Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Song of the South (1946)

I'm probably going to catch a lot of heat for this one, but here goes ...

Believe it or not, I think I can honestly say that I've never sat down and watched a Disney film in its entirety from start to finish.  Hard to believe, I know.  I'm just not that into Disney, and never have been.  I don't really know why.  I have seen bits and pieces of Disney films throughout my life that maybe , if they were all pieced together, would add up to a complete film here and there.

I've always heard stories about Song of the South and how some people think that it's a very racist film and don't agree with its portrayal of slavery and African Americans.  It made me very curious as to what all the hype was about so I figured, "what the heck, I have 90 minutes or so to kill, I'll just sit down and watch it."  And guess what ...  It was a pretty good film.  I'm not going to say that it was the best I've ever seen, but it was pretty good.  It was a great combination of animated and live action characters which doesn't sound like much now, but remember this film was released in the 40s and the animation is hand drawn not CGI.  The soundtrack and musical score are very catchy, you'll find yourself singing along in no time.

Some critical viewers think that the portrayal of slaves singing and being happy is insulting and unrealistic.  I'm not condoning slavery in any way, shape, or form, and I'm not a history expert, but I believe that the film takes place after the Civil War had ended, and that even though slaves had already been freed, many chose to stay where they were currently living and sharecrop and work the land that they were accustomed to working.  The film was not released as a historical documentary glorifying slavery in the South, it's for entertainment purposes, and that's the context in which it should be viewed in. 

The plantation setting should be viewed as just that, a setting for the story to take place.  A story about a frightened, confused young boy named "Johnny" (wonderfully played by Bobby Driscoll) coping with the separation of his parents, with the boy being helped through this difficult period in his life by a kind and gentle old man "Uncle Remus" (again, a wonderful job by James Baskett) who uses fascinating stories, songs, and folk tales to convey meaningful life lessons and morals to the children, all children, who gather around him.  This is especially important to Johnny now that his father is absent from his life.  Uncle Remus is based on a character created by Joel Chandler Harris who initially began using this fictitious character in the Atlanta Constitution newspaper in 1876.  The stories Uncle Remus told, fables of animals who behave like humans, were all based upon African-American storytellers he had known and grown up with as a child.

I'll say one thing  --  I find films that are currently being released much more offensive than Song of the South.  I'm not into the crude, vulgar, and gross insulting humor (including racial insults and innuendos) found in a lot of the newer releases, I just don't find it funny or entertaining.

Watching Song of the South I saw nothing but people showing the utmost respect for each other, regardless of their race.  I'm reminded of the words that Pope John Paul II used to describe the film The Passion of the Christ (2004) after he viewed it.  This was another film that many were offended by.  The Pope stated, "It is as it was ..."   And that's how I feel about The Song of the South, it is as it was, and nothing is going to change the past.  I think it would be more of a disservice not to eventually release this film on DVD for people to enjoy, the Disney CEO and board has the ultimate decision on whether it will be released or not and they have no intentions on doing so any time soon. 

If I sound like I'm rambling, I apologize, but I really don't see what people find offensive about this film.  Throughout film and television history there have been examples of films and shows with controversial subject matter and content including Birth of a Nation (1915), General Spanky (1936), Gone With the Wind (1939), some of the Our Gang shorts, early Shirley Temple films from the 30s, and the Charlie Chan series of films which offended members of the Asian American community, as well as the many, many Westerns which portray Native Americans as savages.  Not to mention television shows like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and Sanford and Son.  There are far more distasteful and insulting DVDs available on the market now than Song of the South, which shouldn't even be put into the same category.

And that's what I think ...

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Few More Laurel & Hardy Shorts (1933)

Me and My Pal (1933) - This Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy short costars regular James Finlayson as the father of the bride.  Finlayson also starred in about 30 shorts and features with the boys and also originated the phrase "d'oh" many years before Homer Simpson made it popular. 

As Oliver prepares to get married to a rich man's daughter, Stan who is his best man arrives at the house with a bag of rice and a wedding present -- a jigsaw puzzle which becomes the nucleus of the short. 

Everyone that sees the puzzle has to have a hand in helping  to put it together including Stan, Oliver, the butler, a telegram delivery man, a cop on his beat, and the cab driver who all in turn make them late for the wedding.  When a piece of the puzzle is discovered to be missing, the policeman refuses to let anyone leave until the piece is found.  When Oliver's future father-in-law shows up to find out why they are so late, the riot that follows wrecks the house and gets everyone arrested, except of course for Stan and Ollie.

Busy Bodies (1933) - Produced by Hal Roach Studios (actually all the shorts in this posting were from Roach Studios in 1933) this short features costar and familiar foe Charlie Hall who starred in about 50 shorts and features with Laurel and Hardy. 

The short begins with Stan and Oliver on their way to work at a saw mill.  Listening to music on the "radio", which is is actuality a Victrola under the hood of the car.  Some of the running gags include getting knocked down by boards and Stan hammering a nail into a wall for a coat hook and hitting a water pipe. 

In one of their funniest scenes Oliver gets his hands caught in a window frame and Stan breaks out some blueprints to try to get him out. This scene practically had me in tears.  You've just gotta love the physical slapstick humor.   Stan also offers a cigar to a coworker who's been harassing them and then turns him in for smoking on the job.  If I had coworkers like these two guys I wouldn't care where I worked.

The Midnight Patrol (1933) - Criminals beware ...  In this short Stan and Oliver star as two policemen in car #13 new to the force attempting to get through their first night on the beat. 

Stan and Oliver start their shift how?  By having lunch  of course.  After they retrieve their lunch from a police call box  they get their first call ...  someone is trying to steal their spare tire while they're sitting in the car.  Stan gives the crooks a stern talking to and gets a couple of windows broken in the process.  The pair get a call to a house break in progress, forget the address, and then can't get their patrol car started.  Stan's expressions while Oliver tries to get the car going are incredible.  But anyway the boys finally get to the house and get their man only to get a big surprise in the end. 

I'm trying to recall if there is any short or feature that doesn't involve Oliver getting wet in one way or another.  I don't think there is.  All three of these are great, classic, Laurel & Hardy shorts and the running time on them is about 20 minutes each.   I really wish they would make the entire L&H collection available to the public at some point.  For now I guess we just have to try to enjoy them anyway we can.

Monday, June 20, 2011

End of the MonsterFest ...

Hope you enjoyed the posts ...
But don't worry, lots more great stuff and more marathons to come ...  Enjoy !!

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

Again nuclear testing brings doom and gloom to human civilization.  "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" (a.k.a. "The Monster From Beneath the Sea") is based on story by Ray Bradbury that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post on June 23, 1951.  Some argue that this film was also one of the main inspirations for the film "Gojira" (1954).

Nuclear testing in the Arctic causes a prehistoric dinosaur to awaken from hibernation.  At first no one believes team member "Professor Tom Nesbit's" (Paul Christian) claim that he saw the creature while trying to rescue a fellow scientist and Nesbit is sent to a hospital back in the states for observation.  After reading about ships being sunk and claims of sightings of "sea serpents" he seeks the help of a skeptical paleontologist (Cecil Kelloway) and his assistant (Paula Raymond).  Nesbit also asks for help from the military through "Col. Jack Evans", (coffee drinking and cigarette smoking Kenneth Tobey of "The Thing From Another World", 1951) who was at the testing site.

The monster makes its way from the Arctic down the North Atlantic seacoast with brief stops to terrorize and demolish the coastline and sink ships in Nova Scotia, Maine, and Massachusetts, and then stomps and smashes its way through New York City culminating in a final epic battle on Coney Island.  One of my favorite scenes is when the monster topples a lighthouse on the coast of Maine which came directly from the illustration that accompanied Ray Bradbury's Saturday Evening Post story.

This film has incredible stop-motion effects by the master Ray Harryhausen and was his first solo project creating creatures for low budget films.  I find it amazing the way that Harryhausen makes these creatures seem so lifelike that, in a way, I sometimes feel sympathetic toward the monster. (I know, crazy right?)  He was once told that "his monsters die like tenors in an opera."  The film was made by an independent studio with a budget of $200,000 and was later sold to Warner Brothers for between $400,000 and $450,000.

Watch for a couple of quick scenes with James Best ("Jim Lindsey" on the Andy Griffith show) as "Charlie" the radar technician.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Black Scorpion (1957)

At least this time it's not the carelessness with the nukes that unleashes the next threat to mankind.  "The Black Scorpion" is a standard 1950s monster feature about giant prehistoric scorpions being released after an increase in the number of earthquakes and volcanic activity in Mexico.  Two geologists "Hank Scott" (Richard Denning) and "Arturo Ramos" (Carlos Rivas) are travelling through the Mexican countryside on their way to investigate the volcanic activity in the area.  They stumble upon a deserted gas station where they find an abandoned baby and a wrecked police car with no occupants.  After hearing strange sounds off in the distance the geologists expand their search and find the remains of a missing policeman.

After continuing on to the village of San Lorenzo the pair, now with the baby, find survivors of the volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.  But while in the village they hear about mysterious deaths and disappearances.  The villagers also speak of superstitions involving a "demon bull" that attacks and kills the locals.

The film keeps you interested until about halfway through when the two geologists, one of them carrying a camera the size of a small microwave oven, descend down into the crevasse in search of the monsters.  Then the film seems to drag.  The producers try to throw a love story involving local "Teresa Alvarez" (Mara Corday) into the mix without much success.  And the visual effects can't compare to stop-motion animation pioneer Willis O'Brien's (King Kong, 1933) special effects.  The creature sound effects are very similar, if not identical, to those used in the film "Them!", (1954).  Close ups of the drooling giant scorpion are a little over the top and very repetitive, and in some scenes scorpions are only shown as a sort of black silhouette apparently after the project went over budget.

A few of the characters are more irritating than entertaining, you'll know exactly which ones I'm talking about when you watch the film.  There are some tense moments, but not many, and the ending actually had one moment that made me laugh out loud.  Overall the film is "ok" and worth watching if only for the stop-motion animation effects and the miniatures.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

You know, it's been a while since I've seen "Murders in the Rue Morgue."  And the first thing I thought as the music from Swan Lake was playing and the opening credits were being displayed was "who is Sidney Fox, and why is she getting top billing over Bela Lugosi ?"  It's actually a very interesting and tragic story.  But first the film ...

The film is based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe and takes place in Paris in 1894.  A group of friends are enjoying an evening out at "Carnival" and are wandering about observing the various sideshow attractions.  Members of the group include "Mlle. Camille L'Espanaye" (Sidney Fox) and her escort "Pierre Dupin" (Leon Waycoff, aka Leon Ames).  The group of friends decide to enter the tent of "Dr. Mirackle" (Bela Lugosi) to see what spectacle the doctor has to offer.  As they enter the tent Camille sees the doctor and exclaims "what a funny looking man, he's a show in himself."

As the show begins, Mirackle claims to be able to communicate with "Erik" his pet ape and to be able to translate what the beast says.  He asks the spectators "Do you understand him, or have you forgotten?" Mirackle translates to the crowd how Erik was taken from his home, away from his family, and how lonely he is.  He then proceeds to lecture on the theory of evolution and human's descent from the apes.  People in the audience become offended and insulted, and begin heckling Mirackle, who then exclaims that he will prove the theory by "mixing the blood of man and ape."  What no one knew was that the doctor's experiments had already begun.  And his next subject would be the object of his and Erik's obsession, Mlle. Camille.

Director Robert Florey had a unique approach to filming his scenes with the ape.  He used close up shots of a real chimpanzee and edited them in with shots of the man in the gorilla suit for more realism.  Charles Gemora played the role of "Erik" the ape and also had the distinction of playing the part of the chimp (uncredited) in the Laurel and Hardy short "The Chimp" (1932), and also played one of the aliens (uncredited) in the sci fi classic "War of the Worlds" (1953), among the many other roles throughout his career.  In an early role Arlene Francis appears briefly as a "woman of the streets", one of the doctor's victims.  The film is a Bela Lugosi tour de force and he is at his menacing and sneering prime.  The film was produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. which brings us to the story of Sidney Fox.

According to his book "Women in Horror Films, 1930s" author Greg Manks writes that there may have been some favoritism shown to Sidney Fox at Universal because of Laemmle Jr. who "discovered" her and became infatuated with her, which in turn gave her the top billing over Lugosi.  There were also rumors that there was some kind of affair between Fox and Laemmle Sr. at some point, and that many people were not happy with Fox's acting talents in general.  Ms. Fox denied all the gossip but in reality she actually did have a tumultuous personal life including a troubled marriage, and poor performance reviews throughout her brief career.  All this culminated in a "probable" suicide after consuming a large quantity of sleeping pills on November 14, 1942 at the age of 34, only ten years after this film was released.  Another tragic Hollywood ending for a young actress with a promising career.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Godzilla Raids Again (1955)

Godzilla Raids Again, aka "Gigantis, the Fire Monster(1955) is an "ok" sequel to the original Gojira (1954) film.  This entry in the series finds a second Godzilla battling another monster called "Anguirus" that kind of looks like a giant turtle with spikes on his shell.  The only familiar face that I spotted from the first film was Takashi Shimura making a reappearance as "Dr. Yamane."  Unfortunately this film seems more amusing at times than "terrifying" or "exciting."  This time the heroes are two pilots who work as spotters for a Japanese fishing fleet, and the city of Osaka has the misfortune of being the battlefield for the two monsters.

One thing I really did like about the film is the nice work that the production team does with miniatures.  They do a really nice job, again keeping in mind the budget and time of production.  The editing and scene transitions are not as smooth as they were in the first film and translation of the subtitles is a little rough in some spots.  I think the problem may be with the actual storyline.  The military and local authorities seem to be on the verge of constant retreat. The prison escape scene and the getaway are like something straight out of a "Keystone Cops" slapstick short.  And the ending is very long, dragged out, repetitive, and not very suspenseful.  Again, not even close to the previous film.

Hiroshi Koizumi stars as "Tsukioka" and Mindru Chiaki as "Kobayashi", the two pilots.  With Mayuri Mokusho as "Yasuko" the radio operator.

If you're a fan of the series then it's definitely worth watching.  It's not broadcast very often but it shouldn't be too hard to find a copy.