Tuesday, August 29, 2017
Kino Lorber continues their classic silent movie releases with a Blu-ray of director William Wellman's 1928 BEGGARS OF LIFE.
I was greatly anticipating this disc since I had never actually seen BEGGARS OF LIFE. The movie is now famous mostly for featuring Louise Brooks, but it is an engaging tale set on the back roads of America. Richard Arlen (who had just starred for Wellman in the director's monumental triumph WINGS) and Brooks play a couple of young wandering souls trying to find some sort of stability in their restless lives.
BEGGARS OF LIFE is a combination of gritty realism and old-fashioned sentiment. The story begins with Louise Brooks' character explaining to Arlen's why she had to shoot her foster guardian in the head! The guardian was trying to sexually assault Brooks, which is shown in flashback, including the man's death (a very grim sequence for the period). Arlen stumbles upon Brooks while looking for a meal, and the two decide to get away by hopping a train out of the area. Brooks puts on men's clothing in an attempt to disguise herself as a young boy. Whenever a female character wears men's clothes in a classic Hollywood film, she winds up looking even more feminine, and that goes for Brooks in this movie. The duo meet up with a group of hobos led by the boisterous Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery), who tries to claim Brooks as his "property". The situation is made even more complicated by the fact that Brooks is now wanted for the murder of her guardian, and the authorities are hot on their tails.
What makes BEGGARS OF LIFE unique as a "Life on the Road" film is that it is not set during the Great Depression. Wellman does not try to inject any type of social commentary into the story, and there is no message concerning the vagabond's plight. The characters played by Arlen and Brooks (they are listed in the credits as "The Boy" and "The Girl") have obviously led hard lives, but they take a matter-of-fact attitude toward their situation. Brooks gives a very modern, low-key type of performance. Her natural beauty and charisma are still more than apparent, even under her unusual wardrobe. With all respect to Clara Bow, Louise Brooks was a true "IT" girl--she was blessed with a magnetism that made you watch her every move whenever she is on the screen. BEGGARS OF LIFE gave her a chance to play a very different type of role. She spends most of the movie in a state of wary apprehension--which is understandable, since it is very obvious what the hobos would do to her if they got the chance.
Richard Arlen is okay, but he gets all but pushed off the screen when Wallace Beery shows up. His Oklahoma Red is the type of character Beery would play over and over again at MGM in the 1930s and 40s--the menacing blowhard who turns out to be a softie in the end. Beery makes the most of the role, and even though this is a silent movie, you can't help but hear the actor's voice in your head whenever Oklahoma Red's dialogue is presented on an intertitle.
BEGGARS OF LIFE is a great film for train buffs, and it's amazing now to see the lead actors gallivanting about fast-moving rolling stock. William Wellman definitely achieves a sense of time and place, and despite the sentimentality the movie doesn't feel phony. I'm really glad that Kino decided to release this title on Blu-ray, because now more silent film fans will have a better chance to see it.
The print used on this Blu-ray was digitally restored from 35mm film elements preserved by the George Eastman Museum. It has some wear but it looks very fine--and most important, it doesn't have the over processed look of some silents on Blu-ray. The score was performed by the Mount Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, and it is presented in 2.0 DTS stereo.
Two audio commentaries are provided--one by William Wellman Jr. (which I have not listened to yet) and the other by Thomas Gladysz from the Louise Brooks Society. Gladysz's talk is an excellent one, going into all the relevant details of the production and the various adventures Louise Brooks had during the making of the film.
A 12-page booklet is also included, which has stills from the film and analysis from Nick Pinkerton. The Blu-ray has a reversible cover sleeve, with Louise Brooks featured on one side and Wallace Beery on the other (I'd rather look at Louise).
Monday, August 21, 2017
Here is the list of my favorite film actresses of all time. I will absolutely admit that how much I am attracted to these ladies plays a large role in who got picked. Is that politically incorrect? Oh well...you can bring down my statue if this bothers you.
Having said that...acting ability does matter here. Just because you've been on the cover of MAXIM doesn't mean you're a great actress. And I know somebody out there is going to say, "Most of these women are dead!!" So be it.
1. Carole Lombard
Favorite Film Role: Hazel Flagg in NOTHING SACRED
2. Ingrid Bergman
Favorite Film Role: Alicia Huberman in NOTORIOUS
3. Barbara Stanwyck
Favorite Film Role: Sugarpuss O'Shea in BALL OF FIRE
4. Kim Novak
Favorite Film Role: Judy Barton in VERTIGO
5. Uma Thurman
Favorite Film Role: Beatrix Kiddo in KILL BILL VOL. 1
6. Thelma Todd
Favorite Film Role: Connie Bailey in HORSE FEATHERS
7. Maureen O'Hara
Favorite Film Role: Mary Kate Danaher in THE QUIET MAN
8. Joan Blondell
Favorite Film Role: Carol King in GOLDDIGGERS OF 1933
9. Marlene Dietrich
Favorite Film Role: Lola Lola in THE BLUE ANGEL
10. Linda Darnell
Favorite Film Role: Netta Longdon in HANGOVER SQUARE
11. Jean Arthur
Favorite Film Role: Clarissa Saunders in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON
My favorite actor, Peter Cushing, and my favorite actress, Carole Lombard, in VIGIL IN THE NIGHT
12. Dorothy Malone
Favorite Film Role: Abigail Parker in ARTISTS AND MODELS
13. Barbara Steele
Favorite Film Role: Katia Vajda/Princess Asa in BLACK SUNDAY
14. Madeleine Carroll
Favorite Film Role: Pamela in THE 39 STEPS
15. Kumi Mizuno
Favorite Film Role: Miss Namikawa in GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO
16. Carrie Fisher
Favorite Film Role: Princess Leia Organa in STAR WARS
17. Eva Green
Favorite Film Role: Vesper Lynd in CASINO ROYALE
18. Louise Brooks
Favorite Film Role: Lulu in PANDORA'S BOX
19. Ziyi Zhang
Favorite Film Role: Jen Yu in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON
20. All of the Hammer Ladies (I can't pick one over the others because I come into contact with some of these women every so often)
Sunday, August 20, 2017
Recently my friend Troy Howarth (who has been contributing audio commentaries for several Blu-rays) listed his favorite actors on his Facebook page. This inspired me to finally come up with a list of my own...it's an idea I've been thinking about doing since I started this blog.
I decided to limit the list to twenty names. I could easily have gone to a hundred--there's plenty of great actors I admire. For this particular list the subject's entire body of work counts greatly--if a performer appeared in a number of films I happen to like, he's going to get more of a shot at gaining my admiration...hence the prevalence of so many monster movie guys.
I must point out that just because I did not put a certain actor on this list does not mean I don't appreciate that person. Whenever I do one of these lists, people seem to react more to who isn't on this list than who is. I also need to point out that this isn't my choice of the twenty greatest actors of all time, it's my personal favorites.
I've also decided to include my personal favorite movie role of each actor selected. A list of my twenty favorite film actresses will be coming soon.
1. Peter Cushing
Favorite Film Role: Dr. Van Helsing in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA
2. Christopher Lee
Favorite Film Role: Count Dracula in HORROR OF DRACULA
3. James Stewart
Favorite Film Role: Jefferson Smith in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON
4. Clint Eastwood
Favorite Film Role: The Man With No Name in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
5. Steve McQueen
Favorite Film Role: Capt. Virgil Hilts in THE GREAT ESCAPE
6. Buster Keaton
Favorite Film Role: Johnnie Gray in THE GENERAL
7. Alec Guinness
Favorite Film Role: Colonel Nicholson in THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI
8. Lon Chaney
Favorite Film Role: Erik in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
9. John Wayne
Favorite Film Role: Capt, Nathan Brittles in SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON
10. Cary Grant
Favorite Film Role: Roger O. Thornhill in NORTH BY NORTHWEST
11. Spencer Tracy
Favorite Film Role: John J. Macreedy in BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK
12. Boris Karloff
Favorite Film Role: The Monster in FRANKENSTEIN
13. Bela Lugosi
Favorite Film Role: Murder Legendre in WHITE ZOMBIE
14. Vincent Price
Favorite Film Role: Dr. Anton Phibes in THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES
15. Lionel Atwill
Favorite Film Role: Ivan Igor in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM
16. Claude Rains
Favorite Film Role: Alexander Sebastian in NOTORIOUS
17. Lee Van Cleef
Favorite Film Role: Col. Douglas Mortimer in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE
18. Liam Neeson
Favorite Film Role: Dr. Peyton Westlake in DARKMAN
19. Gary Oldman
Favorite Film Role: Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK
20. George Zucco
Favorite Film Role: Dr. Alfred Morris in THE MAD GHOUL
Saturday, August 19, 2017
Shout Factory, under their Scream Factory label, releases yet another weird vintage horror film on Blu-ray--the 1962 production THE MANSTER. This movie was filmed in Japan, with a mostly Japanese crew--but the directors, producers and writers were American. No matter who was behind it, the result is indeed a strange concoction.
An American newspaper reporter working in Japan named Larry Stanford (Peter Dyneley) travels to a remote laboratory based on a mountain to interview a scientist (Satoshi Nakamura) about his experiments dealing with human evolution. The duplicitous doc slips Larry a mickey, and while the reporter is passed out he is injected with a mysterious serum. Larry soon becomes an irritable drunk, and even though he is married, starts to enjoy the Tokyo night life with the scientist's gorgeous assistant (Terri Zimmern). There's a bigger reason for Larry's irritability than a mid-life crisis--the serum has caused a being to start growing inside of him! The being also drives Larry into sporadic killing urges. Larry's condition worsens, to the point where he has a new head growing out of his shoulder (in this case two heads are not better than one). It all leads to a frantic climax at the scientist's laboratory, backed by an exploding volcano of all things.
A written description of THE MANSTER simply can't do it justice. It has a number of elements which make it stand out from the typical monster flick of the 1950s-60s. First, there's the fact that even though the lead character is American, the film is set in Japan, which brings even more of an outsider quality to his plight. The movie has a very seedy quality to it--the opening scenes show three lovely Japanese bathing beauties attacked by a shadowy creature, and Larry's partying ways play a major role in the plot. The scientist eggs Larry on to pursue his beautiful assistant--their nudge nudge wink wink conversation on how "friendly" the lady can be is a hoot. The scientist really wants the woman to keep an eye on Larry--and she even winds up falling for him, despite the fact that he acts like a total jerk most of the time.
One could say that there's a reason why the character of Larry Stanford acts like a jerk, since he's been injected with an experimental serum that causes a uncontrollable being to grow inside him. But even before his affliction, Larry carries a self-satisfied smirk on his face, and he comes off as an arrogant American. It's hard to feel sorry for Larry because of this, and especially since the married man develops a taste for the Japanese club scene. My Facebook friend Dan Smeddy says that actor Peter Dyneley, as Larry, looks like Lon Chaney Jr., and sounds like Alan Ladd. That's an apt description, and Larry's travails do resemble those of Lon Jr's Larry Talbot (except that Lon Jr. was much more sympathetic). If Peter Dyneley's voice does sound familiar to you, it may be due to the fact that he provided the speech for the puppet of Jeff Tracy in the British cult TV series THUNDERBIRDS. By the way, the character of Larry's wife is played by Jane Hylton (who also appeared in CIRCUS OF HORRORS), and she and Peter Dyneley were married in real life.
Satoshi Nakamura is a bit too low key as the scientist--this part calls for the manic intensity of a Lugosi or a Atwill. The viewer finds out that the doc has experimented on his brother and wife as well! (The wife, who has become a pitiful monstrosity, is kept in a cell--every movie mad scientist's laboratory has to have a cell to keep failed experiments or gorillas). Terri Zimmern brings an exotic quality to her role of the scientist's assistant. I tried to find out more information on her through the internet, but apparently THE MANSTER was her only confirmed movie role--I find that surprising considering her striking good looks. She doesn't even have a Wikipedia page!
The most memorable aspect of THE MANSTER is the idea of Larry having an extra body growing out of him. Larry's condition was a major inspiration for a famous sequence in Sam Raimi's ARMY OF DARKNESS, and elements of it would later be found in such films as THE THING WITH TWO HEADS and THE INCREDIBLE TWO-HEADED TRANSPLANT. I'm sure many might find the whole idea laughable, but it is the main reason THE MANSTER has any notoriety at all 55 years after its production. The movie does have some slow spots, especially in the soap opera-like aspects of Larry's problems with his wife, but for most of its 72 minute running time it gives classic monster movie fans what they want, and it even injects some black & white noir elements into the proceedings.
Shout Factory presents THE MANSTER in HD 1.66:1 black & white anamorphic widescreen. The print looks fine, and the DTS-HD mono audio is very robust. The only extras are a trailer and a still gallery, which shows advertising for the film featuring an alternate title, THE SPLIT. It's too bad that Shout Factory wasn't able to provide an audio commentary for this--I would love to know more about the making of this production and the people who were behind it.
Monday, August 7, 2017
The latest entry in my YouTube Theater viewings is THE UNCANNY, a anthology horror film filmed in Canada and England in late 1976. The movie tries to be on the level of more famous multi-part terrors as DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS and THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, but it falls way short.
THE UNCANNY was co-produced by Milton Subotsky, and he provided the stories for Michael Parry's screenplay. Subotsky was the co-founder of Amicus Productions, the company that made the films I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post. Subotsky had parted ways with his Amicus partner Max Rosenberg, and set up THE UNCANNY as an independent production. Like his earlier Amicus horror tales, Subotsky gathered up a number of notable actors for his new venture, such as Peter Cushing, Ray Milland, Joan Greenwood, Donald Pleasence, Samantha Eggar, and John Vernon.
By 1976, however, the English Gothic film had all been rendered extinct (the movie that Peter Cushing had worked on earlier in that year, STAR WARS, just about finished the genre off when it was released). THE UNCANNY seems stale and old-fashioned, even when compared to the Amicus films Subotsky worked on only a few years before.
The linking story of THE UNCANNY deals with Wilbur Gray (Peter Cushing), a strange character who is trying to get his new book published by Frank Richards (Ray Milland). Gray's work purports to show that the common cat is actually a danger to humans all over the world. Gray proceeds to tell Richards three stories that will supposedly back his claims.
The first story takes place in England, 1912. A rich old woman (Joan Greenwood) plans to change her will and leave her fortune to her many. many cats, instead of her nephew. The old lady's maid (Susan Penhaligon) is in love with the nephew and tries to steal the new will while her mistress is asleep. The woman wakes up and the maid suffocates her...only to have the dead woman's voluminous collection of cats take revenge by besieging the maid in the old woman's home and attacking her.
This is probably the best of THE UNCANNY's three tales (which isn't saying much). It occurred to me that this story is basically a retread of Hammer's SHADOW OF THE CAT (that's more fuel to throw on the fire of the rivalry between Subotsky/Amicus and Hammer).
Gray's second example takes place in 1975 Quebec. A young girl named Lucy, who has lost her parents in a plane crash, is taken in by her Aunt and Uncle. Accompanying Lucy is her cat, named Wellington. Lucy's Aunt doesn't like cats, and Lucy's spoiled cousin Angela is jealous of it. Angela blames the cat for her own trouble making, and her mother decides to get rid of it...but Wellington returns, and encourages Lucy to take revenge through use of the occult, which she does by shrinking Angela to the size of a mouse. The scenes of the spellbound Angela vs. Wellington are very reminiscent of THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. What's most interesting about this tale is that Chloe Franks plays Angela. In THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, Franks played a role very much Lucy--here she's the victim of black magic instead of the perpetrator.
The final tale is set in 1936 Hollywood. An egotistical actor (Donald Pleasence) "accidentally" kills his wife during the filming of his latest horror movie. The actor's mistress (Samantha Eggar) immediately fills in, at the studio and at home...but the devious couple have failed to reckon with the late wife's cat, who brings about a grisly comeuppance for both.
This story attempts to be satirical, in the manner of the climax of THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, which also happened to feature an egotistical horror movie actor (who was played by Jon Pertwee). I say "attempts"...because it just isn't funny. The story resembles a skit from the Carol Burnett TV show--except it isn't as entertaining. You'd think the one thing a horror satire would get right is making fun of actual horror movies, but the 1936 setting doesn't jibe with the Edgar Allan Poe-Roger Corman style movie being made.
In the end, THE UNCANNY isn't very uncanny. The whole point of the movie is that cats are plotting against us...but in the stories being shown, the only people harmed by the felines are nasty folks who deserve to "get it". The cats appear to be dishing out a form of cosmic justice instead of targeting the innocent. There may be some out there who are afraid of cats, but I'm sure there's many more cat lovers. The average house cat just doesn't seem all that scary. Director Denis Heroux spends a lot of time showing various cats in close-up, and there's a lot of shots of the critters leaping about, but despite all of that there isn't a real sense of menace.
Peter Cushing doesn't have much screen time in THE UNCANNY, but he does enough to convince the audience of Wilbur Gray's bizarre beliefs. Cushing's Gray is a trembling, worried man, and a bit disheveled (as I've mentioned on this blog before, when Cushing's hair is in disarray, you know things are not going too well). If there is a reason to see THE UNCANNY, it is for Cushing, despite his small role.
As I've mentioned, every story in THE UNCANNY reminds me of a much better film. It's as if Milton Subotsky had scraped the bottom of the barrel for ideas and made a few adjustments on earlier stories. The horror anthology film has a lot of promising possibilities, but too many of them follow the same old pattern of using the EC Comics/Robert Bloch format of disreputable characters getting supernatural just desserts.
Friday, August 4, 2017
This is the fourth annual British Invaders Blogathon, and I believe I've taken part in every single one of them. For this one I decided to focus on a subject that is as British as you can get--but with a twist. The BBC television series DOCTOR WHO is a worldwide entertainment phenomenon, with over 50 years of history....but this post will be covering the two films based on the character. DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS was made in 1965, and DALEKS--INVASION EARTH 2150 A.D. was produced the very next year. Both movies starred Peter Cushing as the Doctor--or more accurately, "Dr. Who", which is what the character was called in the films. The difference between Dr. and Doctor is a subtle, but telling one. Cushing's "Dr. Who" has very little in common with "The Doctor" of the famed TV series.
Perhaps the Dr. Who films should be referred to as the Dalek films. The evil aliens had been a sensation since they were introduced on the DOCTOR WHO TV show in late 1963, and executive producer Joe Vegoda joined forces with Amicus' Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky to make a feature film taking advantage of this popularity. The Daleks are the real stars of these films--Dr. Who himself takes a backseat in the movies' advertising (just look at the original posters below). Amicus wanted the Daleks to be the main attraction since the character of the Doctor was only known in England, and these films were meant to be seen all over the world. (Amicus assumed that robotic-like creatures with a penchant for destruction would grab the attention of kids rather than a grouchy mysterious old man, which was how the Doctor was then played on TV by William Hartnell.) DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS was based on Terry Nation's multi-episode story "The Daleks", which introduced the aliens on TV.
Peter Cushing as Dr. (not Doctor) Who
Milton Subotsky's screenplay for DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS follows the original TV story closely for the most part. The big difference is how the Doctor is portrayed. Instead of a crotchety alien, this film's Dr. Who is a kindly, absent-minded human professor who has invented a device called TARDIS, which can travel throughout space and time. Note that I did not call it the TARDIS--in these films the device is called just TARDIS. The eccentric Dr. Who, along with his granddaughters Susan (Roberta Tovey) and Barbara (Jennie Linden), and Barbara's clumsy boyfriend Ian (Roy Castle), takes flight in TARDIS and bumbles his way to the Daleks' home planet, where the group helps the native Thals fight the robot-like creatures.
In DALEKS--INVASION EARTH 2150 A.D., Dr. Who is joined by Susan (Roberta Tovey again) and niece Louise (Jill Curzon). A London constable named Tom (Bernard Cribbins) inadvertently enters TARDIS, thinking it to be a real police call box. Soon Dr. Who & company arrive in the year 2150 (where everything looks suspiciously from the mid-1960s). They find that the Daleks have taken over the Earth, and the group joins forces with other rebels to defeat the aliens and save the planet.
DALEKS--INVASION EARTH 2150 A.D. is the better of the two films, with much more action and special effects, including Dalek spaceships. Milton Subotsky once again wrote the screenplay, this time based on the TV serial "The Dalek Invasion of Earth". This second Dr. Who feature was not as financially successful as the first, and Amicus decided not to make further films based on the character or the Daleks.
I believe that the Dr. Who films are nice, Saturday matinee-type adventures. Both films were in color and in widescreen, which was a major selling point when the films were originally released (the DOCTOR WHO TV show at the time was shown in black & white). Gordon Flemyng was the director on both films, and he keeps things at a rapid pace. The fact that both movies were condensed versions of multi-episode TV stories works in their favor....if you have seen enough classic DOCTOR WHO stories you know that much of the action involves the Doctor and his companions being captured, and escaping, and being captured and escaping, over and over again. The Dr. Who movies eliminate extraneous plot devices.
Many people look back on the films today and find them disappointing, mainly because the character of the Doctor differs so greatly from the TV show. But one has to place the films in their proper context. The movies were made for a mostly children's market, and sci-fi action was the major highlight. One has to consider that much of the extensive mythology surrounding the character of the TV Doctor had not yet even been created yet (the Doctor had not even had his first regeneration when these movies were made). The producers were trying to ride the wave of Dalekmaina, and they were not all that concerned about keeping continuity with a children's TV show that had only been on the air for a few years. The films have to be looked on as a separate entity from the television show--especially the 21st Century version of the program, with its overly complicated plots and soap opera-like elements involving the Doctor's companions. I'm sure that no one involved with the Dr. Who movies thought that they would be still discussed and debated 50 years later.
Peter Cushing's performance as Dr. Who has come under some major fan controversy. Bring up the Dr. Who feature films on any Peter Cushing groups on the internet and you're bound to get some strong reactions. There are some Cushing devotees who can't stand it when the great actor tries to be comic. I have to admit that Cushing lays the "funny old man" routine on a bit thick during the Dr. Who movies....but these films were made for a younger audience, and Cushing felt that this was the way to go. He certainly wasn't going to do a William Hartnell impression. The Dr. Who films give no backstory on the character (we don't even find out how such a muddled person can invent something like the TARDIS, let alone how he got the money to finance such a thing), so Cushing didn't have much to work with. He decided that these movies called for a more lighthearted portrayal than one was accustomed to getting from the actor in his many horror roles. His Dr. Who may frustrate some of his fans today, but Cushing enjoyed working on these films and getting away (if briefly) from the terror genre. I wouldn't want to see Cushing's "funny old man" routine in film after film, but in the Dr. Who movies I think for the most part it works.
I feel that the best way to appreciate the Dr. Who movies is to look on them as being part of an alternate universe. This is science-fiction, after all...who's to say that Cushing's Dr. Who isn't just part of a different time stream. The Dr. Who films are not part of the official continuity of the Doctor Who character--the BBC doesn't even have the rights to the films (Studio Canal does). Obviously the BBC is not going to go out of their way to bring attention to these movies. The result is that the Dr. Who films now reside in a type of limbo. They're based on DOCTOR WHO...but it's not really DOCTOR WHO. Cushing is not considered to belong among the constantly growing group of actors who have played the Doctor. (I can't tell you how many times I've mentioned to someone that Peter Cushing played Dr. Who in the movies, only to have that person respond with absolute surprise.)
However you define Peter Cushing's Dr. Who, the two films made around the character are worth seeing. Both movies are colorful, lighthearted, fast-paced adventures which were made to be enjoyed--not obsessively nit-picked over like so much of the Doctor Who Universe is today.