Saturday, October 31, 2009

Coming distractions: February 2010 on TCM

Nobody is perhaps more surprised than I am to learn that Turner Classic Movies already has their tentative February 2010 schedule up and judging by the offerings, it looks as if we’ve walked into their annual Thirty-One Days of Oscar fete because I see they’re going to be showcasing many of the “big guns.” The Oscar festival on TCM is usually a fallow time for me because I’ve usually recorded most of the movies I’m passionate about—but there are a few scattered goodies here and there, including “premieres” and movies I’ve either never seen or haven’t seen recently on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™:

February 3, Wednesday – TCM continues digging into the 20th Century-Fox vault with Elia Kazan’s Oscar-nominated (and controversial for its time) Pinky (1949; 8pm), starring Jeanne Crain as a black woman who passes for white. (I’ll wait for the snickering to subside.) It’s hopelessly outdated now (along with Kazan’s Gentleman's Agreement [1947]) but since I’ll still watch Agreement for the performances by John Garfield and Celeste Holm I’ll catch this one for the appearances by the two Ethels (Barrymore and Waters), and Nina Mae McKinney. (This reminds me—I’ve yet to crack open my Warner Archive copy of Lost Boundaries [1949].)

February 4, Thursday (which also happens to be Ivan Sr.’s birthday) – One of the most beloved horror films is scheduled for 8:00pm, the classic The Uninvited (1944) starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey. This is one of the films that is coming soon to Warner’s Universal Collection on DVD (here’s the poop from the good people at The Shelf), but I’ll bet I’m not alone in wishing they could have scheduled it this month in keeping with the Halloween theme. (My Facebook pal Rupert did a nice write-up on this classic back in May at his Classic Movie Digest blog that is certainly worth your time.) After this, TCM’s got another rarely-seen Universal/Ray Milland chestnut scheduled in Kitty (1945, 10p), a period costume drama directed by the underrated Mitchell Leisen and starring Paulette Goddard in the title role. (The last time I saw this one—honest to my grandma—was on AMC, so that should tell you how long that’s been.)

February 8, Monday – I’ve never seen The Seventh Cross (1944), and though I believe it’s going to be shown earlier on TCM than this particular date I’ve gone ahead and penciled it in. One of the best political conspiracy thrillers is scheduled afterward— Seven Days in May (1964, 6p)—and this review by Laura at her Miscellaneous Musings should get you pumped to see it…if you haven’t already. At 8pm, TCM will run Julia (1977), starring Vanessa Redgrave, Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep and Jason Robards. Robards and Redgrave won Best Supporting Oscars for their fine performances and Alvin Sargent’s screenplay also nabbed a little gold statuette.

February 10, Wednesday – You’ll be able to see why I hold the late Richard Widmark in such high regard when TCM runs a double feature (starting at 8pm) of two of his best film noirs: Kiss of Death (1947) and Pickup on South Street (1953).
February 12, Friday – I took a film class in college many moons ago, and one of the movies shown by the instructor was The Pumpkin Eater (1964, 6p), director Jack Clayton’s follow-up to his critically-acclaimed The Innocents (1961). It’s a probing tale of a troubled marriage starring Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch, and while I wasn’t impressed with it the first time I saw it curiosity has prompted me to want to get a second glance.

February 15, Monday – The Sea Wolf (1941) at 11:45am. Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield and Ida Lupino. I shall say no more. Oh, and there’s a splendiferous Olivia de Havilland double feature on later that evening (beginning at 8pm): The Snake Pit (1948) and The Heiress (1949).
February 23, Friday – The first time TCM ran Artists & Models (1937; 4:30pm), technical difficulties wiped out the video portion of the presentation for about the first 15-20 minutes though the soundtrack remained intact. They said they would schedule an encore, and…well, better late than never, I suppose.
February 25, Sunday (my mom's birthday!) – The only feature film produced with the beloved kids from Our Gang will be shown at 12:45pm, General Spanky (1936). I’ve seen it once before and unless you’re a Little Rascals stalwart you might want to avoid it. Stick with the classic noir The Killers (1946) with Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, Charles McGraw and William Conrad (“They eat the dinner. They all come here and eat the big dinner.”), showing later that evening at 8pm instead.

February 26, Monday – This one’s for Stacia: TCM will run the 1966 cult classic directed by John Frankenheimer, Seconds, at 3:00am (early Tuesday morning). This one-of-a-kind film has been discontinued on DVD, so have your DVRs and TiVos at the ready.
February 27, Tuesday – There has been much discussion over whether or not TCM should run recent movies on their schedule and while their scheduling of L.A. Confidential on January 5th next year (2:15am) is a good argument why they should, the scheduling of Titanic (1997; known around Castle Yesteryear as “Gigantic”) on this date at 10:15pm is an equally good counterargument. Which just goes to prove that things get complicated when you get past eighteen.
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Silent Horrors: The Man Who Laughs (1928)

I had every intention of getting this review up yesterday, but ran into a few roadblocks along the way. The DVD recorder was in use for the better part of the day, capturing the Karloff films I didn’t already have in my collection (I could have used the DVD player on the computer, but I was defragmenting it at the time), and I also went on a few errands to Publix (groceries) and Office Depot (copy paper and ink cartridges for the computer). By the time Karloff had left the building and I settled down to watch The Man Who Laughs (1928), I was too tired to write anything…so I postponed it till today.

Laughs, based on the Victor Hugo story L'Homme qui rit, is the story of Gwynplaine (Julius Molnar, Jr.), the son of an English nobleman who’s had the misfortune of getting on the bad side of King James II (Sam De Grasse). The monarch has arranged for a surgeon with a band of gypsies (known as Comprachicos) to carve a permanent rictus on the face of the young boy, so that he may “laugh forever at his fool of a father”—an arrangement loyally carried out by his jester, Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst). (The nobleman, on the other hand, gets a trip to the torture device known as the Iron Maiden—which is quite a feat, since the film’s plot starts out in 1690 and the Maiden wasn’t invented until 1793.) With the stalwart backbone present in all political leaders, James then decrees that all Comprachicos be banished from England (specifically for their habit of mutilating children with radical facial surgery—“I am shocked…shocked to discover gambling going on here!”) and so the gypsies beat a hasty retreat out of Blighty. Gwynplaine’s “plastic surgeon,” Dr, Hardquannone (George Siegmann), tries to convince his fellow Comprachicos to take Gwynplaine with them, but is overruled when the others are worried about being found with the “evidence.” Gwynplaine wanders about in sub-freezing temperatures (and rescues a baby from a dying mother in the process) before being taken in by “Ursus the Philosopher” (Cesare Gravina) and Ursus’ pet wolf Homo.

Many years pass, and the now-adult Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) has partnered up with Ursus as a sideshow attraction (what else? “The Man Who Laughs”…). The baby is now a strikingly beautiful young woman named Dea (Mary Philbin) who, though blind at birth, loves Gwynplaine because she is able to see the inside of the man as a tender and noble soul without being repulsed by his hideous grin. Hardquannone has also caught up to Gwynplaine and his group, and arranges for a message to be sent to Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova) informing her of Gwynplaine’s existence. Josiana, it would seem, inherited the lands that belonged to Gwynplaine’s father and when Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell) learns of this situation (thanks to Barkilphedro, who has made quite a name for himself in the Royal Court as an obsequious little toady) she decides to punish Josiana (she’s a bit of a flighty sort, and refuses to know her place) by recognizing Gwynplaine as the true heir…and decreeing that Josiana marry Gwynplaine in order to maintain her station. Gwynplaine is arrested by the Queen’s men and restored to his place in the House of Lords (and if you were expecting me to ask: “What’s one more clown in the House of Lords?” I’m glad I didn’t disappoint you), but he renounces his title and, defying the Queen (“A king made me a clown! A queen made me a Peer! But first, God made me a man!”), runs off to reunite with Dea and Ursus as they are leaving by ship (under a decree, they have been “banished” from England).

Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert once remarked of this silent classic: “The Man Who Laughs is a melodrama, at times even a swashbuckler, but so steeped in Expressionist gloom that it plays like a horror film.” I think that’s a nail-on-the-head description of this mesmerizing film, and while there are a good many films by director Paul Leni that I’ve not had the privilege of seeing I’d certainly say that Laughs is his best by far. Once again, Leni transcends what could have been a stuffy and conventional outing by steeping the narrative in Expressionistic style—a great example of this is a harrowing scene in which the young Gwynplaine wanders aimlessly in a snowstorm while in the distance, the shadows of those Comprachicos unlucky to have made it out of England are silhouetted against the sky, dangling from the hangman’s rope. Leni also borrows a few tricks from his directorial peers, notably the impressive editing during the climactic escape sequence (shades of D.W. Griffith). One of my favorite shots in the movie is a nice tracking bit where the would-be blackmailer Hardquannone follows several of Barkilphedro’s representatives around the corner of a carnival tent; the camera goes with them, and upon getting around the corner we see the good doctor getting the snot beat out of him and carted off to prison. Major kudos go out to cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton and art director Charles D. Hall (who, it can be said, played a huge role in establishing “the look” of future Universal horrors like Dracula [1931], Frankenstein [1931] and The Black Cat [1934]) for making this movie a virtual feast for the eyes.

The Man Who Laughs, as commenter mgconlan pointed out in the comments section of another post, was originally conceived as a vehicle for Lon Chaney after his success in the Universal releases The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923; also based on a work by Hugo) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). But by the time the project got underway in 1927, Chaney was under contract to M-G-M, and his success as one of that studio’s major breadwinners (he made four films for Leo the Lion that year, including The Unknown and the legendary London After Midnight) ruled out any participation in a Universal film, so the part went to Conrad Veidt. I agree with mgconlan that Chaney would had been nothing short of sensational in the part, but Veidt acquits himself extremely well in the title role, making full use of his eyes and elaborate hand gestures to convey the sorrow of a man with a smirk tattooed on his face.

What I found most interesting in some of the casting in Laughs is that while Gwynplaine is certainly a dyed-in-the-wool grotesque, some of the other male characters ain’t going to be cat walking much, either. Ursus is a stunted weed of a man with a bulbous nose and what appears to be a Brillo pad for hair, while the character of Barkilphedro possesses a visage that makes you wonder how he got into the jester business in the first place. The character of Lord Dirry-Moir (Stuart Holmes), the fiancé of Josiana, is also a real piece of work—with a facial expression (he reminded me a bit of character actor Billy de Wolfe) that screams “simpleton.” Only the women seem to emerge unscathed: Dea and Josiana are as lovely as can be—Philbin, who receives top-billing, is good in an otherwise thankless role (she spends most of her time onscreen simpering and simulating blindness with a thousand-yard stare); Baclanova, on the other hand, goes to town with the “bad girl” part—she’s perhaps best-known to classic movie buffs as the treacherous Cleopatra in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). (I must also confess that I had to stifle a chuckle when I saw actress Josephine Crowell as Queen Anne because I remember her more for her comic turn as Harold Lloyd’s nagging mother-in-law in his 1924 feature Hot Water (I also saw her recently in the Charley Chase two-reeler No Father to Guide Him [1925]).

Actor Veidt was required to wear a facial appliance to replicate the hideous Joker-like grin (yes, Batman creator Bob Kane acknowledged that Gwynplaine was the model for Gotham City’s criminal mastermind) but the result was that he was unable to speak, which nipped the plans to make Laughs a sound film in the bud. Instead, Universal produced the movie with a background of music and sound effects—which is sort of off-putting in places: the song When Love Comes Stealing crops up in several scenes even though no one appears to be singing it onscreen. I do think the sound effects are effective in a memorable scene when Ursus decides to keep Gwynplaine’s arrest a secret from Dea by getting his “players” to imitate the noisy crowds his play attracts every night (you can hear a faint “Gwynplaine! Gwynplaine!” on the soundtrack). I was curious as to how far Ursus could keep up the deception, but fortunately for him the show is stopped by representatives of the Queen before it can go on.

Interestingly enough, the 1928 Laughs was not the first attempt to bring Hugo’s work to the screen; versions were also produced in 1909 (now considered lost) and 1921 (Das grinsende Gesicht)—and there was also an Italian version in 1966 entitled L'uomo che ride. Schlockmeister William Castle also used Laughs as the inspiration for his 1961 horror flick Mr. Sardonicus.

Kino Video released a restored version of The Man Who Laughs to DVD in 2003 and I’d like to state that it is one of that company’s best releases; the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna restored the visual images at the laboratories of L’Immagine Ritrovata, and Universal took charge of restoring the original Movietone soundtrack. It’s choc-a-bloc with some great extras: a twenty-minute documentary entitled The Making of The Man Who Laughs, a gallery of rare photographs and art, an essay on the film by Conrad Veidt On Screen author John Soister—and my particular favorite, home movies showing stars like Veidt, Camilla Horn, Delores del Rio, Greta Garbo and Emil Jannings relaxing at home. (One revealing sequence shows Jannings unable to finish drinking a glass of milk, which should have tipped every one off at the time that he was a Nazi-in-the-making: Nazis never drink milk!)

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Halloween night viewing

Friday, October 30, 2009

When worlds collide #67

Tell them Boris sent you!

In one half-hour, Turner Classic Movies will kick off a mini-marathon of films starring the one-and-only Boris Karloff. Most of the films consist of quickies he made for Columbia (I think Universal loaned him out once a year to do films for the Lady With the Torch) but there are a few nuggets among the dross: The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), The Black Room (1935), The Walking Dead (1936) and Isle of the Dead (1945) are the ones that immediately come to mind. But as a lifelong Karloff devotee, I can state this with absolute certainty: he made have made some bad films, but he never made a boring one. The schedule as follows:

6:00 AM Behind the Mask (1932)

A Federal Agent goes undercover in prison to break up a drug syndicate. Cast: Jack Holt, Constance Cummings, Boris Karloff. Dir: John Francis Dillon. BW-68 mins,

7:15 AM Mask of Fu Manchu, The (1932)

A Chinese warlord threatens explorers in search of the key to global power. Cast: Boris Karloff, Lewis Stone, Myrna Loy. Dir: Charles Brabin. BW-68 mins, TV-PG, CC

8:30 AM Ghoul, The (1933)

An ancient Egyptian returns to punish those who violated his tomb. Cast: Boris Karloff, Cedric Hardwicke, Ernest Thesiger. Dir: T. Hayes Hunter. BW-81 mins, TV-G, CC

10:00 AM Black Room, The (1935)

An evil twin brother disposes of his enemies in a secret death chamber on his estate. Cast: Boris Karloff, Marian Marsh, Katherine Demille. Dir: Roy William Nell. BW-68 mins, TV-G, CC

11:15 AM Walking Dead, The (1936)

A framed man comes back from the dead to seek revenge. Cast: Boris Karloff, Edmund Gwenn, Marguerite Churchill. Dir: Michael Curtiz. BW-65 mins, TV-PG, CC

12:30 PM Man They Could Not Hang, The (1939)

A mad scientist uses an artificial heart pump he invented to seek revenge after he is executed. Cast: Boris Karloff, Lorna Gray, Robert Wilcox. Dir: Nick Grinde. BW-70 mins,

1:45 PM Man With Nine Lives, The (1940)

A doctor's attempts to cure cancer lead to a series of grisly murders. Cast: Boris Karloff, Roger Pryor, Jo Ann Sayers. Dir: Nick Grinde. BW-74 mins, TV-PG

3:00 PM Before I Hang (1940)

A mad scientist experiments with a serum tainted with a psychopath's blood. Cast: Boris Karloff, Evelyn Keyes, Bruce Bennett. Dir: Nick Grinde. BW-62 mins, TV-PG, CC

4:15 PM Ape, The (1940)

A mad doctor dresses as an ape to kill victims for their spinal fluid. Cast: Boris Karloff, Maris Wrixon, Gertrude Hoffman. Dir: William Nigh. BW-62 mins, TV-PG

5:30 PM Devil Commands, The (1941)

A scientist kills innocent victims in his efforts to communicate with his late wife. Cast: Boris Karloff, Richard Fiske, Anne Revere. Dir: Edward Dmytryk. BW-64 mins, TV-14

6:45 PM Isle Of The Dead (1945)

The inhabitants of a Balkans island under quarantine fear that one of their number is a vampire. Cast: Boris Karloff, Ellen Drew, Helene Thimig. Dir: Mark Robson. BW-72 mins, TV-PG, CC

The reason why I’m pointing this out is that this will provide fodder for the Boris Karloff Blogathon, being sponsored by Frankensteinia: The Frankenstein Blog, a weblog devoted to the actor's immortal horror role by Pierre Fournier, a Canadian comic book writer and artist. I sent Pierre an e-mail letting him know that I was very interested in participating in the blogathon—something I don’t normally do, by the way, but it’s not because I’m a snob…I’m just way too disorganized to ever commit to contributing posts. (Ask Ed Copeland about my annoying habit of “getting things under the wire” sometime.) Since Pierre’s already included Thrilling Days of Yesteryear in the list of blogs that will contribute, I’m pretty much dedicated to the cause—but the events don’t kick off until November 23rd so I’m pretty sure I’ll have something by then. (For those of you who have just started a pool—I’m in for a couple of squares.) This means TDOY will devote at least one post to Boris; and since there are a few films on this list that I don’t yet have in the dusty archives TCM will be a grand place to start…plus I have that Karloff box set from Sony that I’ve been itching to open and I’ll even throw in some television guest appearances to seal the deal.

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

I couldn't help it...this made me laugh...#3

Silent Horrors: The Cat and the Canary (1927)

John Willard’s hardy old stage chestnut—first performed in New York City on February 7, 1922—has been around the block, cinematically so to speak, on at least four different occasions: 1927, 1930 (as The Cat Creeps), 1939 and 1978. I’ve now seen all of them except the 1930 version—which is considered a lost film—and my favorite is the one made in 1939 because it was the film that brought Bob Hope to cinematic prominence. But after seeing the original silent version (directed by German director Paul Leni) this morning via Kino’s 2007 DVD release (this is the Photoplay restoration produced by Patrick Stanbury and Kevin Brownlow), I’m convinced that while Hope’s Canary still holds a place in my itty-bitty film buff heart, the Leni production certainly gives it a run for its money.

Canary—considered the “granddaddy” of all ‘dark old house” mysteries—stars Laura La Plante as Annabelle West, the heir to a fortune left in a twenty-year-old will by eccentric millionaire Cyrus West. But before Annabelle can cash in on her inheritance, Roger Crosby (Tully Marshall), the executor of West’s estate, reveals that Annabelle must undergo an examination by a doctor (Lucien Littlefield) to prove that she’s sane—and if she flunks this, the fortune will revert to…well, an heir whose name is concealed in an envelope in the barrister’s coat pocket. The rest of the family that gathered for the reading of the will—nephews Paul Jones (Creighton Hale), Harry Blythe (Arthur Edmund Carewe) and Charles Wilder (Forrest Stanley); along with West’s sister Susan Sillsby (Flora Finch) and her daughter Cecilia (Gertrude Astor)—stay on for a nosh of dinner, only to be informed by a guard (George Siegmann) that an escaped lunatic (known at “The Cat”) is on the loose. Crosby tries to warn Annabelle of the identity of the family member next in line for the fortune but he is kidnapped via a hairy hand that appears out from a secret passage hidden in a bookshelf…and the hunt for the kidnapper begins.

Canary will seem like fairly conventional material to anyone who’s seen this type of film before, but in Leni’s hands it becomes a riveting little mystery-thriller. He’s particularly adept at applying the expressionistic techniques he learned while working in the German cinema to the visuals; I particularly enjoy how he “overlaps” scenes by exposing two separate events onscreen at the same time. There’s a scene, for example, where Crosby and Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox)—the caretaker of the estate—are engaged in conversation and are “interrupted” on the right-half of the screen by a visual of someone’s hand using the front-door knocker of the mansion to gain entrance. When the time comes for the reading of the will, the participants seat themselves at a table while the inner workings of a grandfather clock are superimposed on the screen, chiming the time of the midnight hour. Leni also makes use of a moving camera for some impressive tracking shots, particularly in the film’s opening, when we are taken on a tour of the West mansion almost as if we were looking to rent.

The film also blends terror and comedy in an entertainingly deft manner. I particularly enjoyed Hale’s performance as a milquetoasty Harold Lloyd-type who’s on the receiving end of some of Canary’s lighter moments (Finch and Astor also contribute some mirth to the proceedings as well). Hale appeared in a great many silent films including Way Down East (1920) and Orphans of the Storm (1922), but I have to admit I remember him more for a multitude of bit parts in sound films including the Our Gang shorts School's Out (1930) and Big Ears (1931). La Plante is an appropriately plucky heroine, and it’s refreshing to know that Tully Marshall was apparently never a young man in his entire screen career (he also made numerous appearances in sound films like Hale, his most memorable being the sinister Alvin Brewster in This Gun for Hire [1942]). Mattox’s Mammy Pleasant no doubt influenced a generation of hatchet-faced housekeepers; when she makes her first appearance in this film I found myself borrowing a line of Binnie Barnes’ when she meets up with the formidable Gale Sondergaard in The Time of Their Lives (1946): “Pardon me, but did I see you in ‘Rebecca?’”

Tomorrow, I’m going to wrap up TDOY’s Silent Horrors tribute with a look at what many consider to be Paul Leni’s masterpiece, The Man Who Laughs (1928). In the meantime, you’ll find easy access to The Cat and the Canary on DVD due to its public domain status but I can’t recommend the Kino disc highly enough—the restoration done on this innovative chiller of the Silent Era is a must-own indeed.

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Salute your shorts!

The Warner Archive announced some of their new titles last week, and one of the more interesting releases is a 3-DVD set of some of the classic Robert Benchley one-reelers that I’ve discussed previously here on the blog. Warner says there’s 267 minutes of material on the set, but they don’t list what shorts are included (I tried to dig up some info on this from Cliff “Laughing Gravy” Weimer, the man who swings the mighty flashlight In the Balcony, but no such luck). Warners’ has it available for $29.95—maybe when I get a little cash flowing here at Rancho Yesteryear I’ll pick up a copy.

Mr. Weimer has, however, provided us with some info on a Region 2 collection released by Kinowelt entitled Die Kleinen Strolche / 1927-1929—and for those of you whose German is a bit rusty, it’s a collection of the surviving silent Our Gang comedies from 1927-29. (Kinowelt has several other Our Gang collections available covering the sound years of our favorite moppets, but this one interests me more because I already have two sets of the Gang’s “talkies.”) Gravy says the set is a must have for Little Rascals fans and that the only small drawbacks “are German subtitles you can't turn off, but these are silent films - you'll be reading 'em anyway (the intertitles are in English).” The set includes 14 comedies: Barnum & Ringling, Inc. (1928), Cat, Dog & Co. (1929), Crazy House (1928), Dog Heaven (1927), Election Day (1929), Fast Freight (1929), Little Mother (1929), Noisy Noises (1929), Old Gray Hoss (1928), Rainy Days (1928), Saturday's Lesson (1929), Spook Spoofing (1928), The Spanking Age (1928) and Wiggle Your Ears (1929). Many thanks to LG for the info on this set—though I must also extend some credit to Chris Seguin at The Silent Comedy Mafia bulletin board, which is where I first learned of the release.

Other notable releases from the Warner Archive include Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), The Fastest Gun Alive (1956, recently reviewed here), Gabriel Over the White House (1933, saw it last Thursday on TCM), The Master Race (1944), The Mortal Storm (1940), Rancho Notorious (1952, which I already have on a Region 2 disc—Toby over at 50 Westerns From the ‘50s has put up a couple of recent posts about this cult western), They Won't Forget (1937), and Tribute to a Bad Man (1956). There’s also a big honkin’ collectors’ set of Al Jolson features that contains Big Boy (1930), Go Into Your Dance (1935), Say It with Songs (1929), The Singing Fool (1928), The Singing Kid (1936) and the notorious Wonder Bar (1934). (All these films have been previously released, but the box set is currently on sale for a limited time at a price tag of $59.95.)

And in closing, I’d like to pass on this interesting Variety article (Vince Keenan slipped it to me, we sit next to each other in Facebook) that discusses the DVD manufacturing pact between Universal and TCM—very similar to the Warner Archive service that’s in place now and TCM’s earlier releases in the RKO Collection. Here’s the home of the Universal Vault Collection at TCM.com, for the curious.

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Life lessons #81

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Silent Horrors: Waxworks (1924)

Paul Leni’s Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks, 1924) tells three tales surrounding the figures in a wax museum—the owner of which has hired a writer-poet (William Dieterle) to come up with some “ballyhoo” to promote the exhibits. The first figure is Middle Eastern despot Harun el Raschid (Emil Jannings), a powerful caliph who decrees that a baker (also Dieterle) be destroyed when the smoke from his bakery causes him to continually lose in games of chess. The baker, Assad, is married to a woman (Olga Belajeff) who has a bit of a wandering eye, and while Assad sneaks into the potentate’s palace to swipe a ring bestowed with magic powers, Raschid pays Mrs. Assad a visit (on the advice of his Grand Wizier, who has assured his master she’s a-hunk, a-hunk of burnin’ love). As Assad beats a hasty retreat with the precious jewel (he cut off the caliph’s hand to retrieve it, unaware that the figure in bed is actually a wax dummy) from the Caliph’s guards, the Caliph himself must come up with a quick story to explain his presence in Mrs. Assad’s boudoir.

Story two takes us to Czarist Russia, where the infamous Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt) amuses himself by torturing and poisoning his enemies. Little does he realize that an ironic comeuppance is in store for him. Finally, the writer dozes off in the museum and awakens to an all-too-realistic nightmare where Spring-Heeled Jack (Warner Krauss)—better known to one and all as Jack the Ripper—steals the wax museum owner’s daughter (Belajeff) away from him and plans to carryout mischievous plans to commit mayhem upon her person until the writer awakens from his dream.

I sort of went into Waxworks with high expectations because I had read a good many essays on what a masterpiece of German expressionist cinema its director had created. But truth be told, I was more than a little disappointed—the finished product was all icing and no cake. The movie has some breathtakingly haunting scenes (particularly in the final Ripper sequence) but overall the story is way too thin; a shame, really, since the premise is so rife with possibilities. I think the reason for this was that the production wasn’t all smooth-sailing; there had been plans for a fourth vignette (“Rinaldo Rinaldini”) but that was scrapped once the movie’s till had become emptied.

The best of the three episodes is the Ivan the Terrible tale; Veidt executes an incredible turn as the cruel despot—so much so that director Sergei Eisenstein supposedly patterned his Ivan the Terrible after Veidt’s performance. The actor had quite the career in silent films, including memorable appearances in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. (1920) and Leni’s later The Man Who Laughs (1928), and also provided suitable menace upon the advent of sound pictures with roles in Contraband (1940), Escape (1940), The Thief of Bagdad (1940), Whistling in the Dark (1941) and All Through the Night (1942). (Oh yeah—and there’s that one where Humphrey Bogart tries to convince Ingrid Bergman to get on that plane…)

The first of Waxworks’ vignettes—the Harun el Raschid sequence—is the longest of the three, something that I would have preferred to have transferred to the Ivan the Terrible tale. The Raschid story is played for humor—and I can certainly see why Leni would want to pace the movie by starting off with something light before getting a bit darker—but to be honest, it doesn’t generate too many laughs…and allowing Jannings to play the caliph as a buffoonish sort robs the story of any real dramatic impact. The only positive thoughts I can offer is that this sequence had an enormous influence on actor Douglas Fairbanks, who was so impressed with the backgrounds that he adopted a similar look in his version of The Thief of Bagdad (1924).

This was my first experience watching a film by director Leni, a man who, like F.W. Murnau, went to his greater reward (he died in 1929 from blood poisoning) before realizing his full potential—it was Waxworks, however, that made his reputation and allowed him to go to Hollywood (at the behest of Universal’s Carl Laemmle) where he would make two more sensational horror pictures, The Cat and the Canary (1927, which I’ll talk about tomorrow) and the previously mentioned Man Who Laughs, which will close out my Silent Horrors series on Friday. He also held the reins on The Chinese Parrot (1927), based on one of Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan novels (Leni’s friend Veidt was at one time considered for the Chan role), and The Last Warning (1929), a companion piece to Canary. (Sadly, Parrot has apparently been lost to the neglect and ravages of time—what a pity it did not survive to be seen today!)

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Should’ve been a cowboy

Courtesy of my new Facebook friend Bob Brooks, here’s a picture of him in character as “Fuzzy Q. Jones,” accompanied by Bill Holden as “Cowboy Bill”:

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When worlds collide #66

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Silent Horrors: Faust (1926)

In Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s play Faust, a scientist who becomes frustrated with the limits of learning and knowledge sells his soul to The Devil in order to overcome these barriers—the price being that once Faust reaches the zenith of human happiness, he will forfeit said soul (Faust agrees to this, believing it will never happen). The first part of Von Goethe’s play focuses on the tempestuous relationship between a striking young woman named Gretchen and the doomed Faust; a dalliance that ends in the destruction of the girl and her family, and which leaves Faust in bitter shame. In Part Deux, Faust and the Devil (his close friends call him Mephistopheles) journey through the worlds of politics and the classical gods, allowing Faust to come into contact with the ravishing Helen of Troy (considered the personification of beauty). The outcome of this excursion provides the protagonist with the moment of happiness that will damn his soul to eternity—but when Mephistopheles attempts to claim his prize he is stopped by God at the last minute, who rewards the scientist because of his relentlessly striving nature for knowledge. (And, of course, proving that the Devil is not the clever little sod he thinks he is.)

Von Goethe’s play was based on an ancient German legend that has been adapted and borrowed by many authors and artists, including Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Mann, Franz Liszt, Gustav Mahler, etc., and the actual play itself was filmed in 1926 by the great silent movie director F.W. Murnau as Faust - Eine deutsche Volkssage. Murnau’s work—adapted by Hans Kyser and Gerhard Hauptmann—eliminates the play’s second act, and focuses the proceedings on Faust’s obsession with youth rather than book larnin’. Gösta Ekman plays both young and old Faust, with Camilla Horn (in a role that director Murnau originally requested Lillian Gish to play) as Gretchen, and Murnau favorite Emil Jannings as Beelzebub himself. I watched this movie this morning and while it’s not quite in the same league as Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), it’s very-well made and a testament to Murnau’s skill as a filmmaker—a master whose tragic death in 1931 from an automobile robbed us of his singular talents much too soon.

With the success of his productions Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) and Der letzte Mann (1924), Murnau was given carte blanche by the UFA Studios to really pull out all the stops on Faust and direct a film that bristles with creative energy. His use of elaborate miniatures, expressionist cinematography and wondrous (pre-CGI) special effects makes Faust a virtual feast for the eyes, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere where the inhabitants of Faust’s village are trapped in the mire of both religious fanaticism and pagan rituals (I love the funeral processional scenes, with their black-hooded pallbearers); where the dehabilitating plague is explained as “the work of the Devil.” In fact, the only feature of this movie that keeps it from achieving total greatness is that its narrative sometimes gets a smidge muddled; plus, I find the scenes involving Gretchen’s courtship with Faust a little aggravating because Jennings’ Devil is forced to interact with Gretchen’s aunt (Yvette Gilbert) in a few vignettes that make his otherwise fearsome character a clownish buffoon (he lost a bit of his overall effectiveness with me after that).

Faust also casts an actor billed as Wilhelm Dieterle in the role of Gretchen’s brother Valentin—later in his career, Dieterle would go by “William” and become the highly respected director of such films as A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), Dr. Socrates (1935), The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and…wait for itAll That Money Can Buy (1941)—better known as The Devil and Daniel Webster, a variation on the Faust legend based on the short story by Stephen Vincent Benet. (The hat with the feather-in-it worn by Walter Huston’s “Mr. Scratch” bears a striking similarity to that of Jannings’ plume-adorned millinery, so maybe Dieterle was taking notes.)

Faust was released on DVD by Kino Video in 2001, and one of the disc’s major benefits is the first-rate score composed by Timothy Brock and performed by The Olympia Chamber Orchestra. Included with the DVD is an interesting essay on the film by film historian Jan Christopher Horan and a photo gallery feature entitled UFA Studios 1925: The Making of Faust which contains some rare production stills. Catch this one when you get the opportunity.

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Life lessons #80

Monday, October 26, 2009

Silent Horrors: Sparrows (1926)

Since it’s beginning to get closer and closer to Halloween, I took some time this weekend to ponder as to whether or not I should post something along the lines of a “scary movie” theme to get into the “spirit” of the season. Several of my esteemed colleagues have done some novel Halloween-themed posts; my current favorite is Stacia’s She Blogged by Night, which features famous houses/structures from horror films and how they look today. Others who have taken up with horror movie-related posts include Kliph Nesteroff at Classic Television Showbiz, Caffeinated Joe, Tony Kay at Pop Culture Petri Dish, The Lightning Bug’s Lair (“From the moon, baby!”), Master of My Public Domain (I might have a lawsuit here), “Uncle” Sam Taylor at Mondo 70: A Wild World of Cinema, The Shelf and Paul D. Brazill. (Oddly enough, our old pal The Retropolitan went mute this month, but he has an explanation here.)

Anyway, I was laying on my bed, staring at the shelf of DVDs along the wall…when I spotted my copy of Sparrows (1926), a wonderful suspense thriller from the silent era starring America’s sweetheart, Mary Pickford—and it was like the muse of inspiration had hit me up the side of my head with a ten-pound sack of flour. Why not devote this week to reviews of noteworthy horror classics from the period when they “had faces then?”

I’ll come clean at this point and confess that I don’t have as many silent horror movies in my collection as I estimated, so this series will be relatively brief. Many of you may question whether Sparrows even qualifies; there aren’t any supernatural or ghostly elements in the film, so to speak. But Sparrows deals with something I find far more frightening, what Arch Oboler once referred to as “the monster inside us”; and there are enough suspenseful and horrific moments in this Gothic thriller to more than qualify. (Pickford biographer Scott Eyman describes the movie as “Dickens laced with a strong dose of Edgar Allan Poe.”)

Pickford plays “Mama” Molly, the oldest of a group of kids being held prisoner at a “baby farm” located in the swamps of the Deep South, run by the indescribably evil Mr. Grimes (Gustav von Seyffertitz), his shrewish wife (Charlotte Mineau) and idiot stepson Ambrose (Spec O’Donnell). Grimes enters into an agreement with a pair of kidnappers (Lloyd Whitlock, A.L. Schaeffer) to hide the young child of prominent businessman Dennis Wayne (Roy Stewart) once they’ve put the snatch on the kid, and he entrusts Molly with keeping the little girl (Mary Louise Miller) under wraps while they await word on the father’s intentions to pay the ransom. When it looks as if the father will not accede to the kidnappers’ demands, Grimes realizes he must dispose of the baby (he plans to chuck her into the swamp), so Molly and the rest of the children in her care endeavor a daring escape through the treacherous bayou, doing their level best to avoid quicksand and a nest of hungry alligators. Grimes and the kidnappers follow (the father changes his mind about meeting the ransom demands) in an effort to retrieve the baby but Mary and Company are rescued in the nick of time…with Wayne offering her and her “brood” sanctuary at his stately manor home in the end.

Elliott Stein of The Village Voice once referred to Sparrows as “the finest film of Pickford’s entire career” and while that sentiment is certainly open to lively discussion one can’t deny that it isn’t one of the most memorable titles on Pickford’s lengthy c.v. It’s rip-snortin’ Gothic melodrama at its finest; containing both a larger-than-life heroine and villains in a simple story that became a huge critical and box-office success at the time of its release. The surprising aspect of this film is that it was directed by the notorious William “One-Shot” Beaudine, who began his motion picture directing career guiding the fortunes of Ham (Lloyd Hamilton) and Bud (Duncan) in comedy shorts in 1915 and finished out his profession (a staggering backlog of 350 known films) working with the Bowery Boys and Lassie (directing seventy-two installments of the popular TV series). It’s one of the few prestigious pictures Beaudine held the reins on, and even then he wasn’t allowed to finish it—his assistant Tom McNamara completed the film after Beaudine developed a facial paralysis brought on by the demanding Miss Pickford. Pickford, in her defense, felt Beaudine was a bit cavalier regarding the children’s safety on the film—particularly in the scene where Molly and the kids navigate crossing a fallen tree branch while alligators—each of them about the size of Detroit—wait below. (In Beaudine’s defense, the gators’ mouths were all wired shut, but it’s still impossible to watch this scene and not become more than a little concerned for the kids’ safety.)

Pickford is a sheer delight in this movie: a plucky, never-say-die girl who fervently believes that it’s always darkest before the dawn. Her affection for the kids in her charge will warm the cockles of any cynic’s heart; she has a real rapport with the children—particularly Miller, who plays the little Wayne girl (Doris). (The childless Pickford became so enamored of Miller that she offered to adopt the toddler, much to her parents’ dismay—so the scenes in which the Oscar-winning actress lovingly interacts with her young charge go beyond mere acting.) She also demonstrates some moments of comic brilliance that equal anything from the great silent clowns; there’s a funny scene where she’s threatening to hit Spec O’Donnell but when Von Seyffertitz enters the picture, she pantomimes swatting mosquitoes instead. Character great Von Seyffertitz has a field day as the unrepentantly nasty Grimes, whose character is well-established in the beginning of Sparrows with a sequence showing him receiving a letter from a sick mother who has left her baby in his care and, accompanying the missive, a little baby doll as a gift. Von Seyffertitz crushes the doll’s head and throws it down in the mud, watching it as it slowly sinks into the mire. I also enjoyed seeing O’Donnell as the shiftless son; I have become well acquainted with the Specster from his appearances in many of the Hal Roach shorts starring Max Davidson (Call of the Cuckoo, Pass the Gravy).

If I have any quibbles about Sparrows, it’s that it’s a bit heavy on the religious moralizing—but even this is offset with the kids’ refreshing skepticism about God (“A whole month ago you said the Lord would help us get away—what’s He been doing all month?”) and Molly’s refreshing “Bible quotes” (“Let not thy right cheek know what thy left cheek getteth.”) There is also a memorable scene where Molly—who’s attending to a sick two-year-old that’s not long for this world—sees a vision of Christ that appears on the inside wall of the barn…and he gathers up the child in order to take her into the kingdom of Heaven. Molly awakes from the dream to discover the baby is dead—and she gazes upward with a smile on her face, knowing that all is well. A beautiful, breathtaking moment to be sure.

Sparrows was adapted by C. Gardner Sullivan from a story written by Winifred Dunn, and at the time it was a quite timely story since there had been a series of harrowing newspaper stories about real-life baby farms. The magnificent set (courtesy of art director Harry Oliver) and expressionistic cinematography (Hal Mohr, Charles Rosher, and Karl Struss) are awe-inspiring even today, and much of this foreshadows similar sets and cinematography in the 1955 classic The Night of the Hunter. Sparrows was released to DVD in 1999 by Milestone Film and Video (in collaboration with Image Entertainment) and contains as extras a pair of D.W. Griffith-directed shorts with Pickford: Wilful Peggy (1910) and The Mender of Nets (1912). I watched these after Sparrows, but I think they are probably more suitable as appetizers—because the main feature is a film experience not soon forgotten.

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