Saturday, November 30, 2013


When I first started getting into classic films, the list of women who were universally considered the "greatest actresses of all time" had names like Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, and Katharine Hepburn. In recent years Barbara Stanwyck's reputation has grown so much that now she is on that list as well. The increased attention to Stanwyck's career is due to the recent availability of most of her early screen work on home video, and constant showings of her films on TV stations such as Turner Classic Movies. Despite Stanwyck's legendary status, there's really hasn't been a lot of books written about her. Victoria Wilson's mammoth A LIFE OF BARBARA STANWYCK--STEEL-TRUE 1907-1940 attempts to be the ultimate biography on the subject.

Wilson's work is over 1000 pages long. It contains a full Stanwyck movie chronology, as well as a stage, radio and TV chronology. It has over 80 pages of notes--it's obvious Wilson has done a voluminous amount of research--and it only covers the first 33 years of Stanwyck's life. There's also hundreds of photos, some of them very rare (unfortunately a number of images have very little to do with Stanwyck).

The book starts out with the ancestral history of Ruby Stevens (Stanwyck's birth name), goes on to document her tough childhood, her teenage years as a stage dancer and showgirl, her change of name and her success on Broadway, and her eventual move to motion pictures, where she soon became popular due to her work with directors Frank Capra and William Wellman (those two, more than anyone else, should be given credit for helping establish the Stanwyck screen persona).

Wilson also goes into Barbara's tempestuous relationship with her first husband, Frank Fay, and her adoption of a baby boy. Stanwyck is portrayed as a hard-working, determined professional, without pretense and not fitting in well with the glamour world of 1930s Hollywood. After Barbara finally divorces Fay, she meets up-and-coming young star Robert Taylor, and the two begin a romance. The book ends just as Stanwyck is getting ready to make MEET JOHN DOE with Frank Capra.

Wilson's book is certainly a major undertaking, and I have to give her credit for that. However, I have to say that, in my opinion, I don't think it is the definitive book on Stanwyck. The reason why is....there's almost more content in this book about other people than there is about Barbara Stanwyck.

Whenever a person of some renown happens to cross Stanwyck's orbit, Wilson gives that person a detailed backstory, usually with several anecdotes. And it's not just other performers Wilson does this for--she does it for directors, producers, studio heads, writers, Broadway players, etc.

Wilson also spends a great deal of time on issues involving American society in the 20s and 30s--she discusses the FDR administration, the growing Nazi threat, and the Hollywood union situation. These "side roads" are usually interesting and informative, but I as a reader began to suspect that the author would have rather discussed other issues than her main subject.

I think I understand what Wilson was trying to do by injecting so much social history--she was attempting to show the context of the times that Stanwyck lived and worked in. But there is so much extraneous material in the book that Stanwyck herself kind of gets lost in the shuffle.

The problem may have been that Barbara Stanwyck is not an easy person to write about. She was an intensely private individual with almost no "tabloid" moments (other than her relationship with Frank Fay). Stanwyck's idea of leisure was to stay at home and read a book, or attend to her horse farm. There are times where I felt the author was at a loss on how to deal with her subject.

A LIFE OF BARBARA STANWYCK is not a bad book. It will obviously be of interest to film buffs and Stanwyck fans. It probably is the best resource on Stanwyck available till now. But I felt at the end that I still didn't know Barbara Stanwyck very well...and that's something I think Stanwyck herself would have been happy about. (I also think Stanwyck's personal reaction to the book would have been, "Some broad wrote a 1000 page book on me??!! Is she crazy??")

I assume that Victoria Wilson will be writing a sequel covering the rest of Barbara Stanwyck's life. If she does, I hope that the next volume includes more Stanwyck, and less cultural history. A LIFE OF BARBARA STANWYCK is worthy enough for purchase, but some might want to wait until they get a good deal on it (I didn't pay list price--I got it on sale off of ebay), or wait until it is released in paperback.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

My Favorite Doctors Who

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the debut of the BBC television show "Doctor Who". I think it's safe to say that this program is the greatest cult TV show in history. What began as a children's science-fiction series has now become a major entertainment trending topic, and a huge part of 21st Century geek culture.

I first started watching Doctor Who on Chicago's Public Television Station Channel 11, WTTW. This was back in the mid-80s. The "classic" Doctor Who was produced from 1963 to 1988, and was very different than the "new" version of the show (which debuted in 2005). The classic Doctor was definitely an acquired taste--you had to be a real nerd back then to get into it. The best thing about the show was the Doctor himself--a 900 year old Time Lord who had the ability to travel through time and space. What made the Doctor fascinating was that no matter who played him, and no matter how much you might have learned about him through his adventures, he was still a mystery. As soon as you got used to a certain Doctor, he would "regenerate", and a new actor would take over--and then you would have to get used to him again. The regeneration idea was just the BBC's way to replace the lead actor, but it was a very clever concept, in that it kept the show from being stale and at the same time allowed it to continue for years and years.

The classic Doctor Who episodes are somewhat notorious for supposedly being cheap-looking and camp. There's a fair amount of "new" Doctor Who fans who just can't get into the classic series. In a way, they are two very different shows with very different approaches. The 21st Century Doctor Who is no longer a mysterious middle-aged eccentric--he's now a cute nerd, refashioned to be appealing to a younger, hipper audience. You can complain about the new show's direction, but you have to admit that it has worked--go to any shopping mall in America and you'll see tons of Doctor Who merchandise. The BBC has to be making a killing off this show. 

How do I feel about the new series as opposed to the classic one? Well, before I get to that, let me go ahead and list my favorite Doctors, in order...with a special bonus pick at the end of my list.

1. JON PERTWEE (The Third Doctor)
When I was watching "Doctor Who" on Channel 11 in the 1980s I was able to see Jon Pertwee's entire run as the Time Lord. For whatever reason, I loved the way he played the Doctor--he was dashing, adventurous, and dryly humorous. The stories he starred in were exciting and well-written, and filled with all sorts of weird creatures and great villains--including the best Doctor Who foe of all, the original Master (memorably played by Roger Delgado). Pertwee also had three very fine looking Companions (Caroline John, Katy Manning, and Elizabeth Sladen as the one and only Sarah Jane Smith). What I most liked about Pertwee was that, even though he had spent most of his career as a comic actor, he didn't play the Doctor for laughs--he made him into a larger-than-life galactic hero.

Jon Pertwee as the Doctor

2. DAVID TENNANT (The Tenth Doctor)
The Doctor Who series was revived by the BBC in 2005. The first "new" Doctor was Christopher Eccleston....and I have to admit I didn't like him very much. I just couldn't buy into him being Doctor Who--in my mind, he seemed like a guy who had just walked out of a pub. He wasn't my idea of what a true Doctor Who was supposed to be.
After Eccleston left the show David Tennant took over the role. Right away I liked him--this was definitely someone who was a "proper" Doctor. The new show's style and scripts still bugged me (I'll get to that later) but Tennant more than made up for it. Tennant had a dynamism and energy that I think Eccleston lacked--you could tell that Tennant enjoyed being the Doctor. It was Tennant who made the new series successful...I maintain that if Eccleston stayed on, the new series probably wouldn't have lasted too long.
Unlike earlier Doctors, Tennant's version could not be defined by only a few traits--he got to go through the gamut of emotions during his tenure, and he was a good enough actor to pull it off. I've got nothing against Matt Smith, but I don't really watch the show as closely as I used to, simply because David Tennant is no longer around.

3. TOM BAKER (The Fourth Doctor)
Tom Baker is the most famous and loved Doctor of all--saying Baker is your favorite Doctor is like saying HORROR OF DRACULA is your favorite Hammer film. He is great, and he's always interesting to watch...but I kind of feel that during his later years he got a bit too goofy (I don't think the Doctor should constantly be acting like a clown).

4. PETER DAVISON (The Fifth Doctor)
Peter Davison had the unenviable task of following Tom Baker, and because of that the Fifth Doctor doesn't have the reputation that he should have. At the time, Davison was the youngest actor to have portrayed the Doctor. The thing is, Davison's Doctor seemed to be the most mature. It's as if after all those years of Pertwee and Baker, the Doctor finally grew up. Davison had an earnestness about him, and he appeared to realize the consequences of his various actions throughout the Universe. Davison's unique approach to the character set the stage for the younger Doctors of today. (And he gets extra credit for being the only Doctor that I've actually met.)

Peter Davison and your humble blogger, Chicago, April 2013

.....and the bonus pick?


Peter Cushing played the Doctor in two theatrical films: DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS (1965), and DALEKS INVASION EARTH 2150 A.D. (1966). To this day, debate rages whether Cushing is an "official" Doctor or not (the BBC does not recognize him as such). I look at it this way--Cushing plays a character named the Doctor, he has a TARDIS, and he fights the Daleks--if he isn't the Doctor, then who is he?
The thing that bugs me the most about this is that Paul McGann, who played the Doctor in a very mediocre 1996 American TV movie, is considered a "real" Doctor. Peter Cushing has just as much claim to the role, if not more.

Now that I've revealed my list....what do I think of the present day series?

It certainly isn't my type of Doctor Who show. I fully understand what producer Russell T. Davies had to do when he did the reboot in 2005. There was no way he could have made the show the way it was made in the old days. He had to totally re-invent it, which is why he cast someone like Christopher Eccleston in the beginning and have him act as unlike the Doctor as possible.

The 21st Century Doctors are designed to be more appealing to younger viewers. Whenever I've gone to a comic book or fantastic film convention lately, I'm amazed at how many young and attractive women are dressed in costumes relating to the new Doctor Who. The new series has struck a chord with today's type of TV viewer. The show now has a lot of things in common with present day popular television--overly complicated plots that can stretch out to a whole season, ancillary characters that get more screen time than the main lead, and a hip, trendy sensibility that seems rather forced.

The new show isn't so much about the Doctor than it is about how he affects the people around him. There are times it comes off as a sort of soap opera, especially when it comes to the Companions and their families. I think the whole "feelings & relationships" aspect of the new Doctor Who is a major reason why so many young females get into it. Back in the old days, if Sarah Jane Smith had tried to talk to the Third Doctor about her personal life, he would have given her a dirty look and said, "My dear, we have more important things to worry about!!"

The current Doctor, Matt Smith, is leaving the series and is being replaced by an actor named Peter Capaldi. I really don't know anything about him, other than he's in his fifties. I'm surprised that the BBC cast an older actor after the success of David Tennant and Smith. With all the 50th anniversary hoopla the show's popularity is at a huge level. I wonder if that will start to fall off if all the young Whovians do not respond well to Capaldi. Doctor Who will always exist in some shape or form--anything that has a half-century of history attached to it cannot simply fade away. But I wonder how long it will be until, just like every other superhot cult TV hit show, the new Doctor Who series reaches a plateau and stops being the main trending topic.

Friday, November 22, 2013


Today, as I'm sure most everyone is aware of, is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of American President John F. Kennedy. I wasn't alive then, so you can't blame me on it. That also means that I'm not a baby boomer. I've noticed that many members of that generation worship the ground that any member of the Kennedy family walked on. I've even heard some say that if JFK and his brother Bobby had not been killed, we would all now be living in some sort of utopia. On the other hand, there are a number of esteemed historians who think that JFK was one of the most overrated Presidents of all time.

It's rather hard for someone like me to get an accurate viewpoint on JFK and his death. I've read several books on JFK's life and about the assassination, but most of them wind up veering into tabloid territory. I honestly can't say for sure what happened at Dealey Plaza on 11/22/63. The older I get, the less inclined I am toward conspiracy theories, simply because the average American can't keep his or her mouth shut for more than five minutes, and the average American government agency can't seem to run a two-car parade, let alone manage a secret military coup.

The ultimate one-stop Kennedy conspiracy showcase is Oliver Stone's JFK (1991).

Let me start this by saying that, no matter what you think about his politics, you cannot deny that Oliver Stone is a master film director. His films are brilliantly made, and unlike a lot of his contemporaries in the movie world, Stone pulls no punches. His stories are confrontational and upsetting, and his characters are never watered down for a mainstream audience. He has a certain viewpoint on modern American history, and he does not apologize for it.

But.....that does not mean Oliver Stone is necessarily always correct.

You can admire an artist for his/her work, but that does not mean you have to follow their opinions or their personal lifestyle. I have a lot of friends who can't believe a guy like me would admire Stone's films, but appreciating their technique does not mean I buy into the director's politics.

JFK is based on New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison's investigation into the events surrounding President Kennedy's assassination. My DVD copy of JFK runs a David Lean-like 205 minutes. Yet even at that length the movie is never boring. Stone gives the story a rhythm and pacing that draws the viewer in. Stone also uses every film trick in the book up to that time--slow-motion, time compression, different film grains, black & white, flash-forwards, flashbacks, and dozens of others. The editing (credited to Joe Hutshing & Pietro Scalia) is simply superb (the sound editing is as well). Robert Richardson's cinematography and John Williams' musical score are first-class. You can quibble with Stone's version of events, but the movie itself is magnificently made.

The cast of JFK matches the behind-the-camera talent. Kevin Costner plays the role of Jim Garrison. The real life Garrison was a creepy-looking guy who stood about six feet six. If Stone had cast an actor who really resembled Garrison, the audience would have considered the guy a nut after about five minutes. Stone's casting of the lead role was a clever move. At the time Costner was one of the biggest leading men in Hollywood--he was even being called "the new Jimmy Stewart". Having a handsome, likable, and popular leading man spouting Stone's conspiracy "facts" helps convince the average viewer that there might actually be something to it.

Stone peppered JFK with all sorts of big-name cameos (Jack Lemmon, Donald Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, John Candy, etc.). The reason was simple. Stone hoped that by having so many distinguished actors attached to JFK, the audience would be persuaded that it had to be taken seriously. Ironically, the one performance that stands out the most is that of Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald (you kind of wind up feeling sorry for that what Stone really intended?).

Stone did a couple other things to put over his view of history. The director constantly mixes up historical footage with that shot for the film (to the point that those not aware will assume that certain scenes are "real"). Stone also went to the actual Dealey Plaza in Dallas and several more real-life locations connected with the historical events. If it looks real....then some will believe it's real.

The famous (or infamous) Zapruder film of the assassination is also shown (when I saw JFK in a theater, I vividly remember that the audience I was sitting with was genuinely shocked by it). Once again, it's another way to give the project "legitimacy".

The film's biggest flaw, in my opinion, is not that Stone doesn't adequately give out enough information to prove a conspiracy...he gives out too much. There are so many theories thrown out, and the movie goes off on so many tangents, that one gets the feeling that just about every other human being that was alive in 1963 had to be involved. Stone links it all to Cuba, Vietnam, and the CIA (at least, I think he does). It's the evil military-industrial complex...the "beast" that Stone refers to in some of his other films. The "beast" was not happy that Kennedy was supposedly intending to pull out of Vietnam.

My problem with that is.....John F. Kennedy was a Cold Warrior. He was also someone that did not like to lose, and someone who would use every trick he had to make sure he won (see the 1960 U. S. Presidential election). I find it hard to believe that Kennedy would have walked away from Vietnam.

If JFK makes a person want to find out more about the Kennedy assassination, to the point of reading a book, that's fine. But one must remember that the film is Oliver Stone's interpretation of real-life events. Too many folks take what they see on the screen as gospel, and that's the last thing anyone should do, especially in this day and age. You can appreciate Oliver Stone's JFK for it's technical virtuosity, but in the's still just a movie.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Samuel L. Jackson: The Ultimate 21st Century Movie Actor

While I was watching TV last night, I saw a credit card commercial featuring Samuel L. Jackson. It suddenly occurred to me that Jackson is the true face of cinematic "geek culture". If you haven't realized it yet, geek culture is the most important facet of today's entertainment industry, whether it be movies, TV shows, books, or even music (are not all those skanky pop princesses merely real-life anime girls?).

Jackson's big breakout role was in Tarantino's PULP FICTION (1994). Most people don't bother to make the connection, but PULP FICTION is a geek movie. Everything that happens in the movie is calculated to a certain extent to draw attention to it self-referential, or self-indulgent, or whatever, that's a major part of geek culture. Tarantino has had a huge impact on the way motion pictures are now made, a lot bigger impact than is realized. I'll give you an example--remember the end credits scene in THE AVENGERS where the heroes are eating after the climatic battle? That's basically a Tarantino scene. And I'll take it even further....Uma Thurman's character in the KILL BILL movies is to all intents and purposes a superhero (David Carradine even discusses superhero mythology in a KILL BILL VOLUME TWO dialogue scene).

Samuel L. Jackson of course has been associated with just about every Tarantino film since PULP FICTION. But even before that he had made a place for himself in geek history with his supporting role in JURASSIC PARK, where he got to recite one of the greatest lines in modern movie times ("HOLD ON TO YOUR BUTTS!!!"). Jackson went on to appear in a Die Hard movie, and the three Star Wars prequels. He also starred in UNBREAKABLE, a movie some swear is one of the best comic book stories ever, and he had the lead role in SNAKES ON A PLANE, a title that had more popularity and attention on the internet than it did when it actually was shown in theaters (you can't get more geek than that).

Jackson lent his voice talents to the highly successful computer-animated THE INCREDIBLES. The modern animated feature has a huge role in geek culture. And now Jackson stars as Nick Fury in the Marvel movie series. Is there any other actor now that has a resume like that?

There's more to just Jackson than picking the right projects--he has a overwhelming screen presence, and audiences like him a lot. Jackson also doesn't take himself too seriously, and he genuinely seems to enjoy his public image. Whatever project he's in gets a injection of coolness to it. And let's not forget the fact that he is a very talented actor. His role in DJANGO UNCHAINED hasn't been discussed much because it is far too politically incorrect, but he was brilliant in it. Playing a black man who uses the Southern slave society for his own personal advantage, Jackson perfectly exemplified a type of individual that has existed throughout history--the collaborator.

According to a number of internet sources, Samuel L. Jackson is the highest-grossing movie actor of all time. That's an extraordinary record, considering that he is a middle-aged African-American and, despite Hollywood's left wing posturing, the movie industry still favors young white performers. Like it or not, for better or worse, the geeks rule the entertainment world, and that's why Samuel L. Jackson is in his present position.

Monday, November 11, 2013

My Favorite World War II Movies

In honor of Veterans Day (or Remembrance Day), I'd just like to thank all the men & women who have served in America's armed forces. I realize that's the very least I can do....if it wasn't for the sacrifices of our Veterans, I wouldn't have the freedom to write this goofy blog.

Being a history buff, I've always been fascinated by World War II. It is without doubt the most important event in modern human history. I've read hundreds of books and magazines on WWII, and I still learn new things about it. It is an incredibly broad and complex subject, and any book (or movie) that attempts to cover it can only hope to scratch the surface.

Nevertheless there are some worthy films that deal with the WWII experience. Of course there's no way a movie can accurately recreate what an ordinary soldier goes through in a combat situation, no matter how many special effects and explosives are used. But an outstanding film can give the viewer a sense and appreciation of the conditions and situations that a member of the military has to deal with. Here then are my five favorite World War II films.

1. PATTON (1970)
Not just a great WWII film--it may be the most accomplished example of a cinematic biography ever. George C. Scott didn't look like George Patton, and he certainly didn't sound like Patton--but for all intents and purposes, he IS Patton. Scott didn't just do an imitation of a historical character (a mistake that a lot of modern actors make), he gave an actual performance. And what a performance it is. Scott explodes off the screen, with an intensity and conviction matched by very few actors. Director Franklin J. Schaffner gives the film an epic scope to match Patton's larger-than-life personality, helped by Jerry Goldsmith's legendary music score. And don't forget Karl Malden as Omar Bradley, the perfect complement to Scott's Patton. I think the reason PATTON works so well is that people on all sides of the political spectrum can watch it--some will look at Patton as a true American hero (like me), others will look at him as a kook. A brilliant film all around.

John Sturges' All-Star extravaganza based on an actual incident that happened in a POW camp. The screenplay does take some liberties with the real event, but this movie is so well-made and so riveting that I don't think it is that big of a deal. A rousing & exciting action-adventure, THE GREAT ESCAPE is still thrilling even after you've watched it a dozen times. Steve McQueen (as usual) makes the biggest impression--not the easiest thing to do with the acting ensemble that is featured here. This is definitely a "classic" type of war film (no overt gore, no messages or sarcasm) but it still holds up just the same. Special mention must be given to Elmer Bernstein's score.

An epic film from an epic director (David Lean), this movie is so powerful that most people are convinced that everything in it actually happened. It didn't (the screenplay is based on a novel by Pierre Boulle), but KWAI is still far more convincing than most films that are based on wartime fact. British POWs build a bridge for the Japanese....but are they helping the enemy or maintaining their morale and respect? Is the British Colonel determined to finish the bridge (Alec Guinness) mad or honorable?
KWAI doesn't have any easy answers...Lean's films usually don't. The nominal "hero" (William Holden) is unlikable and self-serving, and those who want to destroy the bridge seem just as unstable as those who want to build it. This is one of the few films which deal with the experience of POWs in the Pacific Theater of WWII. (I think that there hasn't been more due to political correctness.) Alec Guinness deservedly won an Oscar for his amazing performance. His quiet observation about a man being closer to the end of his life instead of the beginning is the real highlight of KWAI. Simply a must-see film.

Famed producer Darryl F. Zanuck's dream project--a massive retelling of the Allied invasion of Normandy, based on Cornelius Ryan's book. This one always stuck out for me, even when I was a kid, because it was one of the few WWII films where the Germans actually speak German. There's dozens of memorable scenes, but the main one continues to be Red Buttons stuck on the church steeple. An incredible cast....but after awhile, the endless line of famous faces does get to be a bit distracting.

5. DOWNFALL (2005)
A stunning picture which deals with the last days of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. There have been other films which have dealt with this subject (and they always seem to have a British actor as Hitler), but DOWNFALL has an edge in that it was made in Germany, with a native cast. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel shows the Fuhrer and his entourage as human beings instead of out-and-out monsters....which makes them all the more monstrous. Bruno Ganz is mesmerizing as Hitler--he's easily the best cinematic Hitler of them all.
Unfortunately DOWNFALL is now famous for all the YouTube parodies which have sprung up using the "Hitler starts raving" sequence. This movie deserves to be known for more than that. A WWII buff's DVD collection is not complete without this film.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Vincent Price Collection On Blu-ray

I usually don't write a blog on a DVD or Blu-ray set until I've seen every one of the extras and listened to all the commentaries, but The Vincent Price Collection from Shout Factory is so filled with various goodies that it would be a long time before I got a chance to tell you about it. So I've decided to take the opportunity to go ahead and tell you how great it is.

The set includes six films starring Vincent Price: THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, THE HAUNTED PALACE, THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, and WITCHFINDER GENERAL (also known as THE CONQUEROR WORM). I have watched all the Blu-rays of these movies, and they look spectacular, especially THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM. I do have to admit that THE HAUNTED PALACE looks a tad bit too dark.

All of these titles had already been released on DVD as part of the legendary "Midnite Movies" collection. Shout Factory was smart enough to include the extras on the original DVDs as part of this Blu-ray set. But there's a ton of new extra features as well. For those who own all these films on DVD, the increased picture & sound quality and the new added extra features of the Blu-ray set should be more than enough for you to spring for an upgrade.

This truly is a "greatest hits" collection for Vincent Price. Most everyone will agree that these six films are among Price's best showcases (I believe that THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES is Price's best performance ever). The six productions on this set are so esteemed that any fantastic film fan will want to purchase it, let alone Vincent Price admirers.

I have managed to watch some of the set's extras, such as the new interview with Vincent Price's daughter, Victoria. This runs about 45 minutes, and it gives a unique insight into what Price was really like away from the camera. (By the way, I highly recommend reading Victoria Price's biography of her father.) Another extra I viewed was David Del Valle's talk with Vincent Price for the "Sinister Image" show. This runs about 60 minutes, and it covers the length of Price's career in horror and fantastic films. I haven't delved into any of the new audio commentaries yet. The one I'm really looking forward to hearing is from director Robert Fuest for THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES. Fuest recently passed away, and he had a reputation for being as unusual as the films he directed, so his commentary should be interesting.

Each movie gets an extensive still & poster gallery, and every film except THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES has a special introduction from Vincent Price (these were taped for a Iowa PBS station in the 1980s). The Vincent Price Collection also includes a 24-page booklet with an essay by David Del Valle. The booklet contains photos from the movies in the set.

Here's a quick rundown of the four discs in the set:

THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM with an audio commentary by Producer/Director Roger Corman

THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH with audio commentaries by Roger Corman and Steve Haberman

THE HAUNTED PALACE with audio commentaries by Lucy Chase Williams and Tom Weaver

THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER with audio commentary by Roger Corman, an audio interview with Vincent Price conducted by David Del Valle, and a commentary by Lucy Chase Williams

THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES with audio commentaries by director Robert Fuest and Justin Humphreys

WITCHFINDER GENERAL with commentary by Philip Waddilove and Ian Ogilvy
Vincent Price interview with David Del Valle
Victoria Price interview
Separate titles and credits featuring the American name of the film THE CONQUEROR WORM

Shout Factory has released some outstanding home video products, and The Vincent Price Collection is a perfect example. It's definitely going to make my list as one of the best DVD/Blu-rays of 2013.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Fritz Lang's A PRINCESS OF MARS (1928)

If you are wondering why you've never heard of Fritz Lang's film version of Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel, it's because the movie never existed. This is my contribution to "The Great Silent Recasting", a blogathon hosted by Carole & Co. ( The idea behind this blogathon is to take a modern movie and recast it as if it were a silent film made before 1929. That's a challenge I certainly have to take.

I had dozens of ideas running through my head, but I decided upon dealing with one of my favorite genres--the German Expressionist picture. After all, it was METROPOLIS that made me interested in silent movies in the first place. So, as an homage to that monumental film, and the cast & crew that worked on it, I "created" another silent German science-fiction fantasy.

I've written an earlier post about my appreciation for Disney's JOHN CARTER ( I mentioned in the post how the film would have been received a lot better if it had been made in an earlier time. What if it had been made as a silent feature--with the backing and production values of the great UFA studios of Germany?

Say that after METROPOLIS, Fritz Lang informs UFA executives that his next project is about a trip to the moon. The UFA brass, worried about the underwhelming response of METROPOLIS, proposes to Lang that if he wants to make something with an outer space setting, he should base the project on a popular story. UFA and Lang decide to adapt the first book in the John Carter series of works written by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

To make the project more popular, UFA and Lang come to the decision to cast an American actor as John Carter. They choose George O'Brien, already well known for his leading roles in THE IRON HORSE and F. W. Murnau's SUNRISE. The beefy O'Brien is perfect as the adventurous and noble John Carter.

George O'Brien as John Carter

The role of John Carter's great love, the Martian Princess Dejah Thoris, is filled by Brigitte Helm, who so memorably starred in METROPOLIS.


Brigitte Helm as Dejah Thoris

As Tars Tarkas, the Martian warrior chief who first captures, and then allies with John Carter, Lang favorite Rudolf Klein-Rogge is chosen. Emil Jannings (THE LAST LAUGH) gets the role of the evil Sab Than, the villain of the piece, and Paul Wegener (THE GOLEM) plays Mors Kajak, Dejah Thoris' father. The duplicitous female Sarkoja, who betrays John Carter during the story, is reserved for screen vamp Lya De Putti.

Lien Deyers, fresh off of making an impact in Lang's SPIES, gets the sympathetic part of Sola, daughter of Tars Tarkas and friend to John Carter. Gustav Froelich is Kantos Kan, who also fights alongside Carter, and Conrad Veidt (THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI) has a special cameo as the High Priest of Issus.

How would any 1920s-era film studio have been able to make something like A PRINCESS OF MARS? Well, UFA and Fritz Lang had not only already made METROPOLIS, they also filmed DIE NIBELUNGEN, which was sort of the LORD OF THE RINGS of silent cinema. UFA would have certainly been able to handle all the various techniques involved to bring the Martian world of John Carter to the screen.

As for the various alien races depicted in the John Carter books, I assume that Lang and his then-wife screenwriter Thea von Harbou would have made them humanoid (but with enough facial makeup to make them "different"). I also think von Harbou would have enjoyed working on a tale in which a white hero becomes ruler and uniter of a group of strange tribes.

The other reason I think that the Martians would be humanized somewhat is simply because if you had hired a cast like the one I've listed, you definitely would want to see their faces. Performers like Klein-Rogge, Jannings, Wegener, and Veidt wouldn't need a lot of special prosthetics to appear strange and unusual. If all those men were really involved in the same production, I could only imagine the overacting that would have been going on. I could also imagine that all those egos thrown together with a temperamental director like Lang would have made for a very tumultuous set.

I also believe that Lang might have used a major amount of red tinitng during the Martian sequences. Even without the use of color Lang and the technicians working under him would have found a way to make the settings unique and unearthly.

The John Carter stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs would have been a perfect fit for the outlandish nature of German Expressionist cinema. Unfortunately the 1928 version of A PRINCESS OF MARS exists only in my warped mind. It would have been fantastic to see a movie like this....just for the cast alone.

Fritz Lang