Saturday, January 20, 2018

Dorothy Malone (1925-2018)









Last August I wrote a blog post revealing my top twenty favorite movie actresses of all time. Dorothy Malone came in at #12. She didn't become one of my favorites because of a single film, or a single role...my appreciation of her developed over a number of years. She seemed to keep popping up in different movies that I had viewed, and the more I saw of her, the more impressed I became.

Dorothy Malone won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in the soap opera WRITTEN IN THE WIND. Because of this those that do remember her associate the actress with heavy dramatic roles, but she was an all-around versatile talent, appearing in all sorts of films and playing all sorts of characters. My pick for the best Martin & Lewis movie is ARTISTS AND MODELS, and Malone is in that one, playing what could be considered the "responsible" character. She not only has to put up with Dean and Jerry, but she also has to compete with a very flighty Shirley MacLaine. Despite all this she still manages not to get overwhelmed by all the crazy proceedings.

It took a long time for Malone to achieve major success in her film career, which is surprising, especially since one of her earliest roles had her almost stealing a now classic film. In THE BIG SLEEP she has a very small part working in a bookstore and having to handle Humphrey Bogart's Phillip Marlowe. She holds her own with Bogart beautifully, and anyone watching the scene can't help but be charmed by her, and want to see more of her character. Despite this she would spend a lot of time being cast in low-budget titles--she even wound up in a couple of Roger Corman productions.

In the mid-1950s Malone's career began to rise, just about the same time she became a blonde. She certainly had the looks to be a blonde bombshell (see picture above), but she seemed to fit more into the mold of a hard-working character actress than a big star. (Just think about all the things she had to go through while making THE LAST VOYAGE.) She played John Barrymore's daughter in TOO MUCH, TOO SOON, and she played Lon Chaney's first wife (and Lon Chaney Jr's mother) in MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES. She also starred in a number of Westerns, which might surprise those that look upon her as a modern-day bad girl type. She co-starred with Randolph Scott a couple times, and she was in major Westerns such as WARLOCK and THE LAST SUNSET. She even had a role in the very first BEACH PARTY movie.

In the mid-1960s she moved to television and starred in a series based on PEYTON PLACE. (I have to admit I've never seen an episode of that show.) Her last acting performance was in BASIC INSTINCT--how many people can say that they worked with Humphrey Bogart and Sharon Stone?

Dorothy Malone always gave consistently outstanding performances in whatever role she played, no matter what the film. She was far more personally appealing to me than most of her more famous contemporaries.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

My Very First Home Video Purchase




Do you want to hear the story behind the very first home video purchase I ever made? Well, too bad, because I'm going to tell it anyway. What inspired me to write this post is something I saw on Twitter yesterday.

One of my favorite Twitter sites is @Super70sSports. It is one of the funniest and creative sites on the internet, and if you were a kid in the 1970s and 80s, and enjoy a politically incorrect sense of humor, you really need to follow it. Yesterday @Super70sSports posted this photo:





This is actually a record album cover--yes, Telly Savalas was a recording artist among all his other talents. The picture used for the cover comes from the production of HORROR EXPRESS, the fantastic Euro-Gothic thriller starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. I was going to tweet a reply about where the photo came from, but @PaulWegnerNC had already mentioned that it might be from HORROR EXPRESS. I replied to Paul that yes, it was indeed from that film, and he responded that it was no surprise that I knew that because of my Twitter handle...which happens to be Dan Day at @CushingLee. 

I then tweeted to Paul that HORROR EXPRESS happened to be my very first home video purchase. I bought it at a local Target--a Target that no long exists. It was the fall of 1986, my senior year in high school, and I had just gotten my first job. I'm pretty sure that I bought it from the proceeds from one of my first paychecks. 

Of course it wasn't in widescreen, and I doubt the print looked all that great--but it was mine. By that time I was already into full blown old movie weirdo mode, so the idea of owning films on VHS was quite enticing. During that era "mainstream" movies on VHS were rather expensive to buy, but cheap public domain video tapes were easy to obtain. Copies of HORROR EXPRESS were a dime a dozen back then--I think every fly-by-night company that released VHS product had their own version of the film. Does it shock you that my very first home video purchase would be a title that starred Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee??

After my Twitter discussion, I started to wonder...do I still have the tape? I have a box of old VHS tapes in my basement. The box has been through water damage, and a couple of changes of locations on my part--but I still have it. Why would I keep a box of decades-old video tapes that I haven't played in years? I don't know....ballast, perhaps??

So I ventured downstairs, and sure enough...it was there! The tape has suffered some water damage--there's no way this thing could still play--and the front of the box has some damage as well. 






I searched on the internet and found a better looking photo of the front cover:






The back cover looks okay, though...and it corroborates my story:






Notice the copyright date--1985. And it was in High Quality SP mode!!!

When it comes to 1980s VHS box cover art, this particular release of HORROR EXPRESS is nothing special...but hey, it has a picture of Cushing & Lee examining an eyeball on the front, so what more do you need?? What gets me is the illustration of a choo-choo train in the top corner--it looks like something from a children's book.

Even though this tape is basically useless now, I'm going to continue to keep it for sentimental reasons alone. It was the first item in a long, long list of video tapes, DVDs, and Blu-rays I've bought over the years. I've spent way too much of my hard-earned money on this stuff...the last time my Dad was staying over at my house, he told me, "If you hadn't of bought all this crap, you'd be rich right now!!" Well, maybe...but I probably just would have spent that money on something else.

Most folks remember extensive details about their first date, or their first car...I have vivid memories about buying a cheap VHS tape.

Go figure.




Monday, January 15, 2018

THE BLACK ABBOT









THE BLACK ABBOT (1963) is one of the many German "Krimi" films made based on the works of English novelist Edgar Wallace. A typical Krimi entry is a bizarre fusion of horror, science-fiction, film noir, detective thriller, and pulp adventure. What makes THE BLACK ABBOT stand out is that it is set in and around a large country estate, instead of a Germanic version of London. This film reminded me of the many 1930s and 40s Hollywood B movie mysteries set in old houses, except that THE BLACK ABBOT has a lot more flair to it. (The original German title of this is DER SCHWARZE ABT.)

In an effective pre-credits sequence, a worried man is seen prowling about the grounds of a large estate in the middle of a foggy night. The man is being watched by a sinister hooded figure dressed in black. The hooded figure proceeds to sneak up on the prowler and stab him in the back. After the main credits, we learn that the owner of the estate is one Lord Chelford. The aristocrat's main advisor is his cousin Dick Alford (Joachim Fuchsberger). Both men are suspects in the death of the prowler, and both men know (along with seemingly everyone else in the picture) about a legendary vast treasure of gold hidden somewhere in the estate. A number of suspicious characters are also after the treasure, and all these people have a vested interest in the upcoming marriage of the middle-aged Lord Chelford and the very young and very pretty Leslie (Grit Boettcher).

The figure referred to as THE BLACK ABBOT actually doesn't get a lot of screen time. Most of the plot concerns the main characters double-dealing one another. The multitude of schemes becomes a bit confusing after awhile--it gets hard to keep track of who is doing what and why. Even Dick, who is supposedly the hero, has secrets of his own. To top it all off, there's a shifty butler played by Klaus Kinski. We know right off the bat not to trust this man, because...he's played by Klaus Kinski, for Pete's sake. Nearly every character in the story gets a chance to go skulking about outdoors during the night, and these scenes, which feature atmospheric black & white cinematography, are the highlights of the film.

I've seen a number of Krimi films, and what makes them entertaining is how they go off on all sorts of weird tangents. THE BLACK ABBOT is rather straightforward compared to most Krimis. The title character, when he does appear, makes a striking impression, but in my opinion the hooded abbot is not used enough. At the end of the film the figure's costume is used for a silly joke. The black abbot is really just a diversion from all the other shady goings-on, which include embezzlement, murder, lying, cheating, and old family secrets. The climax has one of the characters going totally off the bend, and kidnapping Leslie.

THE BLACK ABBOT was directed by Franz Josef Gottlieb, who as stated before brings a moody ambience to the nighttime sequences. I don't know anything about the manor house used in the film (I assume it was somewhere in West Germany), but it is a spectacular location for this type of production. I must also make mention of the music score. Usually Krimi films were saddled with jazzy rhythms that didn't seem to match up with what was going on in the story. THE BLACK ABBOT has a score that contributes the right attitude.

The cast features several Krimi veterans, including leading man Fuchsberger, Werner Peters, Eddi Arent, and of course Kinski, who manages to steal every scene he's in.

If you've seen just about every classic Hollywood thriller, and would like to venture into another cinematic realm, I'd like to suggest the Edgar Wallace Krimi movies. A fair amount of them are on YouTube (and don't worry, most of them are dubbed in English). Many of the Krimis feature story lines that will be familiar to movie buffs....but they also take those story ideas and twist them around into divergent and unique paths.


Saturday, January 13, 2018

LAWYER MAN









LAWYER MAN (1932) is a lightning-quick slice of Warner Bros. Pre-Code, starring William Powell and Joan Blondell. Powell plays attorney Anton Adam, and the film charts his rise and fall (and rise again) in the arena of big-city politics.

At the start of the tale Adam has a humble law practice in the East Side of New York City. He wins a case against a big-time lawyer, and the man is so impressed he takes on Adam as a partner. Adam starts to gain notoriety (and the attention of flashy dames), especially after he successfully takes on a major racketeer named Gilmurry (David Laundau). Gilmurry offers Adam a job in the "organization", but the now-confident lawyer turns it down. Gilmurry proceeds to set up Adam and have him indicted for blackmail. The disgraced Adam now vows to be the biggest shyster of them all, and he takes on the most disreputable cases, all for a chance to get back at the men who set him up. All the while Adam is accompanied by his loyal (and often exasperated) secretary, Olga (Joan Blondell).

What made William Powell such a standout film actor was his unmatched ability to make everything he did look effortless--out of all the major stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood, he was by far the smoothest. Powell ably conveys to the viewer that Anton Adam, at least at the beginning of the story, is still a bit wet behind the ears when it comes to certain matters. Adam desires to live the high life of a big-shot lawyer, and thinks he can handle the situation, but he soon learns he's not really cut out for it, basically because he's really a decent fellow. (If the character had been played by Warren William, he would have taken to it like a duck to water.) Powell eventually turns the tables on his foes, but you never get the sense that he's actually the shyster that he appears to be. Powell keeps the audience on his side all the time, despite the fact that Anton Adam is no Nick Charles or Philo Vance.

The one thing you can't understand while watching this film is why Anton constantly takes his secretary for granted--especially when she's played by the very attractive and appealing Joan Blondell. Throughout the film Joan stands by Anton as a friend, confidant, voice of reason, and jealous suitor (Joan's reactions to the various goings-on are priceless). Powell and Blondell make a great team, and I would have loved to have seen them in more films together.

The rest of the cast is filled with players familiar to those fans of early 1930s Warner Bros. pictures. This movie has two "other women"--Claire Dodd and Helen Vinson--and there's a nice dumb henchman role for Allen Jenkins. David Landau gives a unexpected twist to the part of the powerful racketeer. Instead of being overbearing and threatening, his Gilmurry is a subtle, affable fellow. The film's ideas about big-city corruption are most definitely Pre-Code. It lays out that the corruption exists, and it's going to be there no matter what--so you better deal with it in the best way you can. Adam's way of eventually dealing with it is to get out of the game and go back to his small practice in the East Side. If this film had been made a few years later, Adam would have been shown getting the entire "organization" thrown in jail. Here the corruption is still around at the end of the story.



William Powell enjoying the benefits of being a LAWYER MAN



This movie was directed by William Dieterle, who would go on to far more prestigious productions later on in the decade. It's hard to judge Dieterle's overall effect on the film, because this movie seems more edited than directed. Entire subplots are initiated (and dispensed with) in just a few scenes. The story moves so fast that we only get a glimpse of Powell even being in a courtroom! One gets the feeling that a number of scenes that were filmed for LAWYER MAN were left on the cutting room floor. A longer cut, with more plot detail, might be interesting to watch....but would you want to get bogged down in legalistic detail, or would you rather see William Powell and Joan Blondell trade barbs? LAWYER MAN is fast, fun, and enjoyable, and worth seeing just for the leading couple.

Monday, January 8, 2018

BEGGARS IN ERMINE









BEGGARS IN ERMINE (1934) features the legendary character actor Lionel Atwill. Throughout his screen career, the characters that Atwill played spent an inordinate amount of time instigating horrible schemes...but in BEGGARS IN ERMINE, he's the victim of one.

Atwill gets a leading role this time as John "Flint" Dawson, general manager of a small steel mill in 1919. Dawson loses both his legs in an "accident" set up by a corrupt associate named Marley (Jameson Thomas). While Dawson is recuperating in the hospital, he finds out that Marley has taken control of the mill, ruined Flint's bank account, and run off with Mrs. Dawson and his young daughter (basically Marley acts the way we would expect Atwill to do in a movie).

Things are so bad for Dawson that he turns to panhandling, accompanied by a kindly blind man (Henry B. Walthall). Over the next fifteen years, Dawson uses his business acumen to organize panhandlers all over America, to the point where the members receive benefits and living expenses. All the while, Dawson dreams of getting back at Marley and retaking control of his steel mill.

What really makes BEGGARS IN ERMINE unique, especially for Lionel Atwill fans, is that the actor portrays a fellow who comes from a working class background. Most of Atwill's movie roles were powerful villains or high officials of one sort or another. John Dawson is a man who has worked his way to a top post in the steel mill, and he still totes a lunch pail and takes his breaks sitting outside among his employees. Most movie buffs are familiar with Atwill being in a wheelchair because of MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, but in that film it was part of his character's plot. In BEGGARS IN ERMINE Atwill has no choice but to use a wheelchair. Flint Dawson is put into a weakened position, and he's a victim of someone else's actions, a rare thing for an Atwill character.

One would expect Dawson to be seething with rage and desperate for revenge, doubly so since he's played by Lionel Atwill. But Atwill is very subdued here, almost thoughtful over the trials and tribulations he has to go through. The movie itself is very low-key as well, considering the plot. Author Neil Pettigrew in his biography of Atwill has pointed out the BEGGARS IN ERMINE has a lot in common with many of the Lon Chaney/Tod Browning collaborations. A man crippled by devious forces who spends years putting himself in a situation to take back what is rightfully his, an unfaithful wife, and a daughter who is unaware of her father's fate....it sounds very much like a Chaney/Browning film, except those two would have made things far more melodramatic.

BEGGARS IN ERMINE was a production from low-budget Monogram, and it was directed by Phil Rosen. The idea of a national organization of street peddlers is a novel idea, but the movie (which is only about 70 minutes long) doesn't have the time or the budget to develop such a scenario. (It has to be pointed out that the various beggars we are shown are not portrayed as the typical "movie bums".)
Some viewers might be disappointed that Flint Dawson isn't as angry or as forceful as one might expect him to be. This is a man played by Lionel Atwill after all. But Dawson is a genuinely good man, a patient man--maybe too patient, under the circumstances. One also has to remember that BEGGARS IN ERMINE was made at an early point in Atwill's screen career. If the film had been made about four or five years later, there's no doubt Atwill would have been cast in the Marley role.

BEGGARS IN ERMINE is no classic, but it does give one a chance to see Lionel Atwill playing a leading dramatic role in a non-horror film--and being a good guy to boot.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

SING SINNER SING





Not that long ago I discussed on this blog the career of actress Jean Parker. I mentioned how I couldn't understand why she didn't become a bigger star. I have often wondered the same thing about Lelia Hyams, a beautiful blonde whose film career started at the end of the silent era and lasted through the mid-1930s. Hyams is best known for her roles in the cult horror films FREAKS and  ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. Despite being a contract player at MGM, she never was able to break through to major stardom.

Hyams was almost always cast in "nice girl" roles, and her characters would usually wind up reacting to events instead of instigating them. It didn't help that she was constantly overshadowed by various things in her movies, whether they be circus freaks, panther women, or a psychotic Jean Harlow in RED HEADED WOMAN. Hyams did have a nice supporting role in RUGGLES OF RED GAP (1935), but soon after she left acting to concentrate on her family life.




Leila Hyams



She did get a chance to shine in a 1933 film from low-budget company Majestic called SING SINNER SING. Hyams plays Lela, a torch singer on a gambling ship. Her character even gets to actually sing a couple of tunes--despite my internet research I was never able to ascertain whether the songs were performed by Hyams or she was dubbed.

The gambling ship is run by a man named Phil Carida (Paul Lukas). If you go by the "old movie rules", you know that Phil is a shady guy, because he has a mustache and he speaks in a foreign accent. Phil also needs a cold shower--whenever he and Lela are alone he can't keep his hands off her, yet when she is on stage he's fooling around with one of the chorus girls. Lela also has another admirer in drunken playboy Ted Rendon (played by an actor with the unfortunate name of Don Dillaway). Lela is getting tired of Phil's horndog activities, and wants to leave her job, but she's afraid of what the gangster-like ship owner might do to her. Lela takes advantage of a robbery attempt on the ship's safe (in which Phil is injured) to take up Ted's offer of marriage and go away with him.

Lela's problems do not end, however. Ted spends almost all of his time drinking and partying, and when he is sober he's morose and depressed. Instead of just divorcing the jerk Lela tries to help him. Things come to a head one night when a hungover Ted contemplates suicide with a pistol, just as Phil shows up wanting revenge. Lela hears a shot, but she (and the audience) do not see who fired it. Lela finds Ted dead, and she faints on top of a gun lying on the floor. Lela winds up being tried for Ted's murder....which leads to one of those "someone bursts into the courtroom and does something spectacular" scenes. But just when the viewer thinks that wraps everything up, another twist is revealed.

SING SINNER SING was produced during the height of the Pre-Code era, but despite its plot and title, it isn't risque or outlandish. The idea of a gambling ship as a major location is noteworthy, but the movie's budget doesn't allow it to make proper use of the idea. The subplot of Phil's underworld associates trying to rob the gambling ship's take isn't developed enough, and the few musical numbers on the ship are nothing to get excited about. Director Howard Christie (billed in the credits as "Christy') films the events in a straightforward manner. There is a lot of things happening for a movie that runs 66 minutes, and the climax is worth getting to.

The movie shifts in tone once Lela gets off the ship and marries Ted. Lela winds up being exasperated by Ted's partying ways (although she doesn't do the smart thing and just leave him). Once again Leila Hyams plays a nice girl stuck in a bad situation--even away from MGM she couldn't escape that kind of role. Lelia does at least get a number of ravishing close-ups. According to my internet research, the plot of SING SINNER SING was apparently inspired by a real-life case involving a singer named Libby Holman and a tobacco fortune heir named Zachary Reynolds.

The best feature of SING SINNER SING is the cast, which is quite impressive for a low-budget production. Not only do you get Leila Hyams and Paul Lukas, there's Ruth Donnelly as Lela's best friend and comic relief, and character actors such as George E. Stone, Edgar Norton, and Walter Brennan. (I have to admit that while watching SING SINNER SING on YouTube I didn't notice Brennan in it.)

The print of SING SINNER SING that I viewed on YouTube wasn't the best quality, but Hyams still looked gorgeous in it. For those who have seen the actress in FREAKS and ISLAND OF LOST SOULS and would like to see more of her, SING SINNER SING is an easy place to start.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

My Top Five DVD/Blu-rays Of 2017









Once again it's time for me to list my top five movie home video releases of 2017. Last year I had trouble coming up with a top five, but this year I could have easily increased this list to ten. And there was plenty of appetizing offerings I didn't purchase--I do have to eat and pay bills, you know.

I've been hearing for the last few years about the "death" of physical media...yet 2017 saw a slew of prime cult home video product. There's a definite market out there for this sort of material, and companies like Arrow, Shout Factory, Severin, and Kino are doing a wonderful job of filling it (and getting a huge chunk of my hard-earned cash in the process). I don't stream (or even field & stream), but I've got discs piled up all over my house, and that's just the way I like it.

As I do every year, I must point out that I purchased all my picks, and that they are all Region A or Region Free.


1. BARRY LYNDON (Blu-ray) from Criterion
Stanley Kubrick's historical epic looks magnificent, and according to Criterion, it is in the correct aspect ratio. What made me choose this as #1 is the fact that this release provides an entire separate disc of extras, thoroughly analyzing the making of the production. I wrote a full review of this in October.

2. CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER (DVD/Blu-ray) from Arrow
2017 was a very good year for fans of the Italian Maestro of the fantastic, Mario Bava. His films ERIK THE CONQUEROR, KILL, BABY...KILL!, and ROY COLT AND WINCHESTER JACK all received high-end releases. Arrow's version of CALTIKI makes the list due to its giving a public domain title the respect and extras a major mainstream picture would garner. My review of it was posted in May.

3. THE OLD DARK HOUSE (Blu-ray) from Cohen
James Whale's quirky tale of British eccentricity has been given a splendid restoration on this disc, and that fact alone is enough to put it in my top five. I covered this release in October.

4. THE LOST WORLD--1925 version (Blu-ray) from Flicker Alley
Another splendid restoration of one of the most influential fantastic films ever made, jam-packed with pertinent extras. My full review of it was posted in October.

5. THE PINK PANTHER FILM COLLECTION (Blu-ray) from Shout Factory
For the first time ever, all the Pink Panther films starring Peter Sellers are included in one set. All six of the films gets its own disc, with numerous extras covering each production. I've never written a proper review of this because I still haven't gotten to most of the extras yet!