (1978), and to a lesser extent, Grease 2 (1982). Murray Hamilton, the mayor of Amity (and Mr. to the adultering Mrs. Robinson), played the prosecuting district attorney. A youngish George C. Scott had a sizable role.

But the real story is the hot young Remick. She played the questionable victim in a very Lolita-esque manner. She flirts with Stewart’s Paulie and hangs out with strange men while the husband waits in lockup. Stewart again is excellent, having fully graduated from Rom-Com roles. Remick didn’t do many feature films, then died young of cancer.

Anatomy of a Murder, despite its court procedure shenanigans, is quite entertaining. Otto Preminger (you know, Mr. Freeze) was a master filmmaker, this being one of his best. Not one to shy from controversial issues (his next project was Exodus, openly written by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo), Anatomy is unflinching with its discussion of the (alleged) rape. To the point that Stewart’s father urged people not to see it. No big whoops by today’s standard, but you can see how Hollywood was slowly evolving from the provincial palace it was once. A very entertaining watch. AMRU 3.5.
“Now, Mr. Dancer, get off the panties. You've done enough damage.”

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Harvey (1950)

Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) is something of an embarrassment to his aunt and cousin. He is pleasant enough, but he keeps introducing people to Harvey, a 6’ 3 ½” invisible rabbit. This won’t do in polite society. Especially since his slightly younger cousin is trying to catch a man. So, they decide to have him committed. Things don't go according to plan.

I've never been impressed by Jimmy Stewart. Not that I have a problem with him, he always puts in a fine performance. But I am never amazed by him. Many of his characters are alike and his affable stammering becomes irritating at times. In Harvey, however, I have found his best performance so far. He comes off as something of a simpleton, having an invisible friend and all, but there is more to him than that. His behavior is explained by the shock of his mother dying, or alcoholism, yet he has found a good place with his Pooka. You’ll have to look that one up.

Maybe you remember Elwood’s aunt Veta (Josephine Hull) as Aunt Abby from Arsenic and Old Lace. She’s just the batty Auntie type, I suppose. If you blink (or even if you don’t) you will miss Fess Parker’s first movie role. He’s the man singly responsible for causing Americans to confuse Davy Crockett with Daniel Boone.

It's chatty, as plays-turned-movies tend to be, clever, and charming. There is a magnificent serenity with Stewart’s Elwood. He enjoys his life, enjoys his company, and never gets too upset at anything. He truly believes in Harvey's existence and by the end, you will too. Stewart often referred to it as his favorite role, and it's my favorite of his, so far. AMRU 4.
“Well, I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it.”

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Cheap Detective (1978)

Private dick Lou Peckinpaugh (Peter Falk) is suspected of his partner’s murder, and people stream in trying to find lost treasure, then his old flame returns with her husband looking to escape the Nazis, and … well, following the plot isn’t really the point.

This Maltese Falcon/Casablanca mashup and parody is something of a sequel in spirit of Murder by Death (1976), with the same writer, director, producer, and several actors. It showed up on a basic cable movie channel and my mom recorded it.

This film works on three levels: nostalgic references to the two source movies, seeing the parade of celebrity cameos, and watching the characters behave foolishly. While the cameos and references were amusing (and extensive), the comedy fell somewhat flat. Frequently they were obvious, unfunny, or downright dumb. And that presents a problem because there is no coherent story to tie the humor to. The jokes had to stand on their own, and for the most part, they didn’t.

Highlights were Madeline Kahn as the Mary Astor character and hottie Ann-Margret as, well, I don't know who. Odd to see the unappealing Louise Fletcher (Nurse Ratched or Kai Winn, depending on your predilection) in the Ingrid Bergman role. I found that downright distasteful. I am glad I watched it, as I’m a huge fan of Murder by Death, but it should have been funnier. Time for me to rewatch Murder by Death. AMRU 3.
“I'm using rented bullets for my gun. We all got problems.”

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Calamity Jane (1953)

When a saloon in Deadwood discovers the pretty Francis Fryer of New York they booked isn’t actually a pretty woman, but in fact a dude (and not a very pretty one), the boastful Calamity Jane (Doris Day) promises to bring in the famous Adelaid Adams. She travels to Chicagie but mistakenly brings back Adelaid’s assistant instead.

The story is really just a framework for the music and Rom-Com story. Howard Keel played Wild Bill Hickok as one possible romantic partner. Of course the cute-as-a-button Doris Day plays the butch Calamity Jane, because a real tomboy would have been out of the question.

This is the first Day picture I’ve done for this project, not because of any disrespect, but because her typical uptempo fluff falls outside of my typical interest. That said, I do find myself appreciating fluff for what it is. And what it is isn’t too bad. Day’s numbers are rather good and she is downright charming.

So, who was Calamity Jane in real life? First, let’s begin with Buffalo Bill. William Cody spent time in the old west and in later years profited by exploiting the public’s fascination with the subject. One of his acts was Martha Jane Cannary, a woman whose claim to fame was exaggerating her association with Wild Bill Hickok, a man who was genuinely famous for exaggerated his life stories. Anyhow, Martha called herself Calamity Jane and told stories, before dying in a drunken stupor at fifty one.

You cannot fault Calamity Jane for being historically inaccurate. Martha Jane herself made up everything she didn't exaggerate, and the film even played up her exaggerations. This here is nothing more than yet another fanciful retelling of a decidedly invented story. And not too bad of one. AMRU 3.5.
“Oh, that’s female thinkin’. And nothing’ll get you into more trouble.”

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Lifeboat (1944)

A ship is sunk by a German U-Boat and survivors assemble onto a remaining lifeboat. A torpedo also downs the U-Boat and one of the survivors is a Nazi. How can this crazy, mixed up family learn to get along?

Here we have an eclectic cast in a very confined space. Americans, Brits, and a Nazi. Engine room grunts, a socialite, a negro, a millionaire, a crazy person, Gilligan, the Skipper, and a Nazi. A few conflicts, mysteries, and deaths. I will give nothing away. Did I mention there was a Nazi? Well, that’s kinda a spoiler, I guess.

Socialite reporter Tallulah Bankhead lived an interesting life. She started in Hollywood but didn’t get far. So she became a hit on the London stage. Tried and failed again at Hollywood, then took Broadway and the New York social scene by storm, She returned to Hollywood at forty and made Lifeboat. Her unconventional style and open sexuality earned her fans and detractors. Her Hollywood career didn’t last and her last role was as Batman villain Black Widow.

The set for Lifeboat was tall to make room for the water, and actors had to climb a ladder to get into the boat. It was noted that Tallulah did not wear underpants, Hitchcock reportedly remarked "I don't know if this is a matter for the costume department, makeup, or hairdressing." Maybe apocryphal but amusing nevertheless.

Longtime readers may remember William Bendix from Blue Dahlia, or Henry Hull from Werewolf of London, or Walter Slezak from The Inspector General, or maybe Hume Cronyn from,well I guess nothing I’ve seen so far. He was in several films on my must-see list. He effected a terrible cockney accent hard to forget. Amazing cast of character actors, reminiscent of 12 Angry Men. And written by John Steinbeck to boot!

Lifeboat is a survival story and a character study. I find early Hitchcock to be inspired but somehow flawed. An exaggerated ending or otherwise unpolished. Lifeboat is Hitch at the prime of his career, on the verge of greatness. Thrilling throughout and way better than I expected. AMRU 4.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Unholy Three (1930)

A circus is closed down after a brawl, so some of the performers go into business for themselves. Echo (Lon Chaney), a ventriloquist, Hercules, a strong man, and Tweedledee, a midget open a pet store as a front. Echo, disguised as an old woman, makes his birds talk. When the customer complains that they don’t anymore, our heroes visit and case the joint for robbing later. The heat is on when a burglary goes bad leaving one dead. Our bumbling crew frame nice guy Hector then lay low. Also in the gang is Rosie, a pickpocket apparently in a relationship with Echo, and a Gorilla, because, of course.

The Unholy Three (1930) is a remake of a silent film of the same name from five years earlier. The older is considered the better film but this stands as Chaney’s only spoken role. Adding voice to his transformative skills, he not only did two voices (normal and old lady) but also performed all of the ventriloquism in the film. He would die six weeks after the film’s release robbing Hollywood of a true acting genius.

A long while back I wondered what was up with all the gorillas in early talkie horrors. Mostly, that was Charles Gemora. Not the gorilla, the guy in the suit. He played similar roles in The Island of Lost Souls and the terrible Ghost Parade, as well as dozens of others. He was a makeup artist by trade.

There are many parallels between this film (and its predecessor) with Freaks (1932). Dwarf Harry Earles appeared in all three films, Tod Browning directed the silent Unholy and Freaks, all three have a character named Hercules, and the Circus setting, a favorite of Browning. Browning did excellent silent films and earned some acclaim with Freaks and Dracula (1931) but let’s face it. His sound films were a mess. Maybe he couldn’t adapt with the radically new style of storytelling that sound ushered in, or maybe it was all the drinking. He never did a retrospective interview about his career.

As the silent 1925 version is largely considered superior, it’s the one I normally come across. I was happy that TCM ran this version so I could finally hear Chaney speak. Not a terrible film but little to recommend it otherwise. As a Chaney fan I was glad to see it, but to be fair, it deserves a slightly lower grade. AMRU 2.5.
“The way you look at me. You and that horrible little midge. You give me the creeps!”