Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Pre-Code Blogathon: FIVE STAR FINAL

The "Pre-Code" era in Hollywood--which ran approximately from 1930 through most of 1934--has now become so legendary that just about any movie made in that period is looked upon as a classic. Most of the attention given to Pre-Code features revolves around their presumed salacious content, rather than any aesthetic value an individual film may have. If you take away all the salacious content from most of the famous examples of Pre-Code cinema, you really wouldn't have much left.

The storyline of my favorite Pre-Code film is built around scandal.....but the real scandal it covers is the American media. That makes the movie as relevant today as it was when it was first released by Warner Bros. in 1931. FIVE STAR FINAL isn't just a great Pre-Code film--it is a great film, period, and it was even nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award.

FIVE STAR FINAL concerns the operations of the New York Gazette, a tabloid newspaper with Joseph Randall (Edward G. Robinson) as its editor. At the start of the film we see a couple of toughs working for the Gazette asking a newsstand operator why he doesn't have their paper on top of all the others. When the operator refuses to be intimidated by them, the men literally sling mud all over his merchandise--the first example of the film's many uses of metaphor.

As we go into the offices of the Gazette, we see Randall's loyal secretary, Miss Taylor (Aline MacMahon) trying to find the editor. Three of the paper's bigwigs, Hinchecliffe, Brannigan, and French, are demanding a meeting with Randall--the paper's latest circulation numbers are down. The three men believe that Randall has made the paper too highbrow for its intended audience--Randall is said to be getting "too high for the chewing gum crowd". Randall is actually at the local speakeasy--and the first time we see him, he is washing his hands, a habit he does throughout the picture. It is an obvious metaphor, but an apt one.

Randall finally returns to work, and is castigated by Hinchecliffe to return the paper to its old ways. Hinchecliffe, Brannigan, and French are portrayed as stuffed-shirt hypocrites--they act as if they are representatives of the public trust, and above the people who read their paper, yet at the same time they want as much sensationalism and lewdness in their product as possible. (Randall refers to Hinchecliffe as "The Sultan of Slop".) Hinchecliffe tells Randall that the paper is going to run a new series of articles on Nancy Vorhees, a woman who was involved in a famous scandal 20 years ago. Vorhees shot and killed her lover, a rich playboy, when the man refused to marry her after she told him she was pregnant. Vorhees was acquitted by a sympathetic jury, and she and her child have managed to stay out of the public eye ever since. Hinchecliffe wants Randall to track down Vorhees and her child and find out what they are doing now.

Randall is disgusted by the assignment, but he goes into it full bore--it's almost as if he is punishing himself by going ahead with it. FIVE STAR FINAL is a major showcase for Edward G. Robinson as Randall. The newspaper editor is a tough guy, but not in the same way as one of Robinson's gangster characters. Despite his all-out effort to get the goods on Nancy Vorhees, Robinson still gives the man enough shadings to show that Randall hates what he and the Gazette have become.

To get information on Nancy Vorhees, Randall sends out a new "reporter", the curvaceous Kitty Carmody (Ona Munson). Kitty's journalistic abilities seem to consist of sweet-talking men into giving her the story she needs. Randall also calls upon one T. Vernon Isopod, played by none other than Boris Karloff (not too long after filming this role, Boris would be hired to play Frankenstein's Monster). The slimy, unctuous Isopod was kicked out of divinity school, and now uses his religious "knowledge" into conning people into thinking he is a man of the cloth.

The present-day address of Nancy Vorhees is discovered--she is now Mrs. Michael Townsend. We are then introduced to Nancy (Frances Starr), her husband (H. B. Warner), her daughter Jenny (Marian Marsh), and Jenny's fiancee Phillip Weeks (Anthony Bushell). The Townsends are shown to be a pleasant, ordinary family who live in a modest apartment (some viewers may think them to be too goody-goody....but this was probably done to contrast them with the overbearing staff of the Gazette). The Townsends find out that the Gazette is planning to run a series on the Nancy Vorhees case, which greatly worries them, since Jenny has no idea about her mother's past, and does not even know that Michael Townsend is not her real father. Isopod worms his way into the Townsend home by pretending he is a minister (when Randall first sees Isopod dressed as a man of God, the editor exclaims, "You're the most blasphemous looking thing I've ever seen! It's a miracle you've not been struck dead!"). Isopod finds out that Jenny is getting married to Phillip, and gets a picture of the girl from her mother ("...for the church files"). The Townsends wonder why a minister from their local church would not know the names of a couple to be married there soon...and they then realize they may have made a terrible mistake in talking to Isopod.

When Randall finds out that Nancy Vorhees' daughter is going to be married--and to a young man from a high-class family, no less--he pushes the story even harder. Miss Taylor, who acts as Randall's conscience, tries to get him to stop the stories, but to no avail. The Townsends find out that Isopod was a fake, and Phillip's parents show up, demanding that the Townsends call the wedding off. Mr. Townsend decides to go to his church to ask his minister if he can appeal to the Gazette from running the stories. While he is out, Nancy calls the Gazette personally, begging to talk to anyone in charge. Nancy is constantly put off by both Hinchecliffe and Randall (in a nice touch, director Mervyn LeRoy uses split-screens and even triple-screens to visualize the various telephone conversations). When Nancy realizes that the paper will not stop the stories, and her daughter's wedding will be ruined, she commits suicide by taking poison.

Mr. Townsend returns to find his wife dead in the bathroom. Jenny and Phillip arrive, and in a devastating scene to watch, Townsend manages to prevent the young couple from finding out about Nancy's death. After he sends them out (telling them "I'm going to join Mother"), Townsend also commits suicide. Kitty Carmody, with a Gazette photographer in tow, sneaks into the apartment, and finds the bodies of the Townsends. Kitty doesn't call the police....she calls the paper, and yells at her shaken colleague to start taking pictures.

The Gazette puts the photo of the dead Townsends on the front page of a special edition. A distraught Randall goes to the speakeasy to try and drink things off, while a devastated Jenny is told by Phillip's parents that there is no way a wedding can take place now. The look on Marian Marsh's face cuts the viewer to the bone--here is a young woman who was looking forward to her wedding day, and now her parents are dead, and her mother's secret has finally been revealed to her.

Jenny grabs a gun and heads for the offices of the Gazette. There, a depressed Randall is being congratulated by Hinchecliffe, Brannigan, and French on one of the biggest one-day sales in the paper's history. When Randall brings up the topic of Nancy Vorhees' daughter, Hinchecliffe suggests giving the "poor child" $1000. A smirking Isopod thinks that is a generous idea. Jenny arrives, demanding to see Hinchecliffe. Brannigan and French scurry away, but Randall demands that Hinchecliffe and Isopod stay.

What follows next is the highlight of the film, and one of the main highlights of the whole Pre-Code era. Quietly, deliberately, Jenny accuses the men of having killed her mother and father. As the scene goes on, Jenny's voice gets louder and louder, and the movie's editing gets faster and faster. Jenny tells the man exactly what she thinks of them and their paper, and soon she is screaming at them, as quick close-ups of the shocked men's faces are shown. Jenny pulls out her gun, but she is stopped by doing any harm by a just-arriving Phillip, who takes her away.

Randall now takes the opportunity to tell off Hinchecliffe, and quits. A satisfied Miss Taylor follows him out--but it is only a hollow victory. The final scene shows the special edition of the Gazette being swept down a dirty street, along with the rest of the trash.

FIVE STAR FINAL may be a hard-hitting look at the tabloid newspaper business of the 1930s, but it still holds up today. At 89 minutes, it is a bit long for a Pre-Code film, but it moves like lightning, as so many of the early 1930s Warner Bros. pictures did. Directors like Mervyn LeRoy knew how to make a story move, and how to tell it without an excess of extraneous material. FIVE STAR FINAL is based on a play, written by an actual newspaperman who worked on a tabloid similar to the one depicted in the story. There's a lot of talking in this film, but one never feels that the story is staid or boring. A lot of that is due to the fine cast, who handle the many lines of dialogue superbly. One thing I noticed while watching this film again is how many scenes show someone talking on the phone. It would seem that pretending to have a phone conversation would be a simple thing for an actor.....but in FIVE STAR FINAL, the cast here makes a work of art out of it, especially Edward G. Robinson. Aline MacMahon in particular is standout at this--her phone scenes reveal Miss Taylor's cynicism and disappointment at her job, and at the actions of her boss Randall. Miss Taylor has a crush on Randall, and MacMahon conveys this in an understated manner. The actress steals every scene she is in, even though for the most part she is just sitting at a desk.

The dialogue in FIVE STAR FINAL is also filled with those snappy 1930s phrases and one-liners that Pre-Code fans can't get enough of, such as that "too high for the chewing gum crowd" comment. The rhythm and pace of the dialogue matches the rhythm and pace of the movie.

As for all the typical Pre-Code ingredients one expects when watching a film of this type, there's enough of them here. The local speakeasy appears to be where most of the Gazette staff hang out when they are not working, Ona Munson's Kitty Carmody could never exist in a Hollywood movie made a few years later--at least her cleavage couldn't. Boris Karloff's Isopod isn't just a fake preacher, he's also a bit of a pervert as well. In one scene he about twists his neck trying to look at Kitty's legs. Later in the film Kitty complains about having to share a cab ride with Isopod--she tells Randall that she doesn't have any skin left on her knees. (In some ways Isopod is more frightening than most of Karloff's actual monsters.) And then there is the Gazette itself--a "newspaper" which makes today's clickbait internet expose sites look tame.

What, for me, makes FIVE STAR FINAL stand head and shoulders over most other Pre-Code films is the movie's conception of mass media as a destructive force, geared toward all of the baser instincts of its audience. The double suicide of the Townsends is horrific act--especially since the viewer has seen the couple, and their daughter, as decent folk. The beauty and innocence of Marian Marsh as Jenny makes one feel even more emotional toward her fate. In the film the character of Jenny is said to be the age of 20; in real life Marian Marsh was only 17 when she played the role, and she looked younger. Marsh had just starred with John Barrymore in SVENGALI, and many consider that her best performance....but I feel the greatest moment of her career was the climax of FIVE STAR FINAL. Her rage is so overpowering it is almost scary, especially considering that she is almost the symbol of purity. It is the explosive grief of Marian Marsh that I will always remember when FIVE STAR FINAL comes to mind.

Marian Marsh

As I have stated before, FIVE STAR FINAL would be a great film from any era. Calling it just a Pre-Code movie kind of lessens it. It still remains powerful today....and, unfortunately, so does the American media.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Favorite TV Show Episode Blogathon--"The Night The Wizard Shook The Earth"

This post is my contribution to the Favorite TV Show Episode Blogathon, hosted by Terence Towles Canote at the A Shroud of Thoughts Blog. http://mercurie.blogspot.com/2015/03/the-favorite-tv-show-episode-blogathon.html

Growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was exposed to several examples of Classic American Network television. Before the advent of cable, and reality & talk shows, old TV episodes were about the only thing that was on when I was a kid. I can't say I have one single all-time favorite TV show--there's about five or six I would put at the top, depending on my mood.

One of these top five shows is THE WILD WILD WEST, which originally ran on the CBS network from 1965 to 1969. Influenced by the James Bond/spy boom of the early 1960s, TWWW was a mixture of espionage, Jules Verne, and "B" movie westerns. The show starred Robert Conrad as American secret agent James West, and Ross Martin as his partner Artemus Gordon. West and Gordon were assigned by President U. S. Grant himself to deal with extraordinary threats throughout the American frontier of the 1870s.

THE WILD WILD WEST, in my opinion, was one of the most entertaining shows in American television history. Each episode dealt with a intriguing villain (usually played by a notable guest star) who had some sort of outlandish plan which West and Gordon had to foil. James West was the good-looking unflappable hero who wasn't just a ladies man--he was also maybe the most physical leading character on TV. Robert Conrad, who did most of his own stunts, was perfect in the role. Artemus Gordon, a former actor, was a master of disguise, and also something of a amateur scientist, making him a kind of "Q" for James West. Ross Martin, a excellent character performer, took the role of "Artie" and ran with it, making Gordon into one of the best-loved sidekicks on the small screen.

If there is one single episode that I would have to discuss when it came to TWWW, it would have to be "The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth", This was only the third episode ever aired, on 10/1/65 during the series' first season. What makes it really important was that it was the debut of West and Gordon's biggest (no pun intended) adversary, Dr. Miguelito Loveless.

Michael Dunn as Dr. Loveless and Richard Kiel as Voltaire

At the beginning of the episode, we are introduced to a well-dressed dwarf and a towering figure in black, hiding in the night-time shadows of a gloomy pier. The small man explains to his giant companion that he has the world's most powerful explosive, even though it is the size of a pebble. The two men are awaiting the arrival of a Professor Nielsen, who also has the secret of the explosive.

James West has been assigned to guard the Professor, and he attempts to fool any assassins by posing as Nielsen. (If you are wondering why Artemus didn't pose as the Professor, it may be because this was one of the show's earliest epiosdes, and the character of Artie had not been truly defined yet.) The dwarf recognizes Nielsen, however, and kills the Professor with the explosive.

West accompanies Nielsen's secretary Greta (Leslie Parrish) back to her hotel room. Greta, however, is in cahoots with the Professor's killers. She leads West into a trap, which he escapes from. West becomes suspicious of Greta and tells her that the Professor gave him the secret of the explosive before he died. West hints to Greta that he would be willing to sell the secret to the highest bidder. Greta agrees to take West to an interested party--and the viewer is now officially introduced to Dr. Miguelito Loveless.

The writer of this episode, John Knuebuhl, created the character of Dr. Loveless specifically for Michael Dunn. Knuebuhl had read about Dunn in a newspaper article and felt he would make an interesting villain for the show. The 3 foot 10 inch Dunn was not just a gimmick--he was an acclaimed actor in his own right (Dunn would even be nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in SHIP OF FOOLS).

Dr. Loveless may be small in stature, but he's no pushover. When James West goes to the Doctor home and first sees him, Loveless is involved in a match with three burly wrestlers, who he makes quick work of. West finds out that Loveless is not a raving madman, but a refined, cultured intellectual who even sings (Loveless performs alongside Michael Dunn's real-life singing partner Phoebe Darin as Antoinette). Dunn's exquisite way with dialogue makes the viewer hang on his every word. Dunn makes Loveless so fascinating, he overshadows West and Gordon. (The episode hints that Loveless is developing radio, the aircraft, the automobile, and even television!)

Loveless explains to West that he wants half of California given back to him, since he claims that it was originally owned by his Spanish ancestors. Loveless threatens to kill 5,000 people with his explosive if his demands are not met. After West tell the Governor of the demands, Loveless captures him....but West uses his charms on Greta to effect an escape. West finds out from Greta that Loveless is going to set off the explosive in a clock tower next to the Governor's mansion.

West rushes to the tower and he and Loveless battle over the explosive on the scaffolding inside the tower (a scene which shows off the physical prowess of both Robert Conrad and Michael Dunn). West saves the day, and the Doctor is put in jail--but he wouldn't stay there long.

Michael Dunn made a huge splash as Dr. Loveless, and he played the role a total of ten times during the run of TWWW. In later episodes the Doctor's plans would become more and more flamboyant. In "The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth" there's nothing campy about Loveless--he's a dangerous man, and a suitable foil for the handsome West. The character of Dr. Loveless is now remembered as one of the great classic TV show villains--whenever anyone thinks of THE WILD WILD WEST, Dr. Loveless comes to mind just as much as James West and Artemus Gordon do.

The first season of TWWW was filmed in black & white, and this season was moodier and less outlandish than the second season of the show. In between the first and second seasons of TWWW, the BATMAN show premiered. I don't know this for sure, but I think the success of BATMAN had an affect upon TWWW. In the second season of TWWW, the show was in color, and the stories and villains became wilder and wilder (the bad guys in particular starting veering into BATMAN territory). In the third season things seemed to tone down a bit. The fourth season was dramatically hurt by the heart attack of Ross Martin, which caused the actor to miss several episodes. TWWW was still getting decent ratings when it was cancelled--CBS pulled the plug on it because they were worried over a Federal Commission on violence which targeted certain network TV shows. By today's standards, of course, the show looks tame....but nearly every episode had a huge fight scene where James West would take on several enemies single-handily (how James never tore his tighter-than-tight pants during any of these battles I'll never know). Compared to other action TV shows of the time, the stunts of TWWW were pretty rough--both Robert Conrad and Ross Martin were severely injured at one time or another.

THE WILD WILD WEST still runs on syndication to this day, and is available on home video (I have all four seasons on DVD). The show had such an impact on pop culture that it even warranted a horrible big-screen adaptation in 1999 (the less said about that, the better). I've loved the show since I was a kid, and I believe it still holds up very well. Robert Conrad and Ross Martin were a great team, and the combination of Western setting, action-adventure, lovely girls, and Bondian elements made every episode seem like a feature film. You can't go wrong with just about any episode of THE WILD WILD WEST, but "The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth" is a good place to start.

Ross Martin and Robert Conrad

Friday, March 27, 2015


*In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that this blog post was written by a lifelong Chicago Blackhawks fan.

One of the most powerful and feared sports teams of the 1970s and 1980s did not play for a North American professional league. The Soviet Union's Red Army Hockey Club was considered all but invincible back then, so much so that when it was defeated in the medal round by the United States team in the 1980 Winter Olympics, it was looked upon as one of the greatest upsets in sports history.

One of the leaders of that team was superb defenseman Viacheslav ("Slava") Fetisov. Fetisov's story is the main focus of Gabe Polsky's documentary RED ARMY.

Through several interviews with Fetisov, we are taken back to the time of the Cold War and Soviet domination of international hockey. We see how hard it was to become a Red Army player in the first place, and how it was even harder to be a fully-fledged member of the team. I always assumed that great athletes in the Soviet Union got special privileges, but RED ARMY shows that more often than not the players were worked like dogs (and they were just about treated like dogs as well).

After the Red Army's loss against the U. S. in 1980, the team went on to win the Gold Medal in the next two Olympics. Despite that Fetisov and his teammates became increasingly dissatisfied with their tyrannical head coach, Victor Tikhonov. By the late 80s and early 90s a number of Russian players began leaving their country to go to the West and play in the National Hockey League, and Fetisov was among them. Fetisov's arrival in North America brought on a whole new series of problems, but eventually he and his fellow Russian players were accepted in the NHL, and Fetisov went on to play on two consecutive Stanley Cup champions with the Detroit Red Wings.

After his retirement as an active player, Fetisov went back to Russia and was named Minister of Sport by Vladimir Putin. His challenge today is trying to keep hockey relevant in a country that has become chaotic since the downfall of the Soviet Union.

RED ARMY is obviously a film about sports, but don't make the mistake of thinking that only hardcore hockey fans will enjoy it. When I was a kid the Red Army hockey team was portrayed as a monolithic machine. Gabe Polsky shows the viewer that the members of that team were unique individuals in their own right, not just representatives of a repressive regime. The most unique of all is Slava Fetisov. The legendary defenseman may have spent of lot of time in the West, but he is certainly not "Americanized". Fetisov is man of few words--he shows more but not saying something than by talking. Polsky wisely keeps the camera tight on Fetisov during these quiet moments (put a camera on an American athlete and he or she will do nothing but talk). RED ARMY also shows Fetisov as a very proud man who has a bit of an edge to him (which is understandable when one thinks about the circumstances under which Fetisov has lived).

There is plenty of stuff here for hockey addicts to lap up, such as rare footage of the Red Army team in action, and interviews with hockey greats such as Scotty Bowman and several of Fetisov's Russian teammates. (If you happen to be a fan of the chant "Detroit Sucks", be warned--there's plenty of Red Wings footage toward the end.) There's even a voice cameo from the great hockey announcer Pat Foley.

For those not so sports-inclined, RED ARMY also serves as a cultural history of the late 20th Century and the late Soviet Union. The documentary does not choose political sides, but after watching it a viewer cannot help but look upon the Russian nation with sorrow--the Communist system is still cursing the country and its people to this very day. If Fetisov and his former teammates come off as a bit hard to read, one has to remember what these men went through and the times they lived in.

Entertaining, informative, and amusing, RED ARMY is an fine documentary that should be seen by even those who have no interest in competitive sports. I can't help but wonder what Producer/Writer/Director Gabe Polsky's next project will be.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Highlights From My DVD/Blu-ray Collection--Part Three*

*Or: Why I Never Have Any Money

Okay people...this time it's about to get real up in here. Today's post will shine the spotlight on my collection of classic horror and science-fiction films. So sit back, relax, and strap it down.

Hammer Films

Universal Monsters

Mario Bava

I had a lot more Midnite Movies DVDs, but on some of the titles I have upgraded to Blu-ray.

German Expressionism, baby!!

Look!!! GODZILLA!!!!

Kaiju? You're welcome.

Some more stuff.....

And more stuff.....

And even more stuff.....

And yet even more.

I think I've covered all the horror/sci-fi films I own....I think.....

Remember to click on each photo for a larger view.

Saturday, March 21, 2015


Midnight Marquee Press has recently published the first volume in a new series of books on the history of horror films. Written by Christopher Workman and Troy Howarth, TOME OF TERROR--HORROR FILMS OF THE 1930S covers the decade in which many consider the true classic horror film as we define it was invented.

The authors are attempting to cover all the horror films made in every single decade since the beginning of film to the present day--a rather daunting prospect, indeed. This first volume contains over 300 titles, and not just those produced in English-speaking countries.

A number of the films covered in this volume will be familiar to readers of the FORGOTTEN HORRORS series of books--films such as bizarre dark Westerns and low-budget murder mysteries. TOME OF TERROR looks at everything horror-tinged that was released in the decade, including famous entries such as the 1931 FRANKENSTEIN and the 1933 KING KONG.

Each film reviewed contains a cast & crew credits list, a short synopsis, and a analysis of the film by one of the authors (at the end of each entry the initials of the writer responsible for it is affixed). After reading (and owning) so many horror film books, I have to admit that by this time I'm not worried so much about cast credits or story detail as I am about whether the authors can bring a fresh take on material that has been written about literally hundreds of times. In this respect Workman & Howarth offer up plenty of food for thought.

For example, Troy Howarth points out that in Universal's THE MUMMY, there is no comic relief whatsoever...something I never thought about. Chris Workman gives an excellent review of MGM's RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS, a movie not usually considered a classic horror. I don't agree with all the authors' opinions.....Troy Howarth isn't all that impressed with Bela Lugosi's performance in THE RAVEN (I think it is one of Bela's best), and he's annoyed at Una O'Connor and her shrieking in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (I think she's great). It is refreshing, though, that the writers don't go the usual route when discussing several of the better-known films in this book.

There are a lot of movies featured in this book that even I was not familiar with. In the late 1930s Universal produced a series of films based on stories published by Doubleday's Crime Club....a series in which I knew nothing about, and which is fully examined in TOME OF TERROR. I also found out from this book that Japanese filmmakers of the 1930s had a strange fascination for Ghost Cats.

I do wish that with so many titles included, the book had a proper index. The index here only gives the film's year, not the actual page or pages on which the film is discussed. Maybe in the next volume the year being covered can be put on the top of each page, to give readers a better guide when skimming through the book looking for a certain movie.

TOME OF TERROR is well illustrated with many stills and poster art, and the book is a bit larger than the typical Midnight Marquee product. I think even hardcore monster movie fans who have read just about everything on the genre will enjoy it, just for the sheer number of movies written about. The authors have taken on quite a challenge, and I will definitely be looking forward to the next chapter of this series, which will examine the horror films of the 1920s.

Sunday, March 15, 2015


THE SORCERERS is a 1967 British horror film starring Boris Karloff. The movie was directed by cult icon Michael Reeves. Believe it or not, I had never seen this picture until last week when it was shown one afternoon on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel (hey, even I can't see everything).

THE SORCERERS has a major reputation among film geeks. Most of that is due to Michael Reeves, who also co-wrote the final screenplay. Reeves had only three "official" film director credits in his short life, but he is considered by some to be one of the greatest filmmakers to come out of the late 1960s. Reeves was a film geek himself (long before the term was even invented), and his love for cinema led him to get involved in a number of European productions. He apparently had a major role in the making of an Italian horror film starring Christopher Lee known as THE CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD. Reeves then directed THE SHE BEAST, a bizarre and uneven monster tale with horror icon Barbara Steele. Next up was THE SORCERERS, followed by the sadistic English Civil War melodrama WITCHFINDER GENERAL, which featured Vincent Price. (It's amazing that in his very short career Reeves worked with four of the greatest horror film stars.)

THE SORCERERS concerns Professor Marcus Monserrat (Boris Karloff), a elderly scientist who describes himself as the leading authority on medical hypnotic research. Monserrat is desperately looking for someone to participate in his experiments, and he finds that someone in Mike (Ian Ogilvy), a bored London youth. The Professor takes Mike back to his flat and he subjects him to a barrage of strange lights and rays. Unknown to Mike, the Professor has hypnotized him--not only can Monserrat control Mike's actions, he can also mentally and physically experience what Mike is going through. After Mike leaves. Monserrat and his wife Estelle take control of him. At first the old couple just want to experience simple pleasures that are denied them--but soon Estelle becomes addicted to this "gift" and she wants more and greater pleasures.

THE SORCERERS is set during the time of "Swinging London", but it is about as far away from that kind of world as you can get. The London portrayed here is a shabby working-class city, dull and gloomy. The Professor and his wife live in a drab, boring flat, and Estelle's demand for greater control over Mike stems partly from the couple's economic circumstances. THE SORCERERS is very different from the typical British horror film of the period--it is not set in the Gothic never-never land of Hammer Films, or the generic contemporary world of Amicus productions. Reeves uses a semi-documentary style, showing a climate so boring that Mike allows a strange old man to experiment on him just for kicks. Mike and his best friend Alan even have real ordinary jobs--and we actually see them working (you never see anybody in a Hammer film actually working for a living, other than the people inside a pub). There is a nightclub that Mike and his girlfriend frequent, but the scenes there are shot so perfunctory that it's obvious Reeves wasn't all that interested in them.

What Reeves is interested in is showing how the old tries to take control of the young (a common theme in his very few films). What makes THE SORCERERS uncomfortable viewing is not any violence or gore, but the idea that elderly people want to feel the same sensations that younger people do. Estelle has more hypnotic power over Mike than her husband does, and she uses it to drive the young man to crime and aggressive behavior. Catherine Lacey steals the film as Estelle--it's certainly not the type of performance (or character) one would expect from an older lady. Estelle even incapacitates her husband so that she can fully control Mike. (Seeing Karloff knocked down and then sitting on the floor for a long period of time is rather unsettling, considering the many health problems the man had during the filming.)

Karloff, of course, is excellent as usual. At first the Professor comes off as a bit of a intimidating nut, but as the story goes on, and Monserrat realizes his wife has gone over the edge, Karloff portrays quite well the man's sorrow and disgust over the turn of events. Ian Ogilvy (who was a best friend of Michael Reeves, and also starred in THE SHE BEAST and WITCHFINDER GENERAL) is fine as Mike. The young man is shown as somewhat jaded and cynical at the beginning, but he is not a monster, which makes his "transformation" work to the better. Ogilvy shows that Mike does know something is going on with him, but he is not quite able to figure out what.

There is violence in THE SORCERERS, though not as much as one would expect from Reeves' reputation. (As a matter of fact this movie is pretty tame compared to WITCHFINDER GENERAL.) Estelle drives Mike to fight Alan a couple of times, and the fight scenes are sloppy and brutal--not anything like the usual choreographed battles with perfect-looking punches and falls. Mike is driven to attack women as well (these scenes are scary but not anywhere near as explicit as other films of the type). Eventually Mike is tracked down by the police, and the result is a very grim ending for the main characters.

THE SORCERERS has a very interesting premise, and Reeves does an impressive job of direction. The movie isn't perfect....the nightclub scenes go on a bit too long, and the final chase scene could have been shortened. But if you are a fan of this material, THE SORCERERS is well worth seeing. Just know that it is not exactly a fun night at the movies.

After THE SORCERERS Michael Reeves made WITCHFINDER GENERAL, the movie on which his extensive cult status is mostly based on. WITCHFINDER GENERAL is very well done, but it is even more grim than THE SORCERERS--as a matter of fact, it is one of the most downbeat and depressing films ever made. Soon after that film's production, Reeves died of an accidental overdose in 1969 at the age of only 25. Many have speculated on what he would have turned out if he had lived. I think he might have wound up being the British equivalent to Sam Peckinpah. He would have easily fit into the dark and realistic world of early 1970s movies. But then again, due to his truculent nature (his battles with Vincent Price on the set of WITCHFINDER GENERAL are now legendary), he might not have had a very lengthy directing career after all.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


Another famous silent film that I was able to see for the first time recently is Universal's 1928 mystery thriller THE LAST WARNING, directed by Paul Leni. Apparently THE LAST WARNING featured some talkie sequences upon its release, but the version I saw on YouTube did not include such scenes.

Universal has always promoted the heck out of its "Classic Monsters" line of films, but the company as of now seems to have no interest in the great silent movies produced under their banner. The 1923 THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME and the 1925 THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA have fallen into home video public domain--you can find decent DVDs of both titles, but they won't be from Universal Home Video. The two famous films directed by Paul Leni at Universal before THE LAST WARNING--THE CAT AND THE CANARY and THE MAN WHO LAUGHS--are available on DVD also from other companies. THE LAST WARNING, as far as I know, does not even have an "official" DVD release. Why Universal refuses to take advantage of its legendary silent film heritage is rather puzzling. Monster movie buffs would definitely buy an official Universal Silent Thrillers box set. My guess is that the company just doesn't want to spend the money to remaster and refurbish a bunch of silent films that they feel will have very little attraction to the mainstream video marketplace.

The German-born Paul Leni (1885-1929) is not as famous as Tod Browning and James Whale, but perhaps he should be. Leni started out as a set & costume designer in his native land, and he was part of Germany's Expressionist film movement. Leni directed the dark anthology film WAXWORKS (1924), starring such acclaimed performers as Conrad Veidt and Emil Jannings. Leni was brought to Hollywood by Universal, where he directed the aforementioned THE CAT AND THE CANARY and THE MAN WHO LAUGHS. Both films, particularly the former, were successes, and Leni's next project had a lot of similarities with CANARY--it too was based on a play and it was also an "Old House" thriller, except in this case the old house is a abandoned Broadway theater.

At the beginning of THE LAST WARNING, we are shown the death of actor John Woodford, which happens on stage during a performance of his latest play. Woodford's body disappears before an autopsy can be administered, and the resulting scandal over the murder causes the theater (named after Woodford) to close down. Years later a producer named McHugh (Montagu Love) decides to re-open the theater and stage the exact same play that John Woodford was acting in at the moment of his demise. McHugh even hires some of the same actors and backstage crew that were also present that fateful night. As expected, numerous strange occurrences happen before all is revealed.

THE LAST WARNING is more of an impressive exercise in cinematic style than it is a riveting mystery. Cinematographer Hal Mohr's swooping subjective camera is everywhere--it ducks under a falling stage curtain, it swings on a rope over the backstage area along with the killer, and it looks up from the ground floor to the box seat patrons peering down from above. (If the theater looks familiar, that's because it is the Paris Opera House theater & stage set from THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.) Not only is the camerawork intriguing in THE LAST WARNING, the title cards are as well. The titles expand, contract, or go in and out of focus, depending on the circumstances of the story or the mood of the characters. The look of the titles of a silent film can be just as important as the acting or the production design (unfortunately most restored silent films do not have their original title cards).

Despite the fact that the Woodford Theater is set in downtown 1920s New York City, it is just as much of a spooky run down place as those featured in other examples of the silent movie mystery film. The abandoned theater is a perfect set for a director like Leni to play around in. It has plenty of trap doors, hidden rooms, and other surprises. The theater is almost a character itself--when we are shown the front part of the building, it resembles a dour human face.

As for the actual human characters in THE LAST WARNING, there are a number of actors in this film that have connections to several famous productions. Leading man John Boles was in Universal's 1931 FRANKENSTEIN, and Mack Swain, who plays one of the theater's owners, appeared alongside Charlie Chaplin in THE GOLD RUSH. Laura La Plante, who starred in THE CAT AND THE CANARY, plays a similar role here, but she doesn't have as much to do as she did in the earlier movie. Margaret Livingston, best known as "The Woman From the City" in F. W. Murnau's SUNRISE, gets a showy part as a flirty actress who isn't what she seems--one of the reasons she attracts the viewer's attention is that the subjective camera gives a nice look at her legs.

Margaret Livingston

The version of THE LAST WARNING that I watched on YouTube ran about 78 minutes. The picture quality was acceptable, but certainly not great. It would be fantastic if a company like Kino, or Criterion, or Flicker Alley, could fully restore THE LAST WARNING and put it out on Blu-ray (I would especially like to see the talking sequences that were prepared for this film).

Sadly Paul Leni died in 1929 at the age of only 44, due to blood poisoning. The question that has to be asked is, "What if Paul Leni had lived?" Would he have been given the assignment to direct Universal's adaptation of DRACULA? Or FRANKENSTEIN? Would the entire Classic Monsters series produced at Universal have turned out differently, with Leni's involvement? We'll never know. What is a fact is that Leni was responsible for many outstanding examples of silent cinema, and he no doubt would have had the creativity and the talent to make an effective transition to the sound era. If you love silent film technique, you really should take the opportunity to see THE LAST WARNING.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Russia In Classic Film Blogathon: THE SCARLET EMPRESS

This is my contribution to the Russia In Classic Film Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently, and sponsored by Flicker Alley. moviessilently.com

THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934) is the sixth collaboration between director Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. Pictorially stunning and undeniably strange, it represents the height of von Sternberg's baroque excesses. The film is more an excuse for von Sternberg to indulge himself than it is a true historical biography.

Catherine II of Russia (1729-1796) ruled as Empress for over 30 years. She remains one of the most famous females in world history, and her life has been dramatized in several movies and television programs. Like most great historical figures, what is known about her is more legend than fact. THE SCARLET EMPRESS gets the bare outline of her life correct, but it should not be taken as a accurate account of her times.

A portrait of the real Catherine, around the time of her wedding

Actually the title of this film is a bit of a misnomer, as Catherine does not become ruler of Russia till the very end of the story. The movie begins with a very young Prussian Princess, Sophia Frederica, being read stories of Russian history by a member of her family's household. (The young Sophia is played by Marlene Dietrich's real-life daughter, Maria.) The gruesome tales of Russia's dark past are depicted in a visual montage which includes tortures and executions, and even flashes of nudity. The montage doesn't last very long, but it is still rather intense, even for Pre-Code 1934 Hollywood. The montage sets up the film's depiction of Russia as a backward, dangerous land of violence and mystery. The man telling Sophia about the terrors is played by none other than Edward Van Sloan, veteran of many Universal monster movies.

Van Sloan's appearance is one of the many instances of the film's Gothic horror sensibility. When Sophia becomes a teenager, she is informed that she will be wed to the Grand Duke Peter, the heir to the Russian throne. Sophia and her mother must make an arduous journey to Russia, accompanied by the dashing Count Alexei (John Lodge), an emissary of that country. Sophia is attracted to Alexei, but  she wants to remain loyal to her betrothed, especially after Alexei tells her that Peter is the most handsome man in the land.

Upon their arrival at the Imperial Palace, Sophia and her mother are introduced to the Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser). Sophia asks to meet her future husband, and she finds that he is a grinning half-wit who resembles a vicious Harpo Marx (Sam Jaffe steals the film in this role). The Empress Elizabeth changes Sophia's name to Catherine and orders her to produce a male heir.

The movie up to this point plays like a dark fairy tale--a beautiful Princess is taken off to a far-away land, where she is forced to marry a monstrous mate and live in a gloomy castle. The Imperial Palace of THE SCARLET EMPRESS is one of the most unusual settings in Classic Hollywood history. The place is filled with unsettling giant statuary, and the walls and doors (which appear to be fifteen feet high and fifteen feet wide) are festooned with bizarre religious iconography. The oppressive atmosphere of the Palace is a metaphor for the darkness of the Russian Empire, and it overshadows even the substantial beauty of Marlene Dietrich.

An example of the production design of THE SCARLET EMPRESS

The mad Peter is not interested in Catherine (he has a mistress of his own). The Empress Elizabeth, enraged that Catherine has not become pregnant yet, decides to show the young girl how to be a "true" Russian wife. The Empress orders Catherine's mother back to Prussia, and she orders Catherine around as if she were nothing but a servant. Count Alexei continues to try and woo Catherine, but the girl finds out that the Count is actually one of Empress Elizabeth's many lovers. This revelation changes Catherine--she decides to use her beauty to gain power in the Imperial Court. Catherine soon gives birth to a male heir, but Peter is not happy about the situation, since he and his wife have never consummated their marriage.

Before Catherine changes her attitude, Dietrich plays her as a wide-eyed child-like innocent with a girlish voice. After Catherine's "maturation", she becomes the sardonic and seductive Marlene that the audience is familiar with. The change is rather abrupt, but it serves the purpose of the story. The new Catherine uses her "special powers" to gain favor with various members of the military. After the Empress Elizabeth dies, Peter becomes Czar, and he starts a new reign of terror throughout Russia. He plans to kill Catherine, but she uses her connections with the army to stage a coup, and she replaces Peter as the leader of Russia.

The film ends with Catherine, dressed in a man's military uniform, standing next to a horse and wickedly smiling at her triumph. The scene seems to suggest that Catherine has become as mad as the Russians who she usurped to gain the throne. Whatever its meaning, the last scene serves as a fitting climax to what is one of the wildest films ever made during the Golden Age of Hollywood.

THE SCARLET EMPRESS, produced by Paramount, was not a critical or a financial success upon its release. That's not surprising, considering it is more of an art film than a mainstream-audience crowd-pleaser. One assumes that moviegoers of 1934, especially American ones, would have been scratching their heads at the delirious excesses of the film. THE SCARLET EMPRESS features more Gothic melodrama than sultry Marlene Dietrich romance (we only get to see Marlene's legs once during the whole movie). This isn't exactly a historical document either--von Sternberg portrays Russia as a doom-laden never-never land, steeped in intrigue and deep religious mysticism.

For those with an appreciation of cinema, THE SCARLET EMPRESS is a visual feast. The film contains many great set-pieces, including the wedding of Peter and Catherine. The event is staged in a cathedral so filled with priests, guests, and onlookers that one feels the characters can barely breathe. The resulting atmosphere is one of a sacrificial rite instead of a Royal wedding, with Catherine as a victim instead of a bride. The scene also has hundreds of candles in it--there's so many candles used in this movie that you have to wonder how one of the sets didn't wind up burning down during the production.

There's so many things to look at in the background of every scene of THE SCARLET EMPRESS that it demands multiple viewings. The costume budget must have been enormous--and of course Marlene Dietrich has several spectacular outfits. The production design is somewhat distracting, especially if one is watching this film for the first time. It doesn't help that von Sternberg stages his actors in front of something interesting in just about every scene--it's as if the director is saying, "Hey! Look at these sets!!"

And that's the biggest problem with THE SCARLET EMPRESS--it is all about attitude and atmosphere. The characters, and the settings, are so far removed from real life that the viewer doesn't really have any emotional attachment to what is going on. Marlene Dietrich is gorgeous as always, but you don't really care about her one way or the other. THE SCARLET EMPRESS is pure 100% eye candy. Josef von Sternberg would fit right in with 21st Century movie-making--all visual effects & action and no story.

THE SCARLET EMPRESS is available on DVD from Criterion. If any film demands to be remastered and released on Blu-ray, it is this one. The DVD looks very good, but one can only imagine how Bert Glennon's superb cinematography would appear on a nice Blu-ray transfer.

THE SCARLET EMPRESS is not a full biography of Catherine the Great--her rule as Empress is not even covered. Several legends surround Catherine to this day, and even with internet information it is hard to separate fact from fiction concerning Catherine's life. Like most movies about Russia, THE SCARLET EMPRESS presents the land, and its people, as wild, backward, and mysterious. That's how most Americans see Russia, even today. THE SCARLET EMPRESS may not be proper history, but it is pure cinematic splendor.

Marlene Dietrich as Catherine

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Highlights From My DVD/Blu-ray Collection--Part Two*

*Or: Why I Never Have Any Money

More photos of my home video collection.

Here's some Frank Capra.

Sergio Leone.

Alfred Hitchcock.

Clint Eastwood.

The original Lon Chaney.

How many times can you buy Star Wars?

Everyone needs at least three different versions of METROPOLIS.

And look! It's the super-duper briefcase box set of BLADE RUNNER! With 68 versions of the film!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Highlights From My DVD/Blu-ray Collection--Part One*

*Or: Why I Never Have Any Money

Today I am going to start a new series showing some--some--of my vast and head-scratching home video collection. What I will reveal to you is only the tip of the iceberg. You may ask, "How can I build my own fantastic home video collection?" Well, it helps to not spend any money on drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes...and it really helps to be a pathetic single person with no children.

Let's start out with some classic comedy, shall we? I've got a Harold Lloyd box set, a Laurel & Hardy box set, two Marx Brothers box sets, three Abbott & Costello sets, and a whole bunch of Buster Keaton. I also have a Our Gang box set...I should have put it in this picture but I didn't even think about it till I had put everything away (I've got DVDs and Blu-rays scattered all over).

But when it comes to classic comedy, you can't beat The Three Stooges. I own every single Columbia short subject the Stooges appeared in. I also have most of the Stooges' feature films, and once again, after I put all this away, I realized there was some stuff I should have put in the picture, such as the Leonard Maltin documentary on the Stooge's time at MGM, and the Warner Archives DVD-R of all the MGM shorts the Stooges made. I also have the 1930 Fox film the Stooges and Ted Healy starred in, SOUP TO NUTS.

I have just about all of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies--I think the only one I don't have is HOUSE OF FEAR. (If anyone out there would like to send it to me, go right ahead.)

I have every single James Bond film on DVD--well, wait, I don't have NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN. I haven't upgraded to Blu-ray on these yet.

And this is my John Ford collection. I have a feeling I'm missing some of the Fords I own here as well.

This is just a taste of what I own....I haven't even gotten to the monster movies yet! (By the way, if you would like to have a better look at the photos, just click on the picture for a wider view.)