Monday, October 24, 2016

The Unholy Three (1925)

A circus is closed down after a brawl, so some of the performers … you know what. Just go back and read the first paragraph I wrote for the 1930 remake. I’ll wait.

Ok, so we’re back. Yea. that, almost exactly. Same story. Same scenes, same pacing, some of the same stars. Even the sets looked alike. The courtroom scene in the third act was someone different, but the end result was the same. Oh, yea, and the ape was different. But the biggest difference was the tone. There was a certain goofiness in the remake, while the original was a serious drama.

Suddenly one day all movies had to be talkies, Just about no exceptions would be tolerated. What’s a studio to do? I know, remake recent successful silent films. London After Midnight (1927) became Mark of the Vampire (1935), West of Zanzibar (1928) became Kongo (1932). There’s a whole wiki article on the subject. Hollywood loves doing the same crap over again, but here the motivation here was to take advantage of the gimmick of sound rather than to reinterpret it for a newer audience. A similar thing happened again with the gimmick of color, but to a lesser extent.

Let’s talk about the ape, shall we? While the remake used veteran gorilla Charles Gemora in a suit, the original used an actual ape. A chimp, to be exact. While chimps are amazingly strong (tear your arms off, they will!), they aren’t large and imposing for screen purposes. So, director Tod Browning was resourceful. He filmed the chimp in scaled down sets for the tight shots and used a dwarf dressed as Chaney with his back turned in others. The illusion wasn’t always successful but the attempt was appreciated.

For two movies that are almost duplicates, the difference in tone was startling. Despite being silent certain elements of the story were clearer, specifically  Echo and the pickpocket’s relationship. Also, this was more believable. Mae Busch was five years older than Lila Lee at the time of filming, and Chaney aged a ton in the five years since. All in all, The Unholy Three adds credibility to the argument that Tod Browning excelled at silent direction. Sound direction, not so much. AMRU 3.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Phantom of the Opera (1943)

Claudin (Claude) is a veteran violinist infatuated with a hot young starlet. He pays for her singing lessons without her knowledge. But when he is dismissed from the orchestra he tries to sell his concerto. Believing his work is being stolen, he goes on a murderous rampage and has acid thrown in his face. Thus he becomes The Phantom!

I love The Phantom of the Opera. That is, the 1925 Lon Chaney silent horror film. I don’t know from the source material, but a key element for me is the fear and mystery of the Phantom character. He is both menacing and heroic. In Claude Rains’ version, however, there is little mystery (the authorities know who he is and are just searching for him), and he comes off as something of a weenie. He just likes Christine so much but can’t bring himself to tell her.

Eighteen year old Susanna Foster played Christine, the love interest and object of the Phantom’s obsession. Her career would last barely a year longer when she quit to take care of her siblings. I would think Hollywood money would be invaluable in that end, but I’ll withhold judgement until I see her True Hollywood Story episode. Later in life she was discovered living in a car. Maybe it was a nice car, who knows.

Hume Cronyn (Lifeboat) had a small roll and I totally missed him in it. Had he affected a terrible cockney accent maybe I would have spotted him. Nelson Eddy was one of the dashing men vying for Christine’s affection. Some twenty five or so years later the Rhode Island local would die of a stroke during a concert performance. And so it goes.

Phantom of the Opera (no The on this one) is a well made and very good looking film. As much of the action takes place during performances, music lovers have that. However I prefer Chaney’s menacingly iconic villain over Rains’ mousy nice guy who just snaps. AMRU 3.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Bell Book and Candle (1958)

Hot witch Gillian (Kim Novak) is bored and wants to meet her elderly neighbor Shep (James Stewart). When she learns that he is soon to marry a hot mortal, she uses magic to intervene.

Lovers meet, lovers love, lovers part with hard feelings, lovers reunite through grand gesture. Roll credits. The Rom Com formula is like clockwork. You can set your watch by it. The key to its success is how much we believe in the romance, and how much we like the characters. While Novak’s Gillian is mostly emotionless (witches can’t cry, you understand) and her interest in twice-her-age Stewart is somewhat confounding, we do become invested in their story.

Jack Lemmon was at his prime as Gil’s somewhat mischievous brother. Elsa Lanchester was great as her batty aunt. Hermione Granger .. I mean Gringots ...I MEAN GINGOLD was also delightful. Janice Rule played the young woman Gil had to steal Shep away from. I remembered her from a Twilight Zone episode.

One functional complaint of the movie is that we aren’t to sympathize with the undeserving girlfriend. See Susan Hayward’s shrewish and tragic bride-to-be in I Married a Witch. She was both beautiful and wonderfully unsympathetic. Here we are told why Rule’s character isn’t nice, but we don’t actually see it. I felt sorry for her.

Enigmatic comedian Ernie Kovacs was understated as an author of books on witchcraft. His unconventional and sometimes controversial comedic style made him a legend with comedians, but because much of his television work was lost, he is all but forgotten by audiences today. He died in a car accident less than four years later, and ten days before his 43rd birthday.

Beautifully filmed, well acted, visually stunning, very charming, and amusing when it needed to be, Bell Book and Candle (no commas!) is delightful. It was, along with I Married a Witch, a principle inspiration for Bewitched. AMRU 4. Elizabeth Montgomery was hot. Ask your dad.
“Shep, you just never learned to spell.”

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Big Heat (1953)

Detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is a cop that doesn’t play by the rules. When investigating the suicide of a fellow cop, he is told to back off. Not Dave Bannion. Back off isn’t in his vocabulary.

Big fan of Fritz Lang. M (1931) and Metropolis (1927) are wonderful films. Always liked Glenn Ford, too. And Gloria Grahame is one of my favorite Marilyn Monroe knockoffs. IMdb and Rotten Tomatoes both give The Big Heat very high rating, and I am more than a little confused by this. The story itself is fine. Cop investigates, gets too nosey, is burned, then the story is revealed. Been done a million times, and sometimes not as well. But oh, but the acting, it’s brutal. The dialog seems like it was written as a group project in a film-noir 101 class, and the over the top score beats us over our heads with the message. It's pretty cheesy.

A young Lee Marvin played the heavy. Blink and you'll miss a very young Carolyn Jones (Morticia in The Addams Family). Here, she’s a blond. Marlon Brando’s sister is also here. But let’s talk about Gloria, shall we?

Longtime readers may remember Grahame from such hits as The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), and small parts in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Song of the Thin Man (1947). Eventually I will see her in a Lonely Place (1950) and maybe never in Oklahoma! (1955). She got this job as the babydoll floozy because Marilyn was too expensive. She didn’t get along too well in Hollywood, perhaps bristling over the stream of shallow sexpot roles she was offered, and quality work dried up.

Her personal life wasn’t much better. Her marriage to second husband Nicholas Ray may have been doomed when he found her in bed with his thirteen year old son. But don’t get the wrong idea, she made an honest man of the younger Ray when he later became her fourth husband. She ended up doing a lot of stage and TV work then died young of cancer. Cancer is a bitch.

The Big Heat isn’t terrible, but I am mystified by its reputation. It is over stylized in a bad way, almost laughable. When Bannion is having a touching moment with his family I don’t need the score to smother me with sentiment. I get it. Never-the-less, I won’t punish it for high expectations. AMRU 3.

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.”