Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish
Directors: Christy Cabanne and John Emerson
USA 1916
35 min
Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Bessie Love, Alma Rubens and Allan Sears, among others.

It is available on YouTube, but some idiot put modern techno music over it. I fixed another version and upped it on here: link

Oh mighty Demons, can this film be for real...?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Bela-thon: pt 2

The second and last part of the Bela-thon, in honor of Bela Lugosi's birthday October 20th, perfect in the Halloween times!
The following three movies are reviewed:

White Zombie (1932)
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Glen or Glenda? (1953)

White Zombie
Director: Victor Halperin
USA 1932
67 min
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Joseph Cawthorn, Robert Frazer and John Harron, among others.


That's the first sound you hear in the film. It takes place in the West Indies, so of course the natives have their strange rituals with weird chanting when they bury someone. A carriage drives by natives, and the young couple inside seem intrigued. Their driver explains that the natives bury their dead by the road where people are always coming and going, to keep body snatchers away from the graves. They also drive past another group of strange looking people, that the driver says are living dead - zombies. And who might be the front figure among them if not Legendre - Bela Lugosi!

The young couple is Madeleine and Neil, played by the magically beautiful Madge Bellamy and John Harron, on their way to the mansion of a brief acquaintance by the name of Charles Beaumont (Frazer). Beaumont have for some reason convinced them to visit him before they get married. Soon it is understood that Beaumont is in love with Madeleine and plans to keep her for himself. He turns to Legendre for advise, and he teaches him how to turn her into a zombie. (Seriously, what's up with Legendre's facial hair growth?)

This is a hypnotizing little pre-code horror gem. The amazing cinematography reminds me of the silent era, which was not too far back in time in 1932. There is a great use of shadows, filming through objects and interesting camera angles. Music is absent in many scenes, and the scratchy sound recording gives a lot of atmosphere reminiscent of Dracula (1931). The absence of music makes other sounds more evident and scary, like the sound of the squeaking mill the zombies are working in. When there is music it has a surreal feeling, much reminding me of Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou (1929). As I said before: it's a hypnotic and fascinating film.

Does the name Madge Bellamy ring any bell? She was that actress that shot her millionaire lover in 1943 when he was about to marry another woman, shrugging off the incident with the words:  "I only winged him, which is what I meant to do. Believe me, I'm a crack shot" That's a tough woman!

Dr. Bruner: Your driver believed he saw dead men... walking. 

Son of Frankenstein
Director: Rowland V. Lee
USA 1939
99 min
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill and Josephine Hutchinson, among others.

Basil Rathbone plays the title character (with the fabulous name of Baron Wolf von Frankenstein) who inherits his father's castle to continue his experiments. With him he brings his wife and son. It is however revealed that Wolf does not need to start his father's experiments all over - the Monster never died. Instead he lives in a crypt in the castle, being taken care of by Ygor (Lugosi). Ygor is a man that ones was hanged and pronounced dead, but somehow survived. He uses the Monster's devotion for him to seek revenge on the men behind his hanging.

I was surprised at how seriously great this film was. The Frankenstein castle looks marvelous, all twisted angles and Art Deco. It is fun to see the Great Rathbone in a horror movie, he does a great job. The way he gets more and more nervous and twitchy by the weight of his consience (he knows why people in the village are murdered, but revealing the truth would end his experiments) - well, Rathbone can do it, and he does it amazingly.

But I am supposed to concentrate on Lugosi in these film reviews. Once again he shows that he can play different kind of parts. As Ygor he is truly fascinating and inconvenient. The makeup work with his broken neck is amazing, I really feel sick when I see it.

Son of Frankenstein is a superb film that really lives up to it's prequels Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), even though one by this time is used to Karloff as the Monster and prefer to see him in more sophisticated roles.

Glen or Glenda? aka He or She aka I Changed My Sex! aka I Led 2 Lives
Director: Edward D. Wood Jr.
USA 1953
68 min
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Edward D. Wood Jr. (as Daniel Davis), Lyle Talbot, Timothy Farrell and Dolores Fuller, among others.

I think it's about time that I cover a film by the famous B-movie director Ed Wood! The director who wanted so much, but didn't really succeed. This is the only film that he directed but didn't produce - he actually had a little (notice the word "little") budget with this one!

He was originally supposed to make a film about the sex-change pioneer Christine Jorgensen (hot news back then), but instead turned the film into a pseudo-documentary on transvestitism and trans sexuality. With a lot of weird stuff in between.

Since Ed Wood was a transvestite himself (something that his girlfriend and co-actress Dolores Fuller did not know at the time) it was suitable for him to play the leading part of the story: Glen/Glenda. It is very evident that this subject was something that was close to his heart, and the large amount of soul he put into this film is perhaps its biggest strength.

Now, this is a bad movie. An awesome one, though. It is impossible to explain the story without revealing all the ridiculous stuff about it. Firstly, there seems to have been a problem deciding who is the narrator of the film. We are introduced to Bela Lugosi, who plays some God-like undefinable character. He talks about humans and their ridiculous way of living. He seems like the narrator.
Then we jump to a suicide scene, where a transvestite has taken his own life. Inspector Warren (Talbot) gets troubled by the suicide note and its message of a man not being accepted by society wearing women's clothing. He sees a psychologist, Dr. Alton (Farrell) who enlightens Inspector Warren about what goes on in the mind of a transvestite. He starts a second narration, telling the story of Glen/Glenda.
And then Glen/Glenda has a narration! So we have three different narrators. That's confusing.

Another ridiculous thing about Glen or Glenda? is the one thing Ed Wood is probably most known for - the frequent use of irrelevant stock footage. I read that 20% of the film is stock footage, which is quite impressive. There is also psychedelic elements with sado-masochistic women, The Devil etc. etc. Don't ask me to figure out what Ed Wood wanted to tell us with that.

What about Lugosi then? Well, he is marvelous no matter how ridiculous the script is. (It's obvious that Ed Wood worshiped him and let him go on with whatever he felt like saying.) I guess Lugosi is one of the few actors who actually can get away with mixing strange chemicals on a desk filled with random books and human skulls, and in the next scene shout:
"Beware! Bevare of the big green dragon who sits on your doorstep. He eats little boys... puppy dog tails, and big, fat snails! Beware... take care... Beware!"
There is some grace about his movements, something hypnotic about his eyes, something fascinating about his voice - it's Bela Lugosi, and he is the man.

I love this film. The actors are bad bad, and the whole thing just makes you amazed at how this film ever could have been made. But Ed Wood is such a pleasant character (he is probably the least bad of all the actors too, besides Lugosi of course), and his love for his work makes you unable not to love Glen or Glenda?.

Come on! How can you not love this:

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bela-thon: pt 1

In honor of one of the most iconic actor of the Universal horror era, Bela Lugosi, I have watched a handful of his coolest performances in order to write some brief reviews of those films.

The Romanian actor was born in what was then Austria-Hungary in a town called Lugos. His was born 20 October, 1882, with the incredible name combination Béla Ferenc Dezsõ Blaskó. (I dare you to pronounce it!) He obviously took his stage name from the name of his home town.

He began his career on the stage in 1901 and fought in WWI, being wounded three times. He had to flee to Germany in 1919 after having organized a left-wing actors' union. Next year he emigrated to America and continued his career as a character actor. His breakthrough came with his interpretation of Bram Stoker's Count Dracula on Broadway in 1927 (running for three years), and even more so with Tod Browning's film adaption of the novel in 1931.

Unfortunately Lugosi's career quickly declined; partly because of his habit of taking on any role offered to him, partly because of rivalry with other successful Universal actors like Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. His performances were still magical though, they were just not as appreciated as before. Before his death in 1956 he had become a forgotten drug addicted actor, only appreciated by the legendary B-director (or even C-director?) Edward D. Wood Jr. He had been married five times, and was buried dressed in his original Dracula cape.

On the very day of his birth 127 years ago I post three of my intended six Bela Lugosi film reviews: The Black Cat (1934), The Mystery of the Mary Celeste (1935) and The Raven (1935).

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
USA 1934
65 min
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, David Manners, Julie Bishop, Egon Brecher and Lucille Lund, among others.

This is a typical example of earning money of a famous title, but not having anything to do with the original - in this case a tale by Edgar Allan Poe. (Notice that his name is misspelled on the poster above!) The only thing reminiscent of the original tale is the black cat as a symbol to forebode danger or bad luck.

What The Black Cat is not a typical example of is a 1930's horror film. If you have seen Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920), you will agree with me on a striking visual resemblance between the two. German expressionism influenced Hollywood during the 1920's and 1930's, and the Art Deco sets here are a great example.

Okay, that didn't explain my statement of The Black Cat not being a typical Universal horror film. What makes it different is the insane plot, its insane characters and daring pre-code ingredients like satanism and necrophilia.

The two typical horror actors Lugosi and Karloff do not have typical roles, and they seem to enjoy their characterizations; Karloff shines as the madman Hjalmar Poelzig and Lugosi fascinates as revenge seeking Dr. Vitus Verdegast, all the way from the first scene in the train cabin to his unusual fate in the last one.

I won't clear up the plot for you, it's not interesting. The visual elements are - sets, lighting, camera angles, shadows. The actors are - Karloff, Lugosi, the weird servant and the only sane people in the movie: the newly weds staying at Poelzig's house after a car accident. Just watch it, if you haven't.

Hjalmar Poelzig: The phone is dead. Do you hear that, Vitus? Even the phone is dead.

The Mystery of the Mary Celeste aka The Phantom Ship
Director: Denis Clift
USA 1935
80 min
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Shirley Grey, Arthur Margetson, Edmund Willard and Dennis Hoey, among others.

On board the Mary Celeste the crew, thrown together in the last minute, realize that there is a murderer among them - killing them off one by one. Based on a true story.

The idea for the film is great, but the result was a pretty mediocre mystery film which is mostly entertaining for only two reasons: a brilliant Bela Lugosi as an old drunkard and the crew's jolly songs, the Whiskey song being my favorite. I had to keep myself from clapping my hands.

Aside from the film being an early Hammer production with a lot of unknown and bad actors, and therefore not surprisingly isn't of the best quality, there is one thing that bothered me. Bela Lugosi is the only famous name in the cast list - I just wonder who the murderer is...? I bet he will go on playing a drunk old man who likes to feed the black cat on board (yes, he brought along a black cat).

The boring leading man and the leading lady with a horrible singing voice. Seriously, buy ear plugs if you are going to watch this film.

I bet this film would be much better if the censor scissors hadn't gotten their way with it. We barely see the murders being committed, there are many brutal cuts (the director must have cried blood) - and there supposedly is a twist ending that got removed from the final print. Lugosi is even dubbed in one scene explaining the escape of two of the crew members (sorry, I spoiled something you probably had figured out by just looking at the poster), obviously a desperate attempt to change the ending of the film in the last minute.

Perhaps another print will be found in some vault somewhere? I would love to see that. The existing print is - I said it before, and I will say it again - mediocre.

Director: Lew Landers
USA 1935
61 min
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lester Matthews, Irene Ware and Samuel S. Hinds, among others.

The Raven and The Black Cat have a lot of things in common. The most obvious thing is the Poe title and the two main actors, but also the fact that there are innocent people finding themselves imprisoned in a weird house. But this time the story has a little more to do with Poe.

Lugosi plays Dr. Richard Vollin, who is obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe's writing, and especially the torture devises we wrote about. Karloff is a man who has escaped from jail and wants to undergo plastic surgery to change his appearance. Vollin disfigures him on purpose, with the promise to fix him if he helps him with something horrible.

Vollin has fallen in love, in the way mentally unstable persons do, with a woman he saved the life of after a car accident. (The lady in question is played by the beautiful Irene Ware.) He invites her, her fiancée, her father Thatcher who resents Vollin's interest in his daughter (I can't understand why!) and some other guest to his mansion to stay the night, only for them to end up in a hidden torture chamber in his cellar.

This is one of the few roles where Lugosi got a really good chance to show off his acting skills, and I think his interpretation of Dr. Vollin influenced a lot of the now cliché mad doctors in many horror films yet to come.

Vollin: A knife.
Thatcher: What's it doing?
Vollin: Descending.
Thatcher: What are you trying to do to me?
Vollin: Torture you.
Stay tuned for White Zombie (1932), Son of Frankenstein (1939), and Glen or Glenda (1953)!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Freaky Film Posters or: Do they feel all right in Poland? pt. 2

More freaky film posters from Poland! Part one here.

I don't know why, but this poster for Carnal Knowledge (1971) makes me feel filthy.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Mr. Monotony with Judy Garland

I saw Easter Parade (1948) the other day. What a lovely film! Not as perfect as The Band Wagon (1953), but not really far from it. I love to see Fred Astaire playing grouchy and sometimes almost rude, as his character is every now and then in both movies mentioned. And I can't help but fall in love with Judy Garland, even though I know it's a cliché to love her. (I like Marilyn Monroe too! Ha!)

I found a cut out scene on the extra material. Usually that kind of extra material is quite boring (the reason why the scenes where cut out can be quite obvious), but I always watch them if it's from an old movie. It feels like taking a trip back in time - "This wasn't in the movie! It's magic!"

However, this scene was not boring. In fact, I can't understand why it was cut out - the film couldn't suffer too much of being two and a half minutes longer, could it? It is however a song and dance number with Judy Garland and a swinging song called "Mr. Monotony". I know I talk a lot about Cyd Charisse's legs, but there was nothing wrong with Garland's either!

I will only include the finished version of the song. There was a lot of re-takes that were fun to watch (isn't it awfully interesting to see the actors/actresses go in and out of character?), but if I would have included those it would have reached a time of 25 minutes. Just buy the DVD, and don't complain!

Here's Judy Garland with "Mr. Monotony"!

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Band Wagon (1953)

The Band Wagon
Director: Vincente Minnelli
USA 1953
111 min
Starring: Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray and Jack Buchanan, among others.

Can you believe that I actually saw this film for the first time just yesterday? I have trouble believing that myself. Well, anyway I had to write something about this crazy Technicolor delight!

The year before The Band Wagon, Singin' in the Rain (1952) became a box-office success. There are some interesting likenesses between the two movies:

  • Adolph Green and Betty Comden are the persons behind both the films' scripts.
  • Both films take place in the world of entertainment during eras of extensive changes: Singin' in the Rain takes place in Hollywood during the change from silent films to talkies, The Band Wagon on the stage, where the audience now wants more than top hats and tap dancing.
  • In both movies the first attempt of trying something new becomes a great failure, and only when the persons involved go for something they can and like does it become a success at a second attempt.
Now, do not misunderstand me: Both movies manages on their own, and The Band Wagon is not a blatant copy of Singin' in the Rain. Oh no. I just find comparisons very interesting. No that I finished that off, I can go on with the rest of the film!

The film begins with an auction, where the top hat of the once popular Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire's alter ego: his career was beginning to fade at this time) is sold on auction - no bidders. In the next scene we see a couple of men in a train discussing celebrities, and how they remember the glory days of Tony Hunter. Behind a newspaper is Tony Hunter himself, joining the discussion by stating that he wouldn't go to see Tony Hunter even if he was given $5 for the effort. (That is called self-distance, my friends.)

After having sung the sad "By Myself" (mostly sad because he looks so jolly while singing it) he meets his friends on the platform, the scriptwriting couple Lester and Lily Marton (Betty Comden and Adolph Green's alter egos) played by Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray. I instantly loved Fabray for her exploding energy, Jesus! Oh, and Ava Gardner makes a cameo!

That shoe shining routine is wonderful, but I can't see that it would have made it into a film today...

Lester and Lily has an idea for a Broadway show that they want Tony Hunter to star in to bring his career back on tracks. They also have a popular ballet dancer in mind, Gabrielle Gerard (Charisse, complete with her fabulous legs), and a famous director/actor by the name of Jeffrey Cordova (Buchanan). Cyd Charisse as a ballerina can only look right when wearing a dress red as sin.

I read somewhere that Cordova is a parody of Orson Welles, but I feel that he is a general spoof on all over ambitious directors. He is without a doubt the most hilarious character in the film, and the scene where he imagines Lester and Lily's play as a sort of modern interpretation of Faust is painfully hysterical.

Immediately when Tony and Gabrielle meet they get on the wrong foot with each other because of either ones insecurities if they can live up to the other one's talent. A little dance in Central Park later, they do however come to the conclusion that they can meet half ways and make it a success.

Cordova's Faust play becomes a huge failure as the audience look like they have had a seizure after leaving the theatre. The gang re-writes the whole thing, and the rest of the film contains of a series of entertaining song and dance numbers, including the famous and weird "Triplets" act.

But my absolute favorite scene in the entire film is, as anyone probably could guess, the film noir spoof "The Girl Hunt". It starts of in a black alley with a cool-as-ice Fred Astaire and a cynical narration. Out of nowhere a lady in distress pops out, some gang members beat him senseless and leaving clues behind them. And of course, Cyd Charisse as the femme fatale who is "selling hard, but I wasn't buying". Oh, can it get more perfect than this? Pure joy, all through the scene. Charisse must be Astaire's best dance partner after the Ginger Rogers era, such delight to watch.

I guess all this comes down to this: I adored this film after the first viewing. I will put it in my perfect-films-to-watch-when-I'm-sick-or-when-just-generally-feeling-sorry-for-myself-list, among Gone With the Wind and Singin' in the Rain. But the latter one is a little overused for the moment, I know everything in and out in that film. The Band Wagon simply gets to take it's place for a while.

Now - pic spam! (I want her legs!)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Swing Time (1936)

Swing Time
Director: George Stevens
USA 1936
103 min
Starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore, Helen Broderick, Eric Blore, Betty Furness and Georges Metaxa, among others.

See it on YouTube: link

Lately I have been most too masculine in my choice of films, so I felt I had to watch a Fred & Ginger picture to remind myself and my readers that I am, in fact, still a lady.

I have a DVD box set with four of the couple's RKO pictures, bud sadly this one is not included. Therefore Swing Time was a new experience for me. A lovely experience, in fact, and I think it for the time being is my favorite Fred & Ginger film.

The plot is quite similar to Top Hat (1935) - but who cares about the plot in films like these? Oh, you do? Me too. But it's no disappoinment, the similar factors are those you don't care about anyway. Like re-using actors: if you like the actor, why complain that they have similar roles in another picture? Nice to see more of them.

I'm talking about the refined, eccentric and lisping Eric Blore and the middle aged, urbane cool older friend of the leading lady, Helen Broderick. Broderick even appeared with Astaire on Broadway with The Band Wagon!

Then we have the essential slimy Italian, this time played by Romanian actor Georges Metaxa. He has that kind of a role that Ginger for some reason always ends up almost marrying, because Fred has let her down in some way. In Top Hat she misunderstood him to be already married, in Swing Time she finds out he already has a fiancée. Good enough reason to take a pause from Fred, but why throw yourself in the arms of greasy narcissists? I think she need a few lessons in womanhood.

That much for the plot. I'm confusing, I know, but I don't find it important enough to straighten out (plus you all have probably already seen the film). Now to the good stuff!

The songs are wonderful. Fred sings "The Way You Look Tonight" while accompanying himself on the piano and Ginger washes her hair. (With whipped cream, from what I read in the trivia section on IMDb.) They both sing the jolly "Pick Yourself Up" during a dance class. Fred gives a minstrel show singing "Bojangles of Harlem" with three giant shadows dancing behind him. Itäs all very entertaining and joyful.

But my favorite part of Swing Time is the winter section, with heavy snowflakes filling every inch of the screen. Ginger gets disappointed when she tries to have a romantic moment with Fred, but the fact that he is in love with one woman and engaged to another (without any of them knowing it) destroys his sense for romantic settings.
They sing "A Fine Romance", a song I only have heard Marilyn Monroe sing before, and it's such a lovely scene. The camera work is perfect; the snowy landscape seems almost unreal. (Maybe it was? Was it filmed in a studio? All I know is that winters in Sweden can look just like that, and it's wonderful.)

I hope I look as cute as Ginger Rogers do when I'm angry.

The last scene is simple but superb. That hysterical laughter everyone breaks out into has to be for real, I can't believe anyone can fake such a thing. (For is it anything that really enoys me with feel-good films is that fake laughter the actors are forced to squeeze out, it's unbearable.) I guess it was the last scene filmed, and everyone was tired and silly. That's my explaination. And even if it was fake it got to me, and I found myself with a creepy smile by the end of the film.