Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Thankful for Classic Movie Stars!

Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope you get to enjoy some classic movies along with your obligatory family time this week. I'm sure many of us will kick off the official start of the Christmas season on Friday with a holiday classic or two - at our house that's White Christmas (1954), even though it almost never snows where we live.

There aren't really a lot of Thanksgiving movies out there, but if we're forced to talk about things we're thankful for at those family gatherings, we can certainly list classic movies and their stars. Here's a Thanksgiving themed list of some of my favorite stars - I wonder which stars you'd pick for your own?

Tyrone Power
Henry Fonda
Alice Faye
Norma Shearer
Katharine Hepburn
Fred Astaire
Una Merkel
Laird Cregar

Friday, October 13, 2017

Classic Films in Focus: THE PENALTY (1920)

Part crime drama and part body horror, The Penalty (1920) helped to propel Lon Chaney to true stardom after seven years in the film business and a long roster of less memorable roles. The melodramatic adaptation of Gouverneur Morris' novel about an amputee crime lord gave Chaney the opportunity to demonstrate the lengths he would go to create a physically distinct character, but it also allowed him to show his skill at conveying that character's complex emotional experience. Nearly a century later, Chaney's performance still has the power to move and horrify his audience in equal measure, although some of the story's attitudes toward women, immigrants, and people with disabilities have not aged nearly as well.

Chaney plays a notorious San Francisco kingpin called Blizzard, who lost his legs as a young boy when a novice surgeon (Charles Clary) prematurely amputated them following a car accident. The malpractice was covered up by the doctors, but Blizzard has never forgotten the gross injury done to him. While he plots the ransack of San Francisco with his criminal gang, Blizzard watches for an opportunity to avenge himself on Dr. Ferris, who has since become a well-respected surgeon. He finds his chance when the doctor's artistic daughter, Barbara (Claire Adams), advertises for a model for her sculpture of Satan after the Fall. Meanwhile, Blizzard himself is the target of the secret service, which sends the intrepid agent, Rose (Ethel Grey Terry), undercover into Blizzard's lair.

Chaney has a particular genius for making tragic figures of his most monstrous men, and Blizzard is a terrific example of the actor's ability to make us feel pity and even sympathy for someone sunk so low in the worst of human emotions. Of course we stare at Chaney's tortured body and wonder how he manages the physical feat of playing a legless man, but his face tells us even more about Blizzard's self-loathing and his longing for something beautiful and good in his life. He can look like the devil incarnate, but he can also recall to us the innocent boy whose life was ruined by a foolish doctor's haste. He has his best scenes with the film's two female characters, both of whom respond to the buried humanity that they sense within him. Rose even falls in love with him, though she knows perfectly well the long list of crimes he has committed. If the final explanation for Blizzard's crimes seems far-fetched, it does at least give Chaney another facet of the character to portray, showing that he can be credible as good men as well as monsters.

Blizzard is made more sympathetic by the frankly obnoxious men who are meant to be the "good guys" of the piece, namely Dr. Ferris and his assistant, Wilmot (Kenneth Harlan), both of whom treat Barbara's artistic efforts as a pointless waste of time. Blizzard might be using Barbara for his own insidious ends, but at least he takes her seriously as an artist. Ferris and Wilmot both dislike Blizzard primarily for being "crippled" and "deformed," even though it was Ferris himself who wrecked Blizzard's body by being an incompetent fool. While the film provides some pushback against the sexism and ableism embodied by the doctors, it never confronts its anti-immigrant, Red Scare depiction of Blizzard's army of anarchist "foreign workers" who intend to loot San Francisco. The scheme does, at least, explain Blizzard's decision to pull his "dancing girls" off the streets and put them to work making hundreds of straw hats, which the anarchists will wear as a sort of uniform when they rise up to ransack the city.

Despite these dated attitudes, The Penalty succeeds as a gripping silent drama with a strong flavor of the horrific thanks to Chaney's powerful performance. Anyone interested in the "man of a thousand faces" will find this picture worthwhile, especially if you've already seen later films like The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Unholy Three (1925), and The Unknown (1927). Director Wallace Worsley worked with Chaney again on several movies, including The Ace of Hearts (1921), A Blind Bargain (1922), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). For contrast in terms of Chaney's depiction of a character with extreme leg problems, try West of Zanzibar (1928).

If you want to read more about The Penalty, check out this thorough discussion of the film at Movies Silently (warning - includes spoilers). The Penalty is currently available for streaming on the horror service Shudder.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Classic Films in Focus: NIGHT TIDE (1961)

Written and directed by Curtis Harrington, Night Tide (1961) offers a moody atmosphere and a very young Dennis Hopper as its main attractions, along with a tragic story about a girl who believes she might be a supernatural temptress from the deep. Its low budget production and ambiguous monster might not thrill everyone, but fans of Val Lewton's work will find a lot to appreciate here. Night Tide relies on doubt and suggestion for its creeping sense of unease, as viewers struggle to learn the truth about the beautiful girl alongside Hopper's infatuated protagonist. If you like Cat People (1942) or even cult favorites like Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls (1962), Night Tide is worth tracking down.

Hopper plays young Navy sailor Johnny, who wanders onto the Santa Monica Pier lonely and looking for love. He finds an opportunity with Mora (Linda Lawson), a beautiful but mysterious girl who plays a mermaid in one of the pier's sideshows. Soon Johnny learns unnerving tidbits about Mora, including the drowning deaths of her last two boyfriends. Her guardian, Captain Murdock (Gavin Muir), also warns Johnny about Mora, and even Mora herself seems to believe that she poses a danger to her lovers. Johnny isn't sure if more mundane perils dog Mora or if she might really be a deadly siren born to lure men to a watery grave.

The amusement pier is an effective setting for a story of strange, doubtful fear; Johnny drifts through the arcades and attractions like a soul caught in a gaudy, slipshod Purgatory, where nothing seems entirely real. He visits a fortune teller, strikes up a friendship with the owners of the carousel, and watches Mora in her aquarium, where she lies underwater in a mermaid costume and brushes her long, dark hair. A mysterious older woman turns up now and again to frighten Mora, but when Johnny tries to follow her she vanishes. Nothing very horrifying happens at the pier. The events are merely uncanny, but they nurture Johnny's nagging uncertainty about his love. The most overtly frightening moment is Johnny's nightmare near the end of the movie, when it's clear that his subconscious has absorbed more of the situation than his rational mind will admit.

If you grew up watching older, rougher versions of Dennis Hopper, it's a shock to see him so smooth-faced and boyish here. He had been working as an actor since 1954, but in Night Tide his character is strikingly innocent and inexperienced; he arrives in Santa Monica almost an infant, having recently lost his mother and hoping to see the world. He latches onto Mora without knowing anything about her, a dangerous course in a liminal space like the pier, situated as it is between land and sea, terra firma and the fantastic. Linda Lawson is fittingly bewitching as Mora, who pities Johnny, loves him even, but also fears that she might bring about his doom. She has a foil in Luana Anders' tomboyish Ellen, who pines after Johnny but knows she can't compete with the mermaid's charms. The love triangle adds an extra wrinkle to the tale, since Johnny can't even see the appeal of ordinary Ellen when he only has eyes for the mythical Mora. Whether her powers are real or not, Mora functions as a siren in the way she mesmerizes the men in her life, including Captain Murdock, whose feelings for her are not exactly paternal in spite of having raised her since he found her as a child. The conclusion confirms that the danger is real, even if the mermaid is not.

Curtis Harrington went on to write and direct Queen of Blood (1966), another cult horror classic; he also directed What's the Matter with Helen? (1971) and The Killing Kind (1973). For more of Dennis Hopper's early work, see Giant (1956), Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), and The Sons of Katie Elder (1965); he also turns up in Queen of Blood. Linda Lawson worked mostly in television, but you can see her with Audie Murphy in Apache Rifles (1964). Luana Anders made more contributions to the horror genre with Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and Dementia 13 (1963), but she also appears with Hopper in Easy Rider (1969) and returns to work with Harrington in The Killing Kind.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Classic Films in Focus: KINGS ROW (1942)

Mixed reviews are often the hardest ones to write, and I have mixed feelings about Kings Row (1942), the Sam Wood drama adapted from the controversial novel by Henry Bellamann. I think, ultimately, the film is useful as an example of the ways the Hays Code could undermine the purpose of an artistic work in its relentless censorship of any really serious engagement of complicated issues, especially those involving sex. The original novel was an explosive bestseller, while the adaptation is far more conventional and even banal. It's hard to watch Kings Row and not notice the gaps and missteps where material had to be cut out or heavily revised in order to appease the puritanical Joseph Breen, but the film still has some very fine performances, especially from one of my favorite supporting actresses, the diminutive Maria Ouspenskaya.

In the film, Robert Cummings plays the protagonist, Parris Mitchell, who grows up in turn-of-the-century Kings Row, a sort of Everytown, USA. Parris has a privileged childhood despite being orphaned, and his best friend, Drake (Ronald Reagan), enjoys similar wealth and ease. Parris suffers a doomed romance with a fragile girl named Cassie (Betty Field), whose father, Dr. Tower (Claude Rains), serves as a mentor to the aspiring physician. Drake, meanwhile, draws the ire of his sweetheart's parents with his wild ways and ultimately settles down with Randy (Ann Sheridan), a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, but his luck takes a turn for the tragic. When a vengeful action threatens to destroy Drake, Parris and Randy work together to restore his will to live.

The movie garnered three Oscar nominations, with nods for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography, and James Wong Howe certainly does make the most of the sets and faces on offer. The film also features a plethora of fine performers in supporting roles, including Charles Coburn, Judith Anderson, Henry Davenport, Claude Rains, and the always terrific Ouspenskaya, whose small stature never prevents her from totally dominating a scene. Cummings, Sheridan, and Reagan get the most screen time as the adult versions of the three main characters, whose friendship sustains them through the lowest points in their lives. Sheridan manages to make Randy appealing in spite of the weird tightrope she has to walk about what kind of girl Randy is and the blatantly sexist drivel she has to spout to soothe Drake's wounded self-esteem. Cummings is good looking but not terribly exciting as Parris, while Reagan gets the role of his career as the once carefree victim of Fate's turning wheel.

However, the changes that the Hays office demanded rob Kings Row of most of its purpose as a scathing commentary about the dark side of small town American life. The opening sign extolling the town's virtues should be read ironically, but instead the film bears it out as truth. We never really get the sense that Kings Row is a bad place at all; there's one sadistic doctor with very limited screen time and one crooked banker, but most of the other negative elements have been swept under the rug. The most glaring changes involve the Tower family; the movie makes Cassie a hysterical, mentally disturbed girl whose father is a paragon of paternal concern... for Parris, not his own child. With Drake's initial girlfriend, Louise (Nancy Coleman), also dissolving into hysteria and incipient madness later in the film, Kings Row seems to suggest that what's really wrong with small town America is just a bunch of overwrought girls, not the secret and villainous actions of their powerful, authoritarian fathers. Parris, who is supposed to be a caring psychiatrist, even goes so far as to consider having Louise committed to an asylum to shut her up although he knows perfectly well that she is telling the truth. He only reconsiders because it turns out not to be necessary to protect Drake, whose mental health means more to him than Louise's life. That sexist attitude makes Parris less sympathetic as a character, for it shows how easily he can become just a new generation of the same old attitudes embodied by Dr. Gordon and Dr. Tower.

Director Sam Wood earned two other Oscar nominations in addition to Kings Row, the others being for Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) and Kitty Foyle (1940). See more of Ann Sheridan in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), They Drive by Night (1940), and Nora Prentiss (1947). Robert Cummings stars in Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder (1954), while Ronald Reagan has his other most memorable dramatic roles in Dark Victory (1939) and Knute Rockne, All American (1940). If, like me, you just can't get enough of Maria Ouspenskaya, see her in Dodsworth (1936) and Love Affair (1939), both of which earned her nominations for Best Supporting Actress, and don't miss her best remembered performance in The Wolf Man (1941).

You can read a little more about the background of the Kings Row novel and film here.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Nominations for the 2017 National Film Registry

A classic movie friend let me know that we still have a few days left to make nominations to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry for the 2017 year. You can make nominations until September 15, 2017, so if you want to contribute to this year's list you should head on over to the website this week.

The National Film Registry's 2016 additions included Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), Ball of Fire (1941), and The Birds (1963), along with lots of more recent movies like The Princess Bride (1987) and The Lion King (1994). Even though the registry grows each year, my fellow old movie fans will be amazed at some of the classics that haven't yet made the cut; the Library of Congress has a handy list so that people can easily see which of their favorites needs to be nominated. Each person can nominate up to fifty movies on the site's online form; you just need the title and the release year.

I sat down and used the site's list to come up with 50 films that I think should be included in the National Film Registry. Here are the movies I nominated; I hope you'll make time to nominate some, as well! Feel free to share your nomination list in the comments section or shoot me a link if you post your list on your own blog.

Virtual Virago's 50 Nominations to the National Film Registry for 2017
(links go to full reviews of the films on this blog)

The Unholy Three (1925)
The Unknown (1927)
The Man Who Laughs (1928)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Night Nurse (1931)
The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
The Mummy (1932)
Dinner at Eight (1933)
Of Human Bondage (1934)
The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
Captains Courageous (1937)
Stella Dallas (1937)
Wee Willie Winkie (1937)
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
Pygmalion (1938)
You Can't Take It with You (1938)
Dark Victory (1939)
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
The Letter (1940)
They Drive by Night (1940)
Dumbo (1941)
High Sierra (1941)
The Black Swan (1942)
I Married a Witch (1942)
The Palm Beach Story (1942)
This Gun for Hire (1942)
Heaven Can Wait (1943)
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
Curse of the Cat People (1944)
Gaslight (1944)
Jane Eyre (1944)
Lifeboat (1944)
To Have and Have Not (1944)
The Uninvited (1944)
The Body Snatcher (1945)
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Scarlet Street (1945)
Dragonwyck (1946)
The Spiral Staircase (1946)
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
Nightmare Alley (1947)
Easter Parade (1948)
Fort Apache (1948)
The Lady from Shanghai (1948)
Westward the Women (1951)
On Dangerous Ground (1952)
Pickup on South Street (1953)
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Everyone's picks will reflect personal tastes and passions; mine skew toward the genres of film noir and classic horror with favorite actors like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Gene Tierney also getting a lot of attention. Of course I'm going to pick Val Lewton whenever possible, which explains the three Lewton pictures - and I didn't even add Lewton films that aren't already on the Library's list, like Bedlam (1946). Even though I only paid lip service to the silent era (for which I feel terrible), I still ran out of slots by the time I reached the early 1950s, and I had to go back and remove a few choices to squeeze in a couple of favorites there at the end. If nothing else, putting together a nomination list will tell you who and what you value most when it comes to classic movies.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Classic Films in Focus: THE WOMAN IN WHITE (1948)

The 1948 adaptation of Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White features some notable character performances and plenty of Gothic mystery, but it isn't an ideal picture or a very faithful treatment of its source material. Its appeal depends mainly on its sinister figures, particularly the always memorable Sydney Greenstreet as Count Fosco, but its leads are less interesting, and they get the majority of the screen time. Classic film fans will find the movie worth watching for Greenstreet, Agnes Moorehead, and John Abbott, but devotees of the original novel will find the changes problematic, especially where the romantic plot is concerned.

Gig Young plays the painter Walter Hartright, who gets drawn into intrigue when he becomes a drawing master to pretty heiress Laura Fairlie (Eleanor Parker) at Limmeridge House. Walter falls for Laura but is warned of her engagement to Sir Percival Glyde (John Emery) by Laura's cousin, Marian (Alexis Smith). When Walter accuses Sir Percival and Count Fosco (Sydney Greenstreet) of a diabolical plot involving a mad girl who strongly resembles Laura, Marian tells him to leave, but both Laura and Marian soon discover that Walter's suspicions were correct. Reunited some months later, Walter and Marian realize that Laura's double has died and been buried as Laura herself; together, they set out to rescue Laura from an asylum and restore her true identity.

The most appealing of the novel's sympathetic characters is Marian Halcombe, and the film recognizes this fact even as it rewrites much of her role. Alexis Smith gives a fine performance as the intelligent, capable Marian, who serves as a foil to the delicate and rather insipid Laura. Eleanor Parker is actually more interesting as mad Ann, Laura's double, than she is as Laura herself, and sadly that's a fault that the film keeps from the original text, in which Laura is a demure Victorian angel made damsel in distress. Both actresses give better performances than poor Gig Young, whose Walter seems very stiff for a lover who can't decide which girl he likes. Walter's role in the novel as de facto detective doesn't really carry over into the movie, and this leaves Young with little to do but strike poses and lock eyes with both of his leading ladies.

The action depends much more on the heavies, especially Greenstreet's Count Fosco as the prime mover of the plot. Greenstreet has just the combination of charm and menace, as well as the impressive girth, that make Fosco so fascinating as a literary villain, and if you like Greenstreet in other films you'll enjoy his performance here. John Emery's Sir Percival is just a thug in comparison, always eager to jump into murder, while John Abbott is delightfully awful and ineffectual as Laura's hypochondriac Uncle Frederick. Only Agnes Moorehead enjoys any ambiguity about her character's intentions; her Countess Fosco is an odd, repressed figure who has her own reasons for hating Fosco and pitying the plight of poor Ann. Fans of the actress will be sorry that she doesn't have more scenes, but she gets quite a moment in the film's climax as compensation.

The problems with The Woman in White might lie more with Stephen Morehouse Avery's screenplay than Peter Godfrey's direction or any actor's performance, but flaws it definitely has, although some of them are only apparent to those familiar with Collins' source material. Godfrey's best film, Christmas in Connecticut (1945), also stars Greenstreet, but most people remember the rotund actor most for his appearances in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). You can see Alexis Smith play nasty in Godfrey's 1947 picture, The Two Mrs. Carrolls. Eleanor Parker went on to earn three Best Actress nominations for her roles in Caged (1950), Detective Story (1951), and Interrupted Melody (1955). Gig Young gets more to do in The Three Musketeers (1948), Torch Song (1953), and Desk Set (1957), and he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969).

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Classic Films in Focus: WEST OF ZANZIBAR (1928)

Tod Browning's silent 1928 story of revenge in the African Congo provides a challenge to modern viewers, given that it relies on hyper-racist stereotypes and deeply rooted misogyny for much of its horror, but if you're looking for something truly horrifying then West of Zanzibar (1928) certainly fits the bill. It packs an astounding amount of perverse cruelty into 65 minutes of film, most of it perpetuated by Lon Chaney as a paralyzed villain on a vendetta against his romantic rival and the child who symbolizes his betrayal. Lionel Barrymore and Warner Baxter also have prominent roles, although Mary Nolan takes most of the abuse as the young woman persecuted by Chaney's monstrous vengeance. Chaney is, as always, mesmerizing in a dark and complicated role, but be warned that this film is no stroll in the park.

Chaney plays the magician Phroso, who loses the use of his legs in a fight with Crane (Barrymore), the man who is stealing his wife. Later the wife turns up again with a baby in tow and promptly dies. Over his wife's corpse, Phroso swears vengeance on Crane and his child, thus embarking on an eighteen year mission to ruin Crane, debauch his daughter, and murder them both by invoking the ritual sacrifice performed by a tribe of African cannibals. Phroso makes himself a voodoo master in the remote African camp by using his magician's tricks, but his relentless desire for revenge blinds him to a painful truth until it is almost too late to change.

Chaney's performance is the highlight here. He begins as a sympathetic victim, a good man buffeted by unkind fate. His world crumbles when his beloved wife abandons him and her suitor cripples him, but these events alone do not change him. He only chooses evil over good in the church where he finds his wife's body, with the helpless infant crying nearby. The scene swells with terrible irony; Phroso looks on the Virgin and Child, and instead of pity for his wife's daughter chooses hate. From then on he embraces cruelty, sending the girl to be raised in a Zanzibar brothel while he cheats Crane of his ivory haul. Chaney plays Phroso as tragic, then monstrous, with slight hints of the vestiges of his humanity peeking through from time to time just to remind us of what he once was. His dead legs provide a physical parallel to his withered soul, and Chaney is, of course, brilliant in the way he manages to convey both the bodily and the spiritual wreckage.

Everyone else mainly reacts to Chaney, and the emotions called for are horror, disgust, fear, and loathing. In his own way, Lionel Barrymore's Crane is just as much a monster as Phroso, wreaking havoc and creating misery without ever worrying about the consequences of his actions. He laughs at Phroso's folly because he feels no pity for its victims. Mary Nolan, as Maizie, is chief among these; her tragic eyes and body language suggest so much more about her suffering than the title cards can convey. Warner Baxter plays a good man mired in Hell as Doc, but Maizie's arrival stirs his numbed conscience, and the pair eventually gather the courage to defy Phroso. These two characters get more nuanced development in the 1932 version of the story, Kongo, which fleshes out the doctor's narrative and their budding romance. The superstitious natives also react to Phroso, but they're so hideously stereotyped that they remove the viewer from the moment, and it's hard to blame the actors playing them for being unenthusiastic about selling their roles.

If nothing else, West of Zanzibar proves (yet again) that silent horror is by no means tame; Browning pushes buttons and tests limits in ways that no horror director of the 40s or 50s could. It suffers from the usual limitations of its era, especially where racist, colonialist attitudes are concerned, and it exploits the sexual degradation of its main female character in deeply uncomfortable ways. It might be preferable to start with other Chaney films if you aren't already well versed in his work or silent movies in general; try The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Unholy Three (1925), or The Unknown (1927). For some of Browning's more controversial work, see Freaks (1932), or try his very weird collaboration with star Lionel Barrymore in The Devil-Doll (1932), in which Barrymore plays the man obsessed with revenge. Browning and Barrymore also team up for The Show (1927). For a different look at Warner Baxter, try The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936).