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!”

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Cameraman (1928)

Poor Buster (Buster Keaton) sells tintypes for a dime. When a pretty reporter for the fictitious newsreel company MGM crosses his path, he decides he will make a name for himself by selling them some photos. Yea, all silent comedies are alike. Down on his luck everyman falls for pretty girl, and he must show his worth. And this one is pretty much by the books.

This was Buster’s first film with MGM. Assuming he was also the director, he started off behaving as such. When real director Edward Sedgwick told him not to, he took a back seat. But when Sedgwick had trouble getting the actors to understand what he wanted, he asked Buster for assistance.

The move from independent filmmaker to MGM lackie has largely been seen as a terrible move for Keaton. He wanted the financial stability of a large studio, but lost the freedom to create the film he wanted. But Keaton knew cinema was changing. Sound cinema required resources. More equipment, more technicians, quieter sets. And it ushered forth a new form of storytelling at odds with his established style. Buster’s transition to sound and big studios could have gone better for him and the studio as well, but his drinking and lifestyle ruffled feathers enough to keep him at odds with the industry. When the box office dried up, there was little reason to listen to his concerns, and Buster would fade into a forgotten genius.

But, back to the movie at hand. Although the trend would not continue, Buster did manage to produce a film worth of his reputation. AMRU 3.5.
“What are you doin ‘.... givin’ me a sleigh-ride?”

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Holiday (1938)

Johnny Case (Cary Grant) and Julia Seton meet, fall in love, and decide to marry while on vacation. Then the movie begins and they get to know each other. Turns out Julia is rich. Like Seton family rich, and she has ideas of poor Johnny Case following in old dad’s footsteps in business. But Johnny is a bit of a non-conformist and wants to play things his own way. Sorda like Julia’s non-conformist sister (Katharine Hepburn).

I wrote recently that I had grown tired of Rom-Coms, and wanted to avoid them for a while. But Holiday was already on the DVR so I knew it would be watched at some point. Lucky for me, George Cukor did Rom-Coms better than most and Holiday is a winner.

This was the beginning of the “Katharine Hepburn is Box Office Poison” era that started with Bringing Up Baby earlier in the year, and studio execs were concerned. The studio boss wanted to preemptively take out an ad in Variety asking “What is wrong with Katharine Hepburn?” but she warned that people might tell him. The movie didn’t fare well financially, likely because Johnny wanting to be a vagabond didn’t play well during the depression.

Holiday is a delightful film mostly because how likable the characters are. Not just Cary and Kate, but also Kate’s brother and Johnny’s friends, the Potters. Johnny’s plan didn’t make much sense to me but that didn’t matter. I liked him, and his friends. And in a Rom-Com, that’s all we can hope for.
“Johnny, when two people love each other as much as you do, anything that keeps them apart must be wrong.”

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

Clumsy and awkward, even Hitch himself said it was the work of a talented amateur. The 1956 remake is much more polished and Hollywood-ized causing many to prefer the original. You’ll hear my opinion after I see the remake. And you read it out loud. Because, you know, voices. Like many films that fall into the public domain, the audio and video quality suffers. I turned the sound all the way up and tolerated the pop and hisses. Also, I had some difficulty following which character was which. It became easier once that person was shot. Oh, spoiler alert.

The story, in a nutshell, is a family is on vacation and befriend a man who turns out to be a spy. He is shot and quickly tells mom about some super secret information in his hotel room. Dad finds it but British intelligence and bad guys are wise. M5 pressures mom and dad to give up the info but they won’t because the baddies have kidnapped their annoying little girl. So, Dad becomes an amateur sleuth to save the day.

Man, a little over the top with the British politeness thing. Lot’s of “Terribly Sorry” and “Not quite”’s of pre-WWII England. Not a mystery, exactly, because we pretty much know who the bad guys are. We don’t know their plan, but I must admit I’m not sure I recall what it was even now. This was Peter Lorre’s first English speaking role. When he met with Hitch he smiled and nodded through the meeting because he didn’t understand English. He learned his lines phonetically.

When comparing this film with his own 1956 remake he said this was “the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional." Clearly rough but somewhat charming and definitely British, the second was a Hollywood production through and through. The Man Who Knew Too Much was likable but forgettable and sometimes hard to follow. Unless you find a copy of a fully restored version, consider skipping it. AMRU 2.5.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Rope (1948)

Two college friends, Brandon and Philip, kill a third because they feel he is inferior. It seems they had an old prep school headmaster (James Stewart) that put it into their heads that the rich elite have the right to do this. Then they invite said headmaster, dead David’s fiance and family, and others to an awkward dinner party to prove how clever they are. Turns out, not so clever.


Rope was an experiment for Hitchcock. Could he make the movie appear as if it was done in one 80 minute take? Turns out, he could. The cameras could hold just over ten minutes of film, so the movie is made up of ten takes between four and a half and ten minutes and carefully spliced together, the joints cleverly camouflaged. See Birdman. As the source material was a stage play and the dialog and acting style reflects this. After getting used to it, the movie flows rather well. But seriously, see Birdman.


Stewart was cast against type, being a sardonic academic with a suspicious mind. This bothered him, this being the era when actors complained about NOT being typecast. Joan Chandler was adorable as the dead boy’s best girl. Philip’s Farley Granger would later play a tennis pro in Strangers on a Train. Criss cross.


Hitch later dismissed his film as a stunt. He would cement his reputation for building tension using editing (see Psycho), and here he essentially didn’t edit at all. As each take was several minutes in length, any mistake or problem meant the whole piece had to be reshot. This makes for an exhausting and tense shoot. But seriously, see Psycho.


The movie was met with some controversy, not because of the murder, but because Philip and Brandon were totally gay! Not overtly, of course, but they totally were! Hitchcock always put together a complete, entertaining film. Not a masterpiece, but Rope is a very interesting watch. The ending was rather abrupt, and the side stories didn’t go anywhere, but definitely an entertaining watch. AMRU 3.5.

“You're quite a good chicken strangler as I recall.”

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Awful Truth (1937)

Jerry (Cary Grant) returns from a business trip in “Florida”, only he wasn’t really in Florida. With friends in attendance, he discovers that his wife Lucy (Irene Dunne) isn’t home. It seems her car broke down and she had to spend the night at her swarthy singing instructor’s house. All perfectly innocent, except neither are too sure. After an argument, they agree to get a divorce, because that’s what you do. During the required waiting period, Lucy starts a relationship with big lunk Daniel (Ralph Bellamy) but Jerry can’t seem to stop bumping into them.


Classic Hollywood screwball comedy. Nobody does anything untoward but it’s hinted at quite a bit. I can complain and say The Awful Truth was overly formulaic. The ending was forced and it bore more than a passing resemblance to My Favorite Wife, made three years later with Randolph Scott in the Ralph Bellamy role. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they used many of the same sets. But I think I’m experiencing rom-com fatigue.


There were some amusing scenes and overall it did its job, and this was the era when directors won Oscars for such films. It’s no coincidence that the earlier rom-coms I saw are rated higher and I may need to back off of them for a while. Unfortunately, I have one more sitting on the DVR. I’ll find something refreshing to watch before I see it. AMRU 3.

“They forgot to touch second.”