Friday, August 28, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: BATHING BEAUTY (1944)

Although she makes appearances in two earlier feature films, Bathing Beauty (1944) marks the debut of Esther Williams as a fully realized Hollywood star, with plenty of opportunities to show off her attractive figure and her signature swimming skills. This light, frothy comedy from director George Sidney is typical of the wartime Technicolor musicals released to buoy public morale and entertain the troops overseas; it doesn't take itself very seriously, and its thin plot is as much an excuse for a series of musical set pieces as anything else. In spite of that, Bathing Beauty provides plenty of entertainment for those who enjoy its particular kind of musical comedy, with Williams looking lovely and quite game for her romantic high jinks with costar Red Skelton. Musical performances from Xavier Cugat, Harry James, and Ethel Smith also make this a fun film for fans of the era's big band sound.

Williams stars as Caroline Brooks, a swimming teacher at a women's college who falls in love with song writer Steve Elliot (Red Skelton) during a trip to California. When Steve's friend and employer, George (Basil Rathbone), breaks up the couple's wedding with a phony bigamy claim, Caroline goes back to her job at the school, and Steve enrolls there as a student in order to convince her of his innocence. The faculty conspire to get Steve expelled, while his musician friends and new college classmates work equally hard to help him out.

As slight as its plot is, there are moments when Bathing Beauty falters, mostly in the bizarre waste of Basil Rathbone as the cause of Steve's marital woes. Williams occasionally shows her inexperience, as well, but she has a natural charm that quickly wins the audience over. She's an all-American beauty, tall, athletic, but utterly feminine, and she's especially flirtatious in her underwater scenes. The movie originally belonged to Red Skelton, with the title Mr. Co-Ed, but Williams usurped him and caused the focus of the picture to be altered. In spite of being knocked to second place, Skelton still has all of the movie's funniest scenes, and his character remains the most interesting and developed figure in the story. His ballet sequence, complete with pink tutu, is a scream, but he's also a lot of fun in his musical number, "I'll Take the High Note," performed with the adorably spunky Jean Porter. Skelton, whose mentor at MGM was Buster Keaton, excels at an expressive, physical comedy that recalls the silent era; he has the sweetness of a classic clown rather than the brash bravado of a Pre-Code comedian or more verbal comedic leads like Jack Carson. There's something sincere and vulnerable about Skelton's character that causes us to root for him even in the most ridiculous circumstances, like the scene when his romantic rival's huge dog keeps him trapped in Caroline's house, and he resorts to wearing her clothes in order to fool the beast.

Musical sequences fill as much of the film's running time as the narrative itself, offering audiences across the country a chance to enjoy the performances of the era's biggest acts. Although they play themselves, the musical stars also contribute to the story line by interacting with the protagonists and trying to help Steve, but they're really there to show off their stuff. Band leader Xavier Cugat and his orchestra open the picture with a poolside performance, assisted by Carlos Ramirez singing "Magic is the Moonlight." Harry James and his orchestra also perform, with James tearing it up on the trumpet. More unusual is the appearance of organist Ethel Smith as one of the college's music teachers; her numbers, which emphasize her footwork and sense of fun, are especially entertaining. Disney fans might recognize Smith from her "Blame It on the Samba" segment in Melody Time (1948), and she turns up again in the 1946 Williams picture, Easy to Wed.

Be sure to note familiar character actor Donald Meek in a brief but significant role; he gives Steve the idea to enroll at Victoria College. For more from George Sidney, see Anchors Aweigh (1945), The Harvey Girls (1946), and Kiss Me Kate (1953); Sidney directs Williams again in Jupiter's Darling (1955). Esther Williams and Red Skelton both appear in Ziegfeld Follies (1945), Neptune's Daughter (1949), and Texas Carnival (1951). See Williams with different leading men in Easy to Wed (1946), Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949), and Dangerous When Wet (1953). Skelton had a long television career, for which he is best remembered today, but you can see his earlier work in films like Ship Ahoy (1942), Panama Hattie (1942), and Du Barry Was a Lady (1943).

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

An Ode to Film Noir

Where will you find the asphalt jungle?
In a lonely place,
Where danger lives -
There they drive by night,
gun crazy,
Lured by brute force
and the sweet smell of success.

Between night and the city,
Somewhere past Sunset Blvd.
You'll find the lady from Shanghai.
"Kiss me deadly," she moans.
Suddenly, in the moonrise,
You see her fallen angel face
And know that it's too late for tears.
"Besides," she says, "the damned don't cry."

What is her name, that phantom lady?
Is it Gilda, Laura, Mildred Pierce?
Out of the past she comes,
From the place where the sidewalk ends.
She's a bad blonde, a black angel,
Born to kill with a touch of evil.
She leaves you spellbound, possessed.
This woman is dangerous.

In the end it's the kiss of death,
the set-up,
You find yourself in the dark corner,
Facing the long goodbye
on dangerous ground.
Farewell, my lovely.
By the time the big clock chimes
you'll be D.O.A.

You're past the turning point.
There's no way out.
You've been a witness to murder
in the naked city.
Sleep, my love, and
Kiss tomorrow goodbye.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: THE BLACK CASTLE (1952)

Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, Jr., only have supporting roles in The Black Castle (1952), but their presence adds genre credibility to this minor period thriller directed by Nathan Juran, here making his directorial debut. Richard Greene, Stephen McNally, and Paula Corday are the real stars of the picture, playing a deadly game of deception in a Black Forest castle crowded with spies and Gothic atmosphere. Although it's by no means an essential example of its type, The Black Castle succeeds at providing a round of interesting performances and some modest chills, with Greene in fine heroic mode and Karloff amusingly inscrutable as the castle's secretive physician.

Richard Greene plays the Englishman Sir Ronald Burton, who comes to the Black Forest looking for the vengeful count (Stephen McNally) who killed his friends. Under an assumed name, Sir Ronald gains admission to Count Karl von Bruno's castle as a guest, but his investigation is complicated by his attraction to the count's beautiful wife, Elga (Paula Corday, also known as Rita Corday). When the count discovers the truth about Sir Ronald and Elga, their lives are in peril, but the sympathetic Dr. Meissen (Boris Karloff) offers them a dangerous chance to escape.

Greene, best remembered for playing Robin Hood in a 1960 TV series, makes a charming and likable protagonist, with an early sword fight scene establishing his heroic character. He looks good in his eighteenth-century costume, as well, so we understand why Elga might be attracted to the gallant Englishman instead of her sadistic spouse. Stephen McNally keeps his villain's rage more or less under control until the last quarter of the picture, but Karl still gives us plenty of warning that he's a very dangerous man, and when he finally cuts loose we see the real brute beneath the civilized facade. Corday is lovely as the forcibly wed Elga, although early on she doesn't act as though she understands the extent of her husband's cruelty, and shouldn't she know better than anyone? We get the strange idea that theirs is a chaste marriage, which might make The Black Castle more suitable for the matinee kiddies but doesn't at all address the horror of being married to a psychotic egomaniac.

The tame sexuality is a sign that The Black Castle isn't really a horror film at all, in spite of Karloff and Chaney lurking around the castle's dark corridors. The opening is the most horrific scene in the whole movie, with Sir Ronald and Elga about to be buried alive after taking a powerful drug to evade Karl's evil plans. The story then flashes back to show us how they ended up in such jeopardy. Karloff's Dr. Meissen wavers between good intentions and cowardice as he tries to help the pair escape from Karl, but he's mostly there to advance the plot, and Karloff has to make the most of what he gets. Chaney gets even less to do as the mute henchman Gargon; almost anyone could have lumbered around and grunted in the few scenes where he appears, looking like a cross between Igor and Quasimodo. The more interesting henchman roles go to John Hoyt and Michael Pate as Karl's fellow counts, Steiken and Ernst, with Pate basically reprising his role from The Strange Door (1951).

Be sure to note character actor Henry Corden in the role of Fender; he's best remembered today as the voice of Fred Flintstone. Nathan Juran went on to direct 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), and, as Nathan Hertz, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958). See Karloff give Count Karl a more sinister role model in The Black Cat (1934), and catch Chaney in a more talkative mood in Inner Sanctum Mysteries like Weird Woman (1944) and The Frozen Ghost (1945). You'll find Richard Greene in The Little Princess (1939), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), and Forever Amber (1947). Stephen McNally, who started his career as Horace McNally, was a regular in Westerns; look for him in Winchester '73 (1950), The Duel at Silver Creek (1952), and Tribute to a Bad Man (1956).