Sunday, August 26, 2018

The 4th Wonderful Ingrid Bergman Blogathon--FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS On Blu-ray

For this annual Ingrid Bergman blogathon, which I've taken part in the last few years, I've chosen to cover the 1943 film FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, which was released on Region A Blu-ray by Universal a few months back. Ingrid Bergman was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award due to her performance as Maria, a young guerrilla fighter during the Spanish Civil War.

FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS was as high concept as you could get for early 1940s Hollywood. It was based on the already famous novel by Ernest Hemingway, and it was produced and directed by Sam Wood, who at the time was one of the most important filmmakers in the industry. Esteemed production designer William Cameron Menzies was part of the project as well. The leading man was to be Gary Cooper, and most of the film was to be shot on location near Sonora, California. (Shooting the film in Spain was in impossibility of course due to the Franco regime and WWII.) The movie was made in Technicolor and after a long shooting schedule was released by Paramount in 1943.

When filming on FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS began in late 1941 Bergman was not yet attached to the project, despite rumors that she would be cast. The production shut down after Pearl Harbor was attacked, and when filming resumed in July, 1942, Vera Zorina was cast in the role of Maria. Sam Wood was reportedly not happy with her, and soon Bergman was brought on to replace her.

The character of Maria is a teenage girl who has been mentally and physically traumatized by events she has experienced during the Spanish Civil War. She has seen her parents killed in front of her, she has had her head shaved, and even though it is not specifically stated in the film, it is obvious she has been sexually assaulted as well. Bergman is superb at conveying Maria's fragile emotional state--she is constantly shy and hesitant, only opening up to Gary Cooper's Robert Jordan, an American who is helping the band of guerrilla fighters the girl is with. Bergman's Maria is overwhelmed by the handsome older man, and she becomes infatuated with him. Jordan is taken by Maria as well, and much of their scenes together consist of them staring longingly at one another in close-up. Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman were two of the best-looking people in the world at the time, so you can't blame Sam Wood and William Cameron Menzies (who was just as responsible for the shot selections as the director was) for taking advantage of that fact. In fact much of this long film is made up of gripping close-ups of the characters, rare for an epic production like this made on mostly outdoor locations.

The recent Blu-ray of FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS uses a excellent transfer of the film, which shows off the work of Menzies and cinematographer Ray Rennahan very well. Color, shadows, and silhouettes are used throughout the story to heighten the emotional intensity. The sharpness of the Blu-ray brings all this out in considerable detail--but it also makes the various actors who play the members of the guerrilla band appear as if they are wearing multiple layers of fake tan. This effect is more pronounced when Bergman is among them in a scene. Bergman's natural Nordic beauty makes her stick out from the other characters like a sore thumb. The actress was not given any special makeup to appear Spanish (unless you count her short haircut, which still gives her enough length so as not to come off as distracting). Certainly no one was going to inhibit Ingrid Bergman's looks. But I have to admit that Bergman doesn't look to me like a Spanish teenager who has undergone serious travails. I'm not saying this as a knock on her performance--it's to her credit that Maria comes off as believable and appealing. A less talented actress than Bergman might have come off as ridiculous.

Gary Cooper is fine as well in a role that was basically written for him by his friend Ernest Hemingway--a typical Cooper role, the soft-spoken man who has high principles and does what has to be done no matter what the circumstances. (It must also be pointed out that Cooper here is dressed almost exactly the same as Harrison Ford would be when he played Indiana Jones some 40 years later.) The true standout performances in the picture, however, are by Katina Paxinou and Akim Tamiroff as Pilar and Pablo, the married couple who lead the guerrilla band. Paxinou makes the earthy Pilar out to be tougher than anyone else in the cast, and Tamiroff's treacherous and jealous Pablo is the most interesting character in the cast. Cooper, Paxinou, and Tamiroff were all, like Bergman, nominated for Academy Awards for their performances in FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS (Paxinou was the only winner, for Best Supporting Actress). The movie received nine Academy Award nominations in all, including one for Best Picture. It also was one of the biggest box office successes of 1943.

Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper in FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS

Despite the movie's critical and financial success, it seems to me that FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS doesn't have the same popularity now as most of Ingrid Bergman's other major movies from the same period. It very rarely gets shown on TV, and it isn't discussed with as much frequency as, say, other Bergman films as CASABLANCA or GASLIGHT. It may be due to the movie's excessive length--the restored running time on the Blu-ray is almost three hours. It may also be that the Spanish Civil War is a subject that doesn't resonate with a number of people today, especially Americans (I certainly know very little about the subject). The movie falls in between being a historic war action-adventure picture and a romantic melodrama. While the recent Blu-ray of FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS looks fantastic, it has absolutely no extras--and that's a shame. It sorely needs audio commentaries and featurettes to explain the production difficulties the film went through and to adequately provide insight into Hemingway's novel and the conflict the story is set against. FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS really deserves the Criterion treatment.

I would still recommend the recent Blu-ray. This film is a prime example of classic large-scale Hollywood film making, and Ingrid Bergman is the recipient of some of the most exquisite close-ups in cinema history.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

My Favorite Movie Musicals Of All Time

Out of all the various film genres, the movie musical is one I am definitely not very well versed in. I can't sing and dance, and I cannot play one single musical instrument. The whole concept of the movie musical--the idea that characters are able to burst into and out of song at the drop of a hat--has always felt disarming to me (even though I have no problem paying strict attention to giant monsters beating the crap out of each other while striding through a miniature version of Tokyo).

I also believe that another reason movie musicals are not high on my list of things to watch is that I am most assuredly a film buff as opposed to a theatrical buff. I never took any type of drama classes while in school, and the area that I was raised in, Northern Indiana, doesn't exactly have a impressive stage tradition. Movies have always seemed more "real" to me than stage productions--I'll heartily admit that I'm not the most culturally sophisticated person around.

While thinking about writing this list I wondered if I even could come up with enough entries to make it worthwhile...but I managed to get to ten, which is a sufficient total. In my all-time favorite 100 movies list there are actually three musicals. and that trio gets the top three slots here.

I'm sure some will question why there's no Fred Astaire movies here, or any of Gene Kelly's...I certainly admire the artistry of these talented men, but I must say I haven't viewed their efforts with much frequency. As a straight guy, I'd much rather watch, say, Betty Grable or Cyd Charisse dance than Fred or Gene.

Please remember that this is not a list of what I think are the greatest musicals--these are just my personal favorites.

Is this really a musical? I define it as such. Looking back on it now, it's amazing that John Landis was able to get so many renowned American R & B artists involved in this.

Once again, some may question whether this counts as a musical, but it does for me. Gene Wilder's rendition of the song "Pure Imagination" is one of the most moving things I've ever heard in my life.

3. HELP!
Most film buffs choose A HARD DAY'S NIGHT as the best Beatles movie, but I love this one, probably because I saw it first, when I was a kid on late-night TV. The color, the songs, the rhythm of it, the goofiness of it--it all fascinated me back then, and it stills holds up.

My favorite group of movie musicals by far are the ones made at Warner Bros. during the 1930s with choreography by the legendary Busby Berkeley. The main reason for this requires a bit of explanation. When I was a kid I watched "Looney Toones" and "Merrie Melodies" cartoons nearly every day for years. When I finally did choose to watch the Warner Bros. musicals some time later, I realized that I knew all the songs already from the cartoons--which were basically a way for Warners to cross-promote their song catalog.
GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 is my pick for top Warners-Berkeley musical. It has a great, snappy Pre-Code attitude, and a wealth of classic Hollywood performers--Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, and the King of Pre-Code himself, Warren William. The climatic number, "The Forgotten Man", is simply breathtaking.

"The Forgotten Man" number from GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933

Another incredible Warners-Busby Berkeley musical, filled with flair and pizazz. This time Joan Blondell and Ruby Keeler are joined by James Cagney, who imparts his own inimitable aggressive attitude over the whole affair. The "By A Waterfall" sequence is jaw dropping.

The ultimate classic American musical. Robert Preston IS Harold Hill, and Shirley Jones is appealing as always.

James Cagney is so full of energy he nearly bursts off the screen--he deservedly won a Best Actor Academy Award for this. The movie is also another reason to consider Michael Curtiz as the greatest all-around film director.

8. SHOW BOAT (1936)
This version of the famed musical has the advantage of being directed by James Whale, and having performers such as Irene Dunne and Helen Morgan. You can't help but get chills when Paul Robeson sings "Old Man River".

For me this is the quintessential Frank Sinatra movie performance--the Chairman is basically playing himself here. It certainly doesn't hurt to have Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak along as well. Sinatra's rendition of "The Lady Is a Tramp" in the empty nightclub is a stunning sequence.

The big-budget screen adaptation of the off-Broadway play (which itself was an adaptation of the low-budget 1960 Roger Corman film) wasn't as successful as its makers hoped, but I think it's a vastly underrated musical. Frank Oz did an outstanding job of direction (why hasn't he gotten to make more movies?), and Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene were so winning in their roles the original ending was changed to give them a happier outcome. The original ending was restored for the Blu-ray, and it is worth seeing. LITTLE SHOP is a very different type of musical, but it remains way better than most of the usual ones.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

My Least Favorite Hammer Films

This post was inspired by my friend, author and prolific audio commentator Troy Howarth. Troy has been sharing a number of lists lately on Facebook concerning his opinions on the Hammer Films catalog. I know some of my regular readers (if there are any) might be thinking, "More stuff on Hammer Films???" This time I'm doing something different--a least favorite Hammer list. Yes, I will actually admit that I don't absolutely adore every single film the company ever made. It didn't take me long to make these selections--this list was fairly easy to put together. There's a number of mediocre Hammer titles, but most of them have something to hold the viewer's interest. The ones on this list are in my opinion without much interest, or their goofiness is so beyond belief it becomes notable...and not in a good way.

I must point out that I didn't go out of my way to consider the Hammer movies made before THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT....the majority of them were nondescript "B" films, and I've seen very few of them. I also haven't seen the Hammer "comedies" such as THE UGLY DUCKLING and ON THE BUSES (very few Americans have), so they are not involved in this list either. But....Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are involved in the list!

The list is in order of my idea of futility, so my pick for the worst Hammer film is.....

I like to call this film CREATURES THEY FORGOT TO PUT INTO THE MOVIE...because there are no creatures in it! Unlike Hammer's earlier ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. and WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH, there's no dinosaurs here--just a group of prehistoric people wandering around some listless African locations. Don Chaffey's direction is listless as well--but in all fairness he didn't have much to work with. The only adventure you get from this is trying to stay awake as long as you can during it. Truly terrible.

SHATTER (1974)
This picture is supposed to be an action-packed thriller, but there's no action and no thrills. Stuart Whitman plays a gloomy gun-for-hire named Shatter, and he spends most of the story meandering around some rather depressing-looking Hong Kong locations. Peter Cushing and Anton Diffring have very small roles here, but it's not enough--any episode from an average 1970s TV cop show would have far more excitement than this. Monte Hellman was the original director, but he was replaced during the shoot by Hammer head Michael Carreras. This sad attempt at Kung Fu Cinema was one of Hammer's last official films, and it's quite simple to figure out why.

This is the second film of Hammer's Karnstein trilogy. The first, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, is a favorite of mine...but LUST tries to top it in the schoolboy fantasy department with ludicrous results. Yutte Stensgaard takes over from Ingrid Pitt as the undead seductress Carmilla. Like Ingrid, Yutte was a fine looking woman...but she couldn't come near her when it came to on-screen charisma. Yutte's Carmilla seems more like a mannequin instead of a vampire queen. This film contains what I consider Hammer's all-time worst moment--Carmilla makes love to the leading man while a cheesy pop song called "Strange Love" blares away on the soundtrack. With this movie and HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, Jimmy Sangster proved he was a better writer than a director. Terence Fisher and Peter Cushing were both originally supposed to be part of this production, but I doubt that even the involvement of those great men could have made this tale much better. The carefully cultivated English Gothic atmosphere of Hammer's earlier vampire entries is totally absent here.

At least you can enjoy still photos of Yutte Stensgaard...

Like CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT and SHATTER, this film's main sin is that it's dreadfully boring. A sequel to Hammer's want-to-be epic SHE, it also calls to mind LUST FOR A VAMPIRE in that a gorgeous but emotionally empty woman takes over the lead role from a bigger star--here's it Olinka Berova replacing Ursula Andress. The thing is, the story never makes clear what Berova's character actually is--is she a reincarnation of the immortal queen Ayesha? Or is she possessed by Ayesha? Or is she just mentally unstable? Or, after trying to sit through this slog of a film, does anyone care? Much of the story has Berova and leading man Edward Judd stumbling endlessly over rocky terrain...and when they finally do get to the lost city of Kuma, nothing much happens there either, except they meet up with a bored looking John Richardson. Some have complained that Hammer's SHE wasn't big enough in scope, but it feels like GONE WITH THE WIND in comparison to this.

Many non-fans refer to Hammer's output as silly--the truth is, very few of them are. But this one....yeah. If Producer/Director/Writer Michael Carreras was trying to follow up the success of ONE MILLION YEARS B.C., he must have gotten lost along the way. A white hunter in Africa winds up stuck in a prehistoric valley where attractive dark-haired women rule over attractive blonde-haired women. A decently creative person can imagine all sorts of possibilities coming to fruition from this scenario. but the film takes advantage of none of them. Martine Beswicke makes a fantastic impression as the Queen of this world, but she doesn't get to do anything. (The publicity photos of Martine are far more entertaining than anything that goes on in the story.) Martine is also dubbed, which certainly doesn't help matters. This one doesn't have any dinosaurs either, and instead of exotic locations, the entire production seems to have been filmed on leftover jungle sets from GILLIGAN'S ISLAND. There's a lot of dance sequences in this movie--even Martine gets to participate in one. I'm surprised that someone hasn't tried to adapt this into a stage musical (are you reading this, Joshua Kennedy?). There's a theory that PREHISTORIC WOMEN was meant to be a campy spoof, but no one in the film performs in that manner. If it wasn't for Martine, this might rank as the worst Hammer ever.

For me this is definitely the most disappointing Hammer film ever, when you take into account that it is one of Christopher Lee's appearances as Dracula, and it was directed by the very capable Roy Ward Baker. Despite those supposed attributes the resultant film comes off as cheap and ugly, with a nasty tone to it. The difference between the preceding entry in the Hammer/Lee/Dracula series, the underrated TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, and this one is like night and day. Lee gets to do a bit more than usual as the Count, but the things he does make very little sense--such as viciously stabbing a woman to death and branding his servant with a red-hot sword. Apparently screenwriter Anthony Hinds felt that it wasn't enough for Dracula to be the King of the Vampires--he had to be shown as a really bad guy. Hinds must have been in a particularly foul mood when he wrote this, because the script is filled with all sorts of gory brutality that unfortunately the sub-par special effects do not live up to. At one point a rubbery-looking bat attacks Michael Gwynn's village priest...and the attack goes on, and on...and on, to the point where you wonder if you are watching a Monty Python skit. What brings SCARS OF DRACULA down the most is that the physical aspects of the production--the photography, the sets, the art direction, etc...appear flat & dull, and that's about the worst thing that can be said about any Hammer film.

By the way...I own every one of these films on home video!! (tosses microphone over shoulder, walks off stage)

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Retro TV Rumblings

A couple weeks ago I received an upgrade to my Xfinity account. This upgrade included new cable boxes which now give me access to all sorts of new TV shows and movies. And what did I do after being granted this modern entertainment bounty? Did I delve into the social media acclaimed presentations of such shows as STRANGER THINGS, WESTWORLD, or ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK?

Nope. I did the same thing I usually do--watch a bunch of TV shows made before I was even born.

I always like to say that when it comes to today's TV programs, my favorite is a reality show called "The Chicago White Sox"--and since that has 162 episodes a season, it takes up a lot of my time, and I can't get into too many other shows. The fact is that the style of most 21st Century TV shows doesn't work for me. I'm used to the classic TV style--where the plot of a show is dealt with completely in the allotted time format. Classic TV shows had recurring characters, and the overall situation was basically the same week after week--but whatever happened in an individual episode almost never carried over or was ever referred to again. You watched the show for either an hour or a half hour, and that was it.

For today's TV shows, there are no individual episodes--everything is connected, and story arcs go on over entire seasons. If you watch just one episode you'll wind up being confused. You can catch up on everything by binge watching--but that's something I don't have the patience or time for, especially as I get older. It's getting so watching two movies in a row is becoming my limit--there's no way I could spend five or six hours viewing the same show. I get fidgety just trying to watch a three hour sporting event. If you have a short time to kill you can easily be entertained by classic TV.

Another reason I don't watch much modern TV is that I am the least trendy person in the world. Describing something as "buzzworthy" doesn't pique my interest--if anything it drives me away. I'm still convinced that the main reason people watch the most trend-worthy shows is because they want to talk about them on the internet. It's as if the quality of the show is secondary to how much discussion it can raise online.

Being a movie buff I can't help but get into Retro TV due to the fact that so many classic actors show up in the episodes. I'll give you some examples of this that I have experienced recently.

On Saturday nights the THIS channel shows episodes of THE SAINT, the 1960s British TV program starring Roger Moore. This show is fun for someone like me because many performers associated with Hammer Films pop up in nearly every episode. Last night an episode called "The Convenient Monster" was screened. This one has Roger Moore's Simon Templar investigating mysterious deaths at Loch Ness in Scotland--you can probably guess the rest of the plot. One of the guest stars was the ultra-cute Suzan Farmer, who appeared in many English Gothics like DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS and DIE, MONSTER, DIE! Another guest star was an actress named Caroline Blakiston. She was the first person to portray Mon Mothma in RETURN OF THE JEDI. You wouldn't know that if you just went by her appearance in THE SAINT. In this episode she has long blonde hair, a smart wardrobe, and a bit of an attitude--I thought she was rather attractive. The fact that the future leader of the Rebel Alliance had it going on at one point is worthy enough of a blog post.

Caroline Blakiston in "The Convenient Monster" episode of THE SAINT

Recently the Encore Westerns channel has been showing the late 1950s TV series LAWMAN. I had never seen this one before. It stars John Russell as Marshal Dan Troop, who is based in Laramie, Wyoming after the Civil War. Russell's Troop is a no-nonsense fellow, and he has more of an edge to him than someone like Marshal Dillon in GUNSMOKE. If Doc Adams had tried to sit around and shoot the bull with Dan Troop, he'd get kicked out of the Marshal's office real quick. LAWMAN has a harder attitude than the typical TV Western during the same period. Not that long ago I saw an episode of LAWMAN that featured Adam West as Doc Holliday! One's first response would be that West was miscast, but I thought he did a good job. This was one of West's earliest appearances on television, and he must have been playing a younger version of the Western legend, since he wasn't hacking and coughing all the time as so many actors who play Holliday do. The very idea of Adam West playing Doc Holliday is far more intriguing to me than any present day TV star appearing on the recent cover of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY.

Of course not all classic TV is really "classic". Many of the shows that were once buzz-worthy themselves have not aged very well. MeTV has been showing CHARLIE'S ANGELS every afternoon. When I was a kid that show was huge--the various cast members were constantly being featured in PEOPLE magazine and numerous supermarket checkout tabloids (about the only literature my parents consistently read). If anything met the definition of "1978 clickbait", it was CHARLIE'S ANGELS.

When I look at the show now. it comes off as underwhelming. The Angels are certainly attractive, but it appears that most of the budget went to their wardrobe--a few of the episodes take place in essentially one set. For all of their supposed abilities as former cops the Angels spend more time getting into trouble than solving it. If you take away the gimmick of the three gorgeous ladies there's not all that much left to the show.

Which makes me wonder about all these gimmick-laden shows of today that people are badgering me to will they hold up years from now after the hype has died down?

Wednesday, August 15, 2018


Even the great cinematic fantasist Mario Bava made Euro Westerns. His first was the 1964 feature THE ROAD TO FORT ALAMO (also known as LA STRADA PER FORT ALAMO and ARIZONA BILL). This movie was made around the same time as Sergio Leone's groundbreaking A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, but that's the only thing the two productions have in common. THE ROAD TO FORT ALAMO attempts to be like a traditional American Western, but falls well short.

Ken Clark (one of the many American actors who made a living working in the Italian film industry in the 1960s) plays Bud Massey, a wandering cowpoke whose spread was destroyed by Yankee raiders in the Civil War. Bud comes across a group of U.S. cavalry soldiers who were slaughtered by Indians. One of the men has an official order to draw $150,000 from a nearby bank for army use. Bud takes the note and goes to the local town to inform the sheriff about it, but he and a fellow named Slim get kicked out town instead due to their protestations over a crooked card game. Slim happens to belong to a bandit gang, so Bud gets the idea to disguise the group as soldiers and "officially" claim the money. Things don't go as planned--the withdrawal turns into a robbery and Bud and Slim are betrayed by the rest of the gang. The duo wind up being found by a real cavalry patrol heading toward Fort Alamo, so they continue to pose as soldiers...but more Indians are preparing to attack the patrol, and Bud must decide whether to escape on his own or help the troop, which are accompanied by women & children.

Being that THE ROAD TO FORT ALAMO is an early example of the Spaghetti Western, it lacks many of the attributes associated with the genre. There's no quote-worthy snippets of dialogue, or cool memorable characters, or stylish and outlandish set pieces. The story does have many traditional Western cliches--there's a wise grizzled cavalry sergeant, an arrogant army captain who knows nothing of the frontier, and the idea that women & children will suffer "a fate worse than death" if they fall into the hands of Native Americans. These plot points make THE ROAD TO FORT ALAMO feel like a typical episode of a 1950-60s American TV Western instead of a feature film.

One would expect that a visual maestro such as Mario Bava would bring something extra to a tale like this, but he doesn't. Bava could handle action sequences in an impressive manner--movies like ERIK THE CONQUEROR and DANGER: DIABOLIK are proof of that. For whatever reason Bava just didn't seem suited to the Western. His usual directorial creativity and inventiveness are absent here. There are a few scenes that come close to being "Bavaesque"--a couple sequences set inside caves and some nighttime scenes obviously shot inside of a studio--but one would never guess on their own that Bava was the director of this film.

The cast doesn't really help out Bava either. Leading man Ken Clark certainly looks the part of a stalwart Western hero, but here he has almost no screen magnetism (the actor would fare much better playing a James Bond knockoff in several Eurospy movies). Actress Jany Clair makes the biggest impression as a young woman being taken to Fort Alamo on a murder charge who develops a relationship with Clark's character. The music score by Piero Umiliani is over-emphatic and intrusive.

THE ROAD TO FORT ALAMO isn't terrible, but there are plenty of other Spaghetti Westerns made by lesser directors that are far more exciting and interesting. I watched this movie on YouTube, and the video quality was not great, so maybe if I had seen a restored and remastered print of it I might have appreciated it more. Mario Bava went on to make two more Westerns--SAVAGE GRINGO (aka GUNMAN FROM NEBRASKA), a movie that according to historians Bava finished after it was started by another director, and the truly bizarre ROY COLT & WINCHESTER JACK.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Monster Kid Radio's Classic Five Core Deck Card Of The Month For August

This card poses an intriguing question. What would you choose as your preference between the 1922 silent German classic NOSFERATU and Universal's 1931 version of DRACULA?

In February of 2015 I wrote a blog post review of Gary Rhodes' book on the making of the '31 DRACULA, followed by a review of Universal's Spanish version of the film. I wrote that while the '31 DRACULA has a number of setbacks, it's not as disappointing as some make it out to be. The latest Blu-ray release of the '31 DRACULA makes the movie look and sound better than ever, and that certainly brings out the picture's strengths. The '31 DRACULA isn't a perfect adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel, but it is the first important sound horror film, and it was responsible for making Bela Lugosi a pop culture icon.

NOSFERATU. on the other hand, may be the greatest silent horror film of all time. It is inherently creepy, with Max Schreck's Count Orlock the one cinematic vampire that actually resembles a corpse. Schreck's Orlock is a malignant force of evil, a pestilential disease instead of a seductive aristocrat. Most silent films have a dreamlike unreality about them anyway, and NOSFERATU is a nightmarish fairy tale without a happy ending. F.W. Murnau's use of real locations throughout the tale gives NOSFERATU the feel of a dark docudrama--if there were vampiric occurrences during the 19th Century, you feel that this is how they would have happened.

Overall I feel that NOSFERATU is far more cinematic that the '31 DRACULA. The opening sequences of the Tod Browning DRACULA are quite atmospheric, and they are justly remembered as the best parts of the film. Once the Count gets to London, however, the screenplay starts to bog down and show its stage origins. It doesn't help that the rest of the film spends a lot of time on David Manners and Helen Chandler, who come off here as rather stiff.

In NOSFERATU the dread ambiance never lets up--the young married couple and the Van Helsing-like character are no match for the death and decay that follows Count Orlock wherever he goes. Of course Murnau and his producers had the advantage of not working for a Hollywood studio, and thus not being tied down by any mainstream conventions. The filmmakers behind NOSFERATU didn't even get permission from Bram Stoker's widow to even make the movie to begin with. Which begs the question--can it even be considered a true adaptation of the novel, or something different altogether? However you define it, NOSFERATU, to me, is a far better film than the '31 DRACULA.

Now, just because you pick one film over the other doesn't mean you can't appreciate both films. The '31 DRACULA gave the world landmark performances from Lugosi, Edward Van Sloan, and Dwight Frye. It has magnificent cinematography from Karl Freund, and the beginning sequence set in Transylvania is one of the true highlights of classic cinematic horror. If only more flair and imagination had been imparted in the middle parts of the film....

The 1922 version of NOSFERATU is filled with flair and imagination throughout, and Max Schreck's Count Orlock is the most horrid of all movie vampires. I've bought both the 1922 NOSFERATU and the 1931 DRACULA on home video several times, and I've seen both several more times. If I had to pick one to watch over again right now, I'd pick NOSFERATU.

Sunday, August 5, 2018


Every month a number of titles are added to the XfinityOnDemand free movies section. I always scan these new selections to see what sort of interesting (well, interesting to me at least) movies might pop up. This month I noticed a 1959 British feature called BOBBIKINS, which has several connections to Hammer Films. I had never seen it, and I doubt that too many other people around today have either. The film's plot revolves around a....talking baby. One of the tenets of this blog is that obscurity is the better part of valor, so I'll doubt you'll be surprised that I watched it and decided to write a blog post on it.

BOBBIKINS has British performer Max Bygraves as Ben Barnaby and the wonderful Shirley Jones as his American wife Betty. Ben has just returned from a tour of duty in the Royal Navy, and he's never even seen his 14-month old son, who is called Bobbkins. Ben and his wife were song and dance troupers when they met, and he is ready to get back in the business, when he finds out to his surprise and consternation that his son talks--and not just a few words either. The baby is able to carry on intelligent conversations, but only with his father. This leads to various complications and misunderstandings--Betty and her friend/live in maid (Billie Whitelaw) are convinced that Ben is mentally ill. Through a set of circumstances that can only happen in the movies, Bobbikins becomes friends with the Chancellor of the Exchequer (!), and due to this relationship, the baby overhears enough inside information to tell his father what stocks to buy in order to make a killing on the market. Ben is so successful he attracts the attention of a conniving stockbroker (Lionel Jeffries) and his sultry mistress Valerie (Barbara Shelley). The stockbroker has Valerie vamp Ben in order to get hot stock tips from him, leading to even more complications, such as Betty becoming jealous. Bobbikins winds up fixing things so that Ben gets out of the financial game and winds up performing with Betty again.

If you watch any British film made in the late 50s or early 60s, you're going to see plenty of actors who worked for Hammer Films. BOBBIKINS has several of them, and the best thing about the film is seeing them play "regular" characters. Along with the already mentioned Billie Whitelaw, Lionel Jeffries, and Barbara Shelley, there's Charles Tingwell, Rupert Davies, Charles Lloyd Pack, and even a cameo from none other than Michael Ripper. The movie was even directed by a Hammer veteran--Robert Day, who helmed the 1965 film version of SHE for the company.

Barbara Shelley and Max Bygraves

Out of all the Hammer vets, it's Barbara Shelley who makes the biggest impression. She has a small but showy role as the seductive Valerie. Shelley takes the role and runs with it--she seemed to be having a great time while almost purring all of her lines and sitting on a desk and showing off her legs. Many have called Shelley the best overall actress to work for Hammer and BOBBIKINS gave her a chance to show how versatile she could be.

If you take away all the Hammer connections there really isn't all that much else to appreciate about BOBBIKINS. The movie is very lighthearted entertainment, and it is very reminiscent of a 1960s TV sitcom. The problem is that while a TV sitcom episode lasts 30 minutes, BOBBIKINS runs about 90--and one gets the feeling that writer-producer Oscar Brodney didn't have many more ideas after coming up with a talking baby. Max Bygraves brings a lot of energy to the role of Ben--he reminded me of an English version of Dick Van Dyke. Like the typical classic TV sitcom husband, Ben is a bit dopey while his wife Betty is the more sensible of the duo. Shirley Jones as usual brings an attractive and likable screen presence to the role of Betty, but she really doesn't have all that much to do. Both Bygraves and Jones sing multiple innocuous songs which feel like they were included to pad the running time.

The talking baby sequences are handled in a desultory manner--we are shown shots of the baby moving its mouth while a voice sounding like that of a nine-year old boy's is dubbed in. (Some of the baby's moving mouth shots are repeated.) It is never explained why the boy is able to have conversations with his father, and only him. The end of the film is also like a sitcom episode, in that everything gets tied up rather neatly and no one seems to worry whether the kid will start talking again and cause more trouble.

I would recommend BOBBIKINS to Hammer fans in particular, just so they can see Barbara Shelley in a very different type of role. The movie is more cute & amusing than actually funny.

Friday, August 3, 2018

The Rule, Britannia Film Blogathon--THE GHOUL (1933)

I've participated in The British Invaders Blogathon during the last few years. It is now called The Rule, Britannia Film Blogathon, and my entry this year concerns one of the great all-time British film actors making his very first British film--at the age of 45.

In March 1933, Boris Karloff and his then-wife Dorothy left their home in California and journeyed all the way to England so the actor could star in a new film for Gaumont-British called THE GHOUL. Karloff had not been in his native England since he left it in 1909. In the years after, he had struggled to make a living in his chosen profession of actor, going through several odd jobs (and marriages) along the way. Karloff's fortuitous casting as the Monster in Universal's 1931 version of FRANKENSTEIN finally obtained the actor some hard-earned success. Karloff would follow up FRANKENSTEIN with such chillers as THE OLD DARK HOUSE, THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, and THE MUMMY. Gaumont-British wanted to jump on the horror film bandwagon, and they must have figured that securing the services of the new King of Terror was a major coup.

THE GHOUL features Boris Karloff as the mysterious Professor Morlant, an archeologist who is deathly ill. The bedridden Morlant demands of his timid servant (Ernest Thesiger) that he be buried with a priceless jewel called the Eternal Light bandaged around his hand. Morlant didn't just study ancient Egypt, he believed in its gods as well. Morlant is convinced that the Eternal Light will give him immortality.

Morlant passes away (supposedly) and he is buried, per his instructions, in a special tomb he has had constructed on the grounds of his estate. Morlant's two heirs, a nephew and a niece who are cousins, travel to Morlant's house, along with many other suspicious characters, all to find out what happened to the Eternal Light. Morlant does rise from his tomb (it is later revealed that the man suffered from catalepsy), and discovers that the jewel was not buried with him. In a rage, Morlant stalks the house, determined to find the jewel and throttling anyone who stands in his way.

Gaumont-British went out of their way to bring some dark atmosphere to THE GHOUL. Cinematographer Gunther Krampf, art director Alfred Junge, and special makeup artist Heinrich Heitfeld were all veterans of German silent cinema. The sets, the black & white photography, and the nighttime settings are the major highlights of the film. Heitfeld's makeup for Karloff is very striking, if somewhat puzzling. Karloff looks like a cross between Pruneface from the Dick Tracy comic strip and Lurch from "The Addams Family", and he has two large eyebrows which resemble fuzzy worms. The strange marks all over Karloff's face are never explained, and after his "death" his countenance looks even worse, even though he's only been entombed for a short time. Apparently the makers of the film must have felt that Karloff needed some sort of gruesome makeup, despite the fact that Morlant is not a supernatural character. (Something else that is not explained is why Morlant has superhuman strength after his "resurrection", even though he wasn't too far removed from being on his deathbed and barely able to move.)

Ernest Thesiger and Boris Karloff in THE GHOUL

Despite the slight storyline, four different writers were attached to the script of THE GHOUL. Karloff only appears in the film at the very beginning and near the end, and in between the story is filled with numerous characters searching for the Eternal Light. Among the performers portraying them are three of the greatest character actors in British history. Ernest Thesiger, as mentioned, plays Karloff's manservant, and it is he who is responsible for the theft of the jewel. Cedric Hardwicke is Karloff's lawyer, a severe fellow who seems to have stepped out of a Charles Dickens novel. Ralph Richardson makes his screen debut playing a overly pleasant parson who is not all that he seems. The three grand thespians bring a lot to their rather generic roles, but one wishes that it was Karloff who had more to do. Morlant's nephew and niece are played by Anthony Bushell and Dorothy Hyson, and they are about as disposable as the typical young romantic couple in most American early sound horror films.
The niece has a best friend who tags along, a spinster-like comic relief character played by Kathleen Harrison. Way too much time is spent on this woman's attempts at wooing a shady Arab, another person after the Eternal Light.

Poor Karloff isn't even around for the climax--that involves the young couple being trapped in the creepy tomb. Most people who see THE GHOUL for the first time are invariably disappointed--Karloff doesn't have a lot of screen time, there's no supernatural elements in the story, and despite audience expectations, Boris is by definition not the fiend referenced by the film's title. The movie does have some attributes--specifically the visual atmospherics, which director T. Hayes Hunter leans on heavily. You also certainly can't be too hard on a film which contains Karloff, Cedric Hardwicke, Ernest Thesiger, and Ralph Richardson in it.

British filmmakers were not too proficient in making horror films during the early 1930s--it wouldn't be until the late 1950s that the era of the English Gothic would reach full bloom. For all its faults THE GHOUL is still better than other Karloff pictures such as THE CLIMAX and THE BLACK CASTLE. The most important thing about THE GHOUL is that it enabled Karloff to return to his native country, and reacquaint himself with most of his many siblings. Karloff would go back to England several times during the rest of his life, to work and to live, and he always considered himself an Englishman. If one is interested in seeing THE GHOUL, the MGM DVD of it has superb visual quality.

*There was another British horror film called THE GHOUL, made in 1975 and starring Peter Cushing and Veronica Carlson. This movie has nothing in common with the 1933 THE GHOUL.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

TCM's Summer Under The Stars--Lionel Atwill

It is August, which means Summer Under The Stars month on Turner Classic Movies. Each day this month TCM will devote the entire 24 hour period to movies featuring a particular performer.

This year's Summer Under The Stars contains several of the usual suspects--Frank Sinatra, Katharine Hepburn, Clark Gable, etc. But there are a few welcome choices that go beyond the norm. This Friday, August 3, is set aside for one of my favorites, the great British character actor Lionel Atwill. Here is the full schedule (note that the times are listed in American Eastern Standard):


The first three films are very rare, and ones I've never seen (of course, I'll have to be at work). The movies at midday are ones in which Atwill doesn't get all that much to do. Things perk up in the afternoon with THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN. This film features what I believe is Atwill's best film performance as Captain Costelar, a man driven to rage and despair by the seductive and manipulative Concha (Marlene Dietrich). I watched this film that not long ago on the new Criterion Josef von Sternberg/Marlene Dietrich box set, and it looks outstanding in Blu-ray. The pirate adventure CAPTAIN BLOOD contains one of Atwill's most villainous roles as he faces off against Errol Flynn.

The best Atwill showcase is reserved for prime time. THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM is my favorite all-time Atwill role. THE SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM is a rare, if minor, Universal thriller, while DOCTOR X is a major highlight in Atwill's career--his very first horror film, and his very first screen pairing with Fay Wray.

If you can stay up late, both THE VAMPIRE BAT and MARK OF THE VAMPIRE are well worth seeing. And if this Friday doesn't give you enough Atwill, Saturday night has Svengoolie showing SON OF FRANKENSTEIN on MeTV.

Ironically, all of the Lionel Atwill films that will be shown on Friday by TCM were made in the 1930s--none of the actor's screen performances from the Forties are represented. The lineup should still satisfy any major Atwill fan, and for those not familiar with the man, it will serve as a fine introduction to the actor's work on the silver screen.