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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

THE TEXAS RANGERS (1936)


Big-budget Westerns from A-list directors were scarce in the mid-‘30s, yet Paramount put C. B. De Mille’s THE PLAINSMAN and this Texas Centennial number from real-life Texan King Vidor out in ‘36. De Mille’s film, with its memorable re-teaming of Gary Cooper & Jean Arthur, may be 100% hooey, but it’s also irresistible, an all-of-a-piece/true to thyself piece of studio lot artifice. Vidor, working from a good story he concocted with his scripter wife Elizabeth Hill, can’t find (or hold) a proper tone between its handsome location shooting, stiff studio mock-ups and crazy-quilt casting. The bad stuff cancels out the good . . . or is it vice versa? Fred MacMurray and Jack Oakie play one-time outlaws who join the Texas Rangers to feed advance info to their old pal Lloyd Nolan. But MacMurray & Oakie start to take their Ranger roles seriously and something’s gotta give. Oakie is largely there for comic relief, but Vidor gives him some nicely sentimental scenes with an orphaned kid that could have come out of an earlier Vidor classic, THE CHAMP/’31. The action stuff is particularly well staged (watch for a wicked bit involving Comanches & some large, nasty boulders), but Nolan comes off as a city boy in chaps (he actually says ‘Oy!’) and MacMurray wears his pants too high to achieve that proper Texas swagger. You can’t help but feel that Vidor was emotionally invested in this one and bitterly disappointed in the uneven results. The film doesn’t even rate a mention in his fine auto-bio, A TREE IS A TREE.

Monday, August 30, 2010

CHICKEN RUN (2000)

Nick Park & Peter Lord, the Aardman/Clay-mation* guys behind those blissed out WALLACE AND GROMIT pics, are at their best in short-form films. But their feature-length stuff is nothing to sneeze at. This inspired send-up of P.O.W. pics (THE GREAT ESCAPE, STALAG 17, et al.) puts us inside an egg-laying gulag where the hens must hit their quota or face the ax. That’s bad enough, but the owners have a new money-making scheme: Chicken Pot Pies. It’s flee or fry. The sheer physical struggle in making this style of animation is almost as inspiring as the story being told. And because you can feel & occasionally see the effort, the joy of filmmaking becomes participatory. Those who flinch at having to hear Mel Gibson as Rocky, the star rooster, can pretend it’s George Clooney behind the microphone. They sound a lot alike. In fact, the leading hen, voiced by Julia Sawalha, could easily pass for Judi Dench.

*Okay, okay, they don’t use clay, it’s plasticine . . . whatever that is.

THE CIMARRON KID (1951)


In 1951, WWII hero turned actor Audie Murphy was still new to Westerns, but he’s no fresher than the dog-eared plot turns in this standard issue ‘oater’ from Universal. He’s the just-paroled kid whose bad timing keeps landing him on the wrong side of the straight & narrow. Back with his old gang, he goes on a series of robberies & killings until he vows to turn himself in for the love of a fine gal. (He’s gonna need a heckuva lawyer!) Budd Boetticher, who’d soon be helming those fine budget Westerns with Randolph Scott, can only do so much with the mechanical plot points and faceless Universal contract players. (Murphy’s love interest, Beverly Tyler, is wincingly bad, while Noah Beery, Jr., the head of the outlaws, shows just the sort of effortless charisma Murphy could never muster. He’s killed off pronto.) Boetticher mavens will want to check out some neat action choreography: a double bank robbery that's cleverly timed against a blazing runaway haywagon; a no-way-out getaway that hinges on the use of a slow moving railway track turntable; and a pair of peekaboo gun-barrel showdowns in a darkened barn.

Friday, August 27, 2010

CALIFORNIA (1947)


This big-budget TechniColor Western from Paramount opens in shopworn fashion as Barbara Stanwyck’s shady lady with a past gets run out of town and has to ride off with an intolerant herd of California-bound settlers led by Ray Milland’s shady matey with a past. But when news of the Gold Rush hits camp, our pioneers drop everything to race off and make their fortune. It’s goodbye WAGONMASTER, hello PAINT YOUR WAGON! Stanwyck now owns herself a fancy saloon, Milland is prospecting for nuggets and a dastardly George Coulouris has come on the scene to buy up all of California and masochistically woo the disinterested Babs. And that’s when the California Statehood convention comes into the picture. Now it’s goodbye PAINT YOUR WAGON, hello OKLAHOMA! (Does this explain the elaborate musical set pieces & songs from Earl Robinson & ‘Yip’ Harburg?) There’s real ambition in the design of the film, but it looks as if somebody got cold feet. John Farrow, always an uneven director, shoots a lot of the dialogue scenes in daringly long takes, but then can’t be bothered to integrate the action sequences with the multiplying storylines. (Maybe he was up nights with baby Mia.) Well, it’s big, it’s colorful and only Barry Fitzgerald’s wise & cuddly vintner is complete hooey.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Try C. B. De Mille's UNION PACIFIC/'39 to see Stanwyck in a big, plotty, Paramount studio lot Western.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

JIGOKU / HELL (aka THE SINNERS OF HELL) (1960)


Everybody goes to Hell in this cult-item by the prolific Nobuo Hakagawa, an influential figure in Japanese horror who remains little known in the West. The film follows the loves & nihilistic roaming of college pals bad-ass Tamura & his baleful bud Shiro. (Think Leopold & Loeb or, more on point, Brad Pitt & Edward Norton in FIGHT CLUB.) After a fatal car crash or two, a freakish plunge off a rope bridge, and concurrent food poisonings; our entire cast spend the second half of the film atoning in freakin’ Hades. Hakagawa relishes the assignment, pulling staging & lighting techniques from the wide range of Japanese theatrical traditions, bathing his victims (literally & figuratively) in pools of color & excrement, tying them to wheels of fire, sending them drifting on rivers of mist, dismembering, flaying, roasting and (worst of all) subjecting them to Japanese renditions of the Bossa Nova. The Horror! The Horror! It’s the mayhem of a magpie. He’s like Julie Taymor, exhausting us with too many visual ‘ideas’ and hoping something will stick. Perhaps his less ambitious work shows him in a better light.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Try 'Night On Bald Mountain' from Disney's FANTASIA/'40 if you want to see the torments of Hell.

CRASH DIVE (1943)


In the disheartening early months of WWII, the big Hollywood studios raced to churn out action-packed military-themed dramas that also worked as recruitment propaganda. The service branches varied, but the stories usually put two guys & a gal in a love triangle that was only solved with a coup de militaire. (Even CASABLANCA/’42 largely holds to the pattern.) This example, from 20th/Fox, finds Tyrone Power & Dana Andrews vying over Anne Baxter between dangerous assignments on PT boats & submarines. It’s an unusually vigorous film to come from vet megger Archie Mayo, but a lot of the footage (in remarkably fresh looking TechniColor) was undoubtedly made by the 2nd unit specialty departments who turn out some exceptional F/X for the era. But what really stands out now is Ben Carter, the film’s sole black actor who plays the submarine’s cook. While it’s striking just to encounter an African-American crew member in the setting, Carter isn’t required to pop his eyes, speak in an exaggerated dialect, play craps or shuffle; he’s even integrated into the storyline. And not only does he fully participate in the film’s climactic commando raid, he’s one of its fighting heroes, killing off bunches of Nazis and tossing off a couple of the best lines in the sequence. He doesn’t even die saving his noble white brother, but shares equally with Ty & Dana in a heroic pose as they sail into port. Rare stuff, worth taking note of.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

THE CITADEL (1938)

This prestige item from M-G-M’s London outpost looks like a neglected masterpiece for the first two reels, but it loses focus trying to handle an over-loaded story and the novel’s dogmatic tone. Robert Donat is just about perfect (isn’t he always?) as a young, idealistic doctor who rises & falls in a coal-mining town before finding himself improbably rich & successful (but empty) as a society doctor in London. Rosalind Russell makes a nice start as his feisty wife, British accent and all, but shows little aptitude for marital misery. A tremendous supporting cast helps (Rex Harrison as a doctor with a great bedside manner; Cecil Parker as a highly placed, utterly incompetent surgeon; Emlyn Williams as a sympathetic union man; and a heavenly turn by Ralph Richardson as a union doctor with the heart of a anarchist), but the structural problems of cramming two stories with three acts apiece into two hours seems to defeat that great but uneven helmer King Vidor. Flawed as it is, the film is on the side of the angels and more than watchable. Perhaps the story doesn’t feel so cramped & preachy in the 1983 10-part BBC mini-series with a well cast Ben Cross. Alas, it’s currently unavailable.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

CONSPIRATOR (1949)


This painfully unconvincing London-based thriller stars Elizabeth Taylor (in her first grown-up role) as a highly emotional teenage bride and Robert Taylor as her love-struck (and much older*) officer husband. Alas, their rapture is modified by his secret life as an ideologically committed Communist spy! It’s one of those pics where just about nothing works. The Taylors waggle their extravagant matching eyebrows at each other, but no sparks fly. In fact, Liz has no rapport with anyone in this film. And even though they really shot this in London (M-G-M had funds stuck in the U.K.), it feels like we’ve never left Culver City.

*Liz was actually 17 at the time, says she’s 18 in the film and looks a striking 24 or so. Robert was 37, says he's 31 and looks 51.

SUBIDA AL CIELO / ASCENT TO HEAVEN (aka MEXICAN BUS RIDE) (1952)


This is something of a rural test-run for Luis Buñuel’s even more delectable urban comedy ILLUSION TRAVELS BY STREETCAR which the great man made two years later. It’s Buñuel-lite, a modest picaresque about a ramshackle local bus that’s the only conveyance in & out of a small coastal town, and all the little stories involving it’s passengers & driver over a single journey to town. The film seems to have all the time in the world for gossip, pleasantries, siestas & a troubling/wish-fulfilling dream, yet its masterful pacing plays out in less than an hour & a half. Buñuel is typically sly & unsettling, addressing birth, death, marriage, a thwarted honeymoon, adultery, politics, modernization, family feuds and a possible justification for necrotic fingerprinting! You may giggle at the miniature buses & model mountains that pass for special effects in this low-budget programmer, but what an alarming & magical journey Buñuel charts. Watch for a group of American tourists who unexpectedly turn up in their fine air-conditioned bus. They don’t gawk at the locals or make fun of the little fiesta they’ve crashed. They even insist on speaking Spanish!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

YIHE YUAN / SUMMER PALACE (2006)


This much-lauded coming-of-age story from Lou Ye is an enormous disappointment. No doubt, being banned in Beijing is a plus on the international film circuit, but this is yet another ‘Sixth Generation’ Chinese film that uses Tianeman Square as a catalyst for a love affair. This time it’s young heterogeneous university students who conflate sexual freedom with political freedom and we follow their explicit bedroom scenes as they fall in & out of love, go their separate ways, and meet again decades later. It’s stale stuff even played out in a new environment and Lou Ye shows neither the technical control to refresh his material nor a convincing late-‘80s Beijing. (The nightlife & music seem off by a good decade.) But the main problem lies with the girl in the case; one of those self-dramatizing hysterical manic-depressive clinging types. More stalker than lover. Titles at the end of the film bring us up to date on these fictional people, but make no mention of her translating THE BELL JAR into Mandarin.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Try a Wong Kar Wei film you've missed for a modern Chinese romance with socio-political elements and all the cinematic trimmings you could want.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

THE COMANCHEROS (1961)


Michael Curtiz ended his fifty-year directing career with this remarkably energetic Western. ‘Politically Correct’ it ain’t (the ‘Injuns’ are all savages or drunks), but in its classic twisty-tale, bang-‘em-up manner, it makes for big, handsome entertainment. Of course, plopping John Wayne in Monument Valley (even recreating an iconic moment or two from THE SEARCHERS/’56) never hurts, and neither does a smashing score from Elmer Bernstein in MAGNIFICENT SEVEN/’60 mode. The first act finds Wayne’s Texas Ranger hauling Stuart Whitman’s gambling man in on a murder rap, but by Act Two they’ve joined forces to put down a Comanche uprising and root out the hideaway of the mysterious Comancheros. There’s a liberal sprinkling of tasty character turns (the only liberal thing here!) with Lee Marvin making a big impression as a half-scalped renegade who briefly partners Duke. Western mavens will spot a sweet lift from STAGECOACH/’39 at the finale (but with Whitman in Wayne’s shoes . . . er, boots), but it’s the spirited helming (especially of the action scenes) that deserve special attention. Curtiz, a Hollywood pro in the best sense, made as many memorable films as anyone, and he went out in the saddle.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

ALICE GUY: GAUMONT TREASURES (1897-1907)


The Lumiére Brothers projected the world’s first film program in 1895. The next year, Alice Guy began producing @ Gaumont. This Kino-DVD (beautifully curated by Pierre Phillippe) begins with enchanting 1897 actualitiés of swimmers and street scenes & dancers in Spain, interspersed with less enchanting single-shot stage acts. As Mlle. Guy’s technique evolves, she begins to film comic sketches out of doors and to add marvelous hand-coloring. 1905 brings PhonoPhone experiments with Music Hall turns filmed & acoustically recorded on disc. The difficulties of amplification & synchronization would defeat these novelties, but we can now see (and hear!) them under optimum conditions. 1906 includes a half-hour Life of Christ, which isn’t as dreary as you expect. But the real treats are the short comedies and melodramas of 1906 & ‘07. Guy now edits within scenes, yet there’s a delicious three minute single-shot comedy about a maid who licks so many stamps at the post office that a gentlemen becomes uncontrollably amorous! He impulsively kisses that delightful tongue and finds himself GLUED to her! And the penultimate short, ON THE BARRICADES, a heart-tugging motherlove drama D. W. Griffith would have killed for. Under Guy, this story of mother, son, revolution, a bottle of milk and a firing squad is a small masterpiece of honor, suspense & sentiment. Essential stuff.

Monday, August 16, 2010

FLAMMEN OG CITRONEN / FLAME AND CITRON (2008)

The legend of this fact-based WWII saga begins when Danish resistance fighter Bent Faurschou-Hviid attempts to dye his hair blond as a disguise. But he and his partner, Jergen Haagen Schmith, didn’t know how the goop would react to Bent’s hair. It washed out red! And with that crop of flaming red hair, Flammen got his name and became the best known (and certainly the most visible) Nazi hunter in Copenhagen. What a great opening sequence! Unfortunately, though it’s as true as anything else in here, it’s not in the film. Instead we open with a mournful voice-over to accompany standard archival shots of Nazis marching into Denmark. That's the start of this perfectly decent WWII historical where helmer Ole Christian Madsen consistently opts for the conventional. Perhaps the large budget & big, handsome production scared him into making safe choices. A pity since the basic story elements should add up to a lot more. Flammen & Citronen were a highly efficient team (assassin & driver) who began to question their handlers as internecine battles started to break out in the Dutch resistance and innocent people began showing up on hit lists. Lovers, family, fellow conspirators: their grim moral netherworld is going topsy-turvy. Whom do you trust? Whom can you trust? As Flammen, Thure Lindhardt is a compelling physical presence and Mads Mikkelsen’s Citron naughtily accentuates his faint resemblance to Gregory Peck by wearing the same tortoiseshell glasses Peck wore in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD/’62. But as recent WWII pics go, this one could have used some of the brio Quentin Tarantino brought to INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. (Then again, Q.T. could have used this thrilling storyline in place of his snarky shaggy dog tale.)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

PHANTOM LADY (1944)


This noir about a wrongly accused husband is heavy on the atmospherics and light on logic, but the level of its individual creative elements suffice. Adapted from a Cornell Woolrich story, it was the first film produced by Hitchcock acolyte Joan Harrison (in the ‘50s she’d run his tv series) and helmed by Robert Siodmak who gained his Expressionistic visual style @ UFA studios Berlin back in the ‘20s. Dumped by his wife on their anniversary, Alan Curtis goes to a bar and picks up a date for the night. He returns home to find his wife murdered, the police waiting for him and no alibi since his phantom date has vanished. Only his secretary (Ella Raines) and his best pal (Franchot Tone) believe him. The script doesn’t build much of a case, but Siodmak maintains such a peculiar edge (with mannered acting to match the mannered art direction) that you buy into it. Most of the story follows Raines thru a highly stylized NYC as she tracks down witnesses who refuse to help; a bartender, a showgirl, a taxi driver and most memorably Elisha Cook, Jr. as a drummer with an alarmingly orgasmic beat. How Siodmak got his big jazz solo past the censors is anyone’s guess. (Not yet out on DVD, and VHS copies are going for quite a premium.)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A SHOT IN THE DARK (1964)

When Peter Sellers threatened to walk on the movie version of this hit B’way comedy, Blake Edwards was brought in to helm & to ‘fix things up.’ But Edwards did more than a quick polish, he and co-scripter William Peter Blatty (of EXORCIST fame!) co-opted Inspector Clouseau from the not yet released PINK PANTHER and did a total rewrite. (BTW, there’s no Pink Panther in here, not even the famous theme music.) Some comic genie must have been hovering about because, except for a bit of forced ‘60s groovy humor in a nudist colony (which kids love, anyway), the film is shriekingly funny. Edwards opens with a tour-de-force sequence of barely missed run-ins and continues to shoot perfectly timed slapstick, often played out in challenging master-shots. And it’s all physically beautiful to look at thanks to Christopher Challis’s lensing. (Standard commercial Hollywood comedies in the ‘60s & ‘70s generally were painfully ugly, as if lit with banks of fluorescent light.) The whole supporting cast turn into deadpan comedy experts with two unlikely, but priceless comic turns from George Sanders & Herbert Lom with a twitch in his eye.

LAN YU (2001)


This Beijing-based story from Stanley Kwan is a romantic chamber-piece about a thirty-something businessman with a penchant for ethics-skirting international deals and non-committal sex with college types. A close call during the Tiannmen Square democracy protests makes him rethink his priorities, but he still bails on the current love of his life to marry a charming, age & class appropriate businesswoman. But both his marriage & his deals go sour. Now divorced, he’s in serious financial & legal trouble when he realizes his mistakes. Reconciliation, legal redemption (via a bribe) and a tragic shock to the system follow. But the kicker to this rather predictable tale is that, with the exception of the failed marriage, it’s a gay-themed film; and a frankly frontal one. Three or four taboos are in play: official bribery, Tiannmen Square, candid sex, homosexuality. How’d Kwan get this past the censors? It’s handsomely made, though Kwan can be vague over details that don’t interest him, but the acting is very fine even if you have qualms about using Tiannmen Sq, as a lovers’ linchpin. And without the gay angle, it’s hackneyed stuff. More interesting is contemplating how this BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN/FAR FROM HEAVEN number played in its homeland. Kwan didn’t release another pic for half a decade, never a good sign.

Friday, August 13, 2010

CHRISTOPHER STRONG (1933)

The mythological creature that Katherine Hepburn cultivated as her remarkable screen persona began here, in her second feature. She plays a pioneering aviatrix (a sort of La-Di-Da Amelia Earhart) who also flies solo on the ground. But a chance meeting with Colin Clive, an ultra-faithful husband with a trusting wife & wayward daughter, proves life-changing for both of them. He loosens up, she settles down. It’ll never last. It’s hardly a good picture (as the only female director in town, you root for Dorothy Arzner’s pics, but they never live up to their potential), but here’s our Kate. The stubbornly independent Yankee with the androgynous beauty that could play the tomboy one moment and, in the next, out-dazzle those silly glamor gals by wearing a silver lamé gown . . . with antennae! (Her plane is called the Silver Moth.) Essential viewing.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

SONS OF KATIE ELDER (1965)

In this old-school Western revenge pic, John Wayne, Dean Martin, Earl Holliman & Michael Anderson, Jr play the titular brothers who return home for their mother’s funeral. They hardly know each other; no surprise since Mom took a decade between kids. (Wayne born 1907; Martin ‘17; Holliman ‘28; Anderson ‘43. Way to go, Mom!) But something’s rotten back @ the ranch. The reptilian new owner says he won it from their dad just before he got shot (in the back) and the whole town seems to have it in for the siblings. But truth will out . . . with a prod from Duke. Not even some exceptionally handsome lensing from Lucien Ballard does much to disguise how forced & formulaic a lot of this is, more like the Westerns Wayne typically made with hacks like Andrew McLaglen. Odd, since Wayne & veteran helmer Henry Hathaway brought out special qualities in each other. (Their next film was their seventh, and last, TRUE GRIT/’69.) So, it comes as a relief to watch things finally click into place in a tense & sober third act. As an actor, Wayne’s physical presence was a given. But his range in handling moral dilemmas & character complexity could kick in even without a John Ford or a Howard Hawks to call the shots. Hathaway also shows the technical chops of his four decades in film with an easy logistical mastery of the action scenes. Watch for a strikingly shot & edited sequence where Dean Martin corrals a young Dennis Hopper thru the city’s backstreets. A shame the rest of the film isn’t as good as the last three reels.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

FEAR X (2003)

Dead-on-arrival art-house pic from Nicolas Winding Refn about a mall security guard (John Turturro) who tries to piece together the illusory ‘facts’ behind wife’s unsolved murder. This impossibly slow-paced psychological-thriller film plays out like a class project from the most pretentious kid @ Existential U. Film School. You remember him, the guy who watched the trailer to Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING over & over & over. (Well, it is a great trailer, but still.) The actors walk & talk like zombies (you could play a hand of rummy between each line) and by the time the hazy explanations & red-tinged hallucinations appear, you’ll be long past caring.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The recent French thriller NE LE DIS À PERSONNE / TELL NO ONE /'06 shows how to do this sort of thing.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

CHI BI / RED CLIFF (2008)


After his slow fade as a commercial Hollywood helmer, John Woo returned to China. But not to his Hong Kong action/thriller roots. Instead, Woo reinvented himself with this huge historical epic, a project more on the order of Yimou Zhang’s HERO/’02. Well received abroad, the film hardly made a peep in the U.S. though it’s certainly worth seeing, a huge improvement over recent Woo offerings. (2004 found Woo helming a LOST IN SPACE tv pilot!) The story follows three great armies who will decide the future of the Han dynasty. The armies of the South & the West are portrayed (in storybook fashion) as the Good Guys. And naturally they are vastly outnumbered by the evil North. But the underdogs have some tricks that may turn the tide (or rather) the wind in their favor. Woo always claimed that his greatest wish while in Hollywood was to make a musical and here, in his staging of vast armies and battle overviews, he lets his inner Busby Berkeley out to grand effect. But the film is at its most memorable when Takeshi Kaneshiro ‘steals’ 100,000 arrows from the enemy. Kaneshiro also steals the movie as the great war tactician who uses weather patterns as a great general uses troops, the Napoleon of meteorologists. What a shame that Woo blows the staging on the final show-down climax. Some of the miniature & CGI work is less convincing then it should be and the film has obviously had its running time cropped for Stateside release (characters, motivation & strategies feel truncated). But on its own term, as a sort of boy’s own war adventure pic, it’s very entertaining.

Monday, August 9, 2010

MONTE CARLO (1930)

Jeanette MacDonald & Maurice Chevalier each starred in four of the five early ‘30s musicals made by the great Ernst Lubitsch. But not the same four. The adorable SMILING LIEUTENANT/’31 put Chevalier with Claudette Colbert & Miriam Hopkins; and Jeanette made this with Jack Buchanan (of BAND WAGON/’53 fame). That may account for its lower profile. But this is the film where Lubitsch has Jeanette’s Runaway Bride flee from her own wedding, catch a speeding train, and sing ‘Beyond the Blue Horizon’ to a chorus of churning wheels, locomotion & whistles. The whole countryside joins in as Lubitsch all but invents the grammar of the film musical. As the Count who woos MacDonald disguised as a hairdresser, Buchanan is veddy, veddy British & veddy, veddy brittle. But he warms up nicely for "Always,’ their big romantic duet. Here Lubitsch creates an intimate musical style, with fluid editing from room-to-room, interior-to-exterior dissolves and a snazzy mirror shot that adds a visual rhyme to the romance. Sound technology was still difficult to handle, and some forced hilarity falls flat, but much remains remarkably sprightly. Watch for those famous ‘Lubitsch Touches,’ his beloved keys, clocks and window peeking. And an operatic climax that hilariously recaps the whole plot. Followed with a speedy encore on the ‘Horizon’ train. An edit Hitchcock would remember when he was wrapping up NORTH BY NORTHWEST/’59.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN (1944)

Warners waited two years before releasing this stinker. It begins well enough as a young Sam Clemens lives out events he’d later use in his writings, but once he quits his post as riverboat Captain, the movie just drifts along without a dramatic rudder. Irving Rapper did his best megging on 'Woman's Pics' (like NOW, VOYAGER/’42), but he’s all thumbs here. The final cut tries to cover itself with rotating newspaper headlines, zippy transitional montages & musical interludes, but it truncates the family & business meat of the story. Even ol’ reliable Max Steiner was flummoxed, endlessly rehashing a musical cadence built on the river slang call ‘Mark Twain.’ Fredric March & Alexis Smith strike few sparks as the Twains and a typically fine Warners supporting cast gets little to do. A sad comedown from the glory days of Warners’ Great Man bio-pics when William Dieterle worked with Paul Muni & Edw. G. Robinson. (And doubly sad to see an egregious racist ‘ghost’ joke in a film about the man who wrote HUCK FINN.) - Check out the spelling in this German poster. Geez!

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Except for THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER/'37, Mark Twain hasn't fared well on the big screen, but Hal Holbrook's one-man show MARK TWAIN TONIGHT /'67 is out on DVD. He's 85 now and still performing it!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

WINGS OF THE MORNING (1937)



Annabella is the gypsy girl who falls for Henry Fonda in this piffling romance laid amongst the horsey set in Ireland. If it sounds colorful, it was meant to. This was Britain’s first TechniColor feature. So, it’s a shame that KINO’s DVD release is made from a merely serviceable print that only dimly shows off the pastel charms of the early three-strip process. (TechniColor groupies take note: the ubiquitous Ray Rennahan was cinematographer, but Jack Cardiff was the camera operator.) The film is stuffed with green meadows, colorful Romany costumes, horse racing, balls and even Irish tenor John McCormick (he gets three numbers, but we cut away from two of them). Yet, the only thing that holds much interest is the sight of Annabella fetchingly styled & dressed as a boy. (Don’t ask.) She’s always lovely, but bewitching as a young fella. (She can pass, too. Looks a bit like David Bowie. What gives her away is the French accent!) And does anyone know why Hank Fonda made so many of these early TechniColor pics? Six from 1936 to 1940. No other male star came close to that figure.

YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER (1942)


Fred Astaire & Rita Hayworth followed up YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH/’41 with this considerably posher pic. Columbia Studio head Harry Cohn was famously tightfisted, but he opened the coffers to celebrate having his very own iconic sex symbol. The story remains boilerplate nonsense, but the script sticks to a concept and damned if it doesn’t start working. In Buenos Aires, family custom dictates that the eldest unwed daughter (Rita) marry before her kid sisters can tie the knot. But since Rita turns everyone down, her domineering dad (Adolph Menjou) tries to get her ‘in the mood’ by creating an imaginary beau. (A bit Freudian, no?) And Rita convinces herself that the phantom suitor is . . . Fred. Silly, but not without its charms, especially as Hayworth seems relaxed & empowered on screen as never before. Plus, she & Fred dance with an added level of sensual ease & humor; Xavier Cugat supplies that South American ‘Good Neighbor’ rhythm (and even scores as a graceful, unpushy comedian); Jerome Kern & Johnny Mercer deliver some underrated songs (and in ‘I’m Old Fashioned’ an immortal one*); the musical arrangements are lux, handled by the great Conrad Salinger in pre-M-G-M days; and to top it off, lenser Ted Tetzlaff guides Rita up from the merely gorgeous to Goddess. That title ain’t lying.

*This is the film clip Jerome Robbins used when he staged his Fred Astaire tribute ballet @ NYC-Ballet.

Friday, August 6, 2010

TITANIC (1943)


Not the 1997 blockbuster. And not the British version from 1958. (That was A NIGHT TO REMEMBER.) The sudsy 1953 Hollywood version w/ Barbara Stanwyck & Clifton Webb? Nope. This is the Nazi version that was completed in 1943, but unreleased til 1949. The NAZI version? Herr Goebbels & Co. crank out the expected GRAND HOTEL-on-a-boat variant, loaded with greedy British capitalists who put profit ahead of safety; rioting proletariat types in steerage; a substitute German officer for heroics; and a flavorsome assortment of German passengers to care about. The special effects are reasonably handled for the time (the large-scaled miniature ship is convincing while the smaller model looks like a toy with its lights on), but too many scenes are played out in airless cabins. This may have kept the budget in line, but you forget you’re at sea. Even so, the slow working 2nd unit had director Herbert Selpin comparing them to the German Army! An on-set informer didn’t get the joke and neither did the Gestapo. Selpin hung himself not long after. The film isn’t much worse than other Titanic pics, plus you get twice as many stories & characters as James Cameron offers in twice the time. And it's all about as accurate as INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

SPITFIRE (1934)


Katherine Hepburn is alarmingiy miscast as Trigger, a backwoods gal with an ersatz Ozark accent, who falls (sequentially) for Robert Young & Ralph Bellamy, dam engineers from way up North. Poor and stubbornly proud, Trigger may not be the church-going type, but her guileless prayers hold the power of true belief. Not such a good thing when the locals start to notice the raising of the dead & the healing of the sick. Is this the Lord’s work or witchcraft? Naive & odd as it is, Lula Vollmer’s play is not without interest and Edward Cronjager’s location lensing is as fresh & lovely as the beauteous young Kate. If only helmer John Cromwell were able to pull the dramatic threads together in as compelling a manner as he managed this same year for Bette Davis in her breakthrough pic, OF HUMAN BONDAGE.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

HISHU MONOGATARI / A TALE OF SORROW AND SADNESS (1977)


A decade after getting fired by his studio for making ‘incomprehensible’ movies, master Japanese helmer Seijun Suzuki finally returned to the big screen with . . . an incomprehensible movie. That’ll show ‘em! Sadly, the great man really stunk up the joint on this story of a malleable young woman who’‘s groomed to be a media phenom, first as a golf champ, then as a tv hostess. As her fame grows, mentors & lovers of all persuasions curry favor and try to monopolize her attention. Meantime, her kid brother begins to resent taking a back seat to all those devouring fans. No doubt a dark satire on corporate mores, media fame, the loss of identity & the frustrations of playing golf drew Suzuki to this project, but the script is an illogical mess. You know that something’s gone very wrong when Suzuki’s flair for color & composition deserts him. His saturnine tone of comic subversion remains functioning, but it's not enough. The film comes across as self-sabotage.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH (1941)


The first (and lesser) of the two Fred Astaire/Rita Hayworth musicals gets off to a great start. Rita, who’s in the chorus line, flubs a step. Darn! Now Fred will have to personally dance her thru the whole routine. Next up is a run-thru of Fred’s big production number. Staged by Robert Alton in a realistic manner (no Busby Berkeley fantasy), it really swings. But then the plot kicks in. It’s the usual musical-comedy nonsense: theater-owner Robert Benchley needs Fred’s help with his jealous wife. Could Fred pretend to be stuck on Rita? Sounds easy, but it all becomes such a mess that Fred’s thrilled when he gets drafted. Once at camp, he finds Rita’s engaged to a Captain. How can a song & dance man top that? Maybe he’ll put on a show. The plot & complications are boilerplate (as is the sub-par Cole Porter score), yet the film has a saucy bounce that carries you past the inanities. And there’s lots of goodies in here. Astaire’s solos are just on fire, and note that his big duet with Hayworth (‘So Near and Yet So Far’) has only a single cut in it. Look fast for an innovative backseat P.O.V. shot when Fred all but crashes into a pedestrian. How'd that get past the Columbia studio execs? And check out Fred’s easy hoofing in a military number, ‘They’re Shooting the Works for Uncle Sam.’ It shows what Fred might have done if George M. Cohan had gotten his wish for Astaire to play him in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY/’42.