Thursday, October 30, 2014
A couple days ago my friend Will McKinley shared a blog post that he wrote on something called "World Series of Monsters" from the HitFix website. As part of this "World Series", readers were asked to pick who was the best movie vampire from a list of eight candidates. Needless to say, the list didn't impress me all that much (http://willmckinley.wordpress.com/2014/10/26/vote-barnabas-for-best-vampire-in-the-world-series-of-monsters/), so I decided to come up with my own Best Movie Vampires list for Halloween.
The entries on this list did not make it just on performance alone--the impact that each role had on the history of vampire cinema was a major consideration. If you have not heard about or seen some of my choices--well, go seek them out!
1. Bela Lugosi as Dracula/Count Mora/Armand Tesla in various films
Any list of greatest movie vampires has to have Bela Lugosi at the top. How can it not? His performances as a member of the Undead still remain the epitome for what the general public think a vampire should look and act.
2. Christopher Lee as Dracula in various films
Lee is without doubt the most powerful movie vampire of all time--and he didn't need CGI or major FX to achieve that status. When Lee as Dracula is just standing still, he's showing more screen presence that about 50 other actors playing Dracula combined.
3. Max Schreck as Count Orlok in NOSFERATU
If Christopher Lee is the most powerful movie vampire, Max Schreck is the creepiest. When I was a kid and I started reading about monster movies, there were a ton of strange rumors about Max Schreck--such as he never appeared in any other film that NOSFERATU, how nobody knew his real name, how nobody ever saw him without his vampire makeup, and how there was no information on his birth or death. All those rumors are untrue--but they set my young imagination aflame, and watching F.W. Murnau's classic silent horror just made Schreck even more uncanny in my eyes.
4. Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla Karnstein in THE VAMPIRE LOVERS
In my opinion, Ingrid was the sexiest of all vampires, and the greatest female vampire ever.
5. David Peel as Baron Meinster in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA
For a long time THE BRIDES OF DRACULA didn't get much respect, even from monster movie fans. It was dismissed by many simply because the character of Dracula wasn't even in it. But now the movie--and David Peel's performance as a rather different type of vampire from Lee--is considered one of Hammer Films' best showcases. Some may consider Peel's Baron as a lightweight--but he's ferocious enough to even put the bite on Peter Cushing's Dr. Van Helsing!
6. Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins in HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS
I have to admit that I never got to see the Gothic soap opera "Dark Shadows"--but I did see the movie version on TV a while ago, and I liked it a lot. So much so I even bought the recently released Blu-ray of the film. Jonathan Frid made a huge impression as Barnabas Collins in the early 1970s--there's still a large and fervent Barnabas cult to this day. Frid's legacy is that he was the first "romantic" vampire to gain favorable attention from the general public--and this was way before the Anne Rice novels and the "Twilight" books.
7. William Marshall as Blacula in two films
I can hear what you are thinking..."Blacula??? Really???" Well...the first Blacula movie is rather well done--and William Marshall absolutely commands the screen as the title character. Marshall is way, way better than his material....one wishes that Marshall had a chance to be in a real, Hammer-style Gothic. In fact, I wish that Marshall had gotten a chance to be an "official" Dracula.
8. Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck in SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE
Remember when I talked about all those crazy rumors that had surrounded Max Schreck for years and years? SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE takes those rumors and turns them into the ultimate high-concept idea: what if Max Schreck really WAS a vampire, and F.W. Murnau took advantage of that fact? Dafoe is funny, quirky, scary....and he even makes you kind of like the Nosferatu-Schreck. Dafoe was so fine in this role he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
9. German Robles as Count Lavud in two films
German Robles played "El Vampiro" in two Mexican films in the late 1950s. The movies are surprisingly entertaining (especially if you are able to see them in their original versions, without the dubbed English). Robles was an effective creature of the night, and he deserves more attention from film buffs.
10. Carroll Borland as Luna in MARK OF THE VAMPIRE
If you have seen MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, you are probably going to say, "Hey! She shouldn't count!" This is my list, so I can do what I want. Anyway, I have to pick Borland for the simple fact that her "look" as Luna continues to inspire even into the 21st Century. Vampira, Leticia Addams, Lily Munster, Elvira--they are all in one way or another descended from Carroll Borland. And I picked her for one other reason--I believe she performed the first vampire "hiss" in movie history.
Honorable Mention: Ferdy Mayne in THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, Louise Allbritton in SON OF DRACULA, Barbara Shelley in DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, Francis Lederer in THE RETURN OF DRACULA, John Carradine in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN
Monday, October 27, 2014
81. THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE Directed by John Ford
82. KING KONG (1933) Directed by Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack
83. HELP! Directed by Richard Lester
84. BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK Directed by John Sturges
85. ARSENIC AND OLD LACE Directed by Frank Capra
86. CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON Directed by Ang Lee
87. THE MUMMY (1959) Directed by Terence Fisher
88. COOL HAND LUKE Directed by Stuart Rosenberg
89. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING Directed by Peter Jackson
90. SHERLOCK, JR. Directed by Buster Keaton
Friday, October 24, 2014
A number of big-name movie stars have been involved in World War II movie projects this year. Earlier in 2014 we had George Clooney in THE MONUMENTS MEN, and coming soon will be UNBROKEN, a film directed by Angelina Jolie. Playing in theaters right now is FURY, starring Brad Pitt and written & directed by David Ayer.
FURY is the name given to an American Sherman tank by its crew. That crew is introduced to us during April 1945, as Allied forces drive through Germany and the Nazi regime is in its death throes. The resistance that is left is still fanatical enough to cause U.S. soldiers major trouble, and the film follows the tank crew through such incidents as a showdown with a German Tiger tank and a standoff against a battalion of Waffen-SS troops.
If you are looking for a war movie with mud, blood, and guts, FURY is right up your alley. This movie earns its R rating, violence-wise and language-wise. It's not a movie for kids--and there may even be some adults turned off by it. As a matter of fact, during the screening I attended, a group of viewers left after a scene showing U.S. troops in a particularly bad light.
You've no doubt figured out by now that FURY is not an old-fashioned heroic WWII tale. But in some ways, FURY re-uses some old war movie standards. The characters of the tank crew are pretty basic for this type of picture--hardened tank crew leader (Brad Pitt), devout Christian (Shia LeBeouf), annoying goofball (Jon Bernthal), and the ethnic member of the group (Michael Pena). The "new guy" character is played by Logan Lerman. This character fulfills the "green rookie" stereotype--the guy is in fact so green, he's never seen combat, or been inside of a tank before. I thought that this situation was a bit contrived--even if there were troop shortages, would the Army really send a guy who's never fired a gun in anger or had no tank training whatsoever to fill in on a tank crew? (If anyone out there has any information on whether things like this did occur in WWII, please leave a note in the comments section.)
Logan Lerman looks a lot like the actor who played the new guy in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.....and all throughout FURY I kept thinking back to Spielberg's WWII blockbuster. Both movies have a lot of similarities, although FURY is much more action-oriented.
It is those action scenes which make up the film's highlights. The Sherman-Tiger battle is a standout piece of work from Ayer and his production team. (The only surviving operational Tiger I tank was used during filming.) The climax is very impressive as well...but one thing during the battle scenes kind of distracted me. The tracer bullets are colored red and green, and they constantly kept reminding me of the laser blasts in STAR WARS.
There is one major non-combat sequence, and it involves the Pitt and Lerman characters encountering two German women after the capture of a town. The sequence brings the story to a screeching halt, and it goes on far too long. Ayer may have wanted to give the audience a breather, or make some sort of a statement, but the whole sequence seems almost from a different movie altogether.
FURY is a well-made production, with some intense combat action, but I wouldn't say it was one of the greatest war films ever, or even one of the greatest WWII films ever. If you've seen plenty of war movies in your time (like me), you'll be reminded of a lot of other films. The characters of the tank crew do not especially stand out in any way--and they're also not very likable either. (Despite the fact that it is intimated that this is a crack tank crew, these guys sure do argue and scream at each other a lot.) I would still recommend FURY for anyone who is a WWII buff, just for the Shermans vs. Tiger scene alone.
Tuesday, October 21, 2014
71. HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER Directed by Clint Eastwood
72. MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL Directed by Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones
73. THE UNTOUCHABLES Directed by Brian DePalma
74. PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES Directed by John Hughes
75. MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN Directed by Frank Capra
76. SUNSET BOULEVARD Directed by Billy Wilder
77. IT'S A GIFT Directed by Norman McLeod
78. M (1931) Directed by Fritz Lang
79. GANGS OF NEW YORK Directed by Martin Scorsese
80. THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD Directed by Michael Curtiz & William Keighley
Sunday, October 19, 2014
Criterion's latest Blu-ray release is John Ford's 1946 Western MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, an idealized version of frontier legend Wyatt Earp's involvement in the shootout at the O.K. Corral.
MY DARLING CLEMENTINE can best be summed up by looking at the famous still of Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp, balancing himself against a post (see above). Despite the fact that the story revolves around one of the most famous gunfights in history, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE has an extremely low-key attitude about itself--so much so that 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck did some major revisions to the film before its general release.
John Ford told a number of interviewers over the years that he knew the real Wyatt Earp, and Earp supposedly told Ford the real facts about the O.K. Corral incident. Whether Ford ever met Earp or not, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE is about as historically accurate as THE THREE STOOGES MEET HERCULES. Henry Fonda plays the most noble Wyatt Earp in cinema history (the real Wyatt Earp was the type of person Henry Fonda would have wanted to run out of town). MY DARLING CLEMENTINE is a prime example of John Ford's "Print the Legend" concept.
And make no mistake, this is a legendary film. An entire "town" representing Tombstone was built right outside Ford's beloved Monument Valley, making every location shot in the movie look spectacular. As usual in a Ford film, there's a huge (and memorable) supporting cast, including Ford regulars Ward Bond, Jane Darwell, Russell Simpson, and Grant Withers. Victor Mature, in an unusual bit of casting, gets the best role of his career as the self-destructive Doc Holliday. Walter Brennan is a dangerous and deadly Old Man Clanton--unfortunately Brennan didn't like Ford very much and the actor never worked with the director again. Linda Darnell plays another of her "doomed bad girl" roles, the sultry Chihuahua (try naming a female character that now). The Clementine of the title is portrayed by Cathy Downs. Despite her importance, Clementine does not appear in the film until about a third of the way through, and the character is more a symbol than a real woman.
In the lead role Henry Fonda gives what may be his ultimate Western performance. To be in a Western, and not stick out like a sore thumb, is not an easy trick for any actor. Fonda is so right in this movie that you feel like he's not even acting--he's being (that may be the best compliment one can give to a film star). By the way, if you are interested in seeing Fonda play the "real" Earp, check out his role in WARLOCK.
The Criterion Blu-ray of MY DARLING CLEMENTINE contains two versions of the film, just like the Fox DVD which came out a while ago. There is a 103 minute "Preview Version", which has more of those famous "Fordian moments". It is not really a "Director's Cut"....that version more than likely doesn't exist. I prefer the 103 minute version to the 97 minute theatrical version, simply because it is more of what John Ford intended. The 97 minute version on this Blu-ray looks stunning--like all other Criterion black & white releases, the picture quality is as sharp as a knife. This Blu-ray really brings out the outstanding cinematography of Joseph MacDonald. I have always been of the opinion that you can freeze-frame the picture on any John Ford scene and you will have a great painting. MY DARLING CLEMENTINE is filled with an entire gallery of beautiful images.
There's a number of extras on this Blu-ray. The 97 minute version of the film has an audio commentary by Ford biographer Joseph McBride. It is a very good one, filled with pertinent background material. A 40-minute program comparing the two versions of the film by Robert Gitt has been carried over from the old Fox DVD. This program explains the various changes that Darryl Zanuck did to Ford's work. There's a short interview with western historian Andrew Isenberg on the real Wyatt Earp, and a video essay by Ford scholar Tag Gallagher. Also included are vintage news features on the town of Tombstone and Monument Valley, liner notes by David Jenkins, and a 1947 radio adaptation of MY DARLING CLEMENTINE starring Henry Fonda.
The neatest extra is a 1916 silent short called A BANDIT'S WAGER. This short was directed by and stars Francis Ford, John Ford's brother. (It was Francis Ford who got John Ford started in the movie business.) The short also features John Ford himself as the heroine's brother. Francis Ford was a big Western star during the silent days but he fell on hard times as his brother's career got bigger and bigger. In later years John Ford would almost always cast Francis in small roles--usually as an unkempt comic drunk (he appears in such a role in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE). Seeing Francis Ford as a vibrant leading man, and a very young John Ford as an actor, is a real treat.
You can never praise Criterion's product too highly. The Blu-ray of MY DARLING CLEMENTINE is a must-have for Western film fans and John Ford buffs.
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
I've had a lot of great geek moments in my life....but perhaps the greatest geekiest moment of them all has to be my attendance at the October 2014 Monster Bash in Mars, Pennsylvania. This was a Hammer Films-themed Bash, with an incredible lineup of Hammer leading ladies.
The legendary Hammer hotties were Caroline Munro (DRACULA A.D. 1972, CAPTAIN KRONOS VAMPIRE HUNTER), Martine Beswicke (PREHISTORIC WOMEN, DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE), Veronica Carlson (DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE), Yvonne Monlaur (THE BRIDES OF DRACULA), and Suzanna Leigh (THE LOST CONTINENT). And there were other famous guests as well: Elizabeth Shepherd (THE TOMB OF LIGEIA), Martin Stephens (VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, THE INNOCENTS), and Vincent Price's daughter Victoria.
To coincide with the Hammer theme, a number of the studio's films were screened during the bash, such as THE GORGON and HORROR OF DRACULA. Of course I have all the films that were screened on home video, and I've seen them dozens of times....but it was still cool to see them with an actual audience.
A number of Hammer's most famous monsters, such as the Snake Woman from THE REPTILE and the Christopher Lee creature from THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN were re-created thanks to the wizardry of makeup artist Ron Chamberlain (see picture below).
I told Ollie to stay away from the hotel bar.....
What really made this Monster Bash special was that I shared a hotel room with independent filmmaker Joshua Kennedy (THE MENACE WITH FIVE ARMS). Both of us were like kids at Christmas--and Josh got to do something totally amazing--but I'll get to that later.
One of the prime features of any Monster Bash are the Q & A sessions, where the special guests talk about their careers and their memories. Josh and I got to see programs featuring Caroline Munro, Martine Beswicke, Veronica Carlson, Yvonne Monlaur, and Suzanna Leigh. All of these women went out of their way to express their admiration and love for Peter Cushing. I know that there are some people out there on the internet who hold the opinion that they are tired of hearing all those "Peter Cushing was wonderful " stories. The man was not perfect--no one is. But there's a reason why so many of Cushing's contemporaries profess such love for him--he really was a decent man, and that is something these ladies made sure to reinforce.
Josh and I also got to witness Elizabeth Shepherd, the cinematic Ligeia, give a live reading of Poe's story of "Ligeia". It wasn't just a straight reading....it was a magnificent performance, and I told the lady herself she should record it for posterity.
Elizabeth Shepherd and I (with original TOMB OF LIGEIA poster in the background)
We also experienced Victoria Price's multi-media presentation on her father Vincent's life and legacy. The presentation was poignant, moving, enlightening....and funny. Victoria is truly as eclectic as her father. Josh got a big kick out of the fact that Victoria and I were involved in a serious discussion on baseball. Victoria also signed my copy of the biography she wrote on her father (a book I highly recommend, by the way).
Talkin' baseball with Victoria Price
Josh and I also got to personally talk with all the Monster Bash guests--and we learned such things as the fact that Martin Stephens, during his role as the lead creepy kid in the original VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, played co-star George Sanders in chess--and beat him. Suzanna Leigh told us about the difficult relationship between her Godmother Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. And all the Hammer hotties treated us like family, not goofy fans.
There is one particular Hammer hottie that has a special place in Josh's heart, and that is Martine Beswicke. Once Josh found out that Martine was going to be at the October Monster Bash, he decided that he would try and see if he could get her to consent to film a video with him. Thanks to the help of the lovely Tami Hamalian....he actually made it happen!!! Here's the link for the video: http://youtu.be/ViVh6NOM6aw. I had a rather insignificant part in all of this....but I was proud and honored to see Josh's dream come true. Martine Beswicke could have easily just brushed Josh off, or patronized him...but she got into the true spirit of the venture, and proved to be an excellent sport.
Me with Martine Beswicke and Josh Kennedy
I had one of the best times of my life at Monster Bash. Meeting Josh in person was fantastic, and restorative...simply because Josh has an upbeat, enthusiastic personality, a rarity among someone his age. His love for fantastic cinema is just like mine. It is love of imagination and creativity, a love of wonder and adventure.
The other major feeling I had after leaving Monster Bash was validation. I've been watching Hammer movies most of my life, and I've spent a great deal of money on Hammer-related products. To meet so many women who starred in Hammer features, and to find out that they are charming, kind, and real--gives me inspiration. All those "dumb old monster movies" that I've watched are NOT wastes of time--they've lead me to experiences I never would have had otherwise. These ladies that I've met are true icons of fantastic cinema, yet they have all treated me as a friend.
Certainly the low-key atmosphere of Monster Bash plays a part in that. Ron Adams and his team do a wonderful job in running the Bash and making the fans happy. I don't know if there will ever again be a lineup at Monster Bash like October 2014, but I look forward to making new memories.
With Caroline Munro
With Veronica Carlson
Martin Stephens autograph
Suzanna Leigh autograph
With Yvonne Monlaur
Josh Kennedy and I doing the Cushing finger!
Thursday, October 9, 2014
Sergio Leone may have died in 1989, but his films continue to get longer and longer. Warner Home Video has just released an "Extended Director's Cut" version of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA on Blu-ray. Leone's gangster epic now clocks in at 251 minutes--the restored theatrical version available on home video had a running time of 229 minutes.
If you are familiar with this blog in any way, you know about my admiration for Sergio Leone and my love for his cinematic work. I first saw ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA on a pan & scan video cassette (I've never seen this picture in a proper theater). I wasn't really all that taken with it on first viewing. I thought it was slow and confusing, and I was expecting something along the lines of Leone's Westerns. After seeing it a number of times over the years, I've grown to appreciate it more and more. ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is not a simple film, nor is it an easy viewing experience. It is a movie which requires attention, and thought, on the part of the audience.
Sergio Leone had tried for years to bring this story of a group of young Jewish gangsters in early 20th Century New York City to the big screen. When ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA was released in American theaters in 1984, it was an edited edition that mangled the non-linear storyline. The restored 229 minute version has long been available on home video, and it is considered by some to be Leone's masterpiece.
This "extended director's cut" restores 22 minutes of footage. All of the added scenes are important, and they all add to the complex storyline. (They also add the entire performance of Louise Fletcher, who had been cut out of the film.) This restored footage, however, is not of the same quality as the rest of the film. The footage isn't terrible (the quality isn't as bad as the restored scenes in Criterion's Blu-ray of IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD), but there is a noticeable picture change when one of these scenes pops up.
The picture quality of the rest of the 251 minute ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA has caused some internet controversy. The image is much sharper than the 229 minute Blu-ray version (which is included in this package), but the colors seem to have been desaturated a bit. There are some reviewers saying that the 251 minute edit looks horrible. I don't agree with that--I certainly can't tell you exactly how Leone wanted this film to look--but I do have to point out that this 251 minute ONCE UPON A TIME looks different than the 229 minute version.
Is this difference important? According to the 32-page mini-booklet included with this Blu-ray, the 251 minute edit was restored and prepared under the supervision of Sergio Leone's family and his surviving collaborators. If the color was all wrong, you'd think someone would have noticed or objected. There's plenty of film buffs out there who are steamed up about it (which is getting to be par for the course for just about any movie released on Blu-ray these days).
Whatever version of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA you watch (or accept), you are going to see a magnificent piece of work. ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is comparable to a great multi-layered novel--there's so much to take in, and so many nuances of the story to understand, that it demands repeat visits. That's probably the reason it took me a while to get into it. I actually think that this film works better at home than in a theater--at home you can stop and go over certain scenes, just like in a novel, whereas in a theater I believe the average audience member would be too distracted to give four hours of attention to a difficult plot.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA was Sergio Leone's last feature film as a director, and he went out on the top of his game. His recreation of New York's Lower East Side, circa 1910s, looks as authentic as a series of photographs (and Leone did it without matte shots or CGI). The production design of Carlo Simi is astounding, and Ennio Morricone's music score has now reached legendary status. As for the cinematography of Tonino Delli Colli....a number of his shots are simply breathtaking.
Having said all that.....I can see why some people, even Leone fans, would not get into this film. This is a story about American gangsters, no doubt. But if you are looking for something on the same level as THE UNTOUCHABLES or SCARFACE, this picture is not it. There is violence, and gunplay--but it is not the typical "fun & exciting" movie violence. ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is more European art film than ordinary gangster flick.
There's also the fact that while all of the film's many characters are interesting, none of them are very appealing. Robert De Niro's Noodles, for example, commits violent sexual assault twice. There is a large streak of cynicism throughout all of Leone's work, and it is never more apparent than in this film. And then there is the movie's ambiguous ending, which will leave many shaking their heads.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA has its faults, as do all films directed by Sergio Leone....but it is still pure cinema at its finest, and it is the type of film that will more than likely never be made again.
A movie like ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA really deserves the Criterion treatment. Any Blu-ray package for it should include tons of extra features and documentaries detailing the film's production. This Extended Director's Cut has with it a 32 page mini-booklet, which has some nice photos and a few factoids on the movie. It's okay, but it really doesn't begin to scratch the surface with a project such as this. The other extras are those that appeared on the earlier release of the 229 minute cut. Having the 251 minute and 229 minute cuts in one package is good...but I must admit I kind of wish this had included the now-notorious 139 minute version put out in U.S. theaters, just so I could see how bad it plays.
The lack of extras is disappointing, but that shouldn't stop anyone from buying this Blu-ray. An extended version of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA should be seen by all those who truly love great cinema.
Thursday, October 2, 2014
The actual title of this Warner Archive Collection release is CLASSIC SHORTS FROM THE DREAM FACTORY VOLUME 3. I assume that the WAC wasn't able to use the name "The Three Stooges"--which is fitting, because in these short subjects, Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Curly Howard were not officially called that yet.
These shorts were produced at MGM in 1933 when Moe, Larry, and Curly were still working with vaudevillian Ted Healy. This DVD-R marks the first time all five of the Healy-Stooges MGM shorts are available together, thanks to the recent discovery of a print of HELLO POP!, which had been considered lost.
If you are watching these shorts for the first time, please note that they are very different from the legendary work the Stooges did for Columbia Studios. The Stooges are supporting players here....Ted Healy is the headliner, and for the most part Bonny Bonnell (who was Healy's girlfriend at the time) gets more screen time than Moe, Larry, and Curly do. All the shorts (except for BEER AND PRETZELS) have musical numbers from other MGM feature films edited into them. These numbers are nothing to get excited about, and their appearance in each short usually brings whatever action there is to an abrupt halt. The Stooges get very little chance to shine, and the comedy in each episode winds up being more strange than funny.
The five MGM Healy-Stooges shorts are:
PLANE NUTS: What makes this short notable is the fact that it is basically a filmed version of Ted Healy's stage act. A number of the gags here will be performed by the Stooges in different variations for the rest of their careers. It's interesting to watch the interplay between Healy and the "boys"--even though Moe at this point is subservient to Healy, he's already pulling rank on Larry and Curly. I wonder if the lack of a real audience reaction might have thrown the timing off on some of the jokes.
THE BIG IDEA: This is the least of the collection. Ted Healy is an "idea man" trying to come up with (you guessed it) The Big Idea, but he keeps getting interrupted by such nuisances as the Stooges. Trust me...it's not as funny as it may sound.
BEER AND PRETZELS: The best of the MGM Stooge shorts by far. BEER AND PRETZELS plays very much like a Stooges Columbia short--Healy and the Boys lose their jobs performing at a theater, so they obtain work as nightclub waiters. Of course they are totally unsuited for the job, and they wind up wrecking the place. The musical numbers here are actually integrated into the story, and Moe, Larry, and Curly all have some nice moments (Curly even gets to play the spoons). One has to wonder if someone at Columbia saw this short and had it in mind while the Stooges started working there.
NERSTERY RHYMES: In this short the Stooges play Healy's children, who pester their Dad to tell them a bedtime story. NERSTERY RHYMES was filmed in two-strip Technicolor....but the color has faded badly, and everything looks either light blue or light pink. Seeing the Stooges presented this way is....unique. (I believe that Moe was once quoted as saying "We're twice as ugly in color than in black & white.") There's definitely a Pre-Code vibe going on in this one--Ted wants to get away from his kids so he can hit the beer joints with "good fairy" Bonny Bonnell.
HELLO POP!: A print of this short was discovered last year in Australia, and old movie buffs rejoiced at the news--especially since this was also filmed in two-strip Technicolor. It's more historical curiosity than prime entertainment, however. Ted Healy is running a stage show and the Stooges, once again playing his children, keep bugging him. Like NERSTERY RHYMES, the color for this film has faded badly. Whenever it seems that the story might start getting amusing, one of those mediocre musical numbers from another movie shows up.
There's one more short featured in this collection--ROAST BEEF AND MOVIES, which was made at MGM at the same time as the others. This one has Curly (billed as Jerry Howard) teamed with two other comedians named George Givot and Bobby Callahan. Curly fans will be disappointed to find out he doesn't have much to do in this short, and other than the novelty of seeing Curly without Moe and Larry, there's really not much else to recommend about it. ROAST BEEF AND MOVIES was also filmed in early Technicolor.
Some of these shorts have been released on home video before--PLANE NUTS and ROAST BEEF AND MOVIES are included as extras on the Warner DVD of DANCING LADY, and BEER AND PRETZELS is shown in its entirety on the Warner Archive release of Leonard Maltin's documentary THE LOST STOOGES.
This collection is best suited for movie buffs and hardcore Three Stooges fans. None of the shorts ranks anywhere near the typical Stooges Columbia film, and most viewers of today will not be too impressed with the comedy or the musical numbers. At first glance one has to wonder why MGM used--or mis-used--the Stooges as they did.....but one also has to remember that Ted Healy was the headliner, and the Stooges were brought along with him. Moe, Larry, and Curly had already left Healy by the time the last of these shorts had been released in theaters. We all know how their careers turned out.
As for Ted Healy, he found his true niche as a wisecracking supporting player in a number of famous features such as MAD LOVE and SAN FRANCISCO. Healy died in 1937 at the age of 41 under mysterious circumstances. A new Healy biography written by Bill Cassara (which I have not read yet) is supposed to shed new light on the performer's life and death.
If you are just a casual Three Stooges fan (in other words, the type of person who would never watch a Shemp short) you might want to pass on this. But if you want to know more about the Stooges and how they developed, this is a nice volume to have. And if you do order it from the Warner Archive Collection, you might as well go ahead and order the aforementioned THE LOST STOOGES if you don't already have it. Written and narrated by Leonard Maltin, THE LOST STOOGES gives great detail and insight into the short time Moe, Larry, and Curly spent under contract at MGM.