Sunday, January 29, 2017
Criterion has released on Blu-ray one of the greatest--and wildest--comedies from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Directed by Howard Hawks and starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, HIS GIRL FRIDAY has become so famous that many have forgotten that the movie is a remake of THE FRONT PAGE (1931). Criterion hasn't forgotten--THE FRONT PAGE is included in this release, on its own disc and with its own extras.
HIS GIRL FRIDAY is a visual and audio class in comic timing. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell had never acted together before, but if you watch them in this film you'd swear they had worked alongside each other for years. The pace of the film literally leaves you out of breath--the next time someone says they don't like "old movies" because they are too slow, show them HIS GIRL FRIDAY. Many refer to HIS GIRL FRIDAY as a screwball comedy, but I see it more as a dark satire. The play on which it is based, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's The Front Page, is about as biting as it can get in its examination of American big-city media and politics. The appealing personalities of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell soften the hard edges of the story.
That being said, seeing HIS GIRL FRIDAY and THE FRONT PAGE within a short time of each other has made me change some of my thoughts about the former film. The main difference between the two pictures is of course the fact that the character of Hildy Johnson is a woman in HIS GIRL FRIDAY, but the films have a lot more in common than I generally assumed. For the most part the dialogue is almost exactly the same, and most of the scenes between the two films are very similar. THE FRONT PAGE has a raw, Pre-Code element to it, and HIS GIRL FRIDAY, especially on this new Blu-ray, has a sleek, crisp, Hollywood smoothness to it--but the basic story is essentially the same.
The disc featuring HIS GIRL FRIDAY features extras such as a visual discussion of Howard Hawks' film making technique by film scholar David Bordwell, brief looks at Howard Hawks and Rosalind Russell, and liner notes made out in the style of a mid-20th Century newspaper (I love this touch). The "newspaper" contains an article on the film by writer Farran Smith Nehme.
The 1931 version of THE FRONT PAGE was released on Blu-ray by Kino a couple years ago (I wrote a blog post on this release in September 2015). Film buffs will be interested--or maybe distressed--to find out that THE FRONT PAGE on this Criterion release is a different version of the film from the Kino release. According to the liner notes written by Michael Sragow (also in the form of an old-time newspaper), the Academy Film Archive attempted to restore a 35mm print of THE FRONT PAGE that was part of the Howard Hughes film collection at UNLV. The Academy's researchers discovered that the UNLV print was from a negative intended for the American release of the film, while the Kino version (and the one used for all the public domain releases over the years) was intended for foreign distribution. This means that this Criterion version of THE FRONT PAGE is one most people have never seen. (I'm sure those who already own the Kino release of the movie may not be too thrilled with that.) Criterion's disc of THE FRONT PAGE features a program on the discovery of this "new" print, and the differences between it and the other version. There's also a short look at the life and career of Ben Hecht.
HIS GIRL FRIDAY was for a time in the public domain, and copies of it on home video could be found everywhere. This Criterion release is without doubt the type of first class treatment the movie truly deserves. HIS GIRL FRIDAY is Hollywood studio film making at its finest. Howard Hawks, Cary Grant, and Rosalind Russell were all at the top of their game here, and the movie has a cast of great character actors that one just can't find in a typical 21st Century production. Any film buff should have a copy of HIS GIRL FRIDAY in their home video collection, and the bonus of having a "new" version of THE FRONT PAGE makes this one of the best Criterion releases in the last few years.
Saturday, January 28, 2017
This month marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Carole Lombard. The actress and 21 other people (including her mother) died when the TWA DC-3 airliner they were traveling on slammed into Mt. Potosi, a peak located some thirty miles southwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. Author Robert Matzen examines this tragic incident in the new paperback edition of his book FIREBALL--CAROLE LOMBARD AND THE MYSTERY OF FLIGHT 3.
Carole Lombard is my favorite actress of all time, so obviously my thinking will be biased when it comes to a book like this. But putting that aside, Matzen has done a fantastic job. The author has done an incredible amount of research, covering all aspects concerning the flight, and the futile attempts by ordinary local citizens to climb the treacherous Mt. Potosi in the hopes that someone might have survived the crash. Matzen himself climbed the mountain, and he makes very clear how difficult it was for the rescue team, and for those who had the unfortunate task of recovering the bodies. Matzen reveals that pieces of the DC-3 still rest on the mountain today, and human remains are still being found.
Matzen's writing style is easy to read and to the point, and the chapters are short and brisk. The chapters alternate between detailing Lombard's life and the crash and its aftermath. The result is a riveting story--once you being reading, you don't want to put it down. Matzen presents Carole Lombard as a whirlwind of energy, a woman determined to succeed and overcome any obstacles in her way. Matzen shows that the relationship between Lombard and Clark Gable was far more complicated than the fairy tale love story than most film buffs assume it was. Lombard's death literally made Gable a changed man--just watch any of the movies he appeared in after WWII and you will see that the vitality and charisma he showed in the 1930s is all but gone.
This book isn't just about Carole Lombard. Matzen makes the reader understand that 21 other souls perished on the DC-3 plane, and many of them were Army Air Corps fliers who would most certainly have contributed to the war effort. Lombard herself was doing her part for America by participating in a war bond rally in her native state of Indiana, when she decided to fly back home to California instead of taking the train. The flight seemed cursed from the beginning--there were multiple delays and unscheduled stops, and at one point civilians were told that they must give up their seats for Army personnel. Lombard went out of her way to demand that she, her mother, and MGM press agent (and Gable best friend) Otto Winkler be allowed to remain--a very un-Lombard like thing to do. Matzen details the circumstances behind all of this, and the reasons for Lombard's behavior.
FIREBALL features a 32-page photo section, which includes pictures of Lombard on the war bond tour, and images of the crash scene.
FIREBALL is one of the best books I have read in recent years (it does help that it is about a subject I have a particular interest in). You don't have to be an expert in classic Hollywood, or aviation, to appreciate reading it. Like most deaths of famous individuals, the plane crash that took the life of Carole Lombard has now been linked to various legends and tabloid tales. Robert Matzen has done a service for film buffs everywhere by writing a thorough and factual account of this famous tragedy. If you want to really learn about the end of Carole Lombard's life, you must read this book.
Thursday, January 26, 2017
Midnight Marquee Press adds to its fine library with TOME OF TERROR: HORROR FILMS OF THE SILENT ERA. Written by Chris Workman and Troy Howarth, this is the second release in the duo's series of books on the history of horror films. TOME OF TERROR: HORROR FILMS OF THE 1930S, was released a couple years ago (I wrote a post about it in March 2015).
The best example that I can give on the scope of this book is the fact that THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI doesn't show up until page 204. This tome covers the years 1895 to 1929, from the very beginnings of cinema itself to the very beginnings of the sound era.
If you're like me, and are tired of the numerous remakes and reboots that define the movie-going experience of the 21st Century, you'll be surprised as I was to learn how many famous tales were adapted over and over again during the silent era. THE BELLS, SHE, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, TRILBY, DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE....heck, the versions of FAUST mentioned in this book run into the double-digits. Original thrillers written expressly for the screen were almost non-existent during this period.
All of the usual suspects are included in this volume, such as CALIGARI, NOSFERATU, THE GOLEM, and the Lon Chaney-Tod Browning collaborations, but there's plenty of obscure titles on display as well. Unfortunately many of the more interesting ones are unavailable to see or completely lost. The authors share many informative tidbits that even a film geek like myself did not know, such as the fact that there was a version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA made in Germany in 1916, and that Claude Rains' father was a silent film director.
The book is heavily illustrated with stills and poster art from the era. Thankfully this TOME has an index which gives the page number a certain title appears on instead of just the year of the film. The authors consistently bring unique analysis to the films examined.
TOME OF TERROR: HORROR FILMS OF THE SILENT ERA is definitely a worthy read. Most other books that deal with fantastic films of this period cover the more famous ones and that's about it. This volume makes one realize that even though the horror film genre was still in its infancy at this time, it was more expansive than most monster movie fans assume. The authors intend to continue their series with a TOME OF TERROR on the 1940s, and I will be looking forward to it.
Monday, January 23, 2017
I'm currently reading TOME OF THE TERROR: HORROR FILMS OF THE SILENT ERA, the latest entry in Chris Workman & Troy Howarth's series of books on the history of horror films. Many of the films covered in this volume are unavailable in any form, which is frustrating, particularly since it seems the ones that sound the most interesting are the ones that are now lost.
Going through the book put me in a silent thriller mood, and venturing onto YouTube I was able to view the 1926 version of a Edgar Allan Poe-influenced story called THE BELLS. The movie is based on a play by Emile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian called "Le Juif Polonais". The play was filmed many times in the silent era, and the various versions are discussed in TOME OF TERROR. The play is not an "official" adaptation of Poe's poem "The Bells"--if anything the story owes more to "The Tell-Tale Heart". What makes this version of THE BELLS important today is the fact that it features none other than Boris Karloff.
Set in Alsace during the year 1868, THE BELLS concerns inn and mill owner Mathias (Lionel Barrymore). The affable Mathias is something of an easy touch--he constantly allows the customers at both his establishments to purchase items on credit. This isn't the best idea in the world, because Mathias owes a large sum of money to his grasping neighbor Jerome Frantz (played by silent movie villain Gustav von Seyffertitz). Mathias' pretty young daughter falls in love with the new Gendarme. The middle-aged Frantz desires the girl, and tells Mathias he will forgive the debt if the daughter is betrothed to him. Mathias refuses this deal, but he knows the deadline to pay is near, and he doesn't have the money to do it. Around Christmastime a wealthy Jewish merchant from Poland stops at the inn, and Mathias notices his gold-filled money belt. The desperate innkeeper murders the merchant with an ax during a snowstorm, steals his money and burns the body in a kiln. The Gendarme loved by Mathias' daughter proceeds to investigate the crime, but it is the innkeeper's conscience that pursues him the most--especially when the merchant's brother arrives with a mysterious mesmerist (Boris Karloff) who supposedly has the power to force criminals to admit their foul deeds.
THE BELLS was capably directed by James Young, who also wrote the screenplay. The movie has a nice period atmosphere, and a fine production design (it certainly doesn't look cheap). Young gives the story a number of macabre elements, such as Mathias suddenly finding his hands covered in blood (which he cannot get off), and the appearances of the merchant's ghost. Lionel Barrymore makes Mathias more and more haggard as the story goes on, and the climax features an expressionistic dream sequence in which Mathias imagines that he is on trial. The murder in THE BELLS is not a gory set-piece, but it is rather more gruesome than one would expect to see in a movie made around this time.
The real highlight of THE BELLS is Boris Karloff. His "Mesmerist" (we never find out his name) will be familiar to silent movie buffs--the man looks just like Dr. Caligari as played by Werner Krauss in THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. (Karloff is quoted in a number of books as saying that it was Lionel Barrymore's idea for the hypnotist to look like Caligari.) With his large cloak, top hat, and baleful countenance, Karloff commands the viewer's attention in every scene that he appears in. The skulking mesmerist is a constant reminder to Mathias of his crime, and Karloff uses to great effect the sardonic grin that would become so familiar to those who would watch the many future horror entries he starred in.
Boris Karloff as "The Mesmerist"
Karloff does not have a lot of screen time in THE BELLS, but he makes a sizable impression, even without the use of his legendary voice. He makes so much of an impression that it is hard to fathom why he was stuck playing mainly bit parts in films until his huge success as the Monster in Universal's 1931 FRANKENSTEIN. Earlier this month, I wrote a post on the 1929 version of THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR, which starred Bela Lugosi. That movie shows that Bela was already the "Bela" we know and love, screen-presence wise, before his breakout movie role in the 1931 DRACULA. The same can be said concerning Boris Karloff and the 1926 THE BELLS--Boris is definitely playing a "Karloff" type of role, way before he earned the title of Hollywood's King of the Monsters. Boris Karloff acted in dozens and dozens of films during the silent era, but THE BELLS may contain his most noticeable pre-talkie performance. That fact alone makes THE BELLS worth seeing--but it is also a very good movie as well.
Monday, January 16, 2017
Today is the 75th anniversary of the death of Carole Lombard. Instead of focusing on the tragedy of this event, I'd rather honor my favorite actress of all time by participating in this blogathon. LADY BY CHOICE (1934) isn't one of Lombard's most famous films, but it's a perfect example of how her natural talent and appealing personality can make an average story entertaining.
LADY BY CHOICE focuses on Patricia "Patsy" Patterson (May Robson), a former showgirl who has fallen into hard times during her older years, and present-day fan dancer Georgia "Alabam" Lee (Carole Lombard), who "adopts" Patsy as a surrogate mother. The two meet each other during a night court session overseen by stern Judge Daly (Walter Connolly). Patsy has been brought in for starting a brawl at a bar, and Alabam is charged with lewd conduct because of her dance performance. Alabam gets a kick out of the feisty Patsy. Later Alabam takes part in a publicity stunt on Mother's Day which has her go to an old ladies' home and choose a new "mother". Patsy is at the home (due to the efforts of Judge Daly), and Alabam picks the old girl. Patsy moves in with Alabam and decides to try to be a real mother to her. Patsy wins enough money at gambling to get Alabam to quit her fan gimmick and start taking classes in acting, singing, and proper dancing. Patsy's attempts to turn Alabam's life around don't go so well, and unpaid bills begin to pile up. Alabam turns golddigger and makes a play for high-class lawyer Johnny Mills (Roger Pryor), the son of one of Patsy's old boyfriends. Patsy fears that Alabam is going to wind up just like her, but Alabam and Johnny really do love one another, and, despite the usual complications in 1930s movies such as this, everyone winds up happy in the end.
Elderly character actress May Robson scored a huge success as Apple Annie in Frank Capra's modern fairy tale LADY FOR A DAY. LADY BY CHOICE isn't an official sequel to Capra's film, but the role of Patsy is very similar to Apple Annie--the two hard-edged but softhearted old ladies might as well be twins. Robson is just as charming in this film as she was for Capra. What helps her to shine in LADY BY CHOICE is her co-star.
LADY BY CHOICE was made a few months after Carol Lombard's big breakthrough in Howard Hawks' TWENTIETH CENTURY. Her naturalness and comic timing really comes through here, and she and Robson play off one another wonderfully. Lombard doesn't get enough credit for how smoothly she worked with other performers (consider her pairings with John Barrymore, William Powell, Fred MacMurray, etc.). Lombard and Robson have their own very distinct screen presences, but despite that the duo work together instead of against each other. It's so fun to watch Patsy and Alabam that I was inspired to think that the two's adventures would make a great basis for a TV sitcom--but were are you going to find 21st Century equivalents of Carole Lombard and May Robson??
Doesn't the picture in this poster look more like Jean Harlow instead of Lombard?
It must be said that LADY BY CHOICE is an okay movie instead of a great one. The screenplay was by Jo Swerling. Swerling wrote several classic scripts during the Golden Age of Hollywood, but this isn't one of them. Alabam Lee seems to be set up as a brassy showgirl, but Lombard plays her more refined than that. (During the story it is mentioned that Johnny's mother doesn't approve of Alabam, which is ridiculous, especially when one factors in that Alabam's everyday wardrobe is classy as all get out.) Roger Pryor is no Clark Gable (it's amazing how many lightweight leading men Lombard was saddled with during her career). Director David Burton does an adequate job, but he doesn't bring that extra spark to the material that someone like Capra would have done. LADY BY CHOICE was released in October of 1934, and one wonders how different it would have been if it had come out in 1932 or '33. The movie has no Pre-Code bawdiness or rawness to it--we constantly hear about Alabam's fan dance, but we never get to see it till the end, and then it is stopped right after it begins. (Needless to say, it's nothing to get brought to night court for.)
This still of Carole and Roger Pryor is racier than anything in the film.
LADY BY CHOICE is like dozens and dozens of lightweight romantic comedies made in the 1930s and 40s, and like many of those films, it would be totally forgotten today--except for the fact that it stars Carole Lombard and May Robson. One of the main jobs of a movie star during the studio period was to take underwhelming material and make it into something worth seeing--and Lombard certainly did that for Columbia in LADY BY CHOICE. Her character has a silly nickname, she's constantly in danger of being upstaged by her co-star, and her leading man has no charisma--but despite all that Carole makes watching the film enjoyable. When it comes to natural beauty and natural likability, very few women of the silver screen could even approach the level set by Carole Lombard.
Sunday, January 15, 2017
Last fall I purchased a DVD set of 5 war movies produced by Mill Creek Entertainment. The five films included in the set are BITTER VICTORY, THE PRISONER, COMMANDOS STRIKE AT DAWN, CASTLE KEEP, and YOUNG WINSTON. I wouldn't call any of these films outstanding--YOUNG WINSTON is probably the best of the lot--but since the set only cost me $7.50 (at Target), I think it was a good deal nonetheless.
The films are uncut and the ones that were filmed in widescreen are presented in their correct aspect ratios. Three films are on one disc and two are on another. As with most Mill Creek bargain sets, the visual quality isn't the best, but you get what you pay for.
BITTER VICTORY (1957) is of special interest to me because none other than Christopher Lee has a small role in it. The movie was actually Lee's first feature work after his participation in the filming of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN for Hammer Films. Hammer would soon change Lee's career forever, but BITTER VICTORY provided the actor with essentially the same type of supporting part he had been playing since the beginning of his acting career.
BITTER VICTORY concerns a commando raid behind enemy lines by British troops in World War II. The objective is information contained at a Nazi base in Benghazi, Libya. The raid is to be led by Major Brand (Curt Jurgens), an officer who has never been in combat. Captain Leith (Richard Burton) is also attached to the expedition. Before the war Leith romanced Brand's future wife (Ruth Roman).
During the raid Brand hesitates in killing a German sentry. Leith, who witnesses the act and kills the sentry himself, now believes that Brand is a coward. During the arduous trek across the desert back to British lines, the two men are at loggerheads, endangering the lives of the rest of the men involved in the mission, such as Sergeant Barney (Christopher Lee).
BITTER VICTORY was an Anglo-French co-production, filmed on location in Libya with interiors filmed in France. The movie was directed and co-written by Nicholas Ray, best known for such angst-filled dramas as REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and IN A LONELY PLACE. BITTER VICTORY has plenty of angst as well, what with the conflict between Brand and Leith. This isn't a slang-bang war epic--it is a dreary rumination on honor and courage. It doesn't help things that both Brand and Leith are unlikable characters. Jurgens makes Brand come off as weak and indecisive, while Burton's Leith comes off as smug and arrogant. Leith is not regular army--he's an archeologist and a quirky intellectual. (I can't help but wonder if the character of Leith was inspired by Lawrence of Arabia.) Both men are the last type of fellows you would want beside you on a commando raid.
I'm sure you're wondering why in the heck Curt Jurgens, of all people, is playing a British officer in WWII. Early on in the movie his Brand explains that he is from South Africa and hasn't lost his accent. This lame excuse doesn't prevent a viewer from assuming that Brand is going to turn out to be a German spy in the end. I guess Jurgens was someone's idea of high-concept casting, but in all due respect to the man's acting ability, having him in this role is distracting. Richard Burton as Leith should be the person that the audience has sympathy toward, but the actor seems to go out of his way to make the character as off-putting as possible.
Burton's performance may have to do with the fact that BITTER VICTORY was a troubled production. Jonathan Rigby's excellent book CHRISTOPHER LEE: THE AUTHORISED SCREEN HISTORY quotes Lee as saying that BITTER VICTORY was "the only film I ever worked on in the whole of my life that I instantly wanted to leave after one day of shooting. A nightmare--there's no other word for it." This statement is astounding, if one considers some of the unusual productions Lee was involved in throughout his long & varied career. Rigby states that both Nicholas Ray and Burton caused problems on the set, and if you factor that in with what had to have been a difficult location shoot in the Libyan desert, one can understand Lee's opinion.
As for Lee's own performance, his Sergeant Barney doesn't have a lot of lines or screen time--Barney spends most of his time in the background, cautiously watching Brand and Leith. (Lee is noticeable in every shot he's in, for the simple reason that he was so much taller than his fellow actors.) Lee doesn't go out of his way to get the audience's attention, and he doesn't try to upstage the other actors. He plays the Sergeant as a solid, efficient fellow, but at the same time Lee gives the impression that Barney is someone you don't want to mess with. It's frustrating that Lee didn't get more to do--after all, he was an actual WWII veteran, and he may have known more about commando raids than anyone on the set. The great character actor Nigel Green gets the showiest supporting role as a conniving soldier, and he runs with it.
BITTER VICTORY is the type of film one expects more out of, when you consider its cast and director. The book BRASSEY'S GUIDE TO WAR FILMS gives BITTER VICTORY a one star rating, and it gives the movie a one sentence review--"Tawdry tale set behind enemy lines in WW2 Libya." That's an apt description. It's one thing to have this film included on a cheap DVD set, but I don't think it is worth buying on its own. If you do happen to be at your local Target and see this set available, I think you should pick it up just for YOUNG WINSTON alone.
Tuesday, January 10, 2017
I have to credit YouTube once again for my latest first-time viewing. THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR is the 1929 film version of a creaky play by Bayard Veiller. It is the first sound film directed by cult legend Tod Browning--and one of the film's stars is none other than Bela Lugosi. Yes, this means that Browning and Bela worked together before their seminal collaboration on Universal's 1931 DRACULA.
THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR concerns murders among a group of upper-class Brits in colonial India. A caddish playboy has been stabbed to death, and the murder weapon is missing. A friend of the victim arranges a seance with a phony medium, hoping to scare the perpetrator into confessing the crime. Another murder happens during the seance, and it's up to the intimidating Inspector Delzante (Bela Lugosi) to figure out the mystery.
With a combination of Browning, Bela, and murder, one expects THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR to feature all sorts of classic thriller highlights. Unfortunately, it doesn't. The murder mystery is nothing special--the assembled group of stuffy English characters seem to belong to a mediocre Agatha Christie novel. The only part of the story that reminds the viewer of Browning's usual macabre tone is when a dead body is used to finally get the murderer to crack. THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR is basically a filmed stage play (it must be pointed out that most of Browning's films were based on stage plays), and when you add in the fact that it is also a very early sound film, the result is a rather dreary visual style. The film may be set in India, but the only local culture we are shown are a couple of native servants who do nothing but stand around and look suspicious.
The supporting cast does offer up a few noteworthy faces. Holmes Herbert, a longtime movie character actor who appeared in literally hundreds of titles, plays a British aristocrat, and the gorgeous Leila Hyams is the leading lady (and one of the main suspects). Holmes Herbert would show up in a number of classic horror films, and Hyams would work again with Tod Browning (in FREAKS) and Bela Lugosi (in ISLAND OF LOST SOULS).
The real star of THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR is without a doubt Bela. The actor doesn't pass up a chance to make an impression--every line he utters becomes a grandiose declaration. Lugosi's Delzante isn't just determined to trap the killer--the man seems particularly aggravated by the entire scenario. We don't know why the Inspector has such a ticked-off attitude (was he on his way to a golf game or something when he got called in to work the case?), but he definitely isn't playing the "good cop" role. There are some who will watch THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR and come to the conclusion that Bela is pretty hammy--but if he wasn't, the movie would be a total slog to get through. The fact is Bela gives the film all the verve it has. There's a longstanding tradition of using a quirky detective to make a typical murder mystery more noticeable, and Lugosi fulfills that role in spades. Apparently in the original play that this movie is based on, the Inspector character was not an exotic foreigner. Someone at MGM (Tod Browning himself?) must have seen Lugosi on stage as Dracula and figured that he would inject some sorely needed panache to an old-fashioned story.
After the 1931 DRACULA Lugosi would almost never get the chance to play a major "normal" role like that of Delzante (it has to be admitted that Delzante is about as far away from a normal Inspector as you can get). THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR is a treat for Bela fans because it shows that the actor could take an underwhelming part and make it stand out through the sheer force of his acting personality. Lugosi has a lot of dialogue here, and he handles it very well. (It goes without saying that no one could recite lines like Lugosi did.) The part of Delzante is more evidence that the idea of Bela having a limited understanding of English is mostly myth.
Tod Browning detractors will use THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR as an excuse to denigrate the man's work as a director. In defense of Browning, he did cast Lugosi and give the actor plenty of leeway to steal the film. (Remember that at this time Bela was mostly unknown among movie patrons.) THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR may seem like an unlikely subject for Browning to take on, but one of the main themes of the film is trickery--a theme that runs through almost all of Browning's films as a director. (There are two other versions of the film--one made in 1919 and one made in 1937--I have not seen either.)
Today THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR has two main points of interest: Tod Browning and Bela Lugosi. The movie is only 72 minutes long but it feels much longer. Its importance lies in its historical value--if Bela Lugosi had not made an impression on Tod Browning during the making of this film, would the actor have been cast as Dracula a few years later? As far as I know, the film is not available officially on home video. I assume that one day it will eventually be released through the Warner Home Archives, hopefully with an audio commentary by someone like Greg Mank or Gary D. Rhodes. It is certainly worth seeing for hardcore Bela Lugosi fans.
Saturday, January 7, 2017
Every so often I go on YouTube and see if I can find certain older films. YouTube is a great resource for film buffs--I've watched many titles on there for the very first time. Many of these titles shouldn't legally be on YouTube, so when I do find out that a certain film I've never seen before is available, I try to view it as soon as possible before it gets taken off.
I've seen almost all of the classic Universal thrillers made in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, but there's a few that have fallen through the cracks. A few days ago I discovered that THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET was on YouTube. This is a 1942 film adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's detective tale. Universal had by this time a long history with Poe--consider MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932), THE BLACK CAT (1934), and THE RAVEN (1935). All of those films either starred Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff, and they were designed to be out-and-out horror movies.
THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET, however, truly is a mystery tale. Despite the Universal-Poe connection, the story is very typical of other B movie detective outings of the same period. The cast doesn't feature Karloff, or Lugosi, or Atwill, or Zucco....heck, there's not even an appearance by either Holmes Herbert or Halliwell Hobbes.
The movie is set in 1889 Paris (instead of the 1840s as in Poe's tale). The entire city is obsessed with the disappearance of musical stage star Marie Roget (Maria Montez). The body of a young woman has been found, with the face horribly mutilated. The body is presumed to be that of Marie Roget's, but the woman herself returns. Police Medical Examiner Paul Dupin (Patrick Knowles) is intrigued by the case, but his investigation becomes even more complicated when Roget disappears again, and another body turns up.
In Poe's original tale the detective "hero" was C. Auguste Dupin (the character also appeared in the author's stories "Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter"). In the film THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET, Patric Knowles plays Paul Dupin. This Dupin is officially connected to the police department, and it is mentioned a number of times that he was responsible for solving the case of the murders in the Rue Morgue. In Universal's MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, Pierre Dupin, played by Leon Ames, was a medical student and did solve the case in that film....so one could put forth the idea that THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET is a kind of sequel to MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, except for the fact that the two movies are set about forty years apart.
The Dupin in THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET is an unflappable sort of fellow, a man who relies on scientific fact. His sidekick is Police Prefect Gobelin (Lloyd Corrigan). Being that he is a Prefect, one assumes that Gobelin is Dupin's superior, but there's no doubt that in this film Dupin is the alpha male of the duo. Dupin basically does whatever he wants during his investigations, including breaking into a morgue late at night to perform a post-mortem. Gobelin is a blustery, reactionary fellow, and you can't help but think of Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson when watching Dupin and Gobelin. (The main difference is that Rathbone and Bruce were more accomplished actors than Knowles and Corrigan.) It was during the making of THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET that Universal started producing their Sherlock Holmes series with Rathbone and Bruce. One has to wonder if Universal was thinking of starting a series of Poe movies featuring Dupin & Gobelin.
Patric Knowles was one of those male actors during the Golden Age of Hollywood who always seemed to play the second lead. Knowles appeared in a number of Errol Flynn movies as Flynn's buddy, but THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET was one of his very few starring roles. Monster fans are aware that Knowles also starred in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. Knowles is good, solid, and handsome as Dupin, but the character (in this film at least) doesn't have any of the usual quirks that most B movie detectives had, and therefore there isn't anything that makes him stand out.
Maria Montez gets lead billing as Marie Roget, even though her actual screen time is rather small. Marie Roget is presented in the film as a flirty heartbreaker, and while Montez is attractive, she never puts over the idea that Roget is the toast of all Paris. We do get to see Marie Roget sing a unmemorable song (according to internet sources Montez was dubbed). Maria Ouspenskaya plays Marie Roget's grandmother, and she provides what little "Universal Monster" atmosphere the story has.
THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET was directed by Phil Rosen, a man who spent most of his career making similar B movies--he helmed a number of Charlie Chan features, and he even directed the Bela Lugosi-East Side Kids flick SPOOKS RUN WILD. MARIE ROGET clocks in at 60 minutes, and there's nothing about it, other than the Poe connection, that makes it stand out from the dozens of other low-budget movie mysteries made around the same time. There's only two murders, and we don't get to see them committed. There's very few suspects, and the murderer is pretty easy to figure out. The climax does feature an okay rooftop chase (ironically MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE had a rooftop chase ending as well).
With the combination of Edgar Allan Poe and Universal, one expects much more from THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET. It does need to be said that Poe's original story is not easy to make a great film from (of course that didn't stop Roger Corman and Richard Matheson from adapting several similar Poe tales successfully). The other Poe-Universal movies--MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, the 1934 THE BLACK CAT, and THE RAVEN had a pre-code expressionistic wildness to them. MARIE ROGET is acceptable B movie fare, nothing more. I have to say that Universal wasted a chance to make THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET one of the better 1940s thriller offerings.
Tuesday, January 3, 2017
Kino Lorber continues to mine the vein of off-beat cinema with one of their latest releases under the Kino Studio Classics label, DOOMWATCH (1972).
DOOMWATCH has all sorts of geek connections to it. The film's director was Peter Sasdy, who helmed many of Hammer's better later outings, including TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA and HANDS OF THE RIPPER. Among the cast are such familiar Hammer faces as Percy Herbert and George Woodbridge. Shelagh Fraser, who played Aunt Beru in STAR WARS, has a prominent role as the proprietor of the village pub (no, she doesn't serve up any blue milk). The legendary George Sanders has a small role, and the female lead is played by Judy Geeson, who has worked with the likes of Joan Crawford, John Wayne, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Rob Zombie.
DOOMWATCH is based on a early 1970s British TV show (which I know absolutely nothing about). The title refers to a British government organization formed to stop and prevent pollution. A member of Doomwatch, Dr. Shaw (Ian Bannen) is sent to a small Scottish island which has been victimized by an oil spill. Shaw finds the entire village is hostile to him, and learns of strange occurrences that have been happening. Shaw convinces the village schoolteacher (Judy Geeson) to help in his investigations. Eventually the doctor, with the help of his Doomwatch comrades, discovers that a combination of radioactive waste and corporate malfeasance have ruined the village forever.
At first glance it would seem that DOOMWATCH is a typical low-budget British horror film of the period (it was produced by Tigon, a company that was a rival to Hammer and Amicus). The creepy, isolated village, the suspicious--and suspicious looking--villagers, bodies buried in shallow graves, strange folk shuttered up in darkened rooms...all these elements are well known to any viewer who has seen plenty of classic creature features. DOOMWATCH, however, is not a supernatural Gothic horror film. It has a 1970s ecological message to it, and instead of a climax featuring a battle between good and evil, the story ends in a downbeat and unsatisfying manner. Those expecting a Hammer-like chiller will be disappointed in DOOMWATCH.
Those who are willing to give the story a chance might find it to be a interesting low-budget feature with some atmospheric touches from director Peter Sasdy. The ensemble cast is very good (and very renowned) for a movie of this type, though Ian Bannen in the lead comes off as a bit shrill. Believe it or not, the characters played by Bannen and Judy Geeson do not develop a romantic relationship--one more way in which the film tries to show how "serious" it is about the subject at hand. Sasdy uses the film locations well (it was actually shot in Cornwall), and he certainly knows how to get the most out of this type of material. It's a shame Peter Sasdy wasn't given a chance to make higher-class films with bigger budgets. (By the way, DOOMWATCH has a number of similarities with another film Peter Sasdy directed--NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT. That movie also has London professionals visiting a remote Scottish location in order to investigate bizarre happenings.)
Kino's Blu-ray of DOOMWATCH presents the film in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The visual quality of this disc is nothing to write home about--the picture is not very sharp, and the colors are somewhat faded. I assume that the print used by Kino was the best one available. The extras, however, are quite impressive. Not only does Peter Sasdy give an on-camera introduction to the movie, he does an audio commentary. Sasdy's talk is thorough and informative--he goes over just about every part of the production, and discusses the various artistic choices he made, and why he made them. (One hears pages turning while Sasdy is speaking, so it goes without saying that the director did his homework for the commentary.) Sasdy goes out of his way more than once to explain to the viewer that his DOOMWATCH was a feature film, and as such, could not be like the TV series. Sasdy also mentions a number of times how DOOMWATCH had a message, although the "pollution is bad" angle seems very obvious today. Sasdy sticks to the facts about DOOMWATCH, so if you're expecting stories about Hammer and Cushing & Lee, you're not going to hear them.
A very short (six minutes) interview with Judy Geeson is also included. This talk deals specifically with DOOMWATCH, and one wishes it had been expanded to include her entire career. I had the pleasure of meeting Judy Geeson at the 2016 Flashback Weekend Horror Convention outside of Chicago, and I can assure you she is a treat to interact with (more of her reminisces would have probably been more entertaining than the movie).
DOOMWATCH will appeal mostly to those fans of 1960s-70s British Gothic horror--even though it isn't really a Gothic horror film. Some might be put off by the pollution message, but it is a well-done ecological thriller. I wouldn't, however, call it a undiscovered classic.