Friday, December 23, 2011

These Amazing Shadows - The Movies That Make America (2011)

I was a little hesitant (just a little) about watching These Amazing Shadows, hoping that it wasn't going to be just another vehicle for a collection of classic film clips.  Directed by Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton, and produced by Mariano, Norton, and Christine O'Malley, These Amazing Shadows - The Movies That Make America is an impressive documentary about The National Film Registry, film preservation, and why film is important to so many people.  The film also demonstrates the influence that film has had on actors, directors, filmmakers, and the rest of our society.

Congress established the registry in 1988 in response to a collective cry of foul after media mogul Ted Turner purchased the MGM film library and began to ruffle the feathers of many classic film fans as he started colorizing many of our beloved favorite films.  There is actually a clip of Turner pompously proclaiming that "the last time I checked, they were my films ...  I'm workin' on my films".  Even Hollywood stars began to protest.  James Stewart made a trip to Washington to express his concern about the issue.  Speaking about the film colorization process he stated "I feel they're being tampered with and I want to speak out against this".  Woody Allen was another celebrity who spoke in front of Congress opposing Turner's actions.

The importance of restoring these films is so that we can continue to enjoy and learn from them.  There are scenes from many classic films, shorts, documentaries, propaganda films, home movies, and cartoons that have had a significant and lasting impression on popular culture and display technical advances and historical significance.   For myself it was like a highlight reel of my own personal DVD collection. 

Some of the clips included are scenes from The Wizard Of Oz (1939), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Duck Amuck (1953), Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers (1956), What's Opera, Doc (1957), the Zapruder Film of the Kennedy assassination (1963), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and more recent films added to the registry including  Blade Runner (1982), Star Wars (1977), and many others.  According to information provided by ITVS and Independent Lens "the oldest film on the registry is Newark Athlete (1891) and the most recent is Fargo (1996).

There are numerous interviews with film experts, historians, archivists, directors, and actors throughout the documentary who explain how certain films inspired them or set them on their career path, as well as interviews with individuals who have had a direct input as to which films should be nominated and why they thought them relevant.

There are numerous powerful images and memorable video clips of titles chosen to be included in the National Film Registry.  I wasn't familiar with all the titles included in the film, but after seeing them I can see how every single one of them would leave a lasting impression on the viewer in one way or another.  Some comparisons of original and restored footage makes one appreciate the time and effort that's put into restoring these films.

 In the documentary actor/director Rob Reiner discusses It's A Wonderful Life (1946) and how it's "a film that celebrates the value of life".  John Singleton director of Boyz n the Hood (1991) makes a great point when he says that "Film is a reflection of the times we live in, good or bad".  Actor George Takei of Star Trek (1966-68) fame relates his own personal recollections and experiences in relation to the cultural impact of film.

This is a great documentary with some really fun, entertaining, and memorable moments.  It's not just for classic film fans, but for anyone who is interested in and appreciates any genre of film.

These Amazing Shadows premieres on Independent Lens on Thursday December 29, 2011 at 10 PM (check your local listings and PBS stations).

DVD, promotional materials, and images courtesy of ITVS and Independent Lens.  Special thanks to Abbe Harris and Cara White for their help with the promotional stuff.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Superman aka "The Mad Scientist" (1941)

"Up in the sky ...  Look ...  It's a bird ...  It's a plane ...  It's Superman ...  "In the endless reaches of the universe there once existed a planet known as Krypton, a planet that burned like a green star in the distant heavens ...   With this opening statement we are introduced to the "man of steel" in the first moving picture appearance of one of our favorite superheroes.

Nominated for an Oscar for "Best Animated Short Subject" in 1942, but beaten out by Disney's Lend a Paw, this beautifully drawn short released by Paramount and shown in Technicolor, was produced by Max Fleischer, and directed by his brother Dave Fleischer.  It's based on the Superman comic strip created by Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster, and as seen in Action Comics and Superman Magazine.  Unlike other versions of the story of Superman, in this episode we learn that after crashing on Earth the last survivor of the planet Krypton was found by a passing motorist who took the uninjured child to an orphanage, where as he grew up he found he was possessed by amazing physical powers.

When a mad scientist uses an "Electrothanasia ray" to destroy buildings and bridges and pretty much just terrorize the civilian population in general, it's Superman to the rescue to save the world and protect Lois Lane as she tries to scoop Clark Kent on the story.

As the series of shorts progresses you can see how the animation process was honed and developed over time.  As each short was released the drawings seem a bit cleaner and backgrounds more detailed. 

I always seem to find something in films or shorts to pick on.  In this short, after Kent changes into Superman he sticks his head out of the doorway of the stockroom to peek down the hallway, when I'm assuming he could have just used his X-ray vision to look through the wall to see if anyone was around, but that's just me throwing a wrench into the works.  Don't forget, I'm not trashing the short.  I just seem to pick up on the strangest things.

According to The Super Guide To The Fleischer Superman Cartoons written by Russ May, these cartoons were originally released monthly in theaters from September 9th 1941, to July 30th, 1943.  "Paramount obtained permission to make a series of cartoons based on the comic strip.  The pilot cost $50,000.  This is three times what the Fleischer "Popeye" cartoons of that time cost.  Subsequent cartoons in the series had a budget of $30,000.  And the cost for all 17 of the "Superman" cartoons was $530,000."

The voices for the characters were provided by Clayton "Bud" Collyer (Clark Kent/Superman), Joan Alexander (Lois Lane), and Jackson Beck (Narrator/Perry White) but the names were never shown in the credits.

Unlike other serials you won't have any problem watching multiple episodes in one sitting as each is an individual adventure rather than a continuing storyline.  With 17 cartoons in total for the series, and with a running time between 8 to 10 minutes each, this episode is the first one in the series.  Overall this a great collection of animated shorts to watch.    A must see for fans of the early days of animation or admirers of the Superman character.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Dick Tracy's G-Men (1939)

Released by Republic Pictures  Dick Tracy's G-Men is 15 chapters of thrills and excitement directed by William Witney and John English, and stars Ralph Byrd as the fearless square-jawed crime fighter, Irving Pichel, Ted Pearson, and Phylis Isley (aka Jennifer Jones).  The musical score is by William Lava, and the serial is based on the cartoon strip by Chester Gould.

Zarnoff (Pichel) the "International Master Spy" is captured by Dick Tracy and the FBI and is imprisoned and sentenced to death.  But when he is able to escape the gas chamber, Zarnoff vows revenge on Dick Tracy and the government.  Some of the dastardly acts committed by Zarnoff include attempts to sabotage an ammunition convoy and assassination attempts on foreign dignitaries, to smuggling and selling government secrets.  All the while Zarnoff manages to stay barely one step ahead of Tracy and his G-Men who are in hot pursuit.

The serial does have a few of those "you've got to be kidding me" moments.  Like when Tracy ends up in the water somehow and then manages to climb out with his hair still wet but his clothes pretty dry.  You would figure being in an international spy ring that when you were at your hideout you would at least lock the windows, but Tracy climbs right in and then uses their phone to call for backup.  Tracy cleverly escapes being bound and gagged with the aid of a cigarette lighter.  He also manages to survive a vault full of poison gas without even so much as a headache.  One of the last chapters of the serial is shown as a sort of re-cap of everything that's happened up to that point, in case the viewer has stretched their viewing over a period of time long enough to forget what's previously transpired.

But, I guess you have to take the bad with the good.  And with over four hours of viewing time, you're not expected to be on the edge of your seat for every single minute.  I find it's always better to watch these serials in small doses as they were intended, because for some viewers, watching them for long periods they become kind of repetitious.  The villains are always concocting some sort of devious plan for dispatching Dick Tracy, but they always act surprised when he shows up time after time.  Dick Tracy was also almost killed in the Hindenburg explosion when Zarnoff, not to be confused with Dr. Zorka from The Phantom Creeps, manages to blow up the dirigible again.  And as I always say, serials always seem have the best dressed thugs and gangsters - always dressed in suits, ties, and fedoras.

  The ending was a little unexpected, but as Tracy says "in one way or the other they always get it".

Ralph Byrd does another nice job as Tracy, and Pearson is solid as Tracy's partner Steve Lockwood.  Pichel puts in a strong performance as Zarnoff, a villain who's cunning and evil.  Isley/Jones has a small part as Gwen, Tracy's secretary, but does a good job making phone calls and getting the sandwiches etc.  I thought the name William Lava looked familiar in the credits.  He was very a prolific composer in his own right,  but also collaborated with other top names such as Henry Mancini, Franz Waxman, and Max Steiner.

Really nice transfer on the DVDs from VCI Entertainment, great image quality and sound.  Overall a pretty good serial with lots of excitement and only a few eye-rolling moments.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Six Degrees of Classic Film -- Round One

Thanks Page -

Mabel Normand was in Head Over Heels (1922) with Adolphe Menjou.

Next person up - Becky at ClassicBecky's Brain Food

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Cheat (1931)

I haven't watched many of Tallulah Bankhead's films, and never really thought of her as a pre-code glamour gal, but after viewing The Cheat I see her in a very different light.  The is the third time the story was filmed, after the 1915 and 1923 versions.  This version was directed by George Abbott and stars Tallulah Bankhead, Irving Pichel, and Harvey Stephens.  When Elsa Carlyle (Bankhead) foolishly gambles away $10,000 on a hunch she uses a charity's money to replace her losses.   Her husband Jeffrey (Stephens) is constantly scolding her because of her extravagant spending, so when he refuses to invest in a supposed "sure thing" tip on the stock market Elsa takes cash from their safe at home and invests the money herself.  The "sure thing" turns out to be a flop, so now she is in deep trouble.

Elsa reluctantly accepts an expensive oriental gown from art collector Hardy Livingstone (Pichel), and figures that he'll only want one thing in return for the gift but tries to act naive.  When she loses her investment money and is embarrassed to tell her husband, she has no choice but to try to get the money from Livingstone because she knows he would do anything to have her.  He offers to replace the cash if she "would only be a little nicer" to him. 

When her husband secures a deal at work, he tells her that they're rich and offers to payoff her debts.  Elsa now thinks her troubles are over but they are really only beginning.  When the time comes to pay off the slime-ball, money won't satisfy him.  As a sort of fetish, Livingstone has small dolls made up to resemble his female conquests, as sort of trophies, and he won't be satisfied until he adds Elsa to his collection.

When he reveals his intentions to her she resists, they scuffle, a shot rings out, and the swine hits the ground (sorry I got a little carried away).  A brief courtroom drama ensues and results in a riot.  And that's about as close as I'll get to revealing the ending. 

Director George Abbott directed three other films in 1931, Secrets of a Secretary with Claudette Colbert, Stolen Heaven with Nancy Carroll, and My Sin with Bankhead and Fredric March.  Pichel starred as Fagin in the 1933 film version of Oliver Twist and appeared in many other films.  He also directed many films including The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and the science fiction classic Destination Moon (1950). 

Pichel does a nice job in the film.  Stephens is rock solid as the loving husband.  Bankhead is cute, but I can think of a few other pre-code cuties that I also enjoy watching.  Of course the the film has references to drug use, sex, infidelity, etc.  Everyone knows that in these pre-code films morals and political correctness go right out the window, so I'll refrain from giving my usual  "view in the context ..." speech.

With a running time of about 68 minutes it goes by pretty quickly, and a good thing too because I don't think I could have taken much more of that scumbag casanova.

Overall a pretty good film with a nice twist at the end.  So if you have an hour or so to kill, check it out ...  I think you'll enjoy it ...

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The General (1926)

This film is a masterpiece, and one of the best and funniest films I have ever seen.  The General was directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, and stars Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Joe Keaton (Buster's dad), Glen Cavender, and Jim Farley. From making the viewer empathize with the characters, to the thrilling chase scenes, to the some of the funniest moments ever filmed The General has everything.  Every stunt Keaton performs is better than the one before it, and his fascination with trains is evident and the focal point of the entire feature.  I think the attention to detail as well as the chemistry between the main characters is what makes the film so great.

The story begins at the start of the Civil War.  Johnnie Gray (Keaton) tries to enlist as a soldier in the Confederate army.  He gets turned down but not because the army doesn't want him, but because they think he'll be more valuable to them in his current job as an engineer.  Of course they don't explain this to Johnnie so he, and everyone else including his girl, think he didn't join because he was unfit or that he was a coward.

When Johnnie's train is stolen by Union spies the fun begins as he tries to track down his missing locomotive, and his beloved Annabelle (Mack) who was kidnapped while she just happened to be on the train at the time it was taken.  From this point on the film becomes a showcase for Keaton's many talents whether they are his directorial skills, physical stunts, or his slapstick gags and routines.

Marion Mack is adorable, I would love to have her for a sweetheart, and I think she plays the role of the dizzy girlfriend really well.  I personally think she steals some of Buster's thunder in some of the scenes she shares with him.  One great scene has Johnnie Gray and Annabelle being chased by the Union army. While Johnnie has his hands full trying to stay ahead of the enemy, Annabelle picks up a broom and decides to tidy up the engine a bit.  Keaton's reaction is priceless. 

The stunts are unbelievable.  I imagine the film must have been fairly costly to make due to the lavish scenery, props, and cinematography.

The score by composer Robert Israel does just what it should, it enhances every single scene. Overall, what an incredible film.  I actually ended up watching this a few times over the past couple of days, and to be honest with you, I would have no problem sitting through it again. For anyone who isn't familiar with Keaton's work this is a great film to start out with.  And for Keaton fans, just sit down and enjoy the magic one more time ...

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Haunted House (1921)

The Haunted House is a hilarious short directed by Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton, written by Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton, and produced by Joseph M. Schenck.  The short stars Buster Keaton (of course), Virginia Fox,  and frequent Keaton antagonist "Big" Joe Roberts.  It also costars Edward F. Cline (as one of the bank customers), Dorothy Cassil, and Natalie Talmadge (she's the girl who faints in the bank) who would become Keaton's wife.

A bank teller (Keaton) manages to get out of one sticky situation only to find himself in another as he foils a bank robbery and ends up in a "haunted house" which ends up being the bank robbers hideout.  Keaton, who's now mistaken for one of the bank robbers/counterfeiters, hides out in the house with a troupe of performers (in full costume) who were booed and chased off the stage of a local theater. 

The house is actually rigged with trick gadgets to scare off anyone, especially the police, who happens to stumble upon the hideout.  But Buster doesn't know this and it takes him a little while to catch on.  And when he does he catches the crooks, saves the girl, and saves the day.  He does have a slight problem negotiating a stairway to heaven, but everything turns out okay in the end.  Great two-reeler, and lots of fun.

Eddie Cline started out as one of the Keystone Cops and also directed several W.C. Fields films.  Joseph Schenck was fairly successful in his career producing films and shorts for Keaton and others, as well as his own wife Norma Talmadge (Keaton's sister-in-law).  Virginia Fox appeared in some of Max Sennet's comedy shorts, and Joe Roberts frequently appeared as a villain in other Keaton films.

Check out for some pretty cool collectibles and stuff.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Haunted Spooks (1920)

Haunted Spooks is directed by Hal Roach, and stars Harold Lloyd as the boy, Mildred Davis as the girl, and Wallace Howe as the uncle.  It also has some beautiful title card artwork by Harley Walker and the music is composed, arranged, and conducted by Robert Israel and performed by The Robert Israel Orchestra (Europe). 

In the story a Southern gentleman has died "for the first time", and his estate goes to his grand-daughter and her husband provided they live in the family mansion for one year. Otherwise the girl's uncle inherits everything. There's only one problem - the girl isn't married. This already sounds like a recipe for disaster.  There aren't many chills but plenty of laughs when you throw Harold Lloyd into the mix in this classic short by one of the silent era's comedy masters. 

According to the commentary by Suzanne Lloyd, Annette D'Agostino Lloyd, and Richard Correll this short was filmed from August 19th through August 23rd 1919, and then from January 5th through January 25th 1920, because of an accident Harold Lloyd had during filming.  The accident with a bomb mistaken for a prop resulted in the loss of the thumb and index finger of his right hand and some serious burns to his face and right eye.  This is the first short in which you'll notice Lloyd uses a prosthetic right hand due to some of the scenes being filmed before and then after his accident.

There is some political incorrectness that some viewers might take exception to, but as always these shorts need to be viewed in the context of the times they were produced in. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Old Dark House (1932)

Imagine being stranded out in the middle of nowhere on a dark rainy night unable to continue on your journey.  Luckily you're able to find shelter in a charming old home with a loving family that agree to put you and your fellow travelers up for the night.  This is totally not what happens in The Old Dark House, except for the being stranded part.

The film was directed by the great James Whale and boasts a stellar cast including Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Gloria Stuart, Raymond Massey, Ernest Thesiger, Lillian Bond, Eva Moore, and Boris Karloff.  Whale seemed very comfortable churning out horror films for Universal, but he was also involved with many other films including Waterloo Bridge (1931), Show Boat (1936), and The Man in the Iron Mask (1939).

The film begins with the Wavertons, a bickering couple (Massey and Stuart) traveling across the countryside with their wisecracking traveling companion Penderel (Douglas) on a rain-soaked, stormy evening.  When the road they're on gets washed out by the storm they notice lights burning in an ominous looking house up ahead and decide to try to stop and seek shelter.  After being greeted at the door by Morgan (Karloff), a scar-faced mumbling butler, the trio enter the house and meet the eccentric owners Horace and Rebecca Femm (Thesiger and Moore).

Another pair of unsuspecting travelers (Laughton and Bond) arrive and are reluctantly allowed to spend the night. As the storm rages outside and the travelers try to settle in, they find that the house and the Femms have a long, sordid and questionable past.  As everyone tries to get better acquainted with each other, and they begin to explore the house, they find mystery and danger at every turn.  Mrs. Waverton is attacked by the drunken brute of a butler, and a locked and bolted door at the top of the stairs conceals behind it a dark secret that the Femm family keep hidden away from all outsiders.

Great sets, special effects, and the wonderful use of lighting and shadows are what you would expect from the meticulous direction of James Whale.  Everyone in the cast is outstanding.  This is a fantastic dark comedy and a must see for any Universal horror fans.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Frankenstein (1910)

For anyone who hasn't seen this version of Mary Shelley's 1818 classic novel, Frankenstein is worth checking out.  The running time is only a little over 12 minutes.  The image is a little rough in spots but overall very viewable.  Produced by Edison Studios in 1910 (Edison himself actually had nothing to do with the film), and directed by J. Searle Dawley, this was the first screen adaptation of the novel.  It stars Augustus Phillips as Frankenstein, Mary Fuller as Elizabeth, and Charles Ogle as the monster.  Ogle must have been a pretty busy guy (almost as busy as William Schallert) as he appeared in over 300 films and shorts (mostly shorts) in his career.

I find it funny that instead of using lightning and electricity to create the monster, Frankenstein just mixes him up in a big bowl like a cake.  And throwing the film into reverse, the monster is "created" out of the flames to wreak havoc on the good doctor and any innocent bystanders. There are plenty of uber-dramatic and over-exaggerated gestures for one and all. 

All kidding aside, take a few minutes and check it out.

See it here on YouTube.  Or here on

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

I figured I'd kick off my October Horrorfest with a silent horror film and gradually work my way up through the years.  Some of the postings this month will be familiar, others maybe not so much.  The postings may be short for the familiar films so as not to reiterate information about the films that everyone, including myself, could probably recite the dialogue to verbatim.  So with this out of the way ...  On to the next ...

You know, when I first watched The Phantom Carriage I really didn't think much about it.  I thought it was okay.  And then,  for some reason, I kept thinking about it over the next couple of days, and the imagery and scenes from the film just kept popping into my head.  Then, thinking about it again, I finally came to the conclusion that it was actually quite good.  The film has a haunting and musical score to go along with the sad and tragic tale.

Based on Korkarlen, a novel by Nobel prize winner Selma Lagerlof, the film was an inspiration for Ingmar Bergman.  As Swedish legend and folklore states, "the last sinner to die on New Year's Eve before the clock strikes twelve is condemned to drive the "Phantom Carriage" until the following New Year's Eve, collecting all the recently departed souls along his endless journey".  And every day that passes in the living world is like a year for the driver of the carriage, so the passage of time literally feels like an eternity.

The story has a Dickensian kind of feel and look to it.  On New Year's Eve a man dies and is forced to look back on his wasted life and to realize the impact that he had on others around him.   The film is extremely dark and has a very eerie and creepy atmosphere.  It becomes extremely intense as it follows David Holm, played by the director of the film Victor Sjostrom, in his self destructive spiral and degradation from a happy family man to a miserable, abusive, and spiteful drunkard.  In all honesty, I found some scenes in the film painful and agonizing to watch at times.

On New Year's Eve Holm and two other drunks are in a cemetery as midnight slowly approaches.  Holm brings up the legend of the "The Phantom Carriage" to his companions.  An argument begins and a fight breaks out. Holm is struck with a bottle and killed as the distant clock tower begins to strike midnight.  Much to Holm's horror he observes the ghostly carriage and driver approaching.  Compounding his terror even further, David recognizes the driver as his friend Georges (Tore Svennberg) who had died the previous New Year's Eve, and whose place he must now take.

Refusing to go with the driver, Holm is bound and forced to view all the suffering caused by the violent and drunken path he has followed in his life.  From the abuse inflicted on his wife and children and the corruption of his friends and relatives, to the act of intentionally contaminating and spreading his tuberculosis to people who had tried to help him, namely a sweet and innocent volunteer nurse named Edit (Astrid Holm) who worked at a Salvation Army type shelter.

Sjostrom uses tinting and double exposures in his production of the film with great effect, and it still holds up extremely well even ninety years later.  The score by Swedish composer Matti Bye is amazing even going as far as mimicking the screeching and grinding of the carriage wheels.

I don't really know if it's the imagery of the film or the storyline itself, but I have a feeling that anyone who views this film won't soon forget it.  It's a very powerful story and I know it's left a lasting impression on me.  Watch one of the creepiest trailers you'll ever see here.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Phantom Creeps (1939)

The Phantom Creeps was produced by Universal Pictures and directed by Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind.  Commonwealth Pictures was a motion picture company that dealt with the redistributing and reissuing of films and shorts but played no part in actually producing the serial.  The screen play was written by George Plympton who also wrote screenplays for some other favorites of mine such as The Green Hornet (1940), Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), Holt of the Secret Service (1941), Superman (1948), Batman and Robin (1949) and many, many others.  The serial stars Bela Lugosi as Dr. Zorka/Dr. Zane, Robert Kent as Capt. Bob West, Dorothy Arnold as reporter Jean Drew, and Edward Van Sloan (sans German accent) as Jarvis the spy chief.

Dr. Zorka is an inventor, but not your average inventor.  He invents things like an "invisibility belt" that can render the wearer invisible to the human eye.  He's the creator of one of the most evil looking, remote control robots that I've ever seen.  And, he's invented some little metal disks that attract exploding mechanical spiders which cause anyone in their vicinity to fall into a state of suspended animation.  Of course all these items use the power harnessed from a piece of meteorite that Zorka had previously recovered.

For some reason (potentially lots of money) Zorka doesn't want to share these discoveries with the U.S. Government, so his ex-partner Dr. Mallory (Edwin Stanley) and Zorka's wife (Dora Clement) call the military intelligence officers themselves.  After the doctor sabotages the government plane with his exploding spiders, not realizing his wife was also on board, the plane crashes and his wife is killed.  Zorka goes mad  and vows revenge on everyone and becomes intent on ruling the world.  After faking his own death in an automobile accident, and with the help of his inept assistant Monk (Jack C. Smith) who whines about getting caught and sent back to prison in practically every chapter, Zorka uses his "invisibility belt", becoming "The Phantom", to move around unnoticed and prevent the Feds from gaining access to his devices.  And, at the same time he tries to stay one step ahead of a gang of international spies, who lead by Jarvis (Van Sloane), are trying to steal his secrets and the meteorite fragment from which he extracts the element that powers all his inventions.

So what we end up with is Zorka trying to track down the "mystery box" containing his stolen meteorite which changes hands so many times, I forget who ends up with it.  Monk gets shot by the Feds and the spies so many times throughout the serial I lost count.  And of course you have Bela Lugosi putting one hundred percent effort into yet another role that he could have just slugged through half-heartedly.  But that's not the way he works.  As a matter of fact he looked like he was really enjoying this role.  You'll do a little moaning and groaning, and maybe roll your eyes a few times.  There are a few over-exaggerated gestures and over the top moments, but they just add a little fun to the overall viewing experience.  Dorothy Arnold is cute as the news reporter trying to get a scoop, but she's no Lois Lane.

There's lots of stock footage of building fires and explosions.  In one scene a train gets derailed and wrecked and I'm pretty sure it's the same scene that's in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942).  And I think I caught a glimpse of a very young Lee J. Cobb as a demolition crew foreman in one of the last chapters (maybe someone can verify that for me).  The serial's chock full of fist fights, car chases and crashes, the giant robot dispensing a few beatings (at one point the military gets involved), and impossible escapes from certain death scenarios.  At one point there's a plane crash and one of the G-men just carries someone out of the wreckage, dusts himself off, and goes about his business.  Like I said, it's a little rough in some spots but gets better towards the end so try to stick with it.

When Zorka really goes over the edge and starts bombing just about everything he sees, laughing hysterically, you see Lugosi at his best.

You never know what you'll learn watching some of these classics.  For instance, I never knew that Dr. Zorka was responsible for the Hindenburg disaster!!  Serials are so educational and informative.

Overall it's a fun serial to watch, and Lugosi fans will certainly appreciate his work.  I know I did ...

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

I know, I know...  Some of you folks are saying The Most Dangerous Game is a really good film.  And I totally agree .  Let me just say I'm not a big fan of the colorization process or the attempt to colorize classic films and shorts.  I've always lived by the adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", especially when it comes to the classics.  That's where the guilt comes in ...  Watching The Most Dangerous Game colorized.

The problem is that the color really isn't that good, although some scenes are better than others.  It seems as though the color becomes more of an issue, understandably, when there's more movement and action on screen.  The edges of the moving objects seem to blur and blend with other surrounding objects and colors in the scene, which results in a very fuzzy image.  But. a few of the scenes do look pretty good in color and those kind of help get you through the film.

Based on the 1924 short story of the same name written by Richard Connell, The Most Dangerous Game is a great adventure/drama/horror film.  It was the first screen adaptation of the short story, although there were other variations of the story produced afterwards, even being spoofed in a Gilligan's Island episode "The Hunter" with Rory Calhoun guest starring as the title character who hunts Gilligan.  There are a lot of big names associated with this film.  It was released by RKO, produced by Merian C. Cooper and David O. Selznick, directed by Irving Pichel and Robert Schoedsack, and it boasts a pretty good lineup of stars including Fay Wray, Joel McCrea, Robert Armstrong, Noble Johnson, and Leslie Banks.  The musical score by Max Steiner is incredible with, according to, an uncredited Wally Westmore doing a great job as always with the makeup.  There's also an uncredited appearance by Larry "Buster" Crabbe as a sailor who falls into the water when the ship explodes, don't blink or you'll miss him!

A yacht carrying a group of men returning from a hunting trip are shipwrecked after hitting a reef in shark infested waters off the coast of a remote island.  A sole survivor Bob Rainsford (McCrea), manages to swim to the island's shore.  While searching the island he discovers an old secluded fortress inhabited by an eccentric Russian, Count Zaroff (Banks), and his Cossack servants.  Speaking to his host Rainsford finds that there are other survivors, brother and sister Martin and Eve Trowbridge (Armstrong and Wray), from a previous shipwreck already staying as guests of the Count.  After dinner the other guests explain to the newly arrived Rainsford that they are stranded on the island "temporarily" while the Count's launch is being repaired.

While entertaining his guests the Count recognizes Rainsford as a famous hunter and author, and Zaroff explains how he is a hunter himself, and how he received the scar on his forehead as a result of an attack by a Cape Buffalo in Africa.  Zaroff also explains how he was becoming bored with hunting, and after trying different weapons, found that what he needed was to find "a new animal" to hunt.  Pulling Rainsford aside Eve expresses her concern about their safety and being held prisoner.  She explains how sailors who were shipwrecked with them had each disappeared after the count had showed them his "trophy room".
 After the Count sends Eve and Rainsford off to retire for the evening, and quite obviously annoyed by Martin's excessive drinking, Zaroff offers to show Martin his trophy room.  Later in the evening, Eve goes to Rainsford's room to ask him for help when she becomes concerned about her brother being missing, and that he was last seen with their host earlier.  They come to the conclusion that the most obvious place to begin looking is in the trophy room.  While investigating the secret room they discover the gruesome secret to Zaroff's "most dangerous game".  When Zaroff  returns unexpectedly with his servants carrying a covered body on a stretcher. he finds the two hiding and has Eve taken away to her room (at this point Wray cuts loose with some of her signature screaming) and has Rainsford shackled to the wall.

The Count admits to Rainsford that he had shifted the marker buoys in the channel off the coast in order to sink passing ships and divert survivors to his island.  Zaroff, actually trying to reason with Rainsford, tries to talk him into joining him on the hunt.  When Rainsford balks at the idea he soon realizes that he is to be the Count's next victim.  After escaping from her room Eve finds Zaroff and Rainsford outside the fortress as the Count explains the rules of "the game" and releases the pair into the wild.  If Rainsford, taking Eve with him, can survive and elude Zaroff until sunrise he wins the girl and their freedom.

So the hunter becomes the hunted and the stage is set for the deadly game of cat and mouse through the island jungle.  The mad Count exchanges his Tartar war bow for a rifle, and then finally releases his hunting dogs on the pair as he chases them through the jungle and swamp, and the pair struggle to stay ahead of him as sunrise slowly approaches.

Armstrong plays his part well but does become more annoying than comical after a while.  McCrea is good through most of the film.  And Fay Wray, pretty in pink, does a nice job considering her part was created for the film and doesn't exist in the short story.  But Banks steals the show playing the part of Zaroff to the hilt as the character seems to drift back and forth over the fine line between sanity and insanity, spending more time in the latter than the former, and rubbing his scarred forehead evoking the demented hunter from within. 
Steiner's score drives the chase through the jungle as there is less dialogue during the chase in the second half of the film.  Special effects master Ray Harryhausen has explained how important music is to "enhance the visual image" of a film and it definitely works extremely well here.  Steiner also composed the music for King Kong (1933) and She (1935), two more great Merian C. Cooper productions. 

The film was fairly inexpensive to make, costing only about $200,000, so The Most Dangerous Game was more profitable for RKO than the more expensive production of King Kong was.  You'll notice some other  similarities between The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong other than the cast.  Much of The Most Dangerous Game was shot during the filming of King Kong, so many of the jungle sets were shared  by the two films.

So even though I think the original black and white version of the film is better, my guilty pleasure is watching the colorized version of The Most Dangerous Game ...  every now and then ...

Friday, September 9, 2011

Twilight Zone - Episode 142 - An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge -- Original Air Date - February 28,1964

Winner of the Cannes Film Festival 1962, and winner of many other international awards,  An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge opens with a special introduction by Rod Serling.  According to Mr. Serling's intro the film was shot in France by "others", and is a "haunting study of the incredible". 

 The "others" that Mr. Serling was referring to were Ambrose Bierce, whose short story the episode is based on, producers Marcel Ichac and Paul de Roubaix, and director Robert Enrico.

First off the cinematography is incredible.  The camera sweeps across a forest of barren trees to a small railroad bridge that crosses a creek.  A squad of union soldiers march a prisoner (Roger Jacquet) across the span and prepare to hang the confederate collaborator. 

The entire episode has a nightmarish quality to it, especially when the camera switches to the prisoner's point of view showing him looking from one end of the bridge to the other, only to see soldiers standing guard at any possible route of escape.  The camera pans down to show him standing on a plank, with a soldier standing opposite him holding down the other end of the plank preventing him from falling, suspended above the water below and the noose carefully being placed around his neck.  The suspense builds to an almost intolerable level as the soldiers bind the prisoner's legs and feet,  his hands already bound behind his back, and the sun rises and day breaks slowly over the hillside.  The condemned man closes his eyes and with a tear running down his cheek sees visions of his wife and children.

At this point I was about to reach for my anxiety medication when the Union officer gave the command, the soldier stepped off his end of the plank, and the prisoner plummeted down into the river below trailing the broken rope behind him as he sank deep into the water.  Struggling below the water's surface, he manages to untie himself and make his escape down river evading the enemy gunfire, caught in swirling river waters, and swept downstream.  The man pulls himself up on to the riverbank delirious that he is alive and has avoided being captured.  But the feeling is short lived as he realizes the soldiers are in pursuit.

Of course we're talking about the Twilight Zone here, a world of imagination and fantasy where nothing is as it seems.  The story was purchased for $25,000 by producer William Froug, but the purchase allowed the film to be aired only twice.  According to Marc Scott Zicree's The Twilight Zone Companion  "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge was the last episode of the classic Twilight Zone series to be "produced" (presumably referencing the reediting and the addition of footage of Rod Serling, as production of the series was cancelled afterwards.) It was not, however, the last episode of the series to be broadcast".

This is one of my favorite episodes and classic Twilight Zone from start to finish.