Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Monolith Monsters (1957)

"From time immemorial the earth has been bombarded by objects from outer space, bits and pieces of the universe piercing our atmosphere in an invasion that never ends".  With these words begins the classic 50s sci fi monster film The Monolith Monsters.  Released by Universal-International films and with the introduction narrated by Paul Frees, the master narrator of countless science fiction films, you already know that you're in for a great time.

The story begins as a meteorite from the depths of space hits the earth creating a massive crater and scattering pieces of it about the landscape of the desert.  "Ben" (Phil Harvey) a geologist from the Department of the Interior picks up a sample of a strange rock and returns it to his lab.  He analyzes the rock but doesn't recognize any of the components.  During the night an accident in the lab causes water to be spilled on the sample which causes the rock to grow out of control.  "Dave Miller" (Grant Williams) arrives at the lab the next morning and finds everything in a shambles and then also discovers Ben's body which seems to have been petrified, turned to solid stone.  Ben is the first to fall victim to the Monolith Monsters.

Meanwhile school teacher "Cathy Barrett" (Lola Albright) takes some of her students on a field trip to the desert where one of the children unknowingly picks up one of the pieces of meteorite and brings it home totally oblivious of the danger. 

As Dave and the authorities begin an investigation they soon discover more destruction.  Homes, farms, people, all crushed under tons of the alien rock, and then they find many more pieces of it scattered about the area as well as finding people who are still alive, but are beginning to turn to stone.  Newspaper reporter "Martin Cochrane" (Les Tremayne) also aids the authorities with the investigation.  Recruiting Professor "Arthur Flanders" (Trevor Bardette) a geologist from the local college, the group soon finds that not only do they need to find a way to stop the monolith stones from growing and advancing towards the town they must also find a cure for the people who have been infected.

Dave and Prof. Flanders venture out in the pouring rain into the desert and find the crater where the meteorite landed and watch as the stones grow and collapse right before their eyes.  They race back to the lab to attempt to solve the mystery.  The clock begins to tick as the rainstorm continues and the pieces of meteorite grow and collapse uncontrollably advancing towards and threatening the town and all it's inhabitants.  The group notifies the Chief of Police "Dan Corey" (William Flaherty) that the town may need to be evacuated.  They explain that the town of San Angelo will be destroyed like "an avalanche sweeps over an anthill" and that "each one that shatters will make a hundred more".  They hurry to find a solution knowing that if they don't, the town is doomed.

This is a great story with an excellent musical score.  There are some pretty tense moments as the monoliths approach the town and the panic starts.  The film also has some really good special effects. and the makeup is done courtesy of Bud Westmore of the Westmore dynasty of makeup artists.  I think this is one of the best of the 50's science fiction monster films, because I've actually seen it quite a few times and I'm never disappointed.  The film is also unique in that it doesn't involve atomic testing, radiation exposure or giant mutated bugs or animals.

To be honest with you, there's really not a lot of action in the film but it seems to keep the viewer interested and on the edge of their seat.  Oh, I almost forgot.  Keep an eye out for one of the hardest working people in film and television William Schallert who appears briefly as a meteorologist at the weather bureau.  So get the popcorn ready because this film is definitely worth checking out.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I Love Lucy - Season 3, Episode 28 - Tennessee Ernie Visits -- First aired May 3, 1954

A few of my many favorite I Love Lucy episodes are the ones that include guest star Tennessee Ernie Ford.  In this first episode the Ricardo's receive a special delivery letter from Lucy's mother notifying them that they are to play host to Lucy's mother's friend's roommate's cousin's middle boy, Ernie from Bent Fork, Tennessee.

Aside from the usual Lucy (Lucille Ball) and Ricky(Desi Arnaz), and Fred (William Frawley)and Ethel (Vivian Vance) shenanigans the laughs increase exponentially as Ernie tells the Ricardo's the story of his first few hours in New York City.  The highlights include Ernie's first subway ride out to, and walk back from Long Island (and he'll "be ding-donged if it ain't"), and his first night sleeping in a rollaway bed ("I don't wanna lay down on anythin' that's gonna be a galavantin' around the room all night").

After reading a letter that Ernie is writing to his mother back home Lucy gets an idea to try to get rid of Ernie, and Ricky's so desperate he goes along with it.  Lucy dresses up like a "wicked city woman" to try to scare him but things don't turn out exactly planned.

Lucy is as stunning as ever, and Desi is suave and debonaire.  The chemistry between all the players never fails to amaze me.  It's no wonder the show has survived all these decades and I'm pretty positive will be around for many more years to come.  I wonder in 50 or 60 years what kind of shows people will be watching?  Besides I Love Lucy of course ...

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Blackmail (1929)

Blackmail was Alfred Hitchcock's first sound film, released by British International Pictures, and according to promotional material was the "first full length all talkie film made in Great Britain".  The first time I saw this film I thought it actually was a silent film but was very surprised when the characters began speaking.  The first few minutes are a little misleading because there is only a soundtrack with some special effects sounds.  Speaking of soundtrack the music is provided courtesy of the British International Symphony Orchestra. 

Classic Hitchcock suspense and style is evident in the opening minutes of the film with the use of extraordinary camera angles and imagery, as a criminal sees the image of the police in the doorway of his apartment reflected off of a candlestick while he nervously contemplates reaching for a pistol.  More of the master's style is displayed as he demonstrates the passage of time during a police interrogation not with the spinning hands of a clock as any other director would, but with the accumulation of cigarette butts in an ashtray.

The heart of the story begins as "Alice White" (Anny Ondra) waits at Scotland Yard for her fianc√© "Detective Frank Webber" (John Longdon) to finish his shift.  She half-heartedly accepts his invitation for a date and suggests they go to a restaurant rather than go to a movie.  What Frank didn't know was that Alice secretly wanted to meet someone else at that restaurant at the same time.  After a brief argument Frank leaves and stops outside to cool off a bit, but as he's standing there he notices Alice leave with another man, an artist (Cyril Ritchard) who lives near Alice.  While walking Alice home the artist lures her up to his apartment and tries to take advantage of her.  Alice fights back and while defending herself stabs the artist killing him.  She escapes and wanders the streets dazed before she returns home where she lives with her parents (Sara Allgood, Charles Paton).

Frank is assigned to the murder case and it doesn't take him long to determine that the man that was killed is the same man that was with Alice earlier, and that she is involved with the crime.  But a local career criminal and hoodlum named "Tracy" (Donald Calthrop) also suspects Alice's involvement and, after seeing her speaking to Frank, decides to blackmail the two of them.  Everything goes along smoothly for Tracy until Hitchcock tosses one of his trademark wrenches into the works.  Of course everything builds to a fever pitch and ends with a climactic chase through the British Museum

Anny Ondra just seems to glow when she's on screen, she is just beautiful.  She was also in Hitchcock's The Manxman (1929).  Cyril Ritchard starred as "Captain Hook" opposite Mary Martin's Peter Pan (1960).  And Sara Allgood appeared in many films including How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Spiral Staircase (1946), and Cluny Brown (1946).

This is a great film and probably one of my top five Hitchcock films.  He had made probably a dozen or so films before Blackmail and we can see that he had already begun his longtime fascination with choosing blondes as leading ladies.  Don't forget to watch for his quick cameo appearance a few minutes into the film.  If you're not familiar with Hitchcock's early work, this is a perfect film to start out with and get acquainted with the master.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Superman (1948)

Based on the comic book superhero, and adapted from the Superman Radio Program Broadcast on the Mutual Network, Superman comes to life on the big screen.  So everyone knows the story of how Superman comes to Earth as an infant from a dying planet and is raised by the Kent's as their own son, blah, blah, blah, and so on ...  So this post is about the serial version of the superhero's adventures.

First thing is that I think Kirk Alyn was a great Superman.  I found him to be very believable as both Clark Kent and Superman, although I still can't understand how no one can recognize that they are the same person, but that's neither here nor there.  As a matter of fact I think everyone, including Noel Neill as "Lois Lane" and Tommy Bond (Butch from the "Our Gang" series) as Jimmy Olsen do a wonderful job.  The only issue I have is with Lois's hat, maybe stylish back then, but what the ... !!!  Actually all the costumes seem to be very similar from episode to episode, perhaps to keep costs down.

Second thing is the special effects, they're really, really good.  It's a nice mix of some stock footage of buildings collapsing, earthquakes, floods, etc. mixed with some effects using miniatures as well as the use of animation.  When Superman takes off, flies through the sky, comes in for a landing, or when bullets bounce ineffectively off of his body, it's all done in animation (again probably hand drawn). I find the animated sequences helps keep the serial tied-in with the character's comic book origin.

Maybe it's just me, but I love these old serials. I just think that they're a lot of fun to watch, a little dated perhaps, but they're fun.  There's lots of excitement and action.  Superman captures bank robbers, rescues a woman from a fire, prevents a train derailment and rescues miners trapped in a cave in.  And this is just in the first few episodes!  I think it's great that most of the time the men are all wearing suits and ties and hats, even the bad guys.  I guess we were a very civilized well-dressed society at one time ...

Another great thing is the music.  Musical director Mischa Bakaleinikoff is in charge of the music for the serial, and it is incredible.  Bakaleinikoff's musical scores can be heard in such films as "Ladies of Leisure" (1930) and "The Vampire Bat" (1933), to "The Big Heat" (1953) and "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" (1956) and many. many, many more.

In the first 15 chapters Superman battles the "Spider Lady" (Carol Forman), and in the last 15 episodes it's "Atom Man vs. Superman" (1950) with Lyle Talbot as the sinister, evil and plotting "Lex Luthor."  I wish I could have been around when these were originally shown on the big screen in theaters, it must have been a great experience. 

So grab some popcorn and your favorite drink and prepare to be entertained.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Mystery of the Wax Museum is a great early horror film.  Released in 1933 by Warner Brothers and Vitaphone it demonstrates one of the last commercial uses of the Technicolor two-strip process.  The film was actually thought to have been lost until the early 60s.

The story begins in London in 1921.  Artist "Ivan Igor" (Lionel Atwill) is part owner of a wax museum.  His partner "Joe Worth" (Edwin Maxwell) comes up with the idea of burning down the building in order to collect on the insurance.  Igor opposes the plan and when the two men struggle the museum is accidentally set ablaze.  Worth escapes the flames but Igor is trapped inside and everything is destroyed.  Worth leaves his partner to perish in the flames.

Years later in New York "The London Wax Museum" is planning a grand opening.  But as the new museum prepares to open, people begin to disappear.  When a young woman is found dead, police arrest her wealthy boyfriend for murder. But when an autopsy is ordered to determine if it was murder or suicide, the body has disappeared from the morgue.  Inquisitive newspaper reporter "Florence Dempsey" (Glenda Farrell) is hot on the trail of the culprit and determined to solve the mystery after being told she would lose her job by her boss, editor of the paper (Frank McHugh), if she didn't come up with a big story.  Florence accompanies her roommate "Charlotte Duncan" (Fay Wray) to the wax museum to visit with Charlotte's fiance "Ralph" (Allen Vincent) when she notices that one of the displays bears an uncanny resemblance to the young woman's body that is missing from the morgue.  This visit also puts the unassuming Charlotte in great danger after Igor sees her and envisions her as his next "creation."

The film just overflows with the slang and patter common to that time and dialogue frequently found in films of the 30s.  Directed by Michael Curtiz (British Agent - 1934, Casablanca1942) the film displays a pinkish and blueish tint to it which is normal for the Technicolor process used at that time.  According to some production notes the tremendous heat generated by the lights while filming caused the wax figures on the set to melt, ultimately real actors were used instead.  If you watch very closely you can see them swaying, breathing, or blinking during the film.

Viewers won't be disappointed, Fay Wray cuts loose with a couple of her signature screams during the film and Glenda Farrell comes up with a couple of good ones herself.  The film was also remade in 3D in 1953 as "House of Wax" starring one of the kings of gothic horror Vincent Price.

With a running time of about 76 minutes the story moves along pretty quickly, so have a seat, relax, and enjoy because this is definitely a classic not to be missed.