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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

THE SEA WOLF (1941)

The narrative confidence & sheer technical bravura of this film’s opening (at just over a reel) is so brilliantly handled by all hands (on deck & on set), you’ll want to hit pause for a round of applause. It’s classic Golden Age Hollywood at its most assured, spinning a complicated story into clear, continuously exciting entertainment; with leads, supporting players & crew all at the top of their game. And note the well-deserved solo credit card to composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, second only to director Michael Curtiz. Robert Rosson did the fine job on Jack London’s tricky tale of sadistic ship captain Edward G. Robinson & a cutthroat crew, as well as John Garfield’s anarchist-on-the-run. Add-in Ida Lupino’s desperate streetwalker & Alexander Knox’s literary intellectual, both plucked out of the sea.* The speed this gets put into place is thrilling, along with Anton Grot’s production design & Sol Polito’s fog-bound atmospherics. Told with a vicious, grown-up tone & nihilistic attitude that can still shock, there’s something to make you jump or gasp every few minutes as the ship reveals what the bloody hell is really going on. WOLF has taken ages to show on DVD, largely because of a re-release that clipped nearly a reel & a half off the original running time, with inestimable damage to Curtiz’s editing rhythms. Part of this was simply a trim for a double-bill with the similarly trimmed SEA HAWK/’40. But in WOLF’s case, there was also a bit of politically tinged ‘lefty’ speech-making to worry about from Rosson (an ‘admitted’ Communist who ‘named names’) and an acting line-up of Blacklisted & Grey-listed actors like Howard Da Silva & even Eddie G. You really couldn’t trust Eddie. Not only was he what was known as a ‘Premature-Anti-Fascist (meaning various liberal/humanitarian causes supported before war broke out), but he also had a world-class collection of impressionist & modern art. An obvious danger to society.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The Golden Year of the Golden Age of Hollywood is always awarded to 1939, a year where one director (Victor Fleming) could turn out GONE WITH THE WIND and THE WIZARD OF OZ. But ‘41 has it champions, what with CITIZEN KANE; HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY; HOLD BACK THE DAWN; LITTLE FOXES, MALTESE FALCON; SERGEANT YORK; SUSPICION; HERE COMES MR. JORDAN; BALL OF FIRE; TOM, DICK AND HARRY; THE LADY EVE; NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH; MEET JOHN DOE; THAT HAMILTON WOMAN; STRAWBERRY BLONDE; SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS; 49TH PARALLEL; DUMBO; HIGH SIERRA; and yet another wolf, THE WOLF MAN; to name but a few. (And that’s only English-language pics.) Take that 1939! Heck, take that 2017.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Knox & Lupino’s meeting is a neat gender reversed swipe from Robert Donat & Madeleine Carroll’s in Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS/’35.

Monday, November 20, 2017

HER CARDBOARD LOVER (1942)

The trailer crows ‘Grand New, Brand New,’ but it’s M-G-M’s third go at this puerile French Boulevard play, seen on B’way in 1927 with Jeanne Eagles & Leslie Howard in roles now inadequately taken by Norma Shearer (in something of a humiliation) and Robert Taylor (working too hard). The main gag has Shearer, in her screen swansong, stuck on caddish lover-boy George Sanders and hiring Taylor to keep her from acting on her worst instincts. The job fits Taylor fine since he’s already positively, if inexplicably, twitterpixed over M-G-M’s time-tarnished doyenne of original contract players. No surprise to find her coming ‘round to him in a slightly more action-oriented third act added to the sedate play script. It’s meant to be very ‘La-Di-Da’ (a first act all about evening clothes restrictions), and if you watch how Sanders throws his lines away rather than holding forth like the two leads, you can see how this just might have worked in ‘40s New England Summer Stock with Leading Ladies of a certain age and fascination. Kit Cornell? Ina Claire? Gertrude Lawrence? Tallulah? Heck, director George Cukor had over-seen a stage revival with none other than Laurette Taylor. So, he certainly knew the score, but maintained something of a soft spot for Shearer in what was their third film together. Perhaps he admired her sheer persistence & work ethic from time on ROMEO & JULIET/’36. Alas, traits largely unsuited to this gossamer material.

DOUBLE-BILL: Cukor was fresh off similar unhappy career-ending duties with Greta Garbo on the ill-fated TWO-FACED WOMAN/’41. He’d return to form (and then some) with GASLIGHT/’44.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (1964)

More like The Fall of Producer Samuel Bronston who channeled hefty profits, goodwill & much creative talent from EL CID/’61 into this hubristic deadweight; then never recovered. There’s plenty of wrong to go around here, but the main problem is that the writers (even with ‘your free gift’ historian Will Durant as ‘Consultant’*) could neither whip up nor lick the storyline. And the film trailer promises ‘A World . . . An Empire . . . A Motion Picture!’ Not quite. First half of a three-hour slog has Alec Guinness’s Marcus Aurelius crawl his way to chilly death while daughter Sophia Loren (in Balmain on the Tiber fur) longs for preferred successor Stephen Boyd (in unbecoming blond locks) and stares daggers at nutso brother/would-be heir Christopher Plummer’s Commodus. (Plummer gives the fruitiest perf in the pic; atrocious, but lively.) To everyone’s relief, blind philosopher Mel Ferrer pulls the ol’ poisoned apple gag on Aurelius, hastening his demise to keep the line of succession in the family. And with Plummer installed as a new mad emperor, the usual Bread & Circus Sword & Sandal tropes take over as we move from frosty Germanica to a massive Roman Forum reconstruction of truly spectacular scale. You feel bankrupt just looking at it. (Not since Henry King & Lillian Gish rebuilt Renaissance Florence in ROMOLA/’24, without resorting to miniatures, mattes or trompe l’oeil, has anything so gobsmacking been seen on screen.) Plus, grunting stars (Anthony Quayle; John Ireland); speechifying poetic types (James Mason; Omar Sharif; even old Finlay Currie), all to little purpose, while Dmitri Tiomkin’s odd score enters in its own aural acoustic with pastiche Bach (an organ sonata for the opening credits); fake Rimsky-Korsakov (Eastern Empire revolt); and a Rossiniana tarantella for the dancing throngs finale. The film is not without defenders (I’m looking at you, Martin Scorsese), but it's no EL CID.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Orson Welles, with a fortieth the budget, was shooting CHIMES OF MIDNIGHT/’65 on the Bronston lot a stage or two away from all this mishegas. There’s the ‘consultant’ Bronston should have gone for.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: In an attempt to liven up the first half, Yakima Canutt’s staged a very BEN-HUR like chariot race between brotherly competitors: Boyd, now as ‘good guy’ & Plummer doing the sub-textual/suppressed gay ‘bad boy’ honors.

DOUBLE-BILL: Ridley Scott must have taken notes on this when he was working up GLADIATOR/’00.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

LA TORTUE ROUGE / THE RED TURTLE (2016)

Michael Dudok de Wit’s Man vs Nature/Man with Nature survival tale, the first non-Japanese animation from Studio Ghibli, is stunning stuff. Beginning as a Robinson Crusoe shipwreck fable, it neatly switches gears into something of a Creation myth with an Eve who appears . . . let’s just say, not via man’s rib. Told as a near-silent film*, without any dragging or artsy manners, de Wit avoids even a hint of the overly precious or pretentious, finding a rhythm (of life) in his pacing with just a few big action-oriented set pieces. (Yet, there’s a gasp-worthy moment or two of beauty or suspense in every reel.) An opening storm at sea, with waves out of a Japanese period print, sets the tone, but merely hints at the range of superb backgrounds & vistas that envelop these simply drawn characters and the whimsical atoll wildlife who lift the mood as needed. Very special, with unexpectedly broad appeal.

DOUBLE-BILL: *The silent film storytelling technique isn’t too far from the island sequence for Boy and Horse alone in THE BLACK STALLION/’79.

Friday, November 17, 2017

CHINA SKY (1945)

With its all-star cast of ‘YellowFace’ principals, the 1937 adaptation of Pearl Buck’s magnum opus THE GOOD EARTH/’37 makes uncomfortable modern-day viewing. (Same for DRAGON SEED/’44.) But this relatively modest effort is hardly an adequate substitute. Here, China & its people are merely exotic background to a love triangle between a female doctor at a Chinese clinic and the American doctor who got the hospital up and running, now returned from America with a new wife. Even as WWII erupts around them, and ‘Japs’ threaten to overrun the town, these three play out romantic jealousy tropes until Randolph Scott’s handsome doc notices he married the wrong dame! Under journeyman megger Ray Enright, lady doc Ruth Warrick & bitchy bride Ellen Drew telegraph their entire character arcs at first glance, so the film drags even at 80 minutes. Anthony Quinn & Carol Thurston get the only two Yellowface spots (she almost passes; Tony’s cosmetic Asian eye-lid crease defeats his face), but at least the other Asian roles are cast with actual Asians, so that’s something. Just not enough.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Quinn, in real life Mexican/Irish, got away playing almost every ethnic type out there, generally without serious prosthetic help. Not here.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Buck’s THE GOOD EARTH, especially in its first half, still an impressive watch, though anyone under 35 may find the whole YellowFace concept not so much insulting as bizarre. Yet, even in dramatic roles, the custom lasted decades after the far more stylized BlackFace was laid to rest. It still shows up in comic mode, but does seem to have died out for drama back in the ‘80s.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

GET OUT (2017)

Often as not, on their Comedy Central sketch show, Jordan Peele & partner Keegan-Michael Key were more wicked sharp than wicked funny taking on edgy race & social issues. But now, working solo in his feature debut as writer/ director, Peele finds a way past hit-and-miss results by pivoting to the dark side, adding a strain of horror folded into awkward social commentary. It’s an effective mix, gleefully setting off discomforting laughs to stick in your throat. Daniel Kaluuya & Alison Williams play a young interracial couple off for a first-time visit with her folks & kid brother. It’s post-Obama GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER/’67, but double-barrel loaded as the normal stress of a family gathering gains added tension from racially biased behavior (either too polite & too rude) to be sweep under the heirloom rug. And here Peele pulls his big switcheroo pivot, bringing in echoes of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS/’56 as re-imagined by Shirley Jackson.* Yikes! It’s deliciously nasty stuff. Even with an outlier character phoned in (literally) for an audience-pleasing coup de théâtre Peele may regret a few films down the line. Just now, he’s more assured as writer than director with some stiff staging & uneven results in smaller roles. But a big, deserved success, leaving you hungry for his next clever audacity. (Another Not-For-The-Kiddies Family Friendly label. But a stealth bomb of social issues for teens . . . and adults.)

DOUBLE-BILL: *In 1969, Jackson’s classic short story, THE LOTTERY was made as a two-reel short. Then, in ‘96 at five times the length, stretched into a tv-movie. (Neither seen here.)  OR: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD/’68, the presumed reference right at the end.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952)

Exemplary noir. A typically taut, modest, effective crime meller from Phil Karlson with John Payne looking for payback after he’s unjustly implicated in Preston Foster’s ‘Perfect Crime’ bank robbery. A trifecta of thugs (Neville Brand, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam; fresh, startling faces in ‘52) are the real culprits, hired by Foster and forced to wear masks to hide their identities even from each other before going separate ways after the job and a yet-to-be-announced meet-up in Mexico for the split. Framed by circumstance as an accomplice, Payne is quickly cleared, but not before he’s brutally hammered by confession-hungry cops and fired from his job. With only a clue to go on, Payne tracks down one of the gang and follows up on this lead to a modest Mexican resort. He’s on the verge of a breakthru when a wild card in the form of Foster’s grown daughter (Coleen Gray) makes a surprise visit that threatens the final double-twist payoff. Karlson was doing his best work in the ‘50s, with a gift for clarifying tricky plot turns and envelope-pushing taste in violence. Add on special rapport for the undervalued Payne, a mid-list/mid-weight ex-20th/Fox star who turned tough after his contract days; much like Dick Powell & Robert Montgomery, though less stylized. An Everyman type, sweating his way in and out of jams.

DOUBLE-BILL: Payne & Karlson reteamed for 99 RIVER STREET/’53 and HELL’S ISLAND/’55.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

ZERO HOUR! (1957)

Famous (well, infamous) as the principle source for the hit spoof AIRPLANE!/’80, this little Canadian-based indie is, on its own terms, hokey, suspenseful thru the snickers & good fun. Pieces of business & dialogue used almost verbatim in the classic parody ricochet in your brain and can give you a case of the giggles as Dana Andrews’ distressed ex-bomber pilot takes the controls of a passenger plane after both pilots (plus half the cabin) choose tainted halibut over lamb chops as their entrée. (Halibut? Only in Canada.) Andrews replayed these terror tropes to risible effect in THE CROWDED SKY/’60, but here the inadvertent laughs almost feel integral under Hall Bartlett’s hack megging.* Sterling Hayden’s the tough-talking ground liaison guy; Linda Darnell the runaway wife, with halibut eating son, trusting Andrews to bring them in; and Jerry Paris makes like Senor Wences with a sock puppet to distract the sick kid. Some model plane effects are anything but special, while simple suspense elements (a dash panel from hell; knocked-out radio frequency) do most of the work. And it doesn’t hurt to be in-and-out in a speedy 80 minutes.

DOUBLE-BILL: Obviously, AIRPLANE! But which to watch first? Hint: ZERO is much funnier seen second.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Novelist Arthur Hailey, of AIRPORT/’70 fame, and not exactly known for his sense of humor, co-scripted. Any laughs are definitely inadvertent.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Dana Andrews’ speech sounds crisp & clear compared with last year’s BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT where his drinking problems made for difficult afternoon shoots. Was he newly on the wagon?

Monday, November 13, 2017

THE GOOSE AND THE GANDER (1935)

Charles Kenyon’s script (from his ‘original’ story) doesn’t sound too promising: Ex-Wife, overhearing Wife #2 plan an assignation with a new lover, tries to screw up all parties with a secret rendezvous of her own . . . with her Ex . . . at the same location! Oh dear, one of those ‘smart’ drawing room farces that stagger along between arch overacting & dopey misunderstandings. Worse, a comic mix-up brings in a ‘wrong’ couple, a misidentified pair of jewel robbers. Yikes! But wait! With skilled playing (Kay Francis, George Brent & Genevieve Tobin lightly skating on the surface); Kenyon’s cleanly parsed crisscross plotting; and Alfred E. Green’s unfussy megging (it helps that he’s unable to make much of things), the Pre-Code attitudes find their mark in a Post-Code film environment, coming across with spirit, elegance & fun. No undiscovered gem; but quite pleasant work from all hands. Good rainy day stuff.

DOUBLE-BILL: Kay Francis, Hollywood's ‘Queen of Decolletage,’ peaked @ Pre-Code Paramount. And that includes an early loan-out to Warners for William Dieterle’s Lubitsch-esque JEWEL THIEF (if only it had a third-act) made right before her pair of classics ONE WAY PASSAGE and TROUBLE IN PARADISE (all three 1932).