Thursday, May 30, 2013

Neglected Post (and First Birthday) Theatre: "Danger Lights," or Honey Choo Choo

One year ago today I decided to create a movie blog.

Again.

I'd tried before, but I'd lose interest quickly and within a matter of weeks they'd become neglected, dried-up little tumbleweeds of thought rolling across the wind-swept internet.

I didn't know that this one would be different, although I hoped it would. I'd made a small living reviewing movies for a newspaper in the 1980s and '90s, and I missed writing about film. I'd also never had the chance to write about the movies I really love -- ones from the 1930s and '40s.

So I started by writing about a few of my favorites -- "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," "The Best Years of Our Lives," "Blonde Crazy."

And, amazingly, when I finished one post. I'd be eager to start on another.

Even more amazingly, I found myself enjoying the back and forth with other movie bloggers. I am not a joiner by nature, but to be accepted into the Classic Movie Blog Association was a real gift to me. To have contact, even electronically, with the company of talented bloggers who make up the group and get feedback from them on the posts I write has been flattering and encouraging -- maybe it's why I've kept writing.

At any rate, this is to say thank you to all you wonderful people out there in the dark. If you keep reading and responding to what I do I'll do my best to return the favor.

And here's our entry in this edition of Neglected Post Theatre -- "Danger Lights," or Honey Choo Choo.

Friday, May 24, 2013

A Tale of Two Philos: "The Bishop Murder Case" and "The Kennel Murder Case"

"The Bishop Murder Case" and "The Kennel Murder Case" take place next door to each other.


Well, close, anyway.

They're both set in mansions in New York City, and they both feature murders solved by Philo Vance, S.S. Van Dine's smooth Shamus who isn't even slightly embarrassed about his first name. (In Van Dine's later book "The Gracie Allen Murder Case," the comic actress keeps calling him "Fido.")


And truthfully, there's hardly a dime's worth of difference between the performances of Basil Rathbone, who plays Vance in "Bishop," and William Powell, who played Vance in "Kennel," among others.







But there's a big difference between the two films -- even though they were made only three years apart, huge advances in film acting, storytelling and technical ability are clearly evident.

"The Bishop Murder Case," released in 1930, is an early talkie. And to get an idea of the film's slow pace, creaky performances and technical timidity, take a look at the opening sequence:



It isn't totally the fault of director Nick Grinde that the movie looks more like a filmed play -- there were limitations on the camera based largely on the new process of sound recording. And it shows.

But the movie is plagued by another problem that can't be blamed on the camera -- aside from Rathbone and Roland Young, who plays a suspect, the rest of the cast doesn't just chew the scenery -- they cram it down their throats while smacking their lips and belching. (Figuratively speaking, of course.) This movie is filled with supporting characters who widen their eyes ultra-theatrically while enunciating their dialogue as if they learned it phonetically. Calm down, people!

The idea is that folks keep getting murdered in the style of nursery rhymes -- a man named Robin is shot with an arrow, just like Cock Robin. A hunchback falls off a wall, just like Humpty Dumpty. And the murders center around elderly professor Dillard (pronounced Dull-AHRD) and his niece Belle (Leila Hyams). Another murder occurs in Central Park, where Belle has been summoned by her fiancee, played by Young, and it's staged in an agreeably creepy way:



The man's name is Jack, and he falls down (well, he was pushed) and breaks his crown.

Vance is on the case, and as always, his frenemy is Det. Sgt. Heath, here played by James Donlan. Heath's job is to consistently reach the wrong, but most obvious, conclusions about murders and suspects, and he makes fun of Vance's theories. In this nice scene, Vance shows Heath just how sound his theories are:



As stilted as "The Bishop Murder Case" can be, that's how slick "The Kennel Murder Case" is. Under the direction of Michael Curtiz, the story unfolds with speed and confidence, and backing up Powell is an expert group including Mary Astor, Eugene Pallette (as Det. Sgt. Heath), Ralph Morgan, Robert Barrat, Jack LaRue and Helen Vinson. Unlike most of the cast in "The Bishop Murder Case," these people knew how to modulate their performances for the movie camera.

The murder story here nominally involves dogs -- it begins at the Long Island Kennel Club, where Vance is showing his scotch terrier in competition against arrogant rich guy Archer Coe (Barrat). Also on hand is Coe's niece Hilda (Astor), who hates hates hates her uncle, and her beau, Sir Thomas MacDonald (Paul Cavanagh).

Sir Thomas's terrier turns up dead (not a euphemism), and suspicion centers on Coe, but it isn't long before he himself is found dead in his locked bedroom. Vance is just about to sail for Europe, but when he hears of the murder he calls the district attorney. Splitscreen powers activate!



The temptation is too great, and Vance jumps ship to solve the mystery.

Meanwhile, back at the Coe mansion, assumptions are being jumped to. Suicide, says the ever-reliable Heath, but Vance proves it isn't. He figures out that Coe was murdered, and the killer used an ingenious little pulley system to lock the door behind him:



Vance's next job is to narrow down the suspects from the list of approximately eight million people who hated Coe's guts. And when Sir Thomas ends up being hurt in an attack that no one actually witnessed, suspicion falls on him:



"The Kennel Murder Case" includes several flashback sequences, which were unheard of in 1930, and a fair amount of humor, mostly involving Etienne Giradot as a fussy coroner who keeps getting his meals interrupted by the number of dead people who turn up at Coe's house. Powell isn't quite as droll here as he would be as Nick Charles in the next year's "The Thin Man," but he's just as sharp and dapper.

Here are the credits for "The Bishop Murder Case," and a trailer:



Here are the credits for "The Kennel Murder Case," and a trailer:

Sunday, May 19, 2013

"The Most Dangerous Game," or Kill Again Island


Sup, everybody.

I'm new here and I'm just trying to make a few friends online. Here's hoping! :)

NAME: My full name is Count General Dimitri Ilyovich Zaroff. My really good friends call me D-hizzy -- maybe you'll end up being one! ;)

WHERE I LIVE: A castle, on an island. Don't be jelly!

MY BEST FEATURES: I have a big scar on my forehead, so if you love Harry Potter you might be into that kind of thing. Also, when I get excited -- usually when I smell gunpowder or see a crossbow -- my eyes get very wide. And I have a sick goatee. LOL

LIKES: Hunting things, chasing things, plotting how to chase things, building traps to capture the things I chase, lying in wait for things, plotting how to lie in wait for things, cleaning weapons, oiling weapons, human taxidermy, karaoke.

MY IDEA OF A PERFECT EVENING: Well, it would have to include champagne, right? ;) Maybe some Sade on the CD player, accompanied by the ocean waves outside the window and my bloodhounds howling. And the perfect person. <3

MY MOST AWKWARD MOMENT: Blergh.
I guess it's finally time to talk about what happened in "The Most Dangerous Game" even though it was all just a big kerfuffle. Le sigh.

Just because there are some coral reefs all around my island that I forgot to tell people about (Sue me!), boats that came nearby kept wrecking and sinking, OK? And when the people swam to my island, if they could escape the sharks (Again, my bad!), I gave them food and shelter. And when they would tell me they were grateful and offered to do something in return, I'd make them run for their lives while I'd aim at them with a high-powered rifle, or maybe my favorite Tartar War Bow.

I can't help it! I love to hunt, and killing helpless animals isn't that fun anymore, so I've hunted humans -- once or twice, max. :P



  

Anyhoo, this brother and sister, who was a real Kristy, washed up on shore, and then right after them came this tall guy named Rainsford who was a big game hunter. "Rainsford, old sport," I said, "how'd you like to hunt humans with me?" ERMAGERD, you would've thought I'd asked him to EAT them or something instead of just stuffing and mounting them! He got all snippy so I took back my invite and decided to hunt him instead. But first I went ahead and hunted the brother, who wanted to hang out with me ANYWAY, so he got his wish for a little while, right?

Then the hunter and sister went looking for the brother and found my trophy room:



Oopsies.

So I had no choice but to start hunting the hunter and the sister, amirite? I gave them a head start and everything! I even gave the hunter a knife. But I know my stuff, and every time that Rainsford would set a trap for me I'd slide over it like Baby Bash, LOL!

Next I broke out my Tartar War Bow and slung some arrows their way, but I was just messing with them. The real showdown came on the edge of a big waterfall, where my dogs took over:



With Rainsford gone, the way was clear for me with the Kristy. She really didn't dig my look, but:


It didn't matter. She was mine, according to the rules I made up, so I took her back to the castle. And THAT'S where shit got real. Rainsford was there -- dude fell into the water but didn't drown! And he won, so I let him and the Kristy escape fair and square:



What do you mean it wasn't fair?! LOL

Anyway, I fell into the bloodhound pen and the dogs licked me back to life. But now it's too quiet here on the island, dig? :) So I'm ready for new experiences. YOLO!


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Louise Fazenda Film Festival: "Loose Ankles" and "Wide Open"

Of all of the actors and actresses who appeared in 1930s films, Louise Fazenda (1895-1962) was certainly one of them -- and certainly the only one of them who has a tangential connection to "Reservoir Dogs," of all things.

We'll get to that connection in a few paragraphs.

First, here's a little information about Louise Fazenda's early years, in a section I like to call "A Little Information About Louise Fazenda's Early Years."


Born in Lafayette, Indiana, Fazenda moved to Los Angeles with her parents as a child. In 1913 she made her movie debut in short comedies, and by 1915 she was playing opposite the likes of Fatty Arbuckle at Keystone.

In 1919 Fazenda was voted
"Most Likely to Hit Ben Turpin
on the Head with a Chicken"
Louise Fazenda and Fatty Arbuckle in 1916's
"The Unfortunate Flatulence Incident"
Unlike other Keystone actresses such as Marie Prevost and Carole Lombard, Fazenda was never one of the studio's Bathing Beauties. Her specialty was more along the lines of straight-laced spinsters or gawky country girls.




Fazenda left Keystone in a salary dispute with Mack Sennett in the early 1920s and spent a year or so in vaudeville. Then she returned to movie making at Warner Bros., where she stayed until retiring from the screen in the late 1930s.

In 1929, Fazenda was one of about, oh, eight million contract players appearing in Warner's talkie extravaganza, "The Show of Shows." Free of a spinster or hillbilly costume for once, she wears an evening gown and does a comic number with Beatrice Lillie, Frank Fay and Lloyd Hamilton that includes the slicing and dicing of four different poems into one naughty-sounding one. Here it is:



(Click here for the second part of this number, where the quartet lampoons the song "Your Mother and Mine.")  

In two 1930 films, "Loose Ankles" and "Wide Open," Fazenda does something kind of sneaky -- she steals the show, or at least provides some lively moments, with her spinster characterizations.










Like a lot of early talkies, "Loose Ankles" is ten minutes of plot played out over 65 minutes of celluloid. It opens with Loretta Young getting some attentive tootsie time ...



... from her elderly butler? Kinky.

But such is life for Loretta, a carefree example of flaming, or at least smoldering, youth. How carefree? Well, she has just inherited a million dollars, but care? She is free of it. The will stipulates that to get the money she must remain untainted by scandal, but instead Loretta puts an ad in the newspaper specifically seeking taint.

Meanwhile, over at the Gigolo Arms Apartments, fledgling fancy man Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is pressed into service to answer the ad. He meets Young, and they go through flirtatiousness that involves him losing his clothing:



(Seeing Fairbanks in that dressing gown calls to mind Cary Grant in "Bringing Up Baby.")

But enough about plot! You should be able to figure out that Young and Fairbanks get together toot suite and scandal-free. Most of the rest of the movie takes place at a nightclub, where Young's tight, um, fisted aunts (one of them played by Fazenda) have gone to keep track of their niece and end up with two of Fairbanks's gigolo bros. The aunts are served strong drink, and Fazenda starts doing her stuff, with the help of Eddie Nugent:



Next we move to "Wide Open," a film that proves positively that you should never, ever give Edward Everett Horton a romantic lead. In supporting roles with the likes of Fred Astaire, or under the direction of Ernst Lubtisch, Horton could be a delight. But when he's the befuddled hero at the center of the story, well, that's a lot of stammering.


Horton plays Simon, a meek bookkeeper who works at a phonograph company. Fazenda plays Agatha, a fellow employee who loves Simon from afar. At one point, she corners Simon in a recording studio. He accidentally flips the "on" switch, and their conversation is captured on vinyl, only to pop up embarrassingly when the boss is trying to impress a client:



But the real plot of "Wide Open" is that Simon shelters a young woman (Patsy Ruth Miller) who gives him a sob story about being homeless. Somehow word gets around that they've gotten married, and the employees throw a party for the newlyweds at Simon's house. Agatha attends, and sings the blues:



The plot is wrapped up when it is revealed that Simon's young woman visitor is actually the plant owner's daughter, and with Simon's help she uncovers financial foolery at the phonograph factory. The boss rewards Simon, he marries the daughter, and Fazenda does a fast fade.

In real life, Fazenda married producer Hal B. Wallis in 1927, leading to jokes that he was "The Prisoner of Fazenda," haw haw. She made her final film, "The Old Maid," in 1939, and spent the rest of her days collecting art and performing philanthropic acts. As part of her work in a prison outreach program she befriended Edward Bunker, a convicted felon with a long record, and encouraged him to write. Bunker wrote a book, "No Beast So Fierce," and ended up co-adapting it into the 1978 Dustin Hoffman film "Straight Time." Bunker collaborated on a few other screenplays and ended up playing small roles in several movies, including "Reservoir Dogs," in which he was Mr. Blue.

Fazenda wasn't around to witness any of this -- she died in 1962 at age 66.

Here are full credits for "Loose Ankles," and for "Wide Open."


Thursday, May 9, 2013

"Dante's Inferno," or Smart Carny

Even though it isn't entirely unexpected, there's still a lot of talk about h-e-double hockey sticks in the 1935 film "Dante's Inferno." Because it's a legitimate part of the plot, "hell" is thrown around with abandon, like a five-year-old just given permission to say a forbidden word. ("Mommy said I could say doody, daddy! Doodydoodydoodydoody!")

But beyond the word, hell itself makes a hellacious twenty-minute appearance (or maybe it just seems like twenty minutes) about two-thirds of the way through the picture in a sequence filled with naked, sweaty extras writhing in torment. It's like Saturday night at the Playboy Mansion! Only with (slightly) more pain.

And then at the end, there's another hellish setting featuring Crepes Suzette and -- Rita Hayworth?

But, hell, let's not get ahead of ourselves. We'll start at the beginning.  

Our protagonist is Jim Carter, played by Spencer Tracy. When we first meet him, Carter is working on the crew of a luxury liner. He's down in the engine room, where sweaty, muscular guys stripped to the waist are shoveling coal into a gaping maw of flame! It's like Saturday night at the -- oh, wait, already did that joke.

Actually, Carter isn't doing any shoveling. He's faking an arm injury and he's convinced the other guys to do the work. But he gets fired because of his goldbricking, and ends up at a seedy carnival. (As opposed to a classy carnival.) He gets a job in blackface, with his head supplying the target for ball throwers in one of the sideshow booths. He quits that job after a direct hit and meets Pop (Henry B. Walthall), who looks pretty much how you would expect someone named "Pop" to look. Pop is the pop-erator of another attraction on the midway called "Dante's Inferno." It's striking, but small-time.

Pop: I'm just offering a little glimpse of hell and a few suggestions on how to keep out of it.

Carter: I get you -- it's a peep show.

Carter sees possibilities in the place, and he also sees possibilities in Pop's niece Betty (Claire Trevor), who's the ticket taker.

When it's time to start touting the attraction, Pop steps up, and he's the worst carnival barker ever -- his voice is barely above a whisper and he uses words like "endeavor." So Carter gives it a try:



Carter, as you've no doubt figured out by now, is a cum laude graduate of the School of Hard Knocks. "I've had every trick of the trade kicked into me," he says. "Now it's my turn to kick back."

Then he talks about hell some more, because he can.

"We're gonna put hell on a paying basis, Pop," he says, "and I'm gonna show you how to do it."

To Betty he says, "With your brains and my personality we'll build them the biggest hell on earth."

... as the carnival folk watch.
Betty and Carter are married ...











Hell, Betty buys into Carter's vision to sell hell at 25 cents a pop, and, hell, they get married in a carnival ceremony, with the organ grinder's monkey as a bridesmaid.

Then, hell, Carter embarks on his plan to build a bigger, better inferno, even if he has to drive some rival vendors out of business to do it. Pop is leery as hell, but it doesn't matter:



On the opening night of the new, improved inferno -- Now with 40% more damnation! -- one of the swindled vendors shows up and commits suicide. But business booms anyway, and Carter keeps adding on to his boardwalk empire. A pesky building inspector tells Carter that the new inferno is unsafe, but a bribe keeps him quiet -- until the building collapses and the inspector commits suicide, too. Carter is charged in connection with the crime, but he lies on the stand and gets off.

This means it's just about time for Pop, who was injured in the collapse, to tell Carter all about Dante's actual version of hell, with the help of a nicely illustrated book:



The hell sequence is visually astounding. It supposedly incorporates footage from a 1924 version of "Dante's Inferno." Also, director Harry Lachman was trained as a painter, so you figure his touches are in there somewhere. And director of photography Rudolph Mate also lent his skills to "Cover Girl" and "The Pride of the Yankees," as well as directing the noir classic "DOA," so he was no slouch either. There's also a substantial contribution from the guy who choreographed the burning of Atlanta in "Gone with the Wind." Yes, you can choreograph fire. Especially if you're David O. Selznick.

Pop's pep talk and a vivid visit to hell don't do much good, however.

Pop: Dante is giving us a terrifying picture of tormented souls ... we make our own heaven or hell here on earth.

Carter: Since the beginning of time, there's only been one sin and that's failure.

Carter, undaunted, embarks on his next project, a gambling ship -- one similar to where he worked at the beginning of the film. It's called the Paradise -- more like pair of dice, am I right?   

On the ship's first night out, bad omens gather like vultures gathering around the dead things vultures like to gather around. The crew is inept, the passengers are drunk, and flaming desserts are being prepared right next to highly flammable curtains. While a dance team that includes Rita Hayworth is spinning on the floor, things are quickly spinning out of control:

     
To add to Carter's problems, his young son is on board, and ex-wife Betty -- yes, she's left him -- is frantic. Will the possible loss of his son knock some sense into Carter? Or will he continue to build his own hell RIGHT HERE ON EARTH?!?

Trevor is fine in a thankless role, and, as Pop, Henry B. Walthall still has that same quiet nobility -- and the same hair -- of the Confederate soldier he played "The Birth of a Nation." (Walthall would pass away in 1936, a year after this film was released.)

As an actor, Spencer Tracy had a marvelous ability to look dumb and smart at the same time, and as Carter he uses that skill to good advantage. This was one of the last films Tracy made with Fox before joining MGM and becoming Hollywood royalty, and legend has it he had such a low opinion of "Dante's Inferno" that he refused to allow his name to appear on advertisements. On the other hand, maybe Fox figured that Tracy wasn't as important to selling the picture as hell was.

Hellhellhellhell.

Here are complete credits for "Dante's Inferno."

Friday, May 3, 2013

My Mary Astor Blogathon Entry: "The Lost Squadron," or Aces High

As part of the Mary Astor Blogathon sponsored by Tales of the Easily Distracted and Silver Screenings, I am writing about the 1932 film "The Lost Squadron," with Astor, Richard Dix, Robert Armstrong and Hugh "Woo Woo" Herbert. Please click here to read my post, and click here to review the whole doggone lineup of outstanding Astor efforts.