Monday, September 30, 2013

Rocket City Bloggers Name Their Favorite Classic Movies!

Earlier this year I got to know other Huntsville area bloggers through a group called Rocket City Bloggers. They're a diverse crowd, with blogs about all kinds of interesting topics, and they're also pretty swell folks in general. Recently, I asked them to tell me about their favorite classic movies. Here are some of the responses, along with links to the relevant blogs. You'll find both the usual suspects and some more off-the-beaten path selections among their favorites. So many people replied that I don't have room for all of the movies and the bloggers who picked them, so I might have to do a follow-up post later!

Be sure to check out the blogs while you're adding some of these classic films to your Netflix queue. I have included links to my own reviews of the films whenever possible.

Paula Claunch of AKA Jane Random casts her vote for THE HAUNTING (1963), which is a great choice given that Halloween is just around the corner.

Tina Leach - also known as Trampoline Girl - is clearly a classic movie fan! BALL OF FIRE (1941), CAREFREE (1938), and THE THIN MAN movies all make her favorites list. She says, " I love the Nick and Nora Charles dynamic so much, their martini swilling, joke cracking, and of course Asta!"

Keith Parker is another cinephile, and his blog actually discusses science fiction, fantasy, and horror, so you won't be surprised to hear that DR. STRANGELOVE (1964) tops his list. Keith also gives top marks to CASABLANCA (1942), INHERIT THE WIND (1960), 12 ANGRY MEN (1957), and HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940).

Bo Williams obviously shares some of Keith's genre passions, since his picks include THEM! (1954), METROPOLIS (1927), and Stanley Kubrick's excellent PATHS OF GLORY (1957)  - nice choice, Bo! Bo bills his blog as "rarely senselessly vulgar; frequently slightly tacky," so head over to read his posts with your sense of humor packed and ready.

Carol Marks, who has several blogs, puts IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), and BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S (1961) at the top of her list. Not surprisingly for a group of Alabama bloggers, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD proved quite popular.

Kristen Wilson of She Writes Him offers IMITATION OF LIFE (1934 or 1959?), SCARFACE (1932, I hope!), and GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946) as some of her favorites - all solid picks that show she has also spent a lot of time watching old movies.

Other bloggers put in their votes for SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952), THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965), and THE SWORD IN THE STONE (1963). As I said before, they're a diverse bunch, but there's clearly a strong inclination toward musicals and family films.

You can also find reviews of 12 ANGRY MEN, PATHS OF GLORY, and SCARFACE in my book, BEYOND CASABLANCA: 100 CLASSIC MOVIES WORTH WATCHING, which is in paperback and on Kindle at Amazon. Obviously I have several films on my to-review list since I don't have links to everything that people chose for their favorites!

Friday, September 27, 2013

Bringing the Hollywood Heavies to PCAS 2013

Next week I'll be in Savannah, GA, for the 2013 meeting of the Popular Culture Association in the South (PCAS). It's a great time to see friends and hear papers about literature, film, and television as well as anything else that falls under the very broad umbrella of popular culture.

This year my paper is "Heavy: The Life and Films of Laird Cregar." Some friends and I have put together a whole panel on Hollywood heavies, which is going to be great because of the ways in which the topics intersect. Our panel is "Born to Be Bad: Classic Hollywood Villains." Jeff Thompson will be talking about "Leave Her to Heaven: A Film Noir with a Difference," Jonathan Lampley will discuss "Those Icy Eyes: Vincent Price in Shock and Dragonwyck," and Geoff Weiss will present "Lee Van Cleef: Badder than Eastwood."

I always learn something new about classic film when I get together with these guys, so I am really looking forward to hearing what they have to say. Many of my other cinephile and pop culture buddies are also PCAS regulars, and I'm especially happy that some of my former graduate students are once again attending the conference. Seeing them reminds me that that those years of teaching at UAH were not spent in vain.

I'll post my Laird Cregar essay here on the blog once I get back from the conference. I'm also hoping to persuade the other panelists to contribute their papers as guest posts - we'll see how that goes! If you happen to be a classic film scholar/blogger, I should mention that PCAS is very friendly toward non-academics and also welcomes graduate and even undergraduate students. Next year's meeting is already scheduled for New Orleans, so visit the PCAS website if you're interested in attending.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: HANGOVER SQUARE (1945)

Laird Cregar’s final film is the only one in which he received top billing, but Hangover Square (1945) shows just how much talent was lost with the star’s premature death in 1944, two months before the picture was released. Like the earlier Fox horror thriller, The Lodger (1944), Hangover Square features direction by John Brahm and a memorable supporting performance from George Sanders, but Cregar rules the screen as a mentally unstable protagonist who is both the monster and the ultimate victim of his own uncontrollable evil.

Cregar plays George Harvey Bone, a talented composer whose mild manner gives way to murderous psychosis whenever he hears discordant sounds. Despite the devoted concern of his girlfriend, Barbara (Faye Marlowe), and the support of his mentor, Sir Henry (Alan Napier), George falls under the seductive spell of singer Netta Longdon (Linda Darnell), who uses George to compose songs for her rising career. Netta thinks that George is merely a convenient sap, but her treachery provokes another of George’s deadly rampages. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard expert Dr. Middleton (George Sanders) struggles to uncover the truth about George’s disturbing blackouts.

The movie opens with a dramatic sequence in which we see George commit his first murder, so there is never any doubt that he becomes a killer during his mental lapses. Our knowledge of his hidden nature creates ongoing dramatic irony as we wait for George and the people around him to figure out what we already know, and the tension mounts because we realize that George will kill again whenever his mind is jarred by the right kind of sound. Cregar’s genius in the role lies in his ability to play normal George as a sweet, sensitive artist and then invest monstrous George with glassy-eyed, animal violence. Like Larry Talbot or Dr. Jekyll, George Harvey Bone is an unwilling and even unconscious killer; he remains sympathetic throughout the picture because he really can’t stop himself or control what his darker side does. Unlike most of the actors who play these other monsters, however, Laird Cregar performs both versions of his character without any special makeup or transformation, and he does a magnificent job, especially in the climactic sequence where he finally recognizes his own monstrosity while playing his deliriously Gothic concerto.

Although Cregar is clearly the star of the show, Linda Darnell stands out as the scheming, selfish Netta, who plays with fire so contemptuously that we yearn to see her burned. Our wish is granted in a very literal sense, for fire is another motif that recurs throughout the picture. The use of fire as a component in a gentle artist’s transformation into evil also figures in the later Vincent Price picture, House of Wax (1953), but Hangover Square offers parallels to many classic horror stories, including The Phantom of the Opera, The Wolf Man, and the many adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Like the 1931 and 1941 versions of the Hyde story, Hangover Square provides George with love interests who reflect his light and dark aspects, although Faye Marlowe’s angelic Barbara is far less interesting than Darnell’s naughty Netta. George Sanders, however, has a very good role as the cool, clinical doctor who acts as a foil to the nervously unhinged George.

Laird Cregar dropped a hundred pounds by crash dieting to remake himself as a traditional leading man for this role; the drastic weight loss and a subsequent gastric bypass surgery proved too much for his body and caused a fatal heart attack shortly after Hangover Square was completed. Be sure to pay attention to his very different appearance in his earlier films, including Blood and Sand (1941), This Gun for Hire (1942), and The Lodger (1944). John Brahm also directed The Undying Monster (1942), Hot Rods to Hell (1967), and many episodes of thriller and horror television series. See more of Linda Darnell in The Mark of Zorro (1940), My Darling Clementine (1946), and A Letter to Three Wives (1949). Don’t miss George Sanders in Rebecca (1940), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), and All About Eve (1950), although his own most memorable villain might be the tiger Shere Khan in Disney’s The Jungle Book (1967).

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: FOUR JILLS IN A JEEP (1944)

Directed by William A. Seiter, Four Jills in a Jeep (1943) is a fictionalized account of the real USO adventures of four Hollywood stars - Kay Francis, Carole Landis, Martha Raye, and Mitzi Mayfair - who travel to various parts of the globe to entertain the troops during World War II. Although it lacks the sheer entertainment value of other wartime revues like Hollywood Canteen (1944), Four Jills in a Jeep offers a uniquely realistic account of the ways in which stars helped the war effort by using their fame and talents to boost morale. Classic film fans can also enjoy musical performances from top Fox stars like Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda, although the four patriotic ladies who really undertook this trip together provide the picture’s greatest appeal.

Each of the four stars plays herself, with Kay Francis taking the lead as the group’s mother figure and Martha Raye providing the comic relief. Carole Landis is the singer of the bunch, and Mitzi Mayfair is the energetic dancer. Together, the women embark on an overseas tour that includes London and North Africa, and along the way they encounter bad weather, bombing, blackouts, and even romance.

While many of the wartime morale pictures are revues with narrative bits thrown in, Four Jills in a Jeep is more a story with musical segments scattered throughout. Jimmy Dorsey and his orchestra provide the accompaniment for most of the performances, and each of the four stars gets her opportunity to shine, but the women’s experiences prove more interesting than the songs and dances. It’s clear early on that the trip is a lot more challenging than they expected, but they gamely persevere, and their patriotism is genuine and affecting. Much of the romance is manufactured for the picture, but Carole Landis really did meet and marry a soldier during the tour. Sadly, by 1945 the two would divorce, and in 1948 the 29 year old actress ended her own life with a drug overdose. Her tragic story makes Landis the most moving presence in this film, since we see her recapturing moments of great happiness and demonstrating the real talent that would be lost with her premature death. Landis, by the way, also wrote the book version of Four Jills in a Jeep, although she had some help from a ghostwriter.

Several male costars support our leading ladies by taking the roles of soldiers, including Phil Silvers as Eddie, who functions as the group’s guide and assistant. Eddie also provides some additional comic relief, especially in his attempts to court Martha Raye, who rebuffs him every time. Singer Dick Haymes has better luck as Dick Ryan, an old flame of Mitzi’s who rekindles their romance and ultimately makes very good use of an otherwise harrowing moment in a North African trench. John Harvey, meanwhile, stands in for Carole Landis’ real life beau, Captain Thomas C. Wallace, as the handsome Ted Warren. Kay Francis enjoys a more muted romance with an English Army doctor, but most of the picture’s narrative attention focuses on the love lives of Landis and Mayfair. Haymes, with an excellent voice, gets the lion’s share of the screen time devoted to the men since he actually sings more songs than any other performer in the film.

In addition to brief appearances by Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda, you’ll also find Betty Grable and George Jessel. William A. Seiter also directed Stowaway (1936), You Were Never Lovelier (1942), and One Touch of Venus (1948). Kay Francis, a major leading lady of the Pre-Code era, stars in Man Wanted (1932), Jewel Robbery (1932), and Trouble in Paradise (1932). See more of Carole Landis in I Wake Up Screaming (1941) and Topper Returns (1941). The preternaturally flexible Mitzi Mayfair never made another feature film, but Martha Raye can also be found in Hellzapoppin’ (1941), Pin Up Girl (1944), and Monsieur Verdoux (1947). For a much more recent story of women’s experiences entertaining wartime troops, try The Sapphires (2012).

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Alice Faye Collections at Costco!

I picked up such a great bargain at my local Costco today that I just have to share. Our Huntsville store had BOTH of the Alice Faye DVD collections for $14.99 each!

I have had my eye on these for a while, but over at Amazon they are currently $33.93 for Volume I and a whopping $42.48 for Volume II, too much for my movie budget. Amazon says the list price for each is $49.99, which makes the Costco price an even sweeter deal.

If you enjoy Fox musicals from the WWII era and are already a Faye devotee, then you certainly ought to head over to your local Costco and see if they also have the sets in stock. The films on Volume I are That Night in Rio, Lillian Russell, On the Avenue, and The Gang's All Here. On Volume II you get Rose of Washington Square, Four Jills in a Jeep, Hollywood Cavalcade, The Great American Broadcast, and Hello, Frisco, Hello.

Look for reviews of Alice Faye films to be popular here on the blog the rest of September, as I make my way through both collections. Here are some of the Alice Faye films I have already reviewed -


Happy bargain hunting!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: 101 DALMATIANS (1961)

Walt Disney adapted 101 Dalmatians (1961) from the popular novel by English writer Dodie Smith, and by all accounts Smith was much happier with the experience than Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers. Smith might have been pleased because 101 Dalmatians is, in fact, a fairly faithful adaptation of the original story, with some key alterations, of course, but with most of its best material firmly intact. For dog lovers, 101 Dalmatians ranks right up there with Lady and the Tramp (1955) as one of Disney’s best canine tales, while classic movie fans will appreciate the vocal performance of leading man Rod Taylor as the heroic Pongo as well as the sly send-up of Tallulah Bankhead embodied in the fantastically campy Cruella De Vil.

The story follows handsome Dalmatian Pongo (Rod Taylor) and his human pet, Roger (Ben Wright), as they meet and set up housekeeping in London with their mates, Perdita (Cate Bauer) and Anita (Lisa Davis). Soon the canine couple welcome a litter of puppies, but their happiness is spoiled by the intrusion of Cruella De Vil (Betty Lou Gerson), who tries to buy the puppies as soon as they are born. Roger rejects Cruella’s money, but the puppies are later stolen by Horace and Jasper Baddun (J. Pat O’Malley and Frederick Worlock), working on Cruella’s orders. Determined to rescue their children, Pongo and Perdita set off on a dangerous journey through the snowy English countryside to find the puppies and bring them home.

One of the nicest parts of this story is its emphasis on two parents working together to save their family. Both Pongo and Perdita are active, brave, and capable; Disney movies often come up short in the maternal department, so Perdita’s role is especially refreshing, even if Pongo tends to take the lead. With the focus on perilous adventure, this is actually one of Disney’s least musical classics, but the naughty appeal of “Cruella De Vil” makes up in quality what the movie lacks in quantity of songs. Cruella herself would be absolutely terrifying if she weren’t so ridiculous, especially since her dream is to make dog skin coats out of the plethora of Dalmatian puppies she has stashed away at her crumbling country manor. She’s at her scariest when she gets behind the wheel of her car and tries to chase the dogs down after their escape, although the inevitable joke about women drivers sounds pretty lame to twenty-first century ears.

Unlike some other Disney pictures, 101 Dalmatians mostly relies on voice actors who aren’t particularly well known today, with Rod Taylor the obvious exception. Still, the movie offers a few tidbits for classic movie fans, particularly in Betty Lou Gerson’s outrageous parody of fellow Southerner Tallulah Bankhead in the voice of Cruella. Gerson really captures the notorious star’s manner of speaking, while the animation emphasizes the campier aspects of Bankhead’s persona in Cruella’s appearance and behavior. The Disney Cruella is still tamer than Smith’s original, who appears to be much more literally what her name implies, although some well-bred Alabama ladies might have said the same about Huntsville’s most infamous daughter. Interestingly enough, prolific character actress Mary Wickes provided the live-action reference performance for Cruella, which gives the character another layer of classic Hollywood significance. Wickes is also credited as providing an unspecified voice for the picture, and she’s joined in the large background cast by Thurl Ravenscroft, Barbara Luddy, and Dal McKennon. Sharp ears might also pick out The Falcon star Tom Conway as the voice of the Quizmaster and the helpful collie. If you think that collie sounds like a much more familiar classic actor, it’s because Tom Conway was really Tom Sanders, the brother of Oscar-winning star George Sanders.

Be sure to watch for quick cameo appearances by several of the canine characters from the earlier Lady and the Tramp. With its action leading up to a Christmas climax, 101 Dalmatians makes for good holiday family viewing. Disney has since made a live action version of the story and some sequels, but the original movie is still the best of the lot. For Rod Taylor’s most memorable roles, see The Time Machine (1960) and Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic thriller, The Birds (1963). Betty Lou Gerson also provides the voice of the narrator in Cinderella (1950), but you can catch her in live action in The Fly (1958). Check out Tom Conway in The Falcon films of the 1940s and in Val Lewton horrors like Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943). Finally, be sure to read Dodie Smith’s wonderful novel; it offers even more characters and scenes than the movie has room to include.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE BODY SNATCHER (1945)

Adapted from a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Body Snatcher (1945) is yet another example of producer Val Lewton’s genius for turning out elegant, literate horrors on a shoestring budget. This period tale of grave robbers in 19th-century Scotland benefits from the direction of Lewton protegee Robert Wise and the presence of genre icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, but the psychological effect of The Body Snatcher also hinges on a particularly memorable performance from Henry Daniell as a physician whose Faustian bargain with the resurrection man brings about his own undoing. Like most of the Lewton films for the RKO horror unit, The Body Snatcher eschews gore to revel in suggestion, but there is no shortage of unseen awfulness to stir the dark corners of the viewer’s imagination.

Karloff plays the title character, Cabman Gray, who drives a carriage for hire when he isn’t digging up corpses. Gray’s chief client is Dr. McFarlane (Henry Daniell), who loathes Gray but has too much history with him to escape the body snatcher’s power. When McFarlane takes on medical student Fettes (Russell Wade) as his assistant, he draws the young man into the dark side of Victorian medicine and exposes him to Gray’s machinations. Soon Gray begins providing corpses for McFarlane without waiting for them to die of natural causes, and McFarlane realizes that only one course of action will ever release him from Gray’s relentless grip.

Karloff and Daniell dominate the screen as two men who both hate and need one another, tied together by a past that evokes the lurid history of the notorious real life Edinburgh murderers Burke and Hare. Karloff plays Gray as a smiling villain who uses his friendly, obsequious manner to pacify his victims and disarm his enemies, which makes his outbursts of violence all the more shocking. Early in the film, he brutally kills a faithful little dog guarding its young master’s grave, so we understand the sort of outrageous cruelty of which he is capable. His opposite is Daniell’s McFarlane, mockingly called “Toddy” by Gray, who cannot smile even at those he really cares about, including his housekeeper, Meg (Edith Atwater), who is also secretly his wife. Gray is utterly, even gleefully, evil, while McFarlane is a man whose better nature has been corrupted by his involvement with the body snatcher’s trade.

The rest of the characters serve to react to the two protagonists and their ongoing conflict. Russell Wade, handsome but rather bland as Donald Fettes, must avoid repeating his teacher’s fate, and he also provides a muted romantic subplot with an attractive widow (Rita Corday) who has brought her crippled daughter (Sharyn Moffett) for treatment by Dr. McFarlane. The little girl, Georgina, adds some sentiment to the story with her plight, but she also brings irony in her childish obsession with Gray’s white horse, which otherwise functions as a symbol of death. Edith Atwater plays Meg to great effect, investing her with tragic resignation to the fate of the man she loves. Lugosi, oddly enough, has only a few scenes as Joseph, McFarlane’s servant, but his presence pays off with an opportunity to see him and Karloff together in one memorable, violent meeting.

Be sure to appreciate the beautiful singing voice and chilling fate of Donna Lee as the blind street girl, whose encounter with Gray is a quintessential moment of Lewton horror. For another collaboration between Val Lewton and Robert Wise, see Curse of the Cat People (1944), or try The Haunting (1963) for Wise’s most famous work in the horror genre. Karloff and Lugosi can be found in many Universal horror films both separately and together; see both of them in The Black Cat (1934), The Invisible Ray (1936), and Son of Frankenstein (1939). Career villain Henry Daniell has more memorable roles in The Sea Hawk (1940), The Great Dictator (1940), and Jane Eyre (1943); although not primarily a horror actor, Daniell did return to the genre for several episodes of the Boris Karloff television series, Thriller. For different tales of the resurrection men and their ghastly work, you might try more recent pictures like I Sell the Dead (2008) and Burke and Hare (2010), but it's also a frequent theme in the series of Frankenstein films.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940)

We think of Charlie Chaplin as a silent comedian, but he also made a number of talkies in his later career, the best known of which is The Great Dictator (1940), which offers a direct response to the global catastrophe then brewing on the European front. In this picture, made before the United States actually entered the war against Hitler, Chaplin demonstrates the courage of his convictions as well as his ability to pull off a fully realized speaking role. Some critics, including David Thomson, find fault with the idealistic speech that Chaplin delivers at the film’s climax, but people around the world must have responded to it enthusiastically in 1940, with that feeling of being on a terrible precipice that Chaplin so passionately captures. Today, those who appreciate the bravery in Chaplin’s cinematic statement will still find The Great Dictator powerful stuff, and film fans will also enjoy the performances of Chaplin himself as well as Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Henry Daniell, and Billy Gilbert.

Chaplin plays dual roles as a meek Jewish barber and the dictator Adenoid Hynkel, the ruler of a fictional country obviously meant to represent Nazi Germany. The barber, shell-shocked from his service in the previous war, emerges from a mental hospital to find his community under siege from Hynkel’s brutal stormtroopers and mounting violence. Hannah (Paulette Goddard), an orphaned Jewish girl, takes pity on the barber and even comes to love him, while a military officer (Reginald Gardiner) whose life the barber once saved draws him and his neighbors into a dangerous plan to end Hynkel’s tyranny. As the barber and his friends confront one hardship after another, Hynkel himself schemes against his fellow dictator, Napaloni (Jack Oakie), and aspires to world domination.

Of course the plot eventually involves the barber being mistaken for Hynkel, but that switch occurs very late in the picture. Until then, we move back and forth between Hynkel’s actions in his lavish palace and the barber’s sufferings in the Jewish ghetto. Both have their moments of comedy and drama, although Hynkel is played mostly as a buffoon, with Henry Daniell’s insidious Garbitsch as the evil mind behind the worst atrocities committed in Hynkel’s name. The barber, showing his affinity with Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, mostly runs from the troopers and engages in slapstick combat; he has no delusions of heroism but is pushed and buffeted by fate toward his climactic moment in the spotlight. Hynkel’s best scenes pit him against his rival, Napaloni, whose friendly manner of bullying the smaller dictator incenses Hynkel and drives him to increasingly extreme antics. The film’s most memorable moment, aside from the final speech, is Hynkel’s dance with a floating globe, a graceful and even beautiful metaphor for Hitler’s deadly pas de deux with the actual world.

Chaplin’s supporting players give him plenty to react to, especially Paulette Goddard as the feisty orphan, Hannah. Goddard and Chaplin were a real life couple at the time, but they would divorce in 1942, and the legality of their marriage has never been quite clear. Luckily their union lasted long enough for Goddard to play this role, which she performs with great energy and pluck, especially when Hannah repeatedly whacks stormtroopers on the head with a frying pan. Most of the other supporting characters are male, although Grace Hayle plays Mrs. Napaloni as a kind of Margaret Dumont character from the Marx Brothers canon, always unsure about what is going on around her and usually being tripped up by one of the more chaotic men. Maurice Moscovitch is sympathetic and wise as the Jewish community’s leader, Mr. Jaeckel, while Henry Daniell delivers a memorable villain in the sneeringly heartless Garbitsch, who constantly pours his poisonous ideas into Hynkel’s receptive ear. Schultz, the one good officer in Hynkel’s army, comes off as a sadly flat character, but Reginald Gardiner doesn’t get much opportunity to flesh him out. Jack Oakie, on the other hand, enjoys lots of screen time as the cartoonish Napaloni, whose size and bombastic talk irk little Hynkel so effectively.

The Great Dictator earned five Oscar nominations, including nods for Chaplin and Oakie, but it won nothing, thanks to a year of strong contenders that included The Philadelphia Story (1940), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and Rebecca (1940). See Chaplin and Goddard together in the earlier film, Modern Times (1936), and look for Goddard on her own in The Women (1939), So Proudly We Hail! (1943), and The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946). For more of Chaplin’s sound films, try Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952), or A King in New York (1957). Don’t miss career villain Henry Daniell in The Sea Hawk (1940), The Woman in Green (1945), and The Body Snatcher (1945). For another anti-Nazi comedy made during Hitler’s reign, see To Be or Not to Be (1942), which makes an excellent double bill with The Great Dictator.

"The Spinsters" on Kindle

Yes, there are spiders involved!
Being a former English professor and lifelong cinephile, I not only love good stories but yearn to tell them myself. I have been tapping away at various fiction projects for years - in between academic writing and classic movie blogging - and this week I finally took the plunge and published a short story on Kindle.

"The Spinsters" is a Gothic tale whose twisted sense of humor and little old lady characters are definitely inspired by ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944), although I have known quite a few mad old women in real life. There's something about them that I find endearing, even (and perhaps especially) when they behave badly. I dislike people who take advantage of the elderly, which happens all too often these days, so I invented Letitia and Louisa to even up the score. They're dear little things with a good dose of my Aunts Birdie and Sis in their makeup.

With a title like "The Spinsters," there have to be some spiders involved, so be forewarned if arachnids give you the willies. This fall the web spinners have been all about my garden, which reminded me that I had started this story some time ago and really wanted to finish it. 

This is meant to be the beginning of a collection of horror stories, each dealing with a different classic "monster" type. I have been watching quite a lot of old Universal horrors this fall, and if I don't run as mad as Dwight Frye by Halloween I hope to have several more finished and ready for readers.

"The Spinsters" is free on Kindle through Saturday, so you've nothing to lose by giving it a try. I hope you'll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Here's the link to the story on Amazon. Let me know what you think if you read it!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (1921)

Its title might suggest a horror story, but The Phantom Carriage (1921) really offers a supernatural morality tale in the same spirit as Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, including the idea of the year’s end as an opportunity to confront one’s own shortcomings and sins. This silent Swedish film, important for its influence on Ingmar Bergman as well as its own merits, features a compelling if melodramatic story rendered hauntingly sublime thanks to its eerie special effects, in which dead men’s souls rise from their bodies and Death’s carriage collects its passengers on both land and sea. Directed by Victor Sjöström and adapted from the novel by Selma Lagerlöf, The Phantom Carriage is certain to thrill Bergman devotees but should also appeal to those generally interested in silent film or even the timeless theme of a lost soul’s quest for redemption.

Sjöström himself plays deeply flawed protagonist David Holm, a drunkard who repeats a New Year’s Eve story of the phantom carriage to his equally inebriated friends. The legend says that the last soul to perish as the old year ends must drive Death’s carriage for the coming year, and David inevitably finds himself in just such a position. In his ghostly form, David is forced to relive his darkest moments and witness the suffering his sins have caused, but his chance for reclamation might not be as lost as it seems.

The performances drive home the story’s moral purpose, even as they reveal the natural actions of the varied characters. Sjöström in particular gives a terrific and moving performance; the scene in which he breaks down a door with an axe resonates with emotional power, but he can also be pathetically funny, as he is when David rejects the idea of being dead and tries to crawl back into his lifeless body. As Georges, Death’s representative and current coachman, Tore Svennberg is somber but sympathetic, a Marley for David’s reluctant Scrooge. The rest of the important characters are women whose lives have been ruined by David’s thoughtless cruelty. Hilda Borgström suffers to the point of despair as David’s unhappy wife, while Astrid Holm plays Sister Edit, the virgin martyr doomed by David’s disease-ridden presence but determined to pray for his salvation with her last dying breath.

Although the story alone is enough to make The Phantom Carriage worth watching, the otherworldly effects really grab the viewer’s attention, especially in a film this early. Sjöström superimposes images to give the carriage and the souls of the dead their ghostly appearance of being part of and yet separated from the living world. We see spirits lifted from their corpses and thrown unceremoniously into the back of Death’s carriage, a sobering vision of the moment of death. No far-flung region is too remote; Death comes to the suicide sitting at home and to the mariner drowning at sea. The carriage itself, drawn by a ragged nag, is homely and unadorned, but it seems to glow with an unearthly light, and the horse’s bones almost show through its starved, transparent sides. It might not be a horror story, but there is something ineffably terrible about that spectral carriage and its occupants, something that might well haunt the viewer after the final scene has closed.

Pair The Phantom Carriage with The Seventh Seal (1957), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), or your favorite film adaptation of A Christmas Carol to continue the supernatural mood. Victor Sjöström also directed memorable Hollywood silents, including He Who Gets Slapped (1924), The Scarlet Letter (1926), and The Wind (1928). Sometimes billed in the United States as Victor Seastrom, he directed his final film, Under the Red Robe, in 1937, but continued to appear as an actor in Swedish movies like Bergman’s To Joy (1950) and Wild Strawberries (1957). For a completely different cinematic encounter with Death, try Death Takes a Holiday (1934).

The Criterion Collection edition of The Phantom Carriage is currently available for streaming on Hulu Plus.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Check Out the New Movie Site Rinema

If you're already a user of Letterboxd and iCheckMovies, you'll want to check out the newest social media site for film fans, Rinema, which just launched earlier this week. I have been playing with it since it went live on Thursday, and so far I really like it. I also think it has some features that help it stand out from its competitors.

You can rate movies you have seen on Rinema, of course, but you can also do a lot more. The Pinterest inspired set up allows you to comment on movies rated or commented on by other users, and the visual design of the site is one of its most welcoming features. Lists are very easy to make and include the same strong visual component, although right now there are a few little kinks to work out (a "Feedback" button right on the page makes it easy to report any problems, however, should you have them).

I hope to add more "Taste Buddies" as the site acquires users. Rinema uses an OkCupid style of matching to compare users' ratings and suggest friends. Right now the pool is fairly small, but it should grow over time. The more movies you rate, of course, the more information the site has to work with.

Classic movie fans might have shared my frustration with iCheckMovies, which only rewards users for watching movies that are actually on its official lists, but Rinema is more egalitarian. It doesn't have any awards to work toward, but it does count every movie you rate. Rating movies is made even easier because Rinema lets you search movies by actor, director, or genre key word as well as title. That makes it really simple for classic film fans to go through and rate all of those Fred Astaire musicals, Preston Sturges comedies, and Joan Crawford dramas without having to type in every title. So far I have rated 1055 films since Thursday, but I have a lot left to do before I catch up with my actual tally!

If you do decide to give Rinema a try (it's free, so why not?), look me up. Here's my profile: I'm working on lists for BEYOND CASABLANCA readers, and once the new book comes out I'll add a list for that one, too.

Finally, I have to mention that I have had several email conversations with Rinema creator Grishma Udani (based out of India), and she is super nice and very enthusiastic about communicating with movie lovers and making the site work well. Be sure to "friend" her if you sign up as a user (she's easy to find on the Leaderboard). She is eager to get feedback from users, so let Rinema know what you do and don't like when you start rating films.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: ROBIN HOOD (1973)

Robin Hood has appeared on film many times, with Errol Flynn providing the most iconic version of the Sherwood outlaw, and the 1973 Disney version clearly takes its cues from the earlier pictures. The twist in this animated rendition of the classic tale is that all of the characters are depicted as talking animals, with the crafty Robin appropriately assuming the form of a handsome fox. Disney’s Robin Hood also adopts a folksy attitude that might not be historically accurate but really works quite well with the story and justifies the voices of familiar actors like Phil Harris, George Lindsey, Andy Devine, Ken Curtis, and Pat Buttram. With its classic story, colorful characters, and memorable songs, Robin Hood delivers good-humored family fun and makes a perfect starting point for introducing very young viewers to Robin and his band of friends.

In this version, as always, Robin Hood (Brian Bedford) and his comrade Little John (Phil Harris) live in Sherwood Forest and rob the rich in order to help the poor. Their enemies include the scheming Sheriff of Nottingham (Pat Buttram) and the evil Prince John (Peter Ustinov), who are using the absence of King Richard to squeeze the realm for their own gain. While dodging the Sheriff and doling out coins to the oppressed, Robin also finds time to rekindle an old romance with lovely lady fox, Maid Marian (Monica Evans), but a plot to execute Friar Tuck (Andy Devine) forces a climactic confrontation between our heroes and the Prince’s lackeys.

The movie juxtaposes its vision of "Merrie Olde England" with a distinctly American rural character, although a few key figures, including Robin and Prince John, retain their English accents and manners. We’re introduced to the film’s unique merger of English village and American country by the appearance of our narrator, Allan-a-Dale, a rooster voiced by the drawling popular singer Roger Miller. Kids today might have no idea who Miller is, but audiences in 1973 would have recognized the Grammy Award winning singer’s voice from his hit songs, including “King of the Road” and “England Swings.” The folksy ambience is enhanced by Western character actors Andy Devine as Friar Tuck, Pat Buttram as the Sheriff, and Ken Curtis as the vulture guard Nutsy. Southerner George Lindsey, best known as Goober on The Andy Griffith Show, provides the voice for Trigger, while bandleader and radio comedian Phil Harris, who grew up in Nashville, lends his lazy, subtle drawl to Little John.

The swashbuckling action is mostly light-hearted, with the archery contest fight a particular highlight, although Robin does face some more serious peril in the climactic finale. The outlaws are especially funny in an early caper conducted in drag as gypsy fortune tellers, and Phil Harris gets off some great lines in Little John’s scenes with Prince John at the contest. Terry-Thomas works the fork-tongued speech of Sir Hiss to wonderful effect, while Peter Ustinov perfectly conveys the effete villainy of Prince John, and together these two make their rotten characters more hilarious than threatening, especially when they find themselves outwitted by Robin yet again. Prince John, a lion without a mane, has a particularly hilarious habit of sucking his thumb and calling for his mother in times of distress; the psychosexual subtext of the character is undoubtedly lost on kids, but they'll still laugh heartily at the prince's childish tantrums.

Robin Hood earned an Oscar nomination for the song, “Love,” but you’ll probably find the songs performed by Roger Miller more memorable, and “Whistle Stop” has achieved a whole new level of popularity thanks to the “Hampster Dance” internet meme. Several of the voice artists appear in other Disney films: listen to Phil Harris in The Jungle Book (1967) and The Aristocats (1970), and catch Pat Buttram and George Lindsey as the troublesome hounds in The Aristocats. Adults will appreciate Peter Ustinov’s Oscar-winning performances Spartacus (1960) and Topkapi (1964). If the Disney version of the story is a hit with younger viewers, follow up with the 1938 Errol Flynn film.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: STRANGE CARGO (1940)

It might not be the most enlightening title, but Strange Cargo is certainly an apt way to describe the content of this 1940 drama from director Frank Borzage. Joan Crawford and Clark Gable lead an ensemble cast in a very strange story, indeed, which mixes a prison escape plot with a theme of spiritual redemption spurred by divine intervention. The result is a picture that will appeal to certain classic movie fans but simply baffle others; those who like Angel on My Shoulder (1946) and The Bishop’s Wife (1947) will also enjoy Strange Cargo, while Joan Crawford fans will appreciate the leading lady’s tough and distinctly unglamorous performance. The presence of notable supporting players like Ian Hunter, Peter Lorre, Eduardo Ciannelli, Paul Lukas, and Albert Dekker also enhances the interest of this picture for fans of character actors with long and varied careers.

Crawford plays Julie, an “entertainer” on a remote penal colony situated on a jungle island. When she’s unwillingly accosted by prisoner Verne (Gable), Julie is ordered off the island for fraternizing with the convicts, even though she has no money to pay for her passage. Julie’s forced departure coincides with a prison break by Verne and several other men, including loutish Moll (Albert Dekker), wife poisoner Hessler (Paul Lukas), and youngster Dufond (John Arledge), as well as the mysterious Cambreau (Ian Hunter). The escapees make their way toward the coast, and along the way Verne and Julie meet once again and press on together, venturing through a dangerous jungle and then facing an even deadlier ocean voyage in a small open boat. One by one, the convicts experience redemptive epiphanies about their lives and die, with Cambreau as their confessor and comforter. Eventually Verne, too, must confront his sins as well as Cambreau’s otherworldly origin.

Strange Cargo basically tells two very different stories with one set of characters. The first story, the more concrete and conventional of the two, is the prison break plot. The usual treachery, forced cooperation, and high mortality rate all make their appearances, with Moll and Verne vying for alpha male status among the men. Julie’s presence is an odd feminine addition to the setup, but it gives Verne something to possess as a symbol of his dominance, and her experiences on the island show how vicious and masculine this setting can be. The second story draws on the long tradition of the spiritual redemption narrative, which has its icons in stories like that of Paul on the road to Damascus, St. Augustine in his Confessions, and John Bunyan in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. With Cambreau as the agent of God’s forgiveness, the characters - sinners all - experience conversion and salvation, although the diabolical murderer Hessler pointedly rejects Cambreau’s offer of grace, slinking off to find new victims like the Devil in a medieval morality play. For most of the characters, salvation arrives just in time for their souls to ascend to Heaven, but the religious nature of the story insists that such deaths are victories because of the larger, eternal stakes for which Cambreau is playing.

The performances help to sell this unusual narrative merger, especially Joan Crawford’s fearless portrayal of Julie. The role requires little makeup, less wardrobe, and plenty of dirt and sweat, but Crawford tackles it all, and the fierce quality that defines the actress suits the character perfectly. Gable, no slouch at playing a hard luck type, either, makes Verne attractive enough that we forgive his rough manner even though his faults are clearly on display. The supporting players provide a diverse group, with Peter Lorre sweaty and reprehensible as Julie’s stool pigeon admirer, Eduardo Ciannelli intense as the convict Telez, and Paul Lukas really chilling as the unrepentant Hessler. Albert Dekker does an excellent job showing both sides of Moll, who acts like a brute but harbors a deep and honest affection for the young Dufond. Every convict except for Hessler has his better nature as well as his flaws, which gives the actors plenty to work with in their roles. Of course, the whole thing hinges on Ian Hunter’s beatific Cambreau, whose serene but solid presence upholds the others at the darkest moments of their lives. Hunter makes his angelic character heavenly without being stiff, and his face glows with charitable love for his fellow escapees. In the film’s climax, he becomes a Christ figure, his arms stretched across a beam as Verne finally has his own epiphany about the nature of man and God. It’s a heavy-handed moment, to be sure, but it’s consistent with the film’s message and underscores what has gone before.

For more angels among men, see It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Angels in the Outfield (1951), or Wings of Desire (1987). Frank Borzage, who won two Oscars for his work, also directed A Farewell to Arms (1932), The Mortal Storm (1940), and Stage Door Canteen (1943). See more of Crawford and Gable in Possessed (1931), Dancing Lady (1933), and Chained (1934). You’ll find Ian Hunter playing paternal and princely types in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and The Little Princess (1939). Paul Lukas won the Oscar for Best Actor for Watch on the Rhine (1943), and he also appears in The Lady Vanishes (1938) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Eduardo Ciannelli played many small and uncredited roles, but you can catch him giving a very memorable performance as the murderous guru in Gunga Din (1939). Finally, look for Albert Dekker in The Killers (1946), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and The Wild Bunch (1969).

Strange Cargo is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: JOHNNY GUITAR (1954)

Director Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) has the trappings of a conventional Western, with its cowboy hats, lynch mobs, and hold ups, but the heart of the movie beats to the rhythms of melodrama and noir, and this triple blend makes the film quite a chimera. Taking the vicious rivalry of two women as its major theme, Johnny Guitar revels in a perverse reversal of the usual character tropes of the Western, even as it also explores the dangers of mob mentality seen in more traditional Westerns like The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). Joan Crawford stars with a cast that includes many Western regulars, including Ward Bond, Ernest Borgnine, John Carradine, and Royal Dano, but the fireworks between Crawford and rival actress Mercedes McCambridge will keep viewers glued to the screen.

Sterling Hayden plays the title character, a former gunslinger turned guitar player, but the real protagonist is Joan Crawford’s Vienna, who calls Johnny in as protection against the ranchers who want to close down her bar. Johnny and Vienna have history together, but Vienna has also attracted the admiration of the handsome Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady). When the Kid and his gang hold up the bank, Vienna’s bitter rival, Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), hopes to implicate Vienna in the crime and induce the local posse to lynch her. The Kid, meanwhile, encounters problems of his own as his gang falls apart in the aftermath of the robbery.

Vienna is a perfect character for this incarnation of Joan Crawford, with her wide, red mouth and hard eyes full of anger. She is a fury in men’s clothes, all sharp edges only rarely relieved by any hint of softness. Equally intimidating is her antagonist, Emma, who straps on a gun belt over her mourning dress to lead the posse on its bloodthirsty quest. Neither woman is represented as beautiful or vulnerable, and neither symbolizes civilization in the way the Western’s women normally do. These women hate each other so passionately that they make the men around them nervous; even Emma’s ally, McIvers (Ward Bond), flinches at Emma’s relentless wrath. The lynching attempt serves as a climactic moment, when the men, unwilling to hang a woman, tell Emma that she’ll have to kill Vienna herself.

As Johnny, Sterling Hayden plays it low key in contrast to the pitched emotions of the two women, but his presence helps to enhance the noir atmosphere. The rest of the supporting cast includes actors who are perfectly at home in a Western, particularly Ward Bond, although his part in leading the mob pales against the irresistible force of Mercedes McCambridge’s Emma. John Carradine, lurking around the edges of the picture through much of the action, makes the most of his one big scene, and Ernest Borgnine is up to no good from the first time we see him, the only really bad guy in the Dancin’ Kid’s not so bad band. Young Ben Cooper gives the gang pathos as boyish Turkey, while Royal Dano nurses a consumptive cough as Corey. The Kid's humane treatment of both, and his loyalty to them, contrasts with Borgnine's selfish Bart and the murderously self-righteous townspeople, who have the gall to accuse the Kid and his gang of being the undesirables in the area.

Take time to appreciate the film’s pointed use of symbolism, from Vienna’s carefully chosen white dress to the chandelier that features in several key scenes. The bar itself is one of the most important symbols; Vienna makes it clear that every beam and nail in the place represents some piece of herself prostituted to a parade of lusting men, much to Johnny’s distress. Given that history, the bar’s fate is not only inevitable but necessary if Johnny and Vienna are to have any hope of rebuilding their relationship, assuming they survive the deadly plans of the lynch mob and the treachery brewing in the Kid’s band of thieves.

It would be difficult to recommend another film quite like Johnny Guitar, but director Nicholas Ray also made In a Lonely Place (1950), On Dangerous Ground (1952), and Rebel without a Cause (1955). For more of Joan Crawford in the 1950s, try The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), Sudden Fear (1952), and Torch Song (1953). Sterling Hayden, best known for his noir roles, also stars in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Crime Wave (1954), and The Killing (1956). Mercedes McCambridge won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her screen debut in All the King’s Men (1949), but you’ll also find her in Giant (1956), A Farewell to Arms (1957), and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). For more conventional Westerns with Ward Bond, see John Ford classics like My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), and The Searchers (1956).

Classic Films in Focus: MARY POPPINS (1964)

Disney has had a hit or miss history with its live action films, but Mary Poppins (1964), directed by Disney veteran Robert Stevenson, stands as a testament to the studio’s ability to make really fine pictures with human stars, and the film’s five Oscar wins and thirteen nominations make it Disney’s best contender of all time at the Academy Awards. Of course, a lot of the movie’s appeal stems from the captivating Julie Andrews, making her big screen debut as the practically perfect nanny and taking home a Best Actress Oscar for her performance. Today, Mary Poppins is still a thoroughly charming family film that also rewards seasoned cinephiles with appearances by a number of favorite stars, including Glynis Johns, David Tomlinson, and even Elsa Lanchester and Jane Darwell.

Andrews plays the title character, who arrives as the new nanny in the rather dysfunctional Banks family. Mrs. Banks (Glynis Johns) spends all of her energy on the suffragist cause, while Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson) devotes himself to his work at the bank and thinks that his home ought to be businesslike, as well. Little Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber) Banks, lost in this shuffle, delight in their new nanny’s magical abilities and embark on a series of adventures with her and her friend, Bert (Dick Van Dyke), but their chatter about their unusual outings only riles Mr. Banks. A crisis ensues, but Mary Poppins’ lessons eventually put everything right.

Julie Andrews demonstrates the enormous talent that would take her through an impressive subsequent career, leading to two more Best Actress nominations. She sings, dances, and acts beautifully, and she looks simply adorable with her bright eyes, pert little nose, and trim figure. It’s impossible not to fall in love with her, especially during musical numbers like “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Stay Awake,” and, of course, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Andrews’ Mary is always ladylike, but she still evinces a lively sense of humor, even under the most trying circumstances. The subtle suggestion of romance between Mary and Bert adds a touch of melancholy to an adult’s perception of the story, since we know that Mary will only stay until the wind changes.

Children will enjoy the combination of live action and animation used in the chalk drawing sequence, as well as the energetic dance numbers and Dick Van Dyke’s affable comedy. Be sure to point out to them that Van Dyke also plays the elderly Mr. Dawes at the bank, a role that proves he can do a decent English accent if not a plausible Cockney one. Classic movie fans will be pleased to see a variety of familiar faces among the supporting cast, including Hermione Baddeley and Reta Shaw as the servants, Elsa Lanchester as Katie Nana, Arthur Treacher as the constable, and Reginald Owen as the aptly named Admiral Boom. Ed Wynn has a particularly fun role as Uncle Albert, while the great character actress Jane Darwell makes her final screen appearance as the woman who sells food for the birds.

Robert Stevenson also directed the somewhat similar follow-up picture, Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), as well as Old Yeller (1957), The Love Bug (1968), and The Shaggy D.A. (1976). For more of Julie Andrews, see The Sound of Music (1965), Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), and Victor Victoria (1982). Dick Van Dyke also stars in the family classic, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), and you’ll find both David Tomlinson and Glynis Johns in the mermaid comedy, Miranda (1948). For more magical nannies, try the two Nanny McPhee films starring Emma Thompson.