Sunday, December 29, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: HONOLULU (1939)

Comedies about mistaken or switched identity go all the way back to the Ancient Romans and the Menaechmus brothers, but the most familiar iteration of the plot might be Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, which has been adapted, revised, and parodied so many times that even Barbie and Mickey Mouse have had a go at it. The 1939 musical comedy, Honolulu, clearly draws from this much-visited well of inspiration, although in this case neither of the identical strangers could be considered a pauper, since one is a movie star and the other owns a Hawaiian pineapple plantation. Honolulu doesn't break any new cinematic ground, especially in its dated racial stereotypes, and its plot is feather light, but it's as frothy a concoction as any sweet tropical treat, and fun performances from Robert Young, Eleanor Powell, and Gracie Allen make it well worth the short time it takes to watch.

Robert Young plays movie idol Brooks Mason and plantation owner George Smith, who exchange places so that Mason can relax in Hawaii while Smith gets some cosmopolitan polish in New York. On the boat over to the islands, Mason meets dancer Dorothy (Eleanor Powell) and courts her as George Smith, only to find his romantic plans complicated by Smith's off-and-on fiancee, Cecelia (Rita Johnson). Chaos ensues, especially as "Brooks Mason" is repeatedly mobbed by fans and "George Smith" is jailed for theft, but the biggest challenge is getting both men paired up with the right partners before the wrong George says "I do" to Cecelia at the altar.

Robert Young has the most to do in the picture, since he plays not one but two protagonists, but Eleanor Powell gets top billing, and her dance numbers are really the movie's chief attraction. The Hawaiian hula sequence, which is the most famous bit, is really a terrific performance by Powell, and her duet with Gracie Allen, who plays her sidekick, Millie, is also great fun. Powell's tribute to Bill Robinson, done in blackface, proves more troublesome for the modern viewer, but it makes an interesting counterpoint to Fred Astaire's similar performance of "Bojangles of Harlem" in Swing Time (1936). In between Powell's dance routines, Robert Young provides comedy and some semblance of a romantic plot, although the best doppelganger gags occur early in the film.

You won't get much Hawaiian atmosphere from the sound stage sets, but Honolulu makes up for its phony backdrops with a chance to see Burns and Allen on the big screen. The comedy duo made quite a few shorts and a couple of features together throughout the 1930s, but Honolulu would be the last movie to star both of them, and we have to wait until the very end to see them actually in a shot together. Allen has a lot more screen time than her wisecracking spouse, and she's a riot, especially during a shipboard sequence when a costume party inspires her to dress up as Mae West and perform "The Leader Doesn't Like Music" with The King's Men dressed as The Marx Brothers.

Eddie Anderson and Willie Fung both get relegated to their usual comic relief roles as stereotyped domestics, but at least the movie credits both actors for their work. Don't miss Sig Ruman and Ruth Hussey in small roles; Hussey plays the leading lady in the movie scene that opens the picture. Director Edward Buzzell also made Marx Brothers films like Go West (1940) and Esther Williams vehicles like Neptune's Daughter (1949). See more of Eleanor Powell in Born to Dance (1936), Lady Be Good (1941), and Ship Ahoy (1942). Robert Young also stars in The Canterville Ghost (1944), The Enchanted Cottage (1945), and Crossfire (1947).

You can find Honolulu and several other Eleanor Powell movies currently streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE (1947)

Most holiday movie viewers are familiar with a handful of classic pictures that get a lot of airing this time of year, especially It's a Wonderful Life (1946), but there are actually quite a few seasonally appropriate movies that attract admiration from serious fans. It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947) is not as celebrated as other Christmas classics, but it's a favorite with the classic movie crowd nonetheless, largely because of its lighter take on the well-worn holiday themes of generosity, reformation, and hope. This domestic comedy about a hobo who changes the lives of everyone around him also offers viewers some great performances from lesser known stars, particularly Victor Moore and Charles Ruggles, as well as a chance to see a young Alan Hale, Jr. before his Gilligan's Island days.

Victor Moore stars as Aloysius T. McKeever, a homeless man who moves into a business tycoon's New York mansion when the owner vacates the premises for the winter. Generosity inspires him to invite the newly evicted Jim (Don DeFore) to join him in the house, but both men are surprised when the owner's daughter, Trudy (Gale Storm), turns up, although Trudy adopts a false identity in order to convince them to take her in. Soon the house gains several other occupants, much to McKeever's consternation, while Trudy's father, Mike (Charles Ruggles), and mother, Mary (Ann Harding), also move in under assumed identities at Trudy's insistence.

The action takes place in the last several weeks of the year, with Christmas playing a large part in the story, but really you could watch the movie at any time. The message, however, takes on a particular resonance during the holidays, when the parallels to A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life become clearer. McKeever, a strange angel indeed, is an agent of redemption and renewal who works his peculiar magic on Mike, Mary, Trudy, and Jim, helping each to gain a new perspective and attain the things that really matter in life. Jim, whom we meet early on, has a George Bailey quality about him; he's full of plans and frustrations, but he needs some intervention - divine or otherwise - to set him on the right path up from his low point. Mike is our Scrooge, a rich man who has lost sight of himself and his family in pursuit of more and more money. Divorced from his wife and somewhat estranged from his daughter, Mike has created a lot of unhappiness in the people around him, but he ends up eating a pretty big slice of humble pie during his incognito residence in his own home.

Most classic movie fans will recognize Victor Moore from his supporting role as Fred Astaire's sidekick in Swing Time (1936), and It Happened on 5th Avenue really puts him in the spotlight. He reflects all the facets of his character's complex personality, and like most great clowns he is both funny and deeply sad. Don DeFore and Charles Ruggles both play it more or less straight against Moore, but Ruggles also has a plum role that lets him explore different moods and emotions. Of the lot, Ruggles has the most dynamic character to play, and his best scenes are those with Ann Harding. The rekindled romance between the older O'Connors has more depth to it than the love affair blooming between the younger couple, and once Trudy's mother shows up much of our attention shifts to Mike and Mary. It's a treat, though, to see Alan Hale, Jr. in a supporting role as one of Jim's wartime pals, even if he doesn't have that much to do.

It Happened on 5th Avenue earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Story, but without big name stars or constant television airings it has never become a really well-known holiday classic. That makes it a great choice for anyone looking to get beyond the usual menu of holiday fare before the season officially ends, and it would be an excellent New Year entertainment if your plans involve a comfy spot on the couch. See more of silent film veteran Victor Moore in Gold Diggers of 1937 (1937), Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), and Ziegfeld Follies (1945). Look for Charles Ruggles, often credited as Charlie, in Trouble in Paradise (1932), Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), and Bringing Up Baby (1938). Don DeFore stars in Romance on the High Seas (1948), while Ann Harding appears opposite Leslie Howard in The Animal Kingdom (1932). Director Roy Del Ruth made the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon and other pre-Code pictures like Blonde Crazy (1931) and Lady Killer (1933) before moving on to comedies and musicals like Du Barry Was a Lady (1943).

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas from Virtual Virago!

Merry Christmas, Season's Greetings, and Happy Holidays to everyone who takes the time to visit here at Virtual Virago! Hope your holiday is filled with good friends and classic movies. May 2014 be a great year for all film buffs, book lovers, and LEGO fans!

Whether you're watching It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, White Christmas, Die Hard, or Scrooged, Christmas is a great time to remember all that the movies do to enrich our lives. It's a genuine pleasure to be part of a community of people who love and appreciate film, not just the classics but all movies. You make the internet a better, nicer, and more knowledgeable place.

I'm looking forward to sharing another year of movies with all of you!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Christmas Movie Blogathon: THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL (1992)

This post is part of the Christmas Movie Blogathon hosted by Family Friendly Reviews. Check out the links for all of the related posts!

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol has been adapted for the big screen many times, and almost all versions have their merits, but as both a former English Literature professor and a Muppet scholar I have to admit that The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) is far and away my favorite take on the classic holiday tale. Despite its alterations for the sake of its furry, feathery, and felt-made cast, The Muppet Christmas Carol is surprisingly faithful to the spirit of the original text, and it goes one better than many more traditional adaptations with its inclusion of a Dickensian narrator and its representation of the three Christmas Ghosts.

Michael Caine takes the lead role as Scrooge, playing a rather demented and imposing version of the old miser, while the Muppets fill most of the supporting roles. Kermit the Frog plays long-suffering Bob Cratchit, with Miss Piggy as his loyal if temperamental spouse, and Fozzie Bear appears as Fozziewig, Scrooge's generous old employer. Statler and Waldorf split the Marley role into a duo (Jacob and Bob), and other familiar Muppet characters make appearances throughout the picture. The Great Gonzo lives up to his name as Charles Dickens, who narrates the story with the help of Rizzo the Rat. The collected cast of human and Muppet players goes through a more or less familiar version of the story, with songs and comedy added to bring the text in line with the usual Muppet style.

Several elements of this version stand out. First, Gonzo's performance as Charles Dickens is one of his best roles, combining the wry narratorial voice of the original story with the Muppet's inherent weirdness for a startlingly funny but effective commentary on the action as it unfolds. "I know this story like the back of my hand," Gonzo boasts to Rizzo. When pressed to prove it, he then covers his eyes and begins to describe his hand instead of telling the story. Rizzo is, as always, a hilarious sidekick to the blue daredevil; Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire had already perfected their comic chemistry with the two characters by the time this film was made, and their dialogue together makes for the movie's most quotable lines. More importantly, Gonzo's presence returns to the story something that is missing in most adaptations. We get back lines like, "He was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge!" and "Darkness was cheap, and Scrooge liked it." Dickens' narrator is a crucial part of the story's humor and appeal, but most versions lose him in the dramatic revision.

The Ghosts are another outstanding element of the Muppet adaptation. Specially created for the film, the Ghosts are strikingly faithful to Dickens' descriptions of them, especially the luminous Ghost of Christmas Past, who floats hauntingly thanks to a special shooting technique that involved the puppet being filmed in a tank of oil. The Ghost of Christmas Present lacks Ignorance and Want hidden beneath his robes, but his forgetful good humor and size make him a delightful presence, combining elements of both Father Christmas and Christ. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is so scary that Gonzo and Rizzo abandon the picture until the finale, but the film's creators make the right call by keeping the gravitas and foreboding of those scenes. Taken together, the Ghosts are not only marvels of puppetry innovation but also compelling realizations of Dickens' figures, more spectral and miraculous than human actors because the medium liberates them from mortal constraints.

Like many family friendly adaptations of the story, The Muppet Christmas Carol does shift the focus of Dickens' text by casting its primary figure, Kermit, as Bob Cratchit. This encourages us to see ourselves in Bob and to see him as the story's central figure (the Mickey Mouse version does the same thing). Michael Caine, however, does such a terrific job as Scrooge that we never lose him among the Muppets, and that helps us to keep our attention where it's supposed to be. Dickens never wanted us to see ourselves as Bob Cratchit; his story depends on us understanding that we are Scrooge, selfish and querulous even in the face of our own salvation. Caine revels in Scrooge's meanest lines, but he also conveys nostalgia, regret, and tenderness in the character, all emotions that have to exist within him already in order to be called forth by the Ghosts' visitations. Bob is an object to rouse Scrooge's dormant pity, but A Christmas Carol isn't his story; he has no dynamic narrative arc to pursue. For contrast, you might watch Kermit taking on the George Bailey role in It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie (2002), which revises It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and prefigures the plot of The Muppets (2011) in quite a few ways.

For more literary Muppetry, you might try Muppet Treasure Island (1996), which features Tim Curry as Long John Silver. Brian Henson, who directed both adaptations, is of course the son of Muppets creator Jim Henson, who died in 1990. The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first feature made after his death, which gives it a certain bittersweet quality for lifelong Muppet fans. Head back to The Muppet Movie (1977) for the first big-screen Muppet adventure, or flash forward to The Muppets (2011) to see what Disney is doing with the characters now. Muppets Most Wanted, the newest Muppet movie, is due out in 2014.

Can't get enough Muppet-inspired criticism and commentary? I really am something of an expert on the subject. Check out Kermit Culture: Critical Perspectives on Jim Henson's Muppets and The Wider Worlds of Jim Henson. Both books were published by McFarland and are available in paperback and Kindle editions on Amazon. If movie reviews are more your thing, try Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching, which is also in both paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Disney Report - December 2013

Depending on how you feel about Disney, Walt Disney World might be considered a gold mine for classic movie fans, since it contains rides, tributes, and swag devoted to films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. Disney films are probably the only classic movies some people ever see, and plenty of children get their first experience with  "old movies" in front of a TV where some grand old Disney classic is playing.

I'm a lifelong Disney fan, and this month we made another trek to the Land of the Magnificent Mouse to spend a week mugging with characters and flying around on Dumbo. We head to Orlando every two or three years, which is enough time for there to be something new every trip. Here's a rundown of the recent additions we encountered on our December 2013 trip.

New Fantasyland - Sure, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid are too recent to be classics in the strictest sense, but it has been 22 years since Belle fell for her hairy prince, and 24 years have passed since Ariel wished for those feet! The new section of Fantasyland celebrates the Disney renaissance of the 1990s with some gorgeous new attractions. Ariel has a high-tech ride with some very spiffy animatronics, and Belle has an elaborate meet-and-greet that features some eye-popping technology. Be Our Guest takes the Disney restaurant experience to a whole new level, and the food is pretty darn good, too. Overall, the new section is a great addition to Fantasyland and shows how much progress Disney has made in improving its experiences, even if the recently rolled out Magic Bands are creating some problems throughout the park (we didn't use them, so I can't really speak to that aspect of the park experience).

Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom - Disney has introduced interactive games in several parks to keep folks busy while they wait for their Fastpass times on rides, and SotMK seems to be the big hit of the bunch. You can get free packs of starter cards and then use them to battle Disney villains throughout the Magic Kingdom; the technology and theming for these encounters are top-notch, with Disney using otherwise dead space in some very creative ways. If you get hooked, you can buy booster packs of cards in the park or online at the Disney Store. Judging from the huge binders of cards folks were toting around, this game really has a addictive appeal for card-collecting types. There's also a home game you can play with the cards when you aren't tooling around the Magic Kingdom.

Test Track - What happened? The corporate sponsor changed, and it feels like all the humor and charm in this already rather flat attraction has fizzled completely. We never loved the old Test Track, but the new version made us positively nostalgic for it. At least you still get the high speed experience at the end.

Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party - This was our first time doing a special seasonal event, and we really enjoyed it. The park was not at all crowded, we snacked on "free" cocoa and cookies, and we got great character encounters with special characters who aren't usually out. If you want to meet the Disney princes or the Seven Dwarfs, then this is the party for you. (Note: These events also have special Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom cards!)

As always, I had a ball on The Great Movie Ride at Hollywood Studios, although the Kid tells me she was not impressed with their version of Gene Kelly. Our favorites continue to be classic rides like The Haunted Mansion, The Jungle Cruise (currently the "Jingle" Cruise with seasonal jokes), and Pirates of the Caribbean. I missed Snow White's Scary Adventures, but the princess greeting hall that replaced it seems to be jam-packed at all hours, and hopefully the new Dwarfs coaster will open soon to bring that film back into action in the park.

One of the biggest pleasures of this trip was having photos made with the characters. The Kid decided to hunt autographs and photos this time, after several years of pin trading, and we all loved interacting with the hilarious characters. Chip & Dale tried on the Kid's bracelet, Tigger stole her autograph book, and the Wicked Stepmother and Stepsisters from Cinderella had us cracking up at their antics. If you're only in the parks for the rides, you're really missing a lot of the fun, and we were glad we stopped to visit with Mickey, Goofy, and the rest of the colorful inhabitants of the parks.

What's your favorite Disney film or Disney theme park experience? Let me know in the comments!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

My Christmas Movies

Every film buff has a favorite Christmas movie, a picture that is such a part of the holiday that it just isn't Christmas without it. Plenty of us even have lists of such movies, and I'm no exception. As we head into the holidays, these are the movies - both classic and more recent - that I'll be watching to get into the holiday spirit.


Sure, it's the obvious choice, but for me the Jimmy Stewart classic is a holiday necessity because I often feel down during the Christmas season, and George Bailey's story reminds me that Christmas is a hard time for a lot of people. Besides, it has such a fantastic cast, and every year as I watch more classic movies I appreciate the actors more, from Lionel Barrymore and Thomas Mitchell to Beulah Bondi and Gloria Grahame. 


I love pretty much everything about this musical, but I'm especially fond of Danny Kaye and the movie's depiction of soldiers' lives after the war. "Snow" is a beautiful tune (they should play it on the holiday radio stations more often), and Mary Wickes is such a hoot as the nosy housekeeper. The drag performance of "Sisters" by Crosby and Kaye cracks me up, and the finale's salute to Dean Jagger's character always gets me right in the old ticker.


My taste in Christmas Carol adaptations tends toward the bizarre, and this is certainly one of the weirdest and funniest versions. I just can't resist Carol Kane's sadistic sugar plum Ghost of Christmas Present or David Johansen's hilarious cab driver Ghost of Christmas Past - "Niagara Falls!" It even has Robert Mitchum in it! I don't love everything Bill Murray has done, but this picture and Groundhog Day are right up there with Ghostbusters in the comedian's canon. I laugh, I cry; it's better than Cats.


As the co-editor of two books about Jim Henson, I'm definitely a Muppet fan, and this twist on Dickens is such a fun outing for the familiar cast of characters. Gonzo, my favorite Muppet, gets an especially good part as Charles Dickens himself, and the Ghost puppets represent some of the Henson group's most beautiful creative designs. Michael Caine is a delight as Scrooge, even if he experiences his essential change of heart rather too quickly to be as mean as he's supposed to be. When I saw this movie in the theater after its original release, it made me sad because Jim Henson had died in 1990, and this picture was the first to appear after his passing. Today, its bittersweet quality has softened, but like the original story it remains a sentimental experience.

What movies make your Christmas holiday complete? Let me know in the comments!


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951)

As a longtime devotee of Lewis Carroll, I'm well aware that Disney's Alice in Wonderland (1951) takes some liberties with its source material, but it remains one of my favorite classic Disney films nonetheless. It's certainly one of the weirder Walt pictures, thanks to Carroll's strange characters and penchant for Victorian nonsense, but it paints a vibrant, memorable picture, and it also offers some fiendishly catchy tunes and a number of great voice performances from classic character actors like Sterling Holloway and Ed Wynn. More importantly, Alice in Wonderland breaks away from Disney's princess in peril tradition to depict a determined heroine making it through her adventures all by herself, without a single prince in sight.

Like Carroll's original story, the Disney adaptation follows the adventures of young Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) as she chases the White Rabbit (Bill Thompson) into Wonderland. Once there, Alice encounters all sorts of odd inhabitants, including the grinning Cheshire Cat (Sterling Holloway), the Mad Hatter (Ed Wynn), and the Caterpillar (Richard Haydn). She also makes the acquaintance of the murderous Queen of Hearts (Verna Felton), who invites Alice to play croquet but also threatens to cut off her head. Alice wants to return home, but first she must stand trial before the Queen's court and confront her strange adversaries.

Carroll's two books, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, revel in in-jokes and clever wordplay, and most of this gets streamlined or eliminated in the Disney film, although the core story about a girl's adventure remains the same. Alice is grappling with the strangest adventure of all, that of growing up, and to her the world of adults is as bizarre and incomprehensible as anything Wonderland has to offer. Like Wendy in Peter Pan, Alice stands on the edge of leaving childhood behind, but unlike Wendy Alice doesn't have to play second fiddle to any boys. She must navigate complex social rules, conquer etiquette, and learn to deal with false friends. That might not sound as exciting as fighting pirates or slaying a dragon, but for Alice it turns out to be quite a challenge, and her reward is not a prince but a reclamation of herself and her place in the real world. In an era when most Disney heroines passively waited for their princes to save them, Alice's story makes a very refreshing change.

Aside from its proto-feminist heroine, Alice in Wonderland offers plenty of charms in its bouncy tunes and crazy characters. "A Very Merry UnBirthday," "I'm Late," and even "Painting the Roses Red" have an infectious energy that makes them irresistible earworms (don't let your kids watch the picture if you aren't prepared to listen to them sing the songs for days afterward). Kathryn Beaumont, who would also provide Wendy's voice for the 1953 Peter Pan, gives Alice a very proper English accent without laying it on too thick, but the veteran character actors steal the show, especially Sterling Holloway as the mischievous Cheshire Cat. Ed Wynn, Verna Felton, and Richard Haydn are joined by Heather Angel, Thurl Ravenscroft, J. Pat O'Malley, and The Mellomen as some of Wonderland's other residents, and hardcore Disney fans will have no trouble recognizing most of their voices.

Alice in Wonderland has been adapted many times both before and after the 1951 Disney version, with the most recent big screen treatment also coming from Disney in 2010. For the sake of comparison, you might also have a look at the 1985 and 1999 TV movies, although the 1933 version might appeal more to classic movie fans, since it features W.C. Fields as Humpty-Dumpty and Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle (Sterling Holloway is in it, too, but in this earlier outing he plays the Frog). Brooke Shields plays Alice in a quick but crazy adaptation on a 1980 episode of The Muppet Show, and that's a fun one if you can track it down. Listen for Verna Felton as unpleasant matriarchal types in Dumbo (1941) and Lady and the Tramp (1955) and as the sweeter Fairy Godmother in Cinderella (1950). Don't miss Ed Wynn in Mary Poppins (1964), and be sure to appreciate Sterling Holloway's distinctive rasp in Dumbo, Mickey and the Beanstalk (1947), and, of course, the original Disney stories about Winnie the Pooh.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: DUMBO (1941)

Disney classics are probably the one group of “old” movies that many people see even if they aren’t particularly enthusiastic about film. After all, these movies surround us throughout our lives, thanks in part to relentless Disney marketing. They inspire theme park rides and countless toys, harried parents trot them out to entertain moody toddlers, and they have become such a part of American childhood that you’d worry about a kid who doesn’t know who Dumbo is. With familiarity, however, comes apathy, if not actual contempt. We might easily take a movie like Dumbo for granted, especially because even the very youngest viewers seem attracted to it, but this 1941 animated feature can speak just as eloquently to a thoughtful adult who is willing to give it some time and attention.

You probably know the story. Dumbo is a baby elephant born into the circus, where his oversized ears become a source of embarrassment and endless abuse. As much as his mother loves him, she cannot protect him from the cruelty of others, and eventually she winds up imprisoned. Poor Dumbo, alone and frightened, has to find his own place in the circus, but he gets some help from a tiny mouse named Timothy and a flock of friendly crows. When Dumbo finally discovers his talents, he’s ready to confront those who mistreated him and take pride in his unique identity.

It seems like a simple story, and it is simply told, but there’s a lot of heartbreak and soul-searching in Dumbo. Anyone who has ever been teased or bullied will recognize the psychological damage that Dumbo endures. His mother’s peers criticize and reject him, the circus patrons mock and provoke him, and the clowns assume that nothing they do to him matters because “elephants ain’t got no feelings.” Dumbo is the individual as outcast, the lonely soul cast adrift on a cold sea. Neither his innocence nor his youth protect him. Difference marks him as the object of scorn and derision, and thus the little elephant stands in for all of the oppressed. His moment of terror and sacrifice, high on the burning circus platform, might as well be a crucifixion.

Think that’s reading too much into a children’s film? Look at Dumbo’s cinematic peers. Like Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, he is a silent everyman, sweet-natured but suffering. Compare him to the iconic martyr in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); clown makeup takes the place of shorn hair and a straw crown. Despite his appeal to preschoolers, Dumbo is a deep character, embodying existential and spiritual questions of the most profound nature. His happy ending is hard won, and maybe even at odds with his essence, but that’s the one place where the story defers to its audience’s desire for poetic justice. Before that triumphant finale, Dumbo will break your heart, and that’s what makes it such a powerful and enduring film.

Forgive the stereotyped crows (at least they sing well), and listen for Disney voice regulars Sterling Holloway and Verna Felton as Mr. Stork and the elephant matriarch. Dumbo won an Oscar for Best Musical Score, and it should have won Best Original Song for “Baby Mine,” which could wring sentimental tears from a turnip. For more circus stories, see Chaplin’s The Circus (1928), the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus (1939), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), and Jumbo (1962).

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Modern Movies: FROZEN (2013)

I admit it. I had written Frozen off because of the awful trailers. I wasn't even planning to see it, which is a huge statement given that I'm a lifelong Disney fan. Luckily, early reviews started begging folks to ignore the trailers and see the picture, anyway. If you're still on the fence about Frozen, let me join the chorus of reviewers urging you to see it. Despite what might be one of the worst marketing campaigns in Disney history, Frozen is a visual and narrative delight packed with fresh characters, great songs, and an ending that has been a long time coming for the princess set.

The story, more or less inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, The Snow Queen, revolves around two sisters. The elder, Elsa (Idina Menzel), was born with magical powers over ice and snow, although she struggles to control them. The younger, Anna (Kristen Bell), is a rambunctious, impulsive people person who doesn't understand why her beloved sister pulls away from her as they grow up. When Anna rushes into an engagement with Prince Hans (Santino Fontana), Elsa is so horrified that she loses control over her powers right in the middle of her own coronation ball, thus revealing to everyone the strange and dangerous ability that she possesses. Elsa flees, accidentally throwing the whole country into deep winter as she goes, and Anna pursues her in hopes of reconciling with her sister and ending the magical ice age. Along the way, Anna gets some help from the rustic Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), as well as a friendly reindeer, an enchanted snowman, and a family of trolls.

One thing that sets Frozen apart from other Disney princess stories is the focus on sisters. Yes, romance develops over the course of the story, but the relationship at the movie's heart is that between Elsa and Anna. That makes Frozen a thoughtful follow-up to Brave, which was about a young heroine's relationship with her mother. At long last, Disney is moving us away from narratives where women only have poisonous, competitive relationships with each other and the goal is to snag the prince and the throne. Elsa doesn't need a prince to be queen; in fact, she doesn't need anything except acceptance of herself and a repaired relationship with her sister. Anna does need romantic love, but her narrative arc also rejects the traditional Disney formula in some very surprising - and welcome - ways.

The voice actors really bring a lot to their characters without being celebrity distractions from them. Veronica Mars star Kristen Bell is a delightful, spunky presence as Anna, and it's great to hear her perform the character's musical numbers. Idina Menzel, however, really knocks it out of the park as Elsa, especially on the power house theme, "Let It Go." Her Broadway voice soars and raises the bar for every Disney heroine song that will come after this, so much so that I'm unclear why Disney felt the need to have Demi Lovato perform a single version for the picture's closing credits. As annoying as Olaf the snowman is in the trailers, he's actually very funny in the film, especially during his ironic musings on the nature of warmth and summer. Josh Gad, who provides Olaf's voice, does a fantastically funny job with "In Summer," which will make you laugh and wince at the same time. Santino Fontana and Jonathan Groff both have excellent voices for their characters, although the scene stealer of the picture is definitely Alan Tudyk as the Duke of Weselton.

The third act contains many shocks and twists, and I'll refrain from indulging in spoilers. I will say that Frozen is good enough and nuanced enough to be worth seeing even if you don't have children. Ignore the trailers, let go of what you think Disney princess movies are like, and make time to see Frozen while it's still in theaters. The excellent and very meta Mickey Mouse short that opens the movie is just the icing on a cold but delicious holiday treat.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: SHIP AHOY (1942)

It’s a sad fact that Eleanor Powell isn’t nearly as familiar today as she ought to be, even though male peers like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly have become reigning icons in the classic movie pantheon. Like those more famous stars, Powell is a terrific dancer, leaping exuberantly in numbers that highlight both her figure and her technique, and she’s clearly the star of her own show. You can see plenty of Powell’s talent on display in Ship Ahoy (1942), a relatively modest wartime musical that pairs the elegant star with funny man Red Skelton as a bumbling hack writer who falls for Powell - literally - during an ocean cruise. Ship Ahoy doesn’t pretend to compete with Singin’ in the Rain (1952) or Top Hat (1935), but it does offer laughs, a fun supporting cast, and some really energetic performances from Powell to reward viewers for their attention.

Powell plays dancer Tallulah Winters, who accepts a secret mission carrying a valuable item for men pretending to be American agents. While sailing to Puerto Rico as part of Tommy Dorsey’s act, Tallulah meets serial author Merton Kibble (Red Skelton), whose hypochondria doesn’t stop him from being smitten by her charms. Tallulah likes Merton, but her friend Fran (Virginia O’Brien) seems less taken with Merton’s pal, Skip (Bert Lahr). Unfortunately, the romantic atmosphere is threatened by misunderstandings and Tallulah’s unintentional involvement in enemy espionage.

The spy plot is unashamedly thin and implausible, taken as it is from one of Merton’s own serials. It does give Red Skelton the chance to do quite a few pratfalls and even play hero a bit, although of course his efforts don’t work out the way he would like. Skelton and Lahr make an oddly amusing comedic pair, both of them pulling crazy faces and having particular fun with a drunk scene inside a well-stocked ship’s hold. Skelton is also appealing enough as a leading man; we like him and want to see him win Tallulah in spite of his clumsy antics. Lahr, on the other hand, seems like the short end of the stick for Virginia O’Brien’s character, since he’s not only older and homely but also an incorrigible skirt chaser.

The comedy shtick winds around the musical numbers, and these are really the reason to see the picture. Powell performs each with tremendous energy, although the best might be the poolside sequence for “I’ll Take Tallulah,” which includes some very sharp drumstick tricks. The matador dance is also a highlight, and it certainly shows off Powell’s impressive legs. Tommy Dorsey’s band gives Powell swinging backup throughout, and you’ll even find Frank Sinatra singing two tunes. Sinatra’s version of “Poor You” gets a typically nutty twist from Virginia O’Brien, which is always fun, and Ship Ahoy might actually be one of the better places to see O’Brien, who made a lot fewer movies than she should have.

Edward Buzzell, who directed Ship Ahoy, also worked with Powell on Honolulu (1939), and his other efforts include the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940) as well as the Esther Williams feature, Neptune’s Daughter (1949). For more of Eleanor Powell, see Born to Dance (1935) and Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940). Powell and Skelton both appear in Lady Be Good (1941), I Dood It (1943), and Thousands Cheer (1943). Bert Lahr is best remembered today as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (1939), and Virginia O’Brien has a noteworthy, if truncated, supporting role in The Harvey Girls (1946).

Ship Ahoy is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant, along with several other Red Skelton films and a handful of movies featuring Eleanor Powell.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Doctor Who at the Movies

The 50th anniversary of Doctor Who is an excellent time to look back at some of the actors who have played the adventurous Time Lord in the long-running British television series. For many actors who portray the iconic character, the role defines their careers, but you'll find them in some interesting classic movies, as well. As most fans know, the modern version of the series follows the adventures of the Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Doctors (so far), but if we look back at the first four Doctors we find careers that overlap with the classic era and the films of the 1960s and 70s.

Of course, Peter Cushing was the actor who brought the Doctor to the big screen in Doctor Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks' Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1967), but these two films are non-canonical for Whovians. Cushing was certainly a bigger star than any of the actors who had played the character up until that time, but even Cushing fans admit that these two movies aren't his best work. You're better off seeing him in Hammer pictures like Horror of Dracula (1958) or even the original Star Wars (1977), in which he makes a memorable appearance as Grand Moff Tarkin.

Here are the first four actors who played the Doctor and some of the films in which you can find them.

William Hartnell - The first Doctor has a remarkably long filmography, including a number of credits under the name "Billy Hartnell." His film career dates all the way back to 1932, but many of the British movies in which he appeared are hard to find today. Look for him in The Pickwick Papers (1952), Carry On Sergeant (1958), and The Mouse that Roared (1959), as well as the Richard Harris film, This Sporting Life (1963), for a glimpse of his work before he became the original Doctor in 1963.

Patrick Troughton - The second Doctor is remembered for his bowl-cut mop of hair and his penchant for playing the flute, but the actor who portrayed him turns up in some surprisingly impressive places. Patrick Troughton first appeared in movies in the late 1940s, and his early roles included a part as the Player King in Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948). You'll also find him in a bit part in Disney's 1950 adaptation of Treasure Island. Troughton makes additional appearances in The Black Knight (1954), Richard III (1955), and The Phantom of the Opera (1962), but the best and most interesting places to see him are probably in Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and The Omen (1976). Be sure to catch him in another Ray Harryhausen classic, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), which also stars Patrick Wayne and Jane Seymour. Although his filmography is filled with memorable work, Troughton really flourished with the rise of the small screen. He was a seasoned television pro by the time he assumed the role of the Doctor in 1966, and he continued to work in television until his death in 1987.

Jon Pertwee -  The third Doctor made fewer film and television appearances than either of his predecessors, but his first role was as early as 1938, when he had an uncredited part in A Yank at Oxford. Fans of the British Carry on films will recognize Pertwee in several of those pictures, including Carry on Cleo (1964), Carry on Cowboy (1966), and Carry on Screaming! (1966). You can also find him in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) and The House that Dripped Blood (1971). In addition to playing the title role on Doctor Who, Pertwee starred as Worzel Gummidge in two different television series.

Tom Baker - The fourth Doctor is probably the most recognizable of the original incarnations, thanks to his trailing scarf, wild curls, and appetite for jelly babies. By the time Tom Baker began acting in the late 1960s, television was already a huge medium, and most of his roles would be on the small screen. Baker does, however, make a few interesting film appearances. In the 1971 movie, Nicholas and Alexandra, Baker plays Rasputin! The very best movie in which to see Baker is undoubtedly The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973); he has a great villain role as the evil magician Koura. Fans of British television will also know Baker as the narrator of Little Britain, and he had a recurring role on the popular series, Monarch of the Glen.

Some fascinating tidbits reveal themselves when we look at the early Doctors and their film careers. While they were mostly television actors, they were clearly active in the British film industry, making both "serious" pictures like Shakespeare adaptations and cult films like Hammer horrors. Ray Harryhausen's fantasy adventures also proved fertile ground, with both Troughton and Baker acting in Sinbad pictures. Today most viewers only know them for their role on Doctor Who, if they remember them at all, but each of the first four Doctors had a much richer and more diverse career than his stint on that one series. These actors costarred with big names, including Laurence Olivier, Richard Harris, Peter Sellers, Buster Keaton, and Gregory Peck. As we celebrate fifty years of Doctor Who this month, let's also celebrate the actors who played him first, and take time to catch them in a few of their other memorable roles.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE FLAME AND THE ARROW (1950)

All of the classic swashbuckling stars had good looks and charm, but few, if any, could rival Burt Lancaster for sheer physical prowess. Lancaster earned his Oscar nominations and Best Actor win for dramas, but early in his career he put his background as a circus acrobat to good use in a handful of high adventures, including the 1950 Technicolor spectacle, The Flame and the Arrow. Directed by Jacques Tourneur and costarring Virginia Mayo, as well as Lancaster’s childhood friend Nick Cravat, this old school swashbuckler takes many of its cues from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). The main attraction, however, is the acrobatic skill of Lancaster and Cravat, who perform a dizzying array of jumps, stunts, and circus tricks as they attempt to save medieval Lombardy from its Hessian overlords.

Lancaster plays the free spirited Dardo, who has been left to raise his son, Rudi (Gordon Gebert), by himself after the defection of his wife, Francesca (Lynn Baggett). When his wife returns to Lombardy with her Hessian lover, Count Ulrich (Frank Allenby), Dardo gets himself and his friends into trouble by showing his contempt for the powerful lord, who seizes Rudi in retaliation. Dardo then leads his men in an effort to overthrow the Hessian oppressors and reclaim his kidnapped son, but his actions bring him unexpected company in the form of Ulrich’s lovely niece, Anne (Virginia Mayo).

Tall and powerfully built, Lancaster certainly looks good in tights, and he performs acrobatic feats almost casually, making them seem deceptively easy. The movie benefits from Lancaster’s skill in action scenes that would normally have to hide a stunt double’s face, and the camera stays close to assure us that Lancaster is, indeed, the heroic figure executing those jumps and swings. Nick Cravat makes a perfect foil to his friend and partner; short, funny, and mute because of his heavy New York accent, he plays a sort of swashbuckling Harpo Marx to Lancaster’s Lombard Robin. The two really get to show off their skills in the climax, when the Lombard rebels infiltrate the castle disguised as members of a traveling circus.

The supporting cast boasts fewer famous faces than the 1938 Robin Hood film, although its characters tend to fill the same functions. Frank Allenby is credibly snide as the Hessian count known as “the Hawk,” and Robert Douglas oozes moral ambivalence as the self-interested Marchese. Child actor Gordon Gebert has a few good scenes as Rudi, although a little of him goes a long way, while Lynn Baggett’s role as faithless Francesca could be more robust. Norman Lloyd proves something of a scene stealer as the wry Apollo, a minor character who obviously stands in for Sherwood’s Alan-a-Dale. Dardo’s Maid Marian is charmingly played by Virginia Mayo, who brings plenty of energy and a pair of well-displayed legs to her role as Anne of Hesse. While she appears in several stunning gowns requisite for this kind of historical pageant, Mayo looks best in the boyish costumes she adopts when riding or being held prisoner in the forest. Her experience as a bad girl in films like White Heat (1949) also gives her an edge in playing the scenes where she attempts to manipulate the Marchese and Dardo; we’re not always sure which side she’s really on, and that makes her character more interesting.

The Flame and the Arrow earned two Oscar nominations, one for Best Color Cinematography and one for Max Steiner’s score. Lancaster won his only Oscar of four Best Actor nominations for Elmer Gantry (1960). See more of Lancaster and Cravat’s acrobatics in The Crimson Pirate (1952), but don’t miss Lancaster in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), and The Professionals (1966). Virginia Mayo also stars in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and you'll find Gordon Gebert in Holiday Affair (1949) and The House on Telegraph Hill (1951). For more from director Jacques Tourneur, see Cat People (1942), Out of the Past (1947), and Night of the Demon (1957). For even more swashbuckling action, try Captain Blood (1935), The Mark of Zorro (1940), and The Three Musketeers (1948).

The Flame and the Arrow is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Six Books for Your Classic Movie Christmas List

It's time to start the Christmas shopping in earnest, and your friends and relations are asking you what you want this year. Maybe you're doing some Christmas shopping for fellow cinephiles, as well. DVDs can be tricky, since everyone with a serious film obsession already owns enough movies to restock a closed Blockbuster location. Whether you're looking for gifts for yourself or others, books can be a great choice. Here are six relatively new books about classic movie topics that you might consider.

VIVIEN LEIGH: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT - By Kendra Bean, with forward by Claire Bloom

This newest biography of the iconic leading lady is getting great reviews, and I have it at the top of my own wishlist this year. Plenty of  photos enhance the story of Leigh's life and career. The book is currently available in hardback for $22.89 on Amazon, which I think would be preferable to the cheaper Kindle edition because of the illustrations.

A LIFE OF BARBARA STANWYCK: STEEL-TRUE 1907-1940 - By Victoria Wilson

This biography of Stanwyck just came out on November 12, 2013, which means that even hardcore classic movie fans probably don't have it yet. The actress certainly lived an interesting life, so any biography ought to make for exciting reading. Although it retails for $40, you can get the hardcover edition on Amazon for $29.70, while the Kindle edition is just $14.99.


If you're looking for a new biography of a more obscure star, you might try this account of the life of Ann Dvorak, perhaps best remembered today for her role in Scarface (1932). This is the first full-length biography of the actress, so it should offer plenty of new information to fans of her films. Published by the University Press of Kentucky, the book retails for $40 but is available in hardcover on Amazon for $35.23. The Kindle edition is $22.99, rather steep for a Kindle ebook but typical of an academic publisher's pricing.


Having published two books with McFarland myself, I'm always happy to help get the word out about their authors' publications. James Zeruk is a fellow classic movie fan whose biography of the tragic Peg Entwistle ought to please seriously hardcore classic movie enthusiasts.  Like most McFarland books, the paperback is pretty expensive; Amazon has it for $37.95, but you can get the Kindle edition for $17.99. This book was just released in October, so it's still quite new.


If you want to get really deep into the obscure people of classic cinema, try Kerry Segrave's account of Hollywood extras. This is also a McFarland title; it was released in April 2013, but it looks like it has flown beneath the radar enough to be something even avid film fans might not know about yet. (McFarland mostly sells to libraries and doesn't really promote its titles to general readers.)


My own book came out just a little over a year ago, and people who have bought it tell me they enjoyed it. Beyond Casablanca is meant to be a guide book for both newcomers and veteran fans; as the title suggests, I try to get beyond the most obvious classic movies to discuss films that people might not be as familiar with today. It's available in paperback on Amazon for $16.20 and on Kindle for $4.99.

What books are on your classic movie Christmas wishlist this year?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: HELLO, FRISCO, HELLO (1943)

San Francisco’s Barbary Coast always makes for a colorful setting, and in Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943) Fox capitalizes on the opportunities that the backdrop presents for lavish costumes, lively stage numbers, and an anything goes ambience. This splashy Technicolor musical is primarily a showcase for the talents of Alice Faye, and it’s actually a remake of an earlier Faye picture, the 1936 musical drama, King of Burlesque. The 1943 film reunites Faye with King of Burlesque costar Jack Oakie, but it also brings in John Payne as the love interest and June Havoc as the female sidekick. Faye, however, is the main attraction throughout, and fans of the star will find her in top form, looking especially lovely in a dazzling array of period costumes. Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone, Hello, Frisco, Hello is also worth watching for the supporting performances from Oakie, Havoc, and Laird Cregar, as well as Faye’s rendition of the Oscar-winning song, “You’ll Never Know.”

Alice Faye stars as Trudy Evans, a gifted chanteuse whose voice brings success to Barbary Coast showman Johnny Cornell (John Payne) even though he takes her devotion to him for granted. When Johnny’s social ambitions lure him into the arms of Nob Hill heiress Bernice (Lynn Bari), the heartbroken Trudy departs for fame on the London stage. Johnny eventually regrets his union with the gold-digging Bernice, but his fall from the height of success leads him to drive away his old friends, including his vaudevillian comrades Dan (Jack Oakie) and Beulah (June Havoc). When Trudy returns to San Francisco, she must find a way to help Johnny without hurting his stubborn pride.

Faye has plenty of musical numbers to keep her busy, including the title song and “You’ll Never Know,” but she’s also very good at projecting Trudy’s unrequited love for the business-minded Johnny. Trudy is certainly something of a sap for mooning over a man who only uses her to get rich, but Faye has so much appeal that we’re inclined to forgive her heroine for her starry-eyed faith in someone who really doesn’t deserve her. As Johnny, John Payne mixes the smoldering intensity of Tyrone Power with the showbiz charisma of Don Ameche, although he’s not quite as memorable as either of those leading men, both of whom starred with Faye in other films. He’s best in the darker segments of Johnny’s narrative, especially with Lynn Bari as the seductive socialite who fascinates him with her high class charms.

The supporting cast provides comedy to lighten the rest of the narrative’s sentimental drama. Jack Oakie is particularly fun as Johnny’s sidekick, Dan, and he gets several great stage numbers that show off his vaudevillian style as a comic song and dance man. June Havoc keeps up with the energetic Oakie as his performing partner; although she’s usually playing second fiddle to Faye in the production numbers, she and Oakie really shine in a sailor-themed segment late in the film, and Havoc shows both the spunk and the legs that one might expect from the sister of Gypsy Rose Lee. Laird Cregar has a small but memorable role as the bearded gold prospector Sam Weaver; although he was usually cast as a villain, Cregar proves yet again that he was equally capable of tackling comedic roles, and he gives his bit character a wonderfully Falstaffian quality.

Don’t miss Ward Bond making a brief appearance as saloon owner Sharkey; his hairstyle alone is worth watching out for. For more of Alice Faye, see In Old Chicago (1937), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), and That Night in Rio (1941). John Payne and Jack Oakie also star with Faye in Tin Pan Alley (1940) and The Great American Broadcast (1941), although Payne is best remembered today for Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and Oakie is known for his role in The Great Dictator (1940). Catch Lynn Bari in The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1944) and Shock (1946), and see June Havoc in Brewster’s Millions (1945) and Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). For more of Laird Cregar’s comedic roles, try Charley’s Aunt (1941) and The Black Swan (1942). H. Bruce Humberstone also directed I Wake Up Screaming (1941), Happy Go Lovely (1951), and a number of Charlie Chan pictures.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: DIPLOMANIACS (1933)

Although it’s often compared to The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933), which came out the same year, Diplomaniacs (1933) proves a far more difficult picture for a modern viewer to engage, and that difficulty helps to explain why The Marx Brothers are icons while Wheeler and Woolsey have been relegated to obscurity. This wild - and wildly inappropriate - satire of international politics certainly has its funny moments, but it’s probably best appreciated by serious classic film enthusiasts who are prepared to handle a manic 62 minute musical that packs in just about every racial “face” stereotype of 1930s Hollywood. Diplomaniacs is also rife with racy pre-Code sexual energy, so put the kids to bed before you attempt to fathom the appeal of this picture and its truly nutty stars.

Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey star as Willy and Hercules, a couple of barbers who fruitlessly set up shop on an Indian reservation, where, supposedly, their services are never required. The locals hire the pair to be their representatives at a peace conference in Geneva, but a scheming ammunitions tycoon (Louis Calhern) tries to sink their efforts because his business depends on countries trying to kill each other. He unleashes a vamp, Dolores (Marjorie White), to seduce the boys, and later he also hires Fifi (Phyllis Barry) to thwart them, but the duo’s own ineptitude seems equally likely to undermine their mission.

We start the picture with white chorus girls dressed up in some very skimpy - and utterly fake - Native American costumes, along with Edward Cooper as the tribe’s Oxford-educated chief. After a series of “red man” shenanigans, the action moves to Europe, where the villain’s henchman is a Chinese pseudo-philosopher played by Hugh Herbert. He spouts plenty of fortune cookie nonsense before abandoning the plot and rowing back to China. Left in Europe, Willy and Hercules avoid the embraces of the two women but wind up part of a huge black face musical number when a bomb explodes in the peace conference. That gives us red face, yellow face, and black face all in about one hour, if you happen to be keeping count.

For casual modern viewers and youngsters, that much racial humor is probably a deal breaker already, but Diplomaniacs also revels in the kind of saucy comedy that only pre-Code pictures could get away with, at least until many decades later. The chorus girls show up again in some eye-popping French maid outfits, and the running gags involving both Dolores and Fifi reveal their one-note function as sex objects. More subversive is Wheeler’s frequent positioning as the “female” half of the comedy pair; the joke is most obvious when the two protagonists wake up in bed together and Willy promptly dons a lady’s dressing gown.

An academic viewer might well find it worthwhile to parse the meta, satiric, and even carnivalesque aspects of this picture, and experienced classic movie viewers might enjoy it for its parallels to Duck Soup and its instructive glimpse of the Wheeler and Woolsey style. For a quick tour of all the crazy things pre-Code movies could get away with, it’s certainly an effective example, but you have to be prepared for what you are going to get. Many viewers are likely to be too offended by the movie’s caricatures to enjoy its gags, and that’s a valid response, especially if you happen to belong to one of the groups being misrepresented.

Wheeler and Woolsey can also be found in Caught Plastered (1931), Hips, Hips, Hooray! (1934), and Kentucky Kernels (1934). William A. Seiter, who directed Diplomaniacs, is best remembered today for Fred Astaire films like You Were Never Lovelier (1942) and Shirley Temple vehicles like Stowaway (1936). Look for Louis Calhern in Duck Soup (1933), Notorious (1946), and The Asphalt Jungle (1950). You'll find Hugh Herbert in Dames (1934), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), and Hollywood Hotel (1937).

Diplomaniacs is one of a handful of Wheeler and Woolsey films currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: KENTUCKY KERNELS (1934)

Wheeler and Woolsey are not as familiar today as some of classic comedy’s other leading teams, but they have plenty to offer to fans of The Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, and Laurel and Hardy in terms of loaded lines, nutty plots, and goofy sight gags. Kentucky Kernels (1934) comes from the second half of their career, with George Stevens working as their director, and it makes a perfectly serviceable introduction to the duo’s comedic style, even if it suffers from the dated images of the South that one might expect from a picture with such a title. Along with supporting performances from Mary Carlisle, Noah Beery, and Margaret Dumont, Kentucky Kernels offers additional appeal in the adorably destructive form of child star Spanky McFarland, best remembered today for his recurring role in the Our Gang series of shorts.

Our story opens with Jerry Bronson (Paul Page) trying to commit suicide but being saved by down and out magicians Elmer (Robert Woolsey) and Willie (Bert Wheeler). They convince Bronson to adopt an orphan to cheer himself up, but Elmer and Willie quickly find themselves in charge of the tyke when Bronson elopes. After lawyers pronounce the newly adopted Spanky Milford (Spanky McFarland) heir to a vast Kentucky estate, Elmer and Willie escort him to his inheritance, unaware that the property lies in the middle of an ongoing feud between the Milfords and the Wakefields.

There’s a fair bit of set up before our boys arrive in Kentucky, but that’s where the action really gets going. Much of the “local color” depends on regional and racial stereotypes, some of which are more problematic than others. Wheeler and Woolsey strut around in long coats putting on some ridiculously affected Southern airs, as if their only idea of the South has come directly from equally stereotypical motion pictures, but Noah Beery’s Colonel Wakefield does nothing to dispel the image of the old Southern patriarch. Mary Carlisle, as the Colonel’s daughter, Gloria, makes a pretty love interest for Wheeler’s tender-hearted Willie, although her accent is seriously overdone. Lucille La Verne, a Nashville native, does greater justice to Southern womanhood as Aunt Hannah, who turns out to be one of the most compelling characters in the whole movie. The thorniest element of the picture is certainly Willie Best as the egregiously racist character, Buckshot; Best is credited for the role as “Sleep ‘n’ Eat,” a name he used for several of his earlier films. As successful as Best might have been with the Stepin Fetchit style in the 1930s, it’s almost impossible for viewers to laugh at it today.

Despite these problems, there’s still plenty of funny stuff going on in Kentucky Kernels. The opening gag, with Willie and Elmer arguing like a married couple, is ripe with subversive humor. Willie’s later turn in drag comes as no surprise after that introduction, although he ironically also plays the Romeo to Gloria’s drawling Juliet. Spanky’s penchant for breaking anything made of glass provides an ongoing opportunity for comic mischief, and Elmer’s magic tricks set up several good jokes, as well. The song number that dominates the middle act might go on too long for some viewers’ tastes, but you have to appreciate the increasing absurdity of the auditors, especially when Woolsey sings the romantic ditty to the long-eared object of his affection. There’s also an amusing sequence with a drunk horse and a strangely bifurcated carriage, and the finale boasts a wild siege at the Milford estate with Spanky creatively indulging his destructive appetite to his heart’s content.

Be sure to appreciate Marx Brothers regular Margaret Dumont in a small role as the head of the orphanage. For more from Wheeler and Woolsey, try Caught Plastered (1931), Diplomaniacs (1933), and Hips, Hips, Hooray! (1934). Spanky McFarland takes the title role in General Spanky (1936), while Mary Carlisle also appears in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940). You’ll find Noah Beery, the brother of Wallace, in The Mark of Zorro (1920), She Done Him Wrong (1933), and Wheeler and Woolsey’s Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934). Lucille La Verne appeared in numerous silent films, including Orphans of the Storm (1921), but if you close your eyes you might also recognize her as the voice of the evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). See more of George Steven's directorial work from the 1930s in Annie Oakley (1935), Swing Time (1936), and Gunga Din (1939).

You'll find Kentucky Kernels available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant. Other Wheeler and Woolsey films currently on the Warner site include Diplomaniacs (1933) and On Again - Off Again (1937).

Monday, November 4, 2013

Good Stuff on Warner Archive Instant

Warner Archive Instant has quickly become my favorite streaming service for movies. Since the site went live some months ago, it has continued to add new titles to its catalog, and every batch of new arrivals contains surprises and delights. I love not having to weed through great reeking piles of junk to find high-quality classic movies that look and sound great, even if they're cult classics instead of Oscar contenders, and for $10 a month I am really getting my money's worth out of the service.

This month I'm particularly excited by some of the newest additions. Here are a few of the movies I hope to watch and review in November!

ANDY HARDY MEETS DEBUTANTE (1940) - I love Andy Hardy films, and I have yet to see this one, so I am really pleased to see it in the new arrival bin. The Judy/Mickey combo is always fun, so this is a good choice for something to watch with the kids during the upcoming Thanksgiving break. I'm hoping Warner will add some of the other Hardy family films soon.

3 GODFATHERS (1948) - OK, I actually own this one on DVD and have seen it before, but I'm delighted that Warner added it just in time for the holidays. After all, it IS a Christmas movie! John Wayne joins a cast of terrific Western regulars for this sentimental story of outlaws who rescue a baby in the desert. Its appearance on Warner also reminds me that I need to rewatch 3 GODFATHERS and get a review posted in time for December.

JOHNNY BELINDA (1948) - This one has been on my to-watch list forever, and now I can finally check it off! Jane Wyman stars as a deaf-mute girl in a much-lauded drama from director Jean Negulesco.

HOLLYWOOD HOTEL (1938) - When I'm sick or feeling down, I turn to Busby Berkeley for a lift, and this is one I have yet to see. Thanks, Warner, for helping me combat the winter blues with Dick Powell, Lola Lane, and Benny Goodman!

DIPLOMANIACS (1933) - I need to get better acquainted with Wheeler and Woolsey comedies in general, so I'm thrilled that this film and KENTUCKY KERNELS (1934) are both now available on Warner Archive Instant.

Other new additions include CHEYENNE AUTUMN (1964), THE FALCON'S BROTHER (1942), THE LEOPARD MAN (1943), and DANCING LADY (1933). There are also several new Charlie Chan pictures in the catalog, two with Sidney Toler in the title role and one with Roland Withers.

If you haven't signed up for Warner Archive Instant, you should certainly pay the site a visit and take advantage of the 2 week free trial offer. With the slow nights of winter ahead, you'll find plenty to keep you cozily entertained.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Ten Classic Horror Films for Halloween

Happy Halloween! It's time for spooks, ghouls, and other things that go bump in the night, which means now is the perfect time to curl up with some classic horror movies. It's the season of Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Lorre, Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, and other iconic horror stars, all of them still delightfully creepy even in films made more than fifty years ago. Here are ten of my favorite Halloween treats; as you can tell, I like my classic horror both classy and campy, although I'm not generally a big fan of gore.

1) THE DEVIL-DOLL (1936) - Tod Browning directs Lionel Barrymore in drag! The dolls, as creepy as they are, still aren't as scary as Rafaela Ottiano, who plays the wife of the scientist who creates them.

2) THE WOLF MAN (1941) - My favorite Universal monster makes his screen debut, with Lon Chaney, Jr., Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, and scene-stealer Maria Ouspenskaya. "Even a man who is pure of heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms, and the autumn moon shines bright..."

3) CAT PEOPLE (1942) - Val Lewton's signature horror gets extra class from director Jacques Tourneur, while Simone Simon's feline anti-heroine suffers the fatal pangs of romantic disappointment. The stalking sequences are still enough to make you nervous about being alone in dark places.

4) ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944) - No, it's not really a horror film, but it has such a good time playing with the conventions of the genre, from Peter Lorre's Dr. Einstein to Raymond Massey's Boris Karloff lookalike. There's something inherently absurd about homicidal old ladies, but we love the Brewster sisters all the more for their deadly idea of charity work! Besides, the story takes place on Halloween, which makes it the perfect movie to watch on October 31.

5) BEDLAM (1946) - I adore Val Lewton, so he gets a second film in my list. This one stars Boris Karloff and Anna Lee and takes place largely in the notorious 18th-century London madhouse. Gothic, literate, and full of great shocks, BEDLAM is not as well-known as CAT PEOPLE but definitely deserves more attention from classic horror fans.

6) EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960) - Georges Franju's haunting tale of murder, mutilation, and madness is one of the scariest classic horror films I have ever seen, mostly because its images and themes stay with the viewer long after the movie ends. If you're looking for serious chills for Halloween, this is the picture for you.

7) THE HAUNTING (1963) - For serious scares I love this iconic haunted house chiller, which skillfully adapts the novel by Shirley Jackson and really puts the screws to the audience as well as the characters. Julie Harris and Claire Bloom fall apart magnificently when the house cranks up the horror, and that breathing door scene is something you'll never forget.

8) THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (1963) - This black comedy brings so many of my favorite horror players into one place. We have Jacques Tourneur directing and Richard Matheson writing, with Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone playing the leads. You'll die laughing!

9) DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972) - Disco Dracula! This is one of the trippier Hammer horrors to star both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in their vampire and Van Helsing roles, but it's just so much fun, including the house party performance of "Alligator Man."

10) HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS (1983) - It's silly and more like a thrill ride than a straight horror story, but I can't resist this movie's dizzying array of classic horror stars. Who can resist Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, John Carradine, and Peter Cushing all together?

What are your favorite classic horror movies for Halloween?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: CORRIDORS OF BLOOD (1958)

Despite its lurid title, Corridors of Blood (1958) is really a very serious picture that derives its horrors from the combined specters of Victorian surgical theater, drug addiction, and coldly calculated murder. This Dickensian medical chiller from director Robert Day stars genre heavyweights Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, which is reason enough to see the movie for most classic horror fans, but it also offers a compelling combination of the themes that inform earlier films like The Body Snatcher (1945) and the many adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In its merger of murderous Burke & Hare shenanigans with de casibus tragedy, Corridors of Blood creates a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on the many Faustian bargains that Victorian medical practitioners were forced to make in order to advance their scientific knowledge and our own common good.

Karloff stars as benevolent surgeon Thomas Bolton, who strives to pioneer a technique for painless surgery by experimenting with forms of anesthesia. His professional peers doubt the practicality of Bolton’s work, but the doctor devotes himself to his research and becomes his own test subject for various opiate mixtures, to which he inevitably becomes addicted. While Bolton’s son, Jonathan (Francis Matthews), and niece, Susan (Betta St. John), worry over his increasing exhaustion and drug dependence, the proprietor of a seedy tavern sees Bolton’s distress as an opportunity to get falsified death certificates for murder victims being sold as cadavers to the local hospital.

Throughout the film, Karloff’s protagonist moves back and forth between two worlds. His friends and family tell him that he belongs in the respectable circle of well-off Victorian physicians, but he feels drawn to the shadowy underworld of extreme poverty, first by his commitment to heal the sick and later by his addiction. Like Dr. Jekyll, Bolton does not remember his actions while under the influence of his drugs, but Bolton never really becomes a monster during these breaks, even though his need for more chemicals does ultimately make him a criminal. What we as viewers realize is that the two worlds are far closer to one another than they originally seem. The operating room relies on desperate poor people for its surgical demonstrations, in which screaming, bleeding patients become edifying spectacles for wealthy men of privilege. The hospital’s autopsies depend on a constant supply of fresh corpses, which arrive from the ranks of the poor with very few questions asked about their origin. Bolton’s excursions into the darker world are discouraged by his peers because they lay bare the unsavory fact that “civilized” society exists on top and at the expense of its outcasts.

That is not to suggest that the residents of the Seven Dials are angelic martyrs. The film presents them as dangerous people, a strange menagerie of rejects, sharpers, and thieves. They are part Beggar’s Opera and part Oliver Twist, a dirty but cunning lot ready to murder one another for a mere handful of coins. Francis de Wolff has the largest role among them as Black Ben, the Falstaffian barkeep, but Christopher Lee’s Resurrection Joe is certainly the scariest. Joe provides cadavers for the hospital by suffocating drunks with a pillow, although he’s equally willing to employ a knife when the occasion permits. Without the heavy makeup of Dracula or the Frankenstein monster, Lee still manages to be truly terrifying, especially in his climactic scenes with Karloff. If Karloff’s character is a Faustian type, then Ben and Joe are his devils, a thought that gives extra import to their insistence that Bolton repeatedly sign his name to further their black plans.

Be sure to note Finlay Currie and Adrienne Corri in supporting roles as the medical superintendent and Black Ben’s partner, Rachel. See more of Christopher Lee’s work from this period in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), and The Mummy (1959). Karloff’s other films from the late 1950s include Voodoo Island (1957), The Haunted Strangler (1958), and Frankenstein - 1970 (1958), although you should certainly catch his turn as the resurrection man in The Body Snatcher (1945) for the sake of comparison. Finlay Currie is best remembered as the truly Dickensian Magwitch in the 1946 adaptation of Great Expectations, while Adrienne Corri also appears in A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Vampire Circus (1972). For more from director Robert Day, try The Green Man (1956) and She (1965).

You'll find Corridors of Blood streaming on Hulu Plus as part of the Criterion Collection. Even on streaming, the crisp Criterion edition gorgeously displays the moody black-and-white cinematography that is a big part of this film's atmospheric appeal.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Halloween Playlist: 10 Songs Inspired by Classic Horror Movies

Halloween is my favorite holiday, partly because it's a great excuse to watch classic horror movies, and partly because I get to trot out my Halloween playlists of songs about vampires, werewolves, and other things that go bump in the night. (OK, so I listen to them all year round, but this time of year they just sound cooler.) Actually, a lot of great pop and rock songs have been directly inspired by classic horror films, and not just the most popular movies that everyone already knows. If you're looking for something to listen to this week while you fill your streaming queues with Hammer horror, Universal monsters, and other ghoulish goodies, here are ten of my go-to favorites for a classic horror Halloween playlist.

1) "Nosferatu" by Blue Oyster Cult - The 1922 silent vampire classic from F.W. Murnau is the direct inspiration for this song from the band best remembered for "Don't Fear the Reaper." The song actually covers the plot of the whole movie, and it's creepy enough to deserve a top spot on any Halloween playlist.

2) "Ballad of Dwight Fry" by Alice Cooper - Horror icon Dwight Frye played Renfield in the 1931 Dracula and also appears in supporting roles in other Universal horror classics, so it's no shock that Goth god Alice Cooper might want to sing Frye's praises. In the song, Cooper impersonates the kind of character Frye often played, not the actor himself.

3) "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" by Dave Edmunds - The Universal monster gets his own theme song with a rock n roll groove; the song appeared on the 1979 album, Repeat When Necessary. The Creature doesn't get as much love as some of the earlier monsters, so I appreciate this song for giving our watery friend some overdue musical attention.

4) "I Walked with a Zombie" by Roky Erickson - Released in 1981, Roky Erickson's album, The Evil One, is full of Halloween treats for monster fans, including this tribute to the 1943 film from producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur. Check out the rest of the album for "Night of the Vampire" and "Creature with the Atom Brain." A new version of The Evil One was released in September 2013.

5) "Blood and Roses" by The Smithereens - J. Sheridan Le Fanu's sapphic vampire Carmilla got a sexy update with the 1960 film of the same name, which then inspired this moody lament from The Smithereens. The song captures the vampire's sense of longing and exclusion from the world of the living beautifully, although most people who hear it probably don't recognize its cinematic roots.

6) "Werewolves of London" by Warren Zevon - This rocking werewolf anthem specifically calls out Lon Chaney Sr. and Jr. as its horror icons, but the title also recalls the 1936 film, Werewolf of London, which stars Henry Hull, Warner Oland, and Valerie Hobson.

7) "Bela Lugosi's Dead" by Bauhaus - You really can't have a classic horror playlist without this song inspired
by the great Lugosi, who became immortal as Count Dracula but played many other memorable horror roles.

8) "Batman, Wolfman, Frankenstein or Dracula" by The Diamonds - Any classic horror fan can appreciate this song's theme and wicked sense of humor. The speaker in the song takes his date to horror movies because that's the only thing that turns her on: "She gets romantic, it's really quaint/ When all the other women start to faint."

9) "Monster Mash" by Bobby "Boris" Pickett - Here's another one you just can't have a Halloween playlist without. All of the classic movie monsters do the mash in this much-played rock novelty tune.

10) "Howl" by Florence + The Machine - This memorably Gothic track from the band's 2009 album, Lungs, uses the ominous motto from The Wolf Man (1941) as its refrain. "Even a man who is pure of heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the moon is full..."

What are some of your favorite Halloween songs with classic horror connections? Let me know in the comments!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE UNINVITED (1944)

The Uninvited (1944) is an old-fashioned ghost story with deep roots in the Gothic tradition. Adapted from a 1941 novel by Dorothy Macardle, the story borrows major themes and motifs from Rebecca (1940), just as Daphne du Maurier’s novel had borrowed from Jane Eyre. In all three tales, romance mingles with mystery and horror generated by dark family secrets, but in The Uninvited the idea of the heroine being haunted by other women becomes quite literal. With its seance scenes, ghostly moans, and strange apparitions, The Uninvited offers abundant otherworldly thrills for Gothic romance fans, who will find plenty to love in this atmospheric tale of love and hatred from beyond the grave.

Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey star as siblings Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald, who buy an old estate on the rural English coast only to discover that its cheap price stems from its reputation as a haunted house. The previous owner, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), seems glad to be rid of the place but stubbornly refuses to see the new residents as friends, while his granddaughter, Stella (Gail Russell), welcomes the society of the Fitzgeralds, despite her grandfather’s orders to avoid them. As Roderick and Pamela confront the restless dead that roam their home, they begin to uncover the mystery of Stella’s past, but it turns out that the ghosts are not the only ones who wish deadly harm to the innocent girl.

The Fitzgerald siblings function as detectives and drive the narrative forward with their supernatural sleuthing, but Gail Russell’s Stella is the central heroine, the lynchpin on whom all these manifestations and secrets depend. The young actress’ fragile, melancholy beauty perfectly suits the ambience of the story and her character’s situation. Only twenty years old and accustomed to being controlled by her grandfather’s relentless will, Stella blooms when Roderick takes a romantic interest in her. The leap into sexual maturation inspires her to disobey the Commander, a dangerous but necessary step because it brings her into contact with the ghosts of Windward House, who must be laid to rest before Stella and Roderick can be united. Sexual subtext dominates much of the narrative, especially when another character reveals a passionate obsession with one of the dead women from Stella’s past.

Most of the scenes unfold with an emphasis on mystery rather than horror, with Roderick and Pamela interviewing everyone who might be able to shed some light on the shadowy past of Windward. The ghostly moments are reserved, like a rich treat, for periodic enjoyment; we get one thrilling scene of disembodied weeping or terrified pets and then have to wait a while before the next one presents itself. Each new manifestation increases the Fitzgeralds’ sense of urgency and also reveals the danger that the house presents to Stella. The film wisely limits its use of the floating apparition, relying instead on more subtle effects or the characters’ descriptions of their experiences within the house. Rooms turn cold, perfume fills the air, and an unseen hand flips the pages of an open book. These moments inspire the audience with delicious, spine-tingling chills, especially when ghostly moaning fills the house and a seance calls forth the spirits of the dead.

Take a moment to appreciate the supporting performances of Alan Napier as Dr. Scott and Cornelia Otis Skinner as Miss Holloway. Lewis Allen, who directed The Uninvited, also directed The Unseen (1945), Appointment with Danger (1951), and A Bullet for Joey (1955). See more of Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend (1945) and Dial M for Murder (1954). Ruth Hussey is best remembered for her supporting role in The Philadelphia Story (1940), while Donald Crisp plays more paternal types in How Green Was My Valley (1941), Lassie Come Home (1943), and National Velvet (1944). Sad-eyed Gail Russell also stars in Angel and the Badman (1947), Wake of the Red Witch (1948), and Seven Men from Now (1956). If ghostly Gothic romance thrills your heart, try Dragonwyck (1946) as a double feature with The Uninvited.

The Criterion Collection released newly restored Blu-Ray and DVD versions of The Uninvited on October 22, 2013. Special features include a visual essay, a trailer, two radio adaptations, and a booklet with an essay from classic movie blogger, Farran Smith Nehme.

Read more about Gothic romance:
REBECCA (1940)