Monday, August 15, 2022

BATTLE OF THE WORLDS On Blu-ray From The Film Detective

 





In 2017, I wrote a blog post on BATTLE OF THE WORLDS, a 1963 American version of a Italian science-fiction film directed by Antonio Margheriti (under the name Anthony Dawson). In that post I stated that the film needed a proper official Blu-ray release. It now has one, courtesy of The Film Detective. 

BATTLE OF THE WORLDS is mostly known for two things: the numerous public domain home video releases of it, and the fact that it starred the great English actor Claude Rains. Rains plays a curmudgeonly scientist, who, in an unspecified future, uses his genius to help save Earth from an oncoming planet-like body he calls "The Outsider". 

BATTLE OF THE WORLDS isn't as flamboyant as Margheriti's later "Gamma One" series of sci-fi adventure films, but it has a few low-budget charms of its own, mainly Rains' performance. You can debate over whether Rains should have been in a movie like this, but there's no disputing that the grand actor gives his all for the production. 

The Film Detective's presentation of BATTLE OF THE WORLDS is stated to come from an original 35mm archival print, and it is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Visually I have to say that the colors lack vibrancy. It's better looking than the public domain versions and what you can find on YouTube, but the picture quality isn't spectacular. 

The disc does come with some nice extras. Inside the case is a ten-page booklet featuring an essay entitled "Margheriti's World" by Don Stradley. The essay is a casual discussion of BATTLE OF THE WORLDS and Antonio Margheriti's film making career, accompanied by shots from the film. 

Also included is a featurette called "A Cinematic Outsider: The Fantastical Worlds of Antonio Margheriti", produced by Ballyhoo Pictures. Tim Lucas narrates this half-hour program, which has plenty of stills and facts on Margheriti and his sci-fi output. It's very well done, and one wishes that it had been longer, and delved into Margheriti's entire life and overall career. 

Finally there's a new audio commentary by Justin Humphreys, who gives out plenty of info, analysis, and observation on just about everything involved in the production. It's a fine talk, helped by the fact that Humphreys is an admirer of the movie. 

BATTLE OF THE WORLDS isn't STAR WARS--heck, it's not even WILD, WILD PLANET--but where else are you going to be able to see Claude Rains in a full spacesuit?? The real reason to get this Blu-ray over the public domain versions are the extras--any serious discussions about Antonio Margheriti are welcome (and needed). Hopefully The Film Detective has plans to release other lesser-known science-fiction films from the mid-20th Century. 


Saturday, August 13, 2022

SKYSCRAPER SOULS

 



Warren William--The King of Pre-Code, the Captain of Cads--is back to his devious schemes again, this time at MGM instead of Warner Bros., in the 1932 production SKYSCRAPER SOULS. 

William plays bank president David Dwight, who has borrowed $30 million to build a spectacular skyscraper called, fittingly enough, the Dwight Building. The $30 million will soon be due, but Dwight has plenty of nefarious plans to avoid paying and gain even more power as well. Dwight has an open marriage, which allows him to carry on a heavy relationship with his personal assistant (Verree Teasdale). But the high-living businessman enjoys plenty of women on the side, and when he gets a gander at Teasdale's own secretary (Maureen O'Sullivan), he starts putting the moves on her as well. Dwight manipulates the stock market to further his ambitions, but his dirty dealings and womanizing catch up with him in a shocking climax. 

SKYSCRAPER SOULS, being a MGM film, is somewhat different than the usual Warners Pre-Code melodrama. At 99 minutes, it's much longer, with a steadier pace, and it lacks the Warners rough edges. 

Warren William is more subtle here than one expects him to be, but he still is able to be dastardly when he needs to. Near the end of the film William gets to perform a great robust speech about what the building means to him. I believe that SKYSCRAPER SOULS is one of Warren William's best roles period. He once again proves that even though he's the cause of everyone's problems, he still has more charisma and style than anyone else in the cast, and he dominates all the other actors in any scene he's in. 



Warren William and Maureen O'Sullivan

Maureen O'Sullivan is technically the leading lady in the story, but Verree Teasdale gets the better role as Miss Dennis, a woman who has had to stand on the sidelines while the man she loves gets whatever he wants. Miss Dennis is old enough to be her secretary's mother, and when she realizes that her young protege is going to replace her (in more ways than one), she decides to take matters in her own hands. 

As for O'Sullivan, her character is burdened with a boyfriend that happens to work in Dwight's bank (located in the skyscraper). This fellow, played by Norman Foster, is an ordinary guy that the audience is supposed to root for, but Foster's whiny voice and his annoying manner makes one wonder why O'Sullivan would even want to be around him. 

There's plenty of important supporting roles in SKYSCRAPER SOULS--the building houses all sorts of shops and apartment dwellings that numerous folks work and live in. Anita Page plays a model with a bad reputation who surprisingly gets a happy ending, and there's also Gregory Ratoff, Jean Hersholt, Wallace Ford (the resolution of the subplot involving him is quite memorable), Edward Brophy, and Billy Gilbert. Hedda Hopper plays Dwight's wife, who only shows up when she needs money. At one point I saw a glimpse of what looked like Boris Karloff...and, according to multiple sources, he is listed as being in the film. Considering that this movie came out after the release of FRANKENSTEIN, I can only assume that Karloff was meant to have more than just one fleeting appearance, and for whatever reason his role was cut down. 

One of the main characters in the story happens to be the Dwight Building itself, which, in the first shot of the film, is shown to be taller than the Empire State Building. The interior of the Dwight Building, especially the lobby, is a art-deco lovers dream, augmented by MGM's expensive gloss. Thousands of folks live and work in this building, and they all have their own stories. I have to admit that the idea of a TV series based on an edifice like the Dwight Building popped into my head while watching this movie. 

SKYSCRAPER SOULS was directed by Edgar Selwyn. He does a capable job, but I couldn't help but wonder what a William Wellman or a Frank Capra could have done with a story like this. Selwyn is helped by William Daniels' cinematography, which at times uses a roving camera to establish the momentous interior of the Dwight Building. One particular shot that impressed me was an overhead view of the lobby during the early hours of the morning, as Warren William and Maureen O'Sullivan navigate their way through a group of cleaning ladies--the women almost move in unison like chorus girls. 

SKYSCRAPER SOULS is a great Pre-Code, especially for Warren William fans. It should be viewed just for the climax alone. 



Sunday, August 7, 2022

BORIS KARLOFF: THE MAN BEHIND THE MONSTER

 







Last night I watched the 2021 documentary BORIS KARLOFF: THE MAN BEHIND THE MONSTER on the Tubi streaming channel. The film was directed and co-written by Thomas Hamilton. 

It's a fine program, giving a fairly complete retrospective on Boris Karloff's acting career. What makes it a cut above is the amount of video and audio clips used and the people interviewed for it. There's the expected snippets from Karloff's greatest hits, but there's also plenty of very rare footage, especially from the actor's silent period and his television work during the 1950s and 60s. Among the many folks providing their opinions and analysis on Boris and his life are some very distinguished names, including film historians Greg Mank, Kevin Brownlow, and Leonard Maltin, and filmmakers such as Guillermo del Toro, Joe Dante, and Roger Corman. These are people who have written about Karloff or have been creatively inspired by him, and what they have to say is very insightful. 

The film does not dive deeply into Karloff's complicated marriage history, which is probably just as well (his daughter Sara Jane does get plenty of screen time). The documentary thankfully also stays away from any "Boris vs. Bela" fanboy arguments. 

There's not much here about Boris' non-horror film roles, but his stage work is highlighted, and the case is made that he was a far more capable actor than he was given credit for. Karloff is presented as a hard-working, dedicated professional who always brought a touch of humanity and poignancy to even his most villainous roles. 

BORIS KARLOFF: THE MAN BEHIND THE MONSTER will be enjoyed by the actor's most adoring fans, but it also makes a great "starter kit" for those who are just beginning to learn about the legendary man's life and career. 

Friday, August 5, 2022

FACING NOLAN

 





As you can tell by the name of this blog, I am a lifelong dedicated fan of the Chicago White Sox. But I'm also a dedicated baseball fan period, and there are several MLB players I've had great admiration over the years who never wore a White Sox uniform. 

One of my favorites was the legendary pitcher Nolan Ryan. His records, longevity, and status as the premier power hurler of the 1970s and 1980s make him seem more like a myth than a real person. Everything he accomplished most definitely happened, and it's all covered in the excellent new documentary FACING NOLAN, written & directed by Bradley Jackson. 

The film really does go deep in the heart of Texas, thoroughly examining Ryan's upbringing in the Lone Star State and his loyalty to it. The movie also follows Ryan as his MLB career takes him from his first team, the New York Mets, to the California Angels, where he became a star; to the Houston Astros, where he was paid the biggest contract in baseball at that time; and finally to the Texas Rangers, where he cemented his status as one of the greatest legends in American professional sports. 

FACING NOLAN also establishes how important Ryan's wife Ruth was to his life and baseball career, and how important family was and still is to him. It also reveals that, despite his intimidating presence on the mound and his Hall of Fame reputation, Ryan would much rather be dealing with cattle on his Texas ranch instead of basking in the spotlight. 

There's plenty of rare video and audio here from Ryan's baseball career, and there's also several interviews with those who played with and against him. Ryan, his wife, and his children are also extensively interviewed (Ryan himself comes off as self-effacing and thoughtful). 

I loved this documentary, and one of the main reasons is that I grew up in the late 70s and early 80s, when Nolan Ryan was at his height as a baseball star. Anyone who followed Major League Baseball in the 70s and 80s will certainly have their memories jogged while watching FACING NOLAN. This movie will also make baseball fans realize how much the game has truly changed--most of Ryan's records will never have any chance of being broken, let alone even being approached--not when the average MLB pitcher of today seemingly goes on the disabled list every other week. 

There's something else about FACING NOLAN that makes it special, and it doesn't have anything to do with baseball. It's the fact that it's very refreshing to watch a modern-day documentary about a famous American who is truly a hard-working, talented, decent individual, and who doesn't have any trending tabloid stories about him, or any embarrassing moments to deal with. FACING NOLAN is really a positive story about American effort and perseverance, and we certainly need such stories in this day and age. 


Sunday, July 31, 2022

Book Review--FRANKENSTEIN'S WITCH: ST. LIZZIE, PRAY FOR US

 







The esteemed classic horror film historian Gregory William Mank has written his first novel. FRANKENSTEIN'S WITCH: ST. LIZZIE, PRAY FOR US (published by Bear Manor Media) spans two different eras in Hollywood--1931 and 1967. 

In the spring of 1967, a fire breaks out at Universal Studios. A bizarre-looking naked woman is reported near the scene. Private investigator Porter Down believes the woman may have something to do with a similar figure he dealt with in 1931, a woman who caused mayhem during the production of Universal's FRANKENSTEIN. Is it the same woman? Does she have supernatural powers? Or are there all too real forces behind her diabolical designs?? 

The first thing I must say about FRANKENSTEIN'S WITCH is that it is a very frank and intense novel, with plenty of adult language and situations. Those who are familiar with Greg Mank's work, or who have met him at any movie conventions, might be surprised at the content in this book (in person the author is a true gentleman). 

I don't believe that the salacious elements in this work are just a way to get the reader's attention. This is a dark, complex tale, dealing with guilt, sin, redemption, religious mania, and sexual obsession. Nearly every major character in this book is trying to come to terms with a past traumatic experience, and the Southern California that Mank details--1931 and 1967--is a seedy, seductive, scary place, seemingly drawing the worst out of everyone. 

This is not just a collection of factoids that film geeks will recognize, or a nostalgic look at the Golden Age of film making. There are plenty of references and characters that old monster movie fans will recognize, but these connections are more than just gimmicks. 

FRANKENSTEIN'S WITCH is a fascinating, if at times disturbing, read. Despite the fact that the novel runs nearly 400 pages, the pace never slackens--it's a fast-moving story. 

If you are a film or history buff, and you are looking for some unique fiction, FRANKENSTEIN'S WITCH will fit the bill. Just be aware that it is the equivalent of an "R" rated film--and a hard "R" at that. I have a feeling that we might have more adventures featuring Porter Down in the future--but I don't know how they can top what happens to him in this book. 


Saturday, July 30, 2022

FRANKENSTEIN (1984)

 



The excellent English actor David Warner passed away recently. While reading various internet tributes about him, I discovered that he played the Frankenstein monster in a 1984 British TV adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel. I was not aware of this production, and I was even more stunned to find out that Carrie Fisher was also in it. I was able to view this movie on YouTube. 

This Frankenstein stars Robert Powell as Victor, and Carrie Fisher as his fiancee Elizabeth. It was directed by James Ormerod, and the script was written by Victor Gialanella, based on his play, which happened to be a major flop when it was staged for Broadway. 

There isn't anything about this version that makes it stand out from the others. If you know the Frankenstein legend, you'll be familiar with what goes on. Victor is obsessed with discovering the secrets of life and death, but comes to regret his creation; his best friend is careful and doubtful; Elizabeth is worried and suspicious; the creature is lonely and searching for what he is...it's a standard telling of Shelley's tale. 

This version does feature a few of Shelley's characters that almost never wind up in a Frankenstein film, such as Victor's little brother William and Justine, the Frankenstein family's maid. But the low budget and the fact that the production was shot on videotape doesn't do it any favors. It's a very talky adaptation (being based on a play), and it times it feels like a stuffy soap opera, especially when one hears the overly dramatic music score by Alan Parker. 

Robert Powell is all right as Victor, but one can't help but keep noticing his extremely bushy hairdo and sideburns (it's a look singer Tom Jones would be jealous of). Carrie Fisher looks splendid in early 19th Century garb (see picture below), and she not only gets to sing in one scene, she even gets to wander around in a nightgown during the climax, in time-honored Gothic tradition. 

David Warner's creature is more sympathetic (and more verbose) than most other portrayals. He's gangly, clumsy, and childlike, and he sports horrid burn marks over most of his face (presumably from the lightning that brought him to life). This creature is more pathetic than monstrous. 

The blind hermit character is included in this adaptation, and he's played by none other than John Gielgud. (Ironically Gielgud had a very small role in another, much more lavish TV Frankenstein movie--the 1973 FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY. In that one the blind hermit was played by Ralph Richardson.) Edward Judd, who starred in a number of 1960s British sci-fi and horror films, has a small part as a grave robber. 

This version of FRANKENSTEIN isn't bad....but one wonders why it was even made. It appears that most of its budget was used on the cast, and there's nothing else left that makes it worth seeing. David Warner does provide an interesting take on the creature. 



Carrie Fisher as Elizabeth in the 1984 TV version of FRANKENSTEIN


Sunday, July 24, 2022

THE MATCH KING

 





Actor Warren William was the King of Pre-Code Cinema, and one of the best examples of this is the 1932 Warners melodrama THE MATCH KING. 

William plays Paul Kroll, who at the beginning of the film is a street sweeper in Chicago. To earn extra money Kroll comes up with a scheme involving phantom co-workers, while pocketing their salary. Kroll's family in Sweden believes he's a top businessman, and they ask him to come over and help out a struggling match company. Through guile, cunning, lies, and outright theft, Kroll builds the company into a major world-wide concern. Kroll's ambition knows no bounds, but the Depression starts to bring him quickly back down to earth. 

Warren William was perfect for the exaggerated excesses of the Pre-Code era. He was tall, handsome, self-assured, and in his best roles he exuded a strong determination along with an oily charm that could make any poor sap fall for his schemes. In THE MATCH KING his Paul Kroll exhibits a brazen audacity that is a wonder to behold. You don't root for Paul Kroll, and you certainly don't sympathize with him--but it's fascinating to watch how far he is willing to go to get what he wants. If THE MATCH KING had been made only a few years later, the character of Paul Kroll would have been a minor villain. Here he's the leading man, and the entire story revolves around his sordid activities. 

The movie slows down a bit in the middle, as Kroll takes the time to romance a glamorous actress played by Lili Damita. (This is after Kroll has used and discarded such ladies as Glenda Farrell and Claire Dodd.) It doesn't take long, though, for Kroll to get back to his dirty deeds--such as having a potential competitor in the match industry committed to an asylum and using phony bonds in a fraudulent deal (while also disposing of the crook he got the fake bonds from). 

Kroll's favorite saying is "Never worry about anything until it happens--and I'll take care of it then." At the climax, when things start to fall apart for him, Kroll does "take care" of it, in an expressionistic sequence that wouldn't be allowed by Hollywood later in the decade. The sequence shows that even in the Pre-Code era, a guy like Paul Kroll still had to pay for his actions. 

THE MATCH KING was based on the life of a real European unscrupulous businessman, although I highly doubt that fellow was as fun to watch as Warren William. Two directors are credited on the film: Howard Bretherton and William Keighley. (I wonder if this is why the scenes where William romances Damita feel out of place.) The movie still has the typical early-30s fast-paced Warners style, but it does lack many of the familiar supporting character actors one expects to see, probably due to the fact that it is mostly set in Europe. 

THE MATCH KING is one of the great films of the Pre-Code period, and in it Warren William gives one of the great Pre-Code leading man performances.