Sunday, September 23, 2018

GOD'S GIFT TO WOMEN





GOD'S GIFT TO WOMEN is a strange 1931 Pre-Code comedy from Warner Brothers. It was directed by the legendary Michael Curtiz, and it features a number of actresses that have rather notable reputations among film buffs today.

The movie is set in Paris and stars vaudeville comic Frank Fay as a notorious ladies man. Fay is introduced walking into a nightclub with an entourage including Joan Blondell, Louise Brooks, and the Sisters G. You'd think with that type of arm candy the guy would be plenty satisfied--but he immediately is attracted to a young blonde female sitting at a table played by Laura La Plante (the star of the silent THE CAT AND THE CANARY). La Plante is an American who has a rich father, and her daddy isn't too happy to find out about Fay's history of being a lady killer. Fay tries to tell the father (who is played by Charles Winninger) that he's willing to change his ways and give up his partying life and settle down, and the father sends a doctor to examine him. The doctor tells Fay he must give up all excitement--especially women--or he will assuredly have a heart attack. Fay spends the rest of the film trying to avoid his former lovers and figure out a way to get back to La Plante.

I don't really know all that much about Frank Fay, other than he was a bad husband to Barbara Stanwyck. My good friend Steve Zalusky, who is an expert on American pop culture of the 1920s and 1930s, informs me that Fay could be considered the inventor of stand-up comedy, and that he was a early version of Bob Hope and Milton Berle. Fay must have had something going on back then to get lead roles in Hollywood films and to win the hand of Stanwyck, but from my viewpoint of just watching his performance here I can't figure out what that was. In my opinion Fay certainly isn't believable as a out-and-out Romeo type (to me he kind of resembles Liberace). Maybe the whole point of Fay being cast in this role was something of a joke--but he doesn't seem all that appealing or entertaining in this film. He also doesn't seem anything like the sophisticated European he is supposed to be playing. Maurice Chevalier would have been perfect to play Fay's role.

The most interesting thing for me about GOD'S GIFT TO WOMEN (and the main reason I watched it) was the female cast. Joan Blondell and Louise Brooks are worth watching in any cinematic situation. I'm quite interested in the Sisters G now after seeing them on the Criterion Blu-ray of KING OF JAZZ. The movie also has Margaret Livingston, the vamp of the famous silent SUNRISE, as yet another of Fay's lovers. Unfortunately none of those ladies I've just mentioned get to do all that much. We are treated to the sight of both Blondell and Brooks in lingerie, and they even engage in a catfight. Sadly (especially for old movie weirdos) the entire sequence containing such pleasures is rather brief. According to my internet research GOD'S GIFT TO WOMEN featured a few musical numbers, including one showcasing the Sisters G, but they were cut out before the film's general release. The result is that the Sisters are in the background of a few scenes and nothing more. Margaret Livingston only gets to appear in one sequence. Even Laura La Plante, who is supposedly the lead female character, has very little chance to shine--one just wonders what her character sees in Fay.







Louise Brooks and Joan Blondell show what Pre-Code is all about in GOD'S GIFT TO WOMEN



Frank Fay dominates the proceedings here, and depending how you feel about him will determine how you feel about GOD'S GIFT TO WOMEN. I didn't find Fay all that funny, and I wished the script had taken better advantage of all the actresses involved. Michael Curtiz tries to bring some visual flair to the tale when he can, but it's basically a drawing room farce. Let me put that another way--the movie tries to be a drawing room farce, but it comes off to me as weird instead of risque.


Saturday, September 22, 2018

MY MAN GODFREY On Blu-ray From Criterion





MY MAN GODFREY (1936) isn't just one of the greatest screwball comedies of all time--it's one of the greatest American film comedies, period. The movie has just been released on Blu-ray by Criterion.

The rich Bullock sisters, Irene (Carole Lombard) and Cornelia (Gail Patrick), visit a New York City dump in search of a "Forgotten Man" for a scavenger hunt. They come across a rather unusual and articulate hobo by the name of Godfrey (William Powell). The snooty Cornelia upsets Godfrey, but he agrees to accompany the flighty Irene. Irene becomes so taken with him that she hires Godfrey as the family butler. To say that the Bullock family is eccentric is an understatement, but Godfrey deals with them in his own inimitable way, while trying to navigate around Irene's growing affection for him.

MY MAN GODFREY is one of those few films that flow so effortlessly it doesn't even seem to be scripted or directed. The man who did direct it, Gregory La Cava, had a reputation for keeping things loose on the set, and on this film he had the perfect cast to work with. MY MAN GODFREY is also one of those few films where everyone in the ensemble steals the movie. Four different actors were nominated for Oscars here--William Powell, Best Actor, Carole Lombard, Best Actress, Mischa Auer, Best Supporting Actor, Alice Brady, Best Supporting Actress--but the other main cast members such as Eugene Pallette, Gail Patrick, and Jean Dixon could have easily been nominated as well. 

I've always been impressed with how smooth William Powell was as an actor. His best attribute when it came to comedy was his ability to convey to an audience the absurdity of a situation without being absurd himself. Most performers would overreact to the zaniness going on around them in a story like MY MAN GODFREY, but Powell does more with a brief glance or a slightly raised eyebrow. It's a style of light comedic screen acting that is almost extinct today.



Carole Lombard and William Powell in MY MAN GODFREY



Of course I'm going to praise Carole Lombard here--she's my all-time favorite movie actress, after all. The thing is, calling her "The Screwball Girl" is a bit of a misnomer--she was one of the most intelligent women working in Hollywood at the time. If any other actress had played Irene Bullock, the character might have come off as silly, spoiled, or annoying, but Lombard has so much likability and personality we can't help but be charmed by her. Lombard as Irene adorably reacts to everything the way a 10-year-old girl would--but that's because Irene is essentially a little girl (one main reason why Godfrey doesn't automatically return her affections the way any other man would). Lombard had a naturally unaffected way of being funny while still being glamorous and enticing.

It's very easy to over analyze a movie like MY MAN GODFREY. Simply put, it's an all-around enjoyable film, with a great cast led by two true Hollywood legends. The climax wraps things up a bit too neatly, but this movie wasn't meant to be a social statement--it's supposed to be entertainment, and there's nothing wrong with just sitting back and appreciating a happy ending.

For whatever reason MY MAN GODFREY had fallen into public domain mode, and as a result there are dozens of cheap versions of it on home video. Criterion had released a DVD version of it a while back. This new Blu-ray version from Criterion is easily the best I've ever seen the film look, with greatly increased sharpness and detail.

The new extras include an excellent booklet essay examining the movie by Farran Smith Nehme, and two new featurettes. One of them has Gary Giddins discussing the picture, and the other has Nick Pinkerton looking back on the life and film career of Gregory La Cava. Both featurettes are informative and well worth watching. There is also a radio adaptation of MY MAN GODFREY starring Powell and Lombard on this disc, along with a few outtakes and a trailer. I do have to say that I found the lack of an audio commentary disappointing--this movie cries out for one--and I really wish there had been some sort of featurette on Carole Lombard and her relationship to the 1930s Hollywood screwball comedy genre.

I'm sure most film buffs have one of those cheap home video comedies of MY MAN GODFREY already (I did), but this Criterion version gives the movie the treatment it deserves.






Saturday, September 15, 2018

Making The Case For Physical Media









Ever since the 21st Century began I've been hearing about how physical media--DVDs, Blu-rays, CDs, books, magazines, etc.--is on the way out. You wouldn't know that if you visited my house. I have five different shelves filled with various discs, and I've got books piled up all over the place, including boxes of them (and numerous magazines) in my basement.

I've spent a great deal of my hard-earned money on physical media (and it's not like a make a lot of money either). Many people have told me, "You don't need to buy all that stuff now! Just stream it, or watch and read it on the internet!" Well, I love collecting this stuff, it's one of my hobbies. Not that long ago I wrote a blog post on my very first home video purchase, a cheap public domain VHS version of HORROR EXPRESS. In that post I related how cool it was to actually own a Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee film--it was if I now had a personal connection to it. I still feel that way when I get a super-duper release from Criterion or Arrow today. You can psychoanalyze that feeling all you want--some people get that feeling from buying clothes, or working on cars...I get it from buying an obscure monster movie that very few have ever heard of. To each his own.

One of the great things about physical media is that once you've bought it, it's yours. You don't have to worry about the copyright being an issue, or what happens if your power source is interrupted, or your device being damaged or going on the fritz. No one is going to take away your physical media, unless they break into your residence and steal it. You can watch it (or read it) whenever you feel like.

I realize that some feel they may not have the room to keep or store many items on physical media, but I don't think these things take up that much room--that basically comes down to each individual's preference. In my situation it helps that I'm a single guy, and I can do what I want in my own house.

As for the "You can find cheaper and better ways to get this stuff than buying an actual copy", is it more efficient to use streaming or Kindle when most of the product available on those devices are things I'm not interested in? I've been encouraged to try services like Netflix just so I can watch one particular show--then why not just go and buy that show on home video? Most streaming services have very few choices of interest for hardcore film buffs. There are thousands and thousands of films that will never show up on any streaming service, simply because they will be considered too old or not mainstream enough.

When it comes to books, for me there's no comparison between reading something on a screen and actually holding a copy in your own hands and reading it page by page. Whenever I read something on a screen I have a tendency to skim through it--that's a bad habit, and it's one reason why I try to keep my blog posts short and to the point. There's nothing more relaxing for me than to read a good book on a subject I'm interested in. Reading that same material on a screen....it just wouldn't be the same. Maybe that's a silly way to look at it, but it's how I feel.






Maybe I can explain my love for actual books in another way. I recently purchased a book featuring posters for the films that involved Ray Harryhausen. It is a magnificent volume, with all sorts of wonderful and imaginative poster art. Could one get the same satisfaction from this book if you viewed it from a hand-held device? I certainly wouldn't.

Speaking of hand-held devices, I realize now that plenty of folks watch movies on them. I've viewed films on YouTube with my laptop....but watching an entire feature film--in widescreen yet--on a cell phone?? Can you imagine watching LAWRENCE OF ARABIA or THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY on a hand-held device?? I know someone reading this is probably thinking, "That's what the kids do nowadays." Okay, fine, whatever....but I really don't see how you can properly appreciate any film that way.

One time when my Dad was staying with me for a couple days, he told me, "If you hadn't bought all this stuff you have, you'd be a millionaire!!" (He was also referring to the sports memorabilia that I own). The thing is, if I hadn't bought all of this stuff, I'm sure I would have spent it on other things. We all have something that gets us through life. Some people medicate themselves through alcohol or drugs--I do it with movies and books. One of the reasons I'm able to spend money on the things I have is the fact that I don't drink or do any type of drugs. I've never even smoked dope. I'm not saying this to assert some sort of moral superiority, I'm just stating it to point out that if one wants to follow certain interests in life, one has to make certain choices to be able to do so. I've made my choices and I'm happy with them. Whenever my friend Josh Kennedy and I discuss the latest crazy movie-related purchase one of us has made, we always come to the same conclusion--"There are far worse things we could be spending our money on."

The fact is, if you have any interest in entertainment that goes beyond the mainstream, you are going to have to invest in some form of physical media. It may be a hassle at times to do this, but if it makes you happy in the end, that's all that matters. I would much rather watch movies or read books I have an interest in than deal with most people, so for me, physical media will always be the way to go.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Book Review: HITCHCOCK'S HEROINES









Probably no other film director has been the subject of more books than Alfred Hitchcock. I'd venture that the number of volumes concerning the man runs into the hundreds, and dozens more seem to crop up each year. One has to wonder about these new Hitchcock tomes--what more can one say about him and his films that hasn't already been said? What new angles are there left to explore? 

HITCHCOCK'S HEROINES, written by Caroline Young and published by Insight Editions, thankfully is a worthy addition to the Alfred Hitchcock library. The book is a well-produced coffee table sized exploration on the leading ladies of a number of Hitchcock's films, their personal relationships with the director, and their characters. 

HITCHCOCK'S HEROINES examines 23 films and main female stars of each, starting with the 1927 silent THE LODGER and ending with 1972's FRENZY. Because of this format a few actresses are showcased in more than one chapter--Ingrid Bergman gets two chapters, Grace Kelly gets three, and Tippi Hedren gets two. The book goes beyond the usual ladies associated with Hitchcock--performers such as June Howard-Tripp, Anny Ondra, and Nova Pilbeam are also featured. 

Each chapter gives a thorough analysis of the leading lady for the film selected--why she was cast, how she interpreted her role, and what her relationship with Hitchcock was like. The wardrobes for the ladies in each particular film are also examined, as Hitchcock himself had very exact instructions for what the actresses in his movies should be wearing. 

One of the main themes of the book is Hitchcock's quixotic personality when it came to relating to women. The author makes the case that Hitchcock was very respectful toward major stars who were not intimidated by him, such as Carole Lombard and Ingrid Bergman. However, this work does not shy away from the accusations made toward Hitchcock by women such as Tippi Hedren and Vera Miles. The charge that Hitchcock's work had a misogynistic streak running through it is also discussed. 

What really makes the book special in my opinion are the number of high-quality photographs reproduced in it, with many of them being an entire page. Whatever you may think of Hitchcock's personal behavior, the man did have an eye for beauty, and he knew how to present that beauty in visual and dramatic ways. The photos in this book make that abundantly clear. 

The fact that HITCHCOCK'S HEROINES was written by a woman is a distinct plus, in that it gives a refreshing spin on a subject that has been discussed over and over again. While reading this book one is reminded of how vitally important the leading ladies of Hitchcock's films were to him and his work. I already own a number of books written about Alfred Hitchcock and his movies, and I'm glad I added this one to the list. 



Friday, September 7, 2018

Burt Reynolds (1936-2018)









When I was a pre-teenager, my parents almost never went to the movies. Their philosophy was, "It'll be shown on TV eventually." I had to beg them over and over again just to get them to take me to any of the Star Wars films. But for SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, they made an exception. My entire family made a special trip to the drive-in (not only did my parents not like going to movies, they didn't even like going to movie theaters) in the summer of 1977 to see it. (Remember, SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT was rated PG, so it was considered "safe" for my younger brother and me to go along.)

The main reason they went to see this film was Burt Reynolds. The man was a huge star in the 1970s, especially to lower-middle class working people like my parents. Movies like DELIVERANCE, GATOR, and THE LONGEST YARD made Reynolds quite popular in flyover country. To many Americans back then Reynolds seemed like one of them. He may have been a movie star, but he still seemed like an ordinary guy who had fun with his success and didn't come off as elitist or condescending. He didn't appear in critically-acclaimed films, but he starred in titles regular folks enjoyed and wanted to see.

Reynolds also had a huge off-screen persona back in the 70s and early 80s. His various affairs and escapades constantly got him into the tabloids or magazines like PEOPLE or US (about the only type of literature my parents ever read). He also made several appearances on THE TONIGHT SHOW with Johnny Carson, and don't underestimate how that helped Reynolds' popularity--at the time Carson was far more influential than all the present-day late night hosts put together.

I honestly believe that in some ways Burt Reynolds was a latter-day Clark Gable. I realize that what I just wrote might cause some of you to do a spit take, but let me explain. Both men had a cocky self-assurance on the screen, and both men were excellent at comic timing. Both men were also extremely attractive to women, and they knew it. They also spent a majority of their acting careers playing narcissistic jerks--but they each had the innate ability to make such characters seem palatable to a mass audience. That type of charisma and magnetism can't be taught in any acting class--you either have it or you don't. Burt Reynolds was like the cool kid in high school everybody wanted to hang around with.

Reynolds wasn't just admired by adults--kids (like myself) appreciated him as well. When the youngsters of late 70s America weren't pretending to be Luke Skywalker or Han Solo, they wanted to be the Bandit or Hooper. After we saw SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT I told my Dad I wanted my very first car to be a Pontiac Trans Am--needless to say I never got it.

Reynolds wound up riding the country-action comedy train for far too long, and his tabloid lifestyle eventually caught up with him, to the delight of his more "sophisticated" critics. He made a comeback in the 1990s with the TV show EVENING SHADE and his role in BOOGIE NIGHTS. Reynolds had directed a number of the films and TV shows he appeared in, but he wasn't able to manage his career as successfully as his friend and contemporary Clint Eastwood.

Burt Reynolds should be remembered as a true movie star who didn't take himself seriously and entertained millions of people. He had, and always will have, a major impact on pop culture.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Monster Kid Radio's Classic Five Core Deck Card Of The Month For September










Now, here's a question that seems relatively simple, but is actually quite complicated. My immediate response would be, "I'd like to spend time with one of the Hammer heroines!" The thing is, I basically did that for real on the set of HOUSE OF THE GORGON earlier this year. But the question isn't about which classic monster movie performer you'd like to hang out with..it's which classic monster movie character.

And that's where it gets complicated, because, when you think about it, how many great classic monster movie characters are the type of people one would want to spend time with off the screen?? Can you honestly imagine hanging out with, say, Bela Lugosi's Dr. Vollin, or Peter Lorre's Dr. Gogol? I highly doubt those chaps would be all that much fun to be around. It's always entertaining to watch the mad scientists played by the likes of Lionel Atwill or George Zucco....but to spend time with those characters for real would be highly dangerous.

Okay...instead of picking a mad scientist type, what about a classic monster movie good guy? What about, say, Robert Armstrong's Carl Denham? No doubt you'd have an exciting time with him...but you'd also run the risk of sacrificing yourself for whatever crazy scheme he'd have cooked up. If you hung out with one of David Manners' characters, you'd probably wind up bored to death. Lionel Atwill's Inspector Krogh from SON OF FRANKENSTEIN might seem a safe choice...but you'd spend a lot of time stifling laughter over his one-armed antics.

One of Kenneth Tobey's monster fighting characters might make pleasant company....then again, maybe not, considering that most of them were highly professional military men who didn't seem all that comfortable with down time. Peter Cushing's Dr. Van Helsing might seem the obvious choice for me--but remember what happened to his "close friend" Jonathan Harker in HORROR OF DRACULA?

How about a female character instead of a male one? Fay Wray's characters would spend a lot of time screaming at you, and Evelyn Ankers' characters, well...I have the feeling they'd be a bit high maintenance. As for the English Gothic female characters, most of them have rather questionable taste in men, such as Veronica Carlson's Maria in DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE.

Instead of picking one of the stars of a classic monster movie, and dealing with all the trouble that entails, how about a supporting character? There's plenty of issues when you go down that route as well. Could you imagine dealing with, say, Una O'Connor's Mrs. Hall for any length of time?? Or any member of the Femm family from THE OLD DARK HOUSE?

Maybe the safest bet is to pick a background character, someone who is out of the way and observing everything going on around them. Maybe one of the villagers in a typical Universal or Hammer horror film. If you did that you'd find yourself spending a lot of time at the local tavern or pub instead of working for a living, and every so often you'd have to grab a torch and join up with a righteous mob. (Come to think of it, there's plenty of 21st Century Americans who live that type of lifestyle....)

One also has to consider where most classic horror film characters live--old dark houses, subterranean hideouts, caves, sewers, dungeons, crypts, etc. If you are one of those "Halloween every day" type of people, this might be okay, but others might want to ask their favorite classic horror film character if they'd like to head out to the mall for the afternoon instead.

We are, though, only talking about one day....surely one can handle certain difficulties over that time? How would you like to deal with Lon Chaney Jr's Lawrence Talbot whining and moaning for 24 hours? (He even drove Boris Karloff's Dr. Niemann to anger over it.)

Fact is, when you get right down to it, there's very few classic horror film characters (in my opinion at least) that one would seriously enjoy spending an entire day with. It's not like most of them would sit on the couch with you and eat junk food and watch the game on your big-screen TV.

For me, the classic horror characters are best experienced through their various films. But if I had to pick one, it would be Peter Cushing's Dr. Van Helsing. If things got really bad, Van Helsing could take care of the vampires, and I'd keep an eye on the ladies.


Tuesday, September 4, 2018

BUFFALO BILL









BUFFALO BILL is a 1944 film produced by 20th Century Fox and directed by the vastly underappreciated William Wellman. The movie purports to be a biography of the famous William Cody, a man who was a legend in his own time. I say "purports" because the end result is about as realistic as the average GREEN ACRES episode.

When we are introduced to Buffalo Bill at the beginning of the story, he has already spent most of his life being a scout and dealing with native tribes in the Old West, and he looks around 40 years old. Bill (Joel McCrea) saves a traveling party from an Indian ambush, and among the group are a U.S. Senator and his lovely daughter (Maureen O'Hara, looking gorgeous as always in Technicolor). Bill falls in love with Maureen at first sight (who wouldn't?), but their relationship is affected by an uprising by various tribes, and Cody's disagreements with the military authorities on how to handle the situation. After taking part in a large battle between the U.S. Cavalry and a tribal confederation, Cody becomes a hero, and his exploits are extensively written about by dime novelist Ned Buntline (Thomas Mitchell). Cody goes back East to Washington and tries to reunite with his now-estranged wife, but his outspoken views on the Native American situation make him unpopular. Cody is reduced to working in a sideshow act, but it is there that he gets the idea for a grand Wild West show, and he becomes a worldwide hero once again.

It's hard to believe that the man who directed one of the darkest Westerns ever made, THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, also made this picture. Then again, maybe Wellman should deserve some credit for being able to turn out two such totally different films in the same genre. BUFFALO BILL is classic Hollywood myth-making--there's not much to Cody's character except that he is soft-spoken, straightforward, and determined in his convictions. That is essentially the type of role Joel McCrea played his entire acting career, and while he fits the bill here, at least for this version of Buffalo Bill, he doesn't have the flamboyance one would expect of the world's most famous Wild West showman. (McCrea also appears decidely uncomfortable with long hair and a goatee.)

Wellman apparently hated the script, but he still tried to bring some historical perspective to the story. For a film made released in 1944, it has a rather modern viewpoint when it comes to Native Americans. Time and time again Bill goes out of his way to declare that it is the whites who have caused all the trouble on the frontier, and that Indians should be treated with the same respect the U.S. Government gives to foreign diplomats. There's also a subplot about how when Cody goes to Washington D.C. and ticks off numerous politicians, he is attacked as lying about his escapades out West--was this Wellman's subtle way of letting the audience know that some historians consider the real Cody to be something of a phony?

Maureen O'Hara doesn't get much of a chance to use her legendary on-screen fiery attitude--here she's basically the dutiful wife. Linda Darnell's role in this picture is rather puzzling. She plays a young Native American woman who is intelligent enough to teach white children. She appears to have a crush on Buffalo Bill, and, considering she is third-billed, one expects her to be set up as a rival to Maureen O'Hara...but this never really develops, and Darnell, as in most of her films, comes to a bad end. One has to wonder if some of Darnell's scenes were cut. (Darnell and O'Hara do get to share a scene together, which gives the viewer a chance to see two of the most beautiful women in cinema history at the very same time.)

Like most movies made during the Golden Age of Hollywood, there's plenty of fine supporting talent on hand, such as Thomas Mitchell and Edgar Buchanan. Anthony Quinn steals the show as a noble native American warrior--honestly he might have made a better Buffalo Bill than McCrea.

The large Cavalry-Indian battle I referred to is by far the movie's main highlight. Despite having such a colorful character as the main subject, the film doesn't have a lot of action in it. There's way too many attempts at light humor which just seem silly. Still, Wellman keeps things moving along, and even though he wasn't all that happy with the project, he made it as entertaining as it could possibly be. Just don't expect a "warts and all" version of Buffalo Bill's life--not when at the end a kid with crutches says, "AND GOD BLESS YOU, BUFFALO BILL!!!"