Monday, August 21, 2017

#2,412. The War Lord (1965)

Directed By: Franklin J. Schaffner

Starring: Charlton Heston, Richard Boone, Rosemary Forsyth

Tag line: "Until this moment, the shield was his only bed...the sword his only bride!"

Trivia: Charlton Heston admitted in his 1978 journal "An Actor's Life" that he was not impressed by Richard Boone's performance

With its rousing score, period costumes, and sweeping battle scenes, 1965’s The War Lord has the look and feel of a Hollywood epic. But beneath all its magnificence lurks a love story for the ages, and thanks to director Franklin J. Schaffner, the characters, and not the spectacle, are what drive the movie forward.

It’s the 11th century, and Chrysagon de la Cruex (Charlton Heston), a Norman knight, has been ordered by his lord and master the Duke to defend a Celtic village, which is in danger of being attacked by Frisian raiders. Joined by his brother Draco (Guy Stockwell) and most trusted comrade Bors (Richard Boone), Chrysagon takes up residence in a small tower overlooking the countryside, prepared to do the Duke’s bidding but none too happy that the locals, ignoring the efforts of a Christian priest (Maurice Evans), still practice their “heathen” religion.

While out riding one day, Chrysagon spots a beautiful peasant girl working by the side of the river, and falls instantly in love with her. Her name is Bronwyn (Rosemary Forsyth), and she is about to be married to Marc (James Farentino), the son of the village elder. Though he wants to maintain a cordial relationship with the villagers, Chrysagon is nonetheless persuaded by his brother Draco to evoke his “right of first night” with Bronwyn (an ancient custom that allows the local authority to bed a virgin bride on her wedding night).

Once the ceremony is completed, Bronwyn is brought to Chrysagon, and during their time together she confesses that she is in love with him as well. So, when the sun rises the next morning, Chrysagon breaks tradition by refusing to allow Bronwyn to return to her new husband, an act that forces the villagers to seek an alliance with a Frisian Prince (Henry Wilcoxon), whose young son (Johnny Jensen) is being held prisoner by Draco.

Is Chrysagon ready to go to war for love, or will his duty to lord and country influence his actions?

Having already portrayed larger than life characters in movies such as Ben-Hur and El Cid, Charlton Heston was the perfect choice for the role of the heroic yet lovesick Chrysagon, while Guy Stockwell is every bit Heston’s equal as Draco, Chrysagon’s occasionally treacherous brother. In addition, the musical score (by Jerome Moross) and the costumes (designed by Vittorio Nino Novarese) are first-rate; and kudos to director Schaffner, who somehow managed to make Southern California look exactly like France in the Middle Ages (I was shocked when I discovered The War Lord wasn’t filmed on-location in Europe).

Yet all this, as well as the electrifying battles (the Frisian siege of the tower fills a fair portion of the movie’s third act, and is a thrill a minute), plays second fiddle to the characters and their relationships, not only the central love story (which is very effective), but also the sibling rivalry that develops between Chrysagon and Draco (leading to some tense moments between the two). As with his previous movies Patton and Papillon, Franklin Schaffner created an elaborate, fascinating world for The War Lord, yet despite all its grandeur, the characters are far and away the most interesting aspect of the film.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

#2,411. The Room (2003)

Directed By: Tommy Wiseau

Starring: O'Tommy Wiseau, Greg Sestero, Juliette Danielle

Tag line: "Can you ever really trust anyone?"

Trivia: The film's editor tried to convince Tommy Wiseau to cut the shot of his naked ass from the movie, on the grounds that the sight of it scared his wife

A few days ago, I took issue with those who believed that Menahem Golan’s 1980 musical The Apple was the worst movie ever made. Having just seen The Room, a drama / romance written and directed by Tommy Wiseau, I’m even more confident that my defense of The Apple was justified.

In a world where The Room exists, how can anyone believe there’s a movie out there that’s worse than this 2003 train wreck?

Johnny (Wiseau) is a great guy. He has a good job with the bank; is paying for Denny (Philip Haldiman), a local neighbor boy with no family of his own, to go to college; and he treats his fiance Lisa (Juliette Danielle) as if she was an angel, buying her flowers and gifts for no reason other than to show that he loves her. But Lisa no longer has feelings for Johnny, and is considering breaking off their engagement. Lisa’s mother Claudette (Carolyn Minnott), tells her that she’s lucky to have a guy like Johnny, and should marry him anyway. Lisa, however, thinks differently, and to escape the boredom that has become her life she seduces Johnny’s best friend Mark (Greg Sestero). At first, Mark wants nothing to do with Lisa, but soon the two are lovers, and know full well that if Johnny ever learns the truth about them, it will break his heart.

Set in San Francisco (I figured that out around the 100th time the movie cut away to a random shot of the Golden Gate Bridge), The Room is awful on so many levels. For one, its characters often say the most bizarre things; early on, when Lisa is modeling a sexy new dress that Johnny bought her, Denny walks in and tells Lisa she looks great. Johnny and Lisa then excuse themselves and head upstairs to make love. For some reason, Denny thinks it’s a good idea to follow them! Johnny tells Denny, ever so politely, that they want to be alone, to which Deny replies that he “likes to watch them”.


Well, Denny does eventually leave, and it’s a good thing, too, because if he stuck around to watch Johnny and Lisa do the nasty, it would have likely put him to sleep; there are no fewer than four sex scenes scattered throughout The Room, each as boring as the last. And despite his claims that he is a classically trained actor, Tommy Wiseau is dreadful in the lead role (with his thick Polish accent, I admit I had some difficulty understanding him at times). The rest of the cast isn’t much better, but Wiseau’s wooden portrayal of the saintly Johnny will literally leave you speechless.

When it comes to the film’s dialogue, “speechless” would have been a definite improvement. Lisa is forever telling her mother, as well as her friend Michelle (Robyn Paris), that she doesn’t love Johnny, and is cheating on him with Mark. But when they question her further, an annoyed Lisa says she “doesn’t want to talk about it” (even though she’s the one who brings the subject up. Every… single… time!). Not to be outdone, Johnny and Mark take a seat in a small café, and while enjoying some hot chocolate they discuss a new account at Johnny’s bank, which will bring in a lot of money. Then, out of the blue, Johnny asks Mark, “How is your sex life?

There are whole sequences that are equally as bewildering, like when Denny is threatened by drug dealer Chris-R (Dan Janjigian), who puts a gun to the poor boy’s head, demanding payment. Johnny and Mark intercede, dragging Chris-R off to jail while Lisa and her mother console Denny and ask him what drugs he’s using. It’s a very dramatic scene, but this plot line goes no further than that (neither Chris-R nor Denny’s drug habit are ever mentioned again). Characters that appear early in the movie are eventually replaced with someone else (at the outset, Michelle is dating Mike, played by Mike Holmes, but when they throw Johnny a surprise party, presumably a day or two later, she’s with a different guy). Also, who taught Johnny, Mark and Denny how to play football? All they do is toss the ball back and forth, often standing only a few feet away from one another as they do so.

But here’s the thing: I loved The Room! Loved it! It’s been years since I laughed this hard. The Room isn’t just “So Bad It’s Good”; it’s the granddaddy of hilariously awful movies, and has joined the ranks of Plan 9 from Outer Space and No Retreat, No Surrender as one of the all-time Best “Worst” films ever made.

And I can’t wait to watch it again!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

#2,410. Roar (1981)

Directed By: Noel Marshall

Starring: Tippi Hedren, Noel Marshall, Melanie Griffith

Tag line: "The most dangerous movie ever made"

Trivia:  Cinematographer Jan de Bont was mauled and scalped by a lion on the set

Every now and then I come across a movie unlike any I’ve seen before, a motion picture so insane that I just sit there, staring in disbelief at the screen, trying to make sense of it all.

Roar, a 1981 action / thriller, is one such film.

Written and directed by Noel Marshall and starring Marshall’s then-wife Tippi Hedren, Roar tells the story of a man named Hank (played by Marshall himself) who has devoted his life to studying and protecting lions, tigers, panthers, leopards, cheetahs and jaguars. He is so dedicated to preserving these ferocious, majestic beasts that he’s left his family behind (in Chicago) and moved to Africa, where he shares a house with over 100 large cats (oh, and there are a couple of elephants hanging around as well).

With the help of his friend Mativo (Kyalo Mativo), Hank spends an entire day getting the place ready for his family’s upcoming visit; wife Madeleine (Hedren), sons Jerry and John (played by Marshall’s real-life sons), and daughter Melanie (Hedren’s daughter Melanie Griffith, who was a teenager when this film was made) are flying in from the U.S. of A to spend a few weeks in Africa. Once all the preparations have been made, Hank hops into Mativo’s boat and the two set out for the airport. What Hank doesn’t know, however, is that his family’s plane arrived earlier that day, and they’re already on a bus headed to his abode!

What happens when four unsuspecting people find themselves trapped in a house with 100 savage cats? Let’s just say I saw it, and I still don’t believe it!

Ten years in the making, Roar is as crazy a movie as I’ve ever experienced. Shot at their estate in California (which doubled for Africa), Marshall and Hedren collected 35 large cats, most of which were untrained, for the making of this film. Which means its stars, not to mention the entire behind-the-scenes crew, were taking a great risk making this movie, and, not surprisingly, a good number were injured during its production (by some tallies, as many as 70). All of the actors (Marshall, Hedren, and kids) were wounded, a few severely (Melanie Griffith was bitten on the face, an attack that required 50 stitches, extensive plastic surgery, and almost cost her an eye), and director of photography Jan de Bont had his scalp ripped off by a lion (it took 200+ stitches to reattach it).

Most of these attacks didn’t make it into the film. But some did, including star/director Noel Marshall’s hand injury (he was hurt trying to break up a fight between several lions). Another close call occurs during the scene in which a delegation arrives (in motorboats) to discuss with Hank the dangers his “friends” pose to the area. Quite unexpectedly, a tiger jumps into the water, climbs into one of the delegation’s boats, and sinks it, causing its panic-stricken inhabitants to swim for land (where they’re met, and mauled, by several lions and tigers).

Despite the obvious peril, there were moments in Roar that made me laugh, most involving Kyalo Mativo, who clearly was not comfortable acting alongside such dangerous co-stars (some of his reactions were obviously scripted, but he also broke character a few times because he was truly afraid). Also funny are the scenes where Hedren and her brood are trying to get away from the humongous cats that are swarming around them (all three kids are trapped at one point when the cabinets or refrigerators they’re hiding in get knocked over by the lions).

If all of this sounds too incredible to be true, I should warn you that the above only scratches the surface; there’s a lot more lunacy packed into this movie’s 100 minutes than I could possibly list here. So if you enjoy far-out films that are unique in every way, Roar should be the very next one you watch.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

#2,409. Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip (1982)

Directed By: Joe Layton

Starring: Richard Pryor

Trivia: Celebrities and celebrated admirers who attended the concerts used to film this movie included Jim Brown, Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin, Sugar Ray Leonard, Jackson Browne, Stevie Wonder, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson

Richard Pryor made some damn funny movies in the ‘70s and ‘80s, most of which I eventually caught on cable TV, including Car Wash, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, Which Way Is Up?, Bustin Loose, and Some Kind of Hero. He even appeared in the first R-rated movie I ever saw in a theater: Stir Crazy, one of three he made with co-star Gene Wilder (the others being 1976’s Silver Streak and ‘89s See No Evil, Hear No Evil). I always knew Pryor got his start as a stand-up comedian, but for some reason I never bothered to watch his concert films. In fact, tonight’s viewing of Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip marks the first one I’ve ever seen.

So now I know I was missing out on something pretty special.

Directed by Joe Layton (with legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler handling the camerawork), Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip was shot at the Hollywood Palladium, and features footage from two consecutive 1981 shows. After kicking things off with a little sex talk and jokes about marriage (he had recently wed wife #4, Jennifer Lee Pryor), Pryor delves into such hot-button topics as racism and crime (including the 6 weeks he spent filming Stir Crazy at the Arizona State Penitentiary). In addition, there’s a great bit about his early days working in a mafia-owned club; anecdotes from his recent trip to Africa; a re-emergence of his character Mudbone (done at the audience’s behest), and, finally, some frank, very funny talk about his drug addiction and the 1980 fire that burned a large portion of his body (the result of a freebasing accident).

I toyed with the idea of throwing a few of his jokes into this write-up, but as I learned while watching Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip, nobody can deliver them like Pryor could. He was a funny, funny man, and his death in 2005 hit me kinda hard. At the time, I thought we lost a fine comedic actor. But clearly, he was also one of the best stand-up comedians ever to grace the stage.

Monday, August 14, 2017

#2,408. The Apple (1980)

Directed By: Menahem Golan

Starring: Catherine Mary Stewart, George Gilmour, Grace Kennedy

Tagline: "It's 1994! The future is music and music is their future!"

Trivia: The picture was nominated for Worst Picture at the Hastings Bad Cinema Society's 3rd Stinkers Bad Movie Awards in 1980

For years I’ve been hearing how The Apple, a 1980 disco musical / fantasy directed by Menahem Golan, is one of the worst movies ever made. After finally seeing it for myself, though, I can honestly say I was expecting worse. Yes, The Apple is a bad film, but it also has an energy that is impossible to ignore.

Set in the distant future of 1994, The Apple tells the story of two young lovers, Alphie (George Gilmour) and Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart), who dream of making it big in the music business. Unfortunately, Alphie can only write love songs, and what the public wants is the wild dance music being churned out by BIM studios. BIM, which stands for Boogalow International Music, is the brainchild of Mr. Boogalow (Vladek Sheybal), a powerful record producer whose most popular act, Dandi (Allan Love) and Pandi (Grace Kennedy), recently won the Worldvision Music Contest.

Still, there’s something about Alphie and Bibi that impresses Mr. Boogalow, and he offers both of them long-term contracts. Alphie, who dislikes what Boogalow and his entire organization stand for, refuses to sign. Alas, he is unable to convince Bibi to follow his lead, and a few short months after signing with BIM, she has become an even bigger star than Dandi and Pandi.

As for Alphie, he’s stuck writing sappy ballads that nobody wants to hear, and is so poor that he can’t afford to pay his landlady (Miriam Margoyles) the back rent he owes her. Yet, through it all, Alphie still has feelings for Bibi, and he tries to get Boogalow to release her from her contract. What Boogalow doesn’t know, though, is that Bibi’s love for Alphie is equally strong. But is she willing to risk everything just to be with him, or is her career now the most important thing in Bibi’s life?

With its very ‘80s vision of the “futuristic” ‘90s (complete with oddly-shaped station wagons and shiny, metallic clothing), The Apple features a rags-to-riches love story that, at best, is under-developed (one minute, Bibi is on top of the world, performing in front of thousands of adoring fans and having the time of her life. The next, she’s pining for Alphie and threatening to quit the BIM organization altogether. Why the sudden change of heart? Who knows? It’s never really explored). Even more bizarre is the film’s religious subtext; in numerous scenes, Mr. Boogalow is depicted as the Devil, and the title number “The Apple” (which is set in Hell) is a musical take on the story of Adam and Eve (with Bibi being tempted by Boogalow to “bite the apple”). As for the performances, both Gilmour and Stewart are convincing as the naïve Alphie and Bibi, while Vladek Sheybal’s Boogalow is a villain with charisma to spare.

Yet what really sets The Apple apart is its elaborate musical sequences, which are energetic (“Showbizness”), frightening (as we see during “The Apple”, the inhabitants of Hell are kinda freaky), confusing (the playful “How to be a Master” popped up at the wrong time, undercutting one of the movie’s more dramatic scenes), and downright obscene (“Coming”, performed by Grace Kennedy, is chock full of sexual innuendo and imagery). With the exception of “Universal Melody” (which Alphie and Bibi perform together on-stage), the musical numbers in The Apple are so amazingly over-the-top that they’re sure to make you smile from ear to ear.

Despite Menahem Golan’s somewhat tarnished reputation (his status as the Schlockmeister General of the ‘80s was reinforced in the excellent documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films), he was far from a talentless hack. Along with inspiring the Ninja (Enter the Ninja) and breakdancing (Breakin’) crazes of the 1980s, he directed The Delta Force, a highly charged action film that’s also one of Chuck Norris’s finest pictures. More than anything, though, Menahem Golan, like Ed Wood before him, clearly adored the cinema, and even if he wasn’t the most skilled filmmaker, his love for movies had an infectious quality that often made its way into his work.

So, ridicule The Apple if you must (I did so myself while watching it), but don’t listen to those who tell you it’s the worst pictures ever.

It is definitely bad. But “worst ever”? Not by a long shot!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

#2,407. 24 x 36: A Movie About Movie Posters (2016)

Directed By: Kevin Burke

Starring: Paul Ainsworth, Dave Alexander, Andrea Alvin

Line from the film: "The first connection you would have with a movie is seeing the poster"

Trivia: Among those interviewed in the movie is director Joe Dante

You’ve seen them hanging in the lobbies of your favorite movie palaces, and if you’re a film buff, odds are you own a few yourself. Movie posters have become much more than simple advertisements; nowadays, many are considered works of art. And as we see in director Kevin Burke’s 2016 documentary 24 x 36: A Movie about Movie Posters, they’re also a multi-million dollar industry.

Beginning with the history of the modern movie poster (including its roots in lithography), 24 x 36 then takes us from the early days of the Universal horror films (some, such as Dracula and Bride of Frankenstein, boasted dozens of different poster variations) through to the ‘80s, when those artists who conceived the cinema’s most iconic posters did so anonymously. In fact, it wasn’t until watching this documentary that I realized the same guy (John Alvin) designed the posters for both Blazing Saddles and E.T. 

The inventive style of the ‘80s gave way to a more basic approach in the ‘90s and early 2000’s, when a studio’s marketing division determined the look and feel of a movie’s poster. But with the so-called “mondo” movement in full swing, an array of independent artists, all film buffs themselves, are designing posters more stylish than anything coming out of Hollywood (Some are so impressive that collectors are willing to pay hundreds, if not thousands of dollars just to own one).

In essence, 24 x 36 is two documentaries in one. The first half is dedicated to the past, focusing on such artists as Bob Peak (Apocalypse Now, Star Trek The Motion Picture) and Richard Amsel (The Sting, Flash Gordon, Raiders of the Lost Ark), most of whom didn’t get the credit they deserved (Roger Kastel, who designed the poster for 1975’s Jaws, sent his original sketches to Universal, and never saw them again). This opening section of 24 x 36 was incredibly informative, and I enjoyed learning more about some of my favorite posters.

Equally as engrossing is the film’s second half, which explores the modern phenomenon of indie posters, from “alternative” renderings of the classics (I was especially fond of Gary Pullin’s design for Street Trash) to straight-up collectibles, created by film fans for film fans. This indie movement has become so popular that even Hollywood has taken notice; in what is one of the documentary's best scenes, we sit in on a “focus group” in which participants are asked to choose between two posters: a generic studio rendering (showing mostly the actors’ faces), and a more artistic take on the same movie (the “artsy” one definitely had a few ardent supporters).

More than an eye-opening documentary, 24 x 36 has also inspired me to start collecting again (I’ve purchased some 200 posters over the years, but none since 2007). And if you love movies, it will undoubtedly have the same effect on you.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

#2,406. The Human Tornado (1976)

Directed By: Cliff Roquemore

Starring: Rudy Ray Moore, Lady Reed, Jimmy Lynch

Tag line: "Watch Out Mister...Here Comes the Twister!"

Trivia: This movie is also known as Dolemite II

A sequel to 1975’s Dolemite, The Human Tornado is not only a better-made film than its predecessor (the boom mic doesn’t even make a cameo appearance this time around), but it’s also funnier, giving star (and popular funnyman) Rudy Ray Moore a chance to finally flex his comedic muscles.

After donating his Alabama mansion to a charity for underprivileged children, Dolemite (Moore) hops into bed with a woman who happens to be the wife of redneck sheriff Beatty (J.B. Baron). When the sheriff catches them in the act, he tells his deputy to kill both Dolemite and the girl. Luckily, Dolemite manages to escape.

Following a confrontation with the sheriff’s men (which ends with a bang… literally), Dolemite decides it’s high time he left town. Joined by his good friends Dough (Ed Montgomery), Jimmy (James R. Page), and Bo (Ernie Hudson, in one of his earlier roles) Dolemite hijacks a car and heads to Los Angeles, where his associate Queen Bee (Lady Reed) runs the hottest nightclub in town.

As Dolemite and his pals will soon discover, though, things aren’t going well in L.A.; a mob boss named Cavaletti (Herb Graham), who owns a rival nightclub, has kidnapped two of Queen Bee’s best dancers, T.C. (Peaches Jones) and Java (played by female impersonator / transsexual Lady Java), promising that, if Queen Bee doesn’t shut her club down, he’ll kill them both. Dolemite makes it his mission to locate the girls before it’s too late, but what he doesn’t know is that sheriff Beatty followed him to Los Angeles, and has enlisted the help of the LAPD’s best man, Detective Blakely (Jerry Jones, who also co-wrote the screenplay), to track Dolemite down.

Whereas Dolemite sometimes made us chuckle for all the wrong reasons, The Human Tornado gets its laughs more honestly, and features plenty of WTF moments that are sure to crack you up. In an effort to find out where T.C. and Java are being held, Dolemite seduces Cavaletti’s nymphomaniac wife (Barbara Gerl), who, after fantasizing that she’s being ravished by a series of well-built black men, has such rigorous sex with Dolemite that it shakes her entire house off its foundation! Even more bizarre is Cavaletti’s “house of pain”, where an elderly witch sadistically tortures his two captives. And if that’s not weird enough for you, Cavaletti hires the reigning nunchaku champion to entertain his guests during a fancy dinner party! Funniest of all, though, are the sequences in which Dolemite uses karate to take on Cavaletti’s men (these scenes are sped up, giving them a cartoon-like feel, and at one point Dolemite even leaps about 20 feet into the air).

In addition to all the nonsense, The Human Tornado features Rudy Ray Moore doing what he did best; telling jokes (the film opens with Dolemite performing a stand-up routine in front of a live audience) and rattling off profanity-laced rhymes (“He think he's bad and ain't got no class! I'm goin' to rock this shotgun up his muthafuckin' ass!”). A stud with the women and a bad-ass fighting machine, Moore’s Dolemite was a force to be reckoned with in the original movie, and as he proves again in The Human Tornado, the character (and the actor portraying him) is still in a class by himself.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

#2,405. The Violent Years (1956)

Directed By: William Morgan

Starring: Jean Moorhead, Barbara Weeks, Art Millan

Line from the film: "Teenage killers...fearing no law...taking their thrills without shame!"

Trivia: Dialogue from the film is sampled by the industrial band Ministry in the song "So What?"

A 1956 morality lesson about the dangers of juvenile delinquency, The Violent Years is a dreadful motion picture; absolutely terrible from start to finish.

Who was responsible for this cinematic dung heap, you ask?

Edward D. Wood, Jr… that’s who!

No, he didn’t direct The Violent Years (William Morgan handled those duties). But Wood wrote the script, and his penchant for obvious characters and over-the-top, preachy dialogue is as prevalent (and as hilarious) here as it is in Bride of the Monster or Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Teenager Paula Parkins (Jean Moorhead) comes from a good home. Her father Carl (Art Millan) is the editor-in-chief of the local newspaper and her mother Jane (Barbara Weeks) belongs to the women’s auxiliary, and does lots of charity work. What her parents don’t realize, though, is that Paula is the leader of a girl gang, one that’s responsible for a string of recent robberies. But stealing is only the tip of the iceberg; Paula and her cohorts: Georgia (Theresa Hancock); Geraldine (Joanne Cangi); and Phyllis (Gloria Farr), do it all, from vandalizing their high school to harassing couples parked on lover’s lane.

Even the gang’s “sponsor”, Shelia (Lee Constant), tells Paula that, if she wants to stay out of jail, she better lay low for a while. Ignoring this advice, Paula and the others continue their reign of terror, not realizing that the police are, indeed, closing in on them…

As with many low-budget films, the acting in The Violent Years is pretty weak, and even at just over an hour the movie drags in spots (though I admit I was surprised by the scene where Paula and her gang rape a guy at gunpoint).

Yet what will really have you howling is the film's often ridiculous dialogue. We know from his previous movies that Ed Wood never met a run-on sentence he didn’t like, and The Violent Years has more than its share of them (Paula tells her mother that she has something “important” to discuss with her, and asks for a moment of her time. But dear old mom is far too busy, blowing Paula off by asking “What can be so important in your young life as to warrant my attention so drastically?”). Yet nothing is as hilarious as the movie’s final moments, when a holier-than-thou judge (played by I. Stanford Jolley) pontificates about the cause of juvenile delinquency, and how it can be avoided (I rolled my eyes at least a half-dozen times during his extended speech).

The Violent Years isn’t just bad; it’s Ed Wood bad, and like many of the infamous filmmaker’s other movies (Glen or Glenda, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Bride of the Monster), that actually makes it... kinda good.

Funny how that works, isn’t it?

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

#2,404. Stroszek (1977)

Directed By: Werner Herzog

Starring: Bruno S., Eva Mattes, Clemens Scheitz

Line from this film: "We are unable to find the switch to turn the lift off, can't stop the dancing chickens"

Trivia: Reportedly, this is the last movie musician Ian Curtis of the English band Joy Division watched before committing suicide

It’s become a tradition that every time I watch a Werner Herzog film on DVD, I immediately do so again with the director’s commentary track on, and as it turns out Herzog had quite a bit to say about Stroszek. This 1977 offering may very well be the legendary directors strangest picture, yet, for me, its peculiar nature is what makes the movie so damn endearing.

After being released from a Berlin prison (where he served time for drunkenness and disorderly conduct), Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.) returns to his small apartment, which his elderly neighbor, Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz), looked after for him while he was away. Before long, Bruno runs into his old flame Eva (Eva Mattes), a prostitute who is beaten on a daily basis by her two pimps (Wilhelm von Homburg and Burkhard Driest). Eva agrees to move in with Bruno, at which point the pimps begin harassing him as well. To escape the abuse, Bruno and Eva decide to tag along with Scheitz, who is moving to Wisconsin to live with his nephew, an auto mechanic named Clayton (Clayton Szalpinski).

Once in Wisconsin, Bruno and Eva purchase a trailer home and move in together. Bruno goes to work at Clayton’s garage, while Eva takes a job as a waitress at a local diner. For a while, it looks as if the two have found happiness in America, but it isn’t long before boredom sets in. 

Will the couple work through their problems, or was their love affair doomed from the start?

In his commentary track for Stroszek, Herzog gives us a little background on his star, Bruno S. The abused son of a prostitute, Bruno spent years drifting in and out of prisons and mental institutions, and for a time worked as a street musician (in one of Stroszek’s earliest scene, we even get a chance to watch him perform). In fact, Herzog admits that much of what we see in the first part of Stroszek is a retelling of Bruno’s life story (right down to the apartment used for the film, which was the actual one Bruno lived in at the time).

In addition to Bruno, Stroszek features a number of performers who had never been in front of a camera before. Clayton Szalpinski was a real-life mechanic from Wisconsin who Herzog met a year or so earlier (when the car he was driving at the time broke down). Herzog even wrote parts in Stroszek for two guys featured in his documentary short How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck; former auctioneer champion Ralph Wade appears briefly, doing what he does best; and announcer Scott McCain plays an oh-so-polite banker who visits Bruno and Eva when they fall behind on the payments for their trailer.

Herzog also relates a few humorous anecdotes about the making of Stroszek, like how he was arrested twice in one day in New York (for strapping himself to the hood of a car while shooting the driving sequence), and provides a little background on some of the film’s more unusual scenes (the out-of-the-blue bank robbery, Scheitz’s attempt to research animal magnetism with an amp meter, and the dancing chicken that pops up in the finale).

All of the weirdness above may make Stroszek sound like a comedy. And it is... sorta. But more than anything, it’s the sad tale of two people searching for happiness, and finding only misery and despair. There is hope when Bruno and Eva leave Berlin behind and move to America, but as Herzog is quick to point out, loneliness is universal, and can snatch both joy and love out from under you when you least expect it.

Stroszek is, indeed, a bizarre movie, but the feelings and emotions it generates are as genuine as they come.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

#2,403. Bloody Sunday (2002)

Directed By: Paul Greengrass

Starring: James Nesbitt, Tim Pigott-Smith, Nicholas Farrell

Line from the film: "You call that minimum force?"

Trivia: To make this movie as authentic as possible, no lights were used in the movie and the camera work was entirely hand-held

On January 30, 1972, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) staged a peaceful march in the city of Derry, to protest the British military's recent internment of Irish men. ignoring the decree that outlawed such gatherings, MP Ivan Cooper, who organized the march, joined senior members of the NICRA and hundreds of locals as they made their way through the streets of Derry, unaware that a highly-trained team of UK paratroopers had moved into position, waiting for the order to start arresting people.

But something went terribly wrong, and by the time the smoke cleared, 27 Irish men and women had been shot by British soldiers (13 fatally). An inquiry eventually absolved the military of any wrongdoing (they insisted they were fired upon first by members of the IRA), but for the citizens of Derry, life would never be the same again.

It was a tragedy that became known as "Bloody Sunday", and Paul Greengrass’s extraordinary 2002 movie of the same name recreates these horrible events in such a convincing manner that we feel like we’re smack dab in the middle of it all.

Bloody Sunday is all-encompassing; hours before the march was scheduled to begin, Ivan Cooper (played brilliantly by James Nesbitt ) is frantically trying to arrange things; and tells the IRA, in no uncertain terms, to stay away (it was, after all, a peaceful demonstration). As this is going on, Brigadier Patrick McLellan (Nicholas Farrell) of the British military is meeting with Chief Superintendent Lagan (Gerald McSorley) of the Derry police force to discuss how best to handle the march. Before they can come up with a plan, however, Major General Robert Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith), McLellan’s superior, announces that he’s taking control, and will personally lead the paratroopers into the city, where they will do whatever is necessary to bring the protestors to “justice”.

For a while, the march is quiet, but soon a few angry young men, including Gerry Donaghy (Declan Duddy), break away and start tossing rocks and bottles at British soldiers. Shortly after, shots ring out, and Cooper, like hundreds of others, is forced to take cover as the paratroopers gun down anyone they feel is a threat. The shooting continues for some time, and despite the one-sided outcome, General Ford will tell the press that his men acted heroically under very difficult circumstances. Stunned by what’s happened, Cooper and other members of the NICRA tour the hospitals, comforting families and trying to make sense of the slaughter they just witnessed.

Using hand-held cameras and filming (in part, anyway) in the very streets where the tragedy occurred, director Greengrass brings a documentary-like feel to Bloody Sunday. Even the early sequences leading up to the march, like when Cooper and the others are discussing such things as whether or not they should change the parade route, have an unmistakable energy to them; and the shooting itself is presented as if it was footage lifted from a war zone. During the later scenes, when the day’s events begin to sink in, we cry along with the citizens of Derry, some of whom have lost loved ones in the fracas (the sequence in which Cooper and his team break the news to the families of the deceased is positively gut-wrenching).

It was a tragedy that will live forever in the minds of those who were there that terrible January day, and Bloody Sunday is a devastating, thought-provoking account of these events, as well as a motion picture that you won’t soon forget.

Monday, August 7, 2017

#2,402. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

Directed By: Jack Clayton

Starring: Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, Diane Ladd

Tag line: "After he fulfills your deepest, lifelong dream...he'll tell you the price you have to pay"

Trivia: Edward James Olmos was offered the role of Mr. Dark, but turned it down

in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Disney made several valiant attempts to break free of its “kids-only” persona by producing movies that would also appeal to adults (such as The Black Hole, Dragonslayer, and Tron, just to name a few). Based on a story by Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes continued that trend, and combined elements of horror and fantasy to weave the fascinating tale of a small town in the early 20th century and the traveling carnival that visited it one October.

Green Town, Illinois, is a quiet place, the kind of community in which nothing interesting ever happens. That is, until the night that Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival pulls into town. Best friends Will Hathaway (Vidal Peterson) and Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson) hear the train coming, and sneak out of their bedrooms to see what wonders Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) and his associates have brought to their sleepy little town. What they discover instead is that the carnival and its enigmatic owner are not what they appear to be.

The next day, while everyone else is playing games and visiting Dark’s many sideshow attractions, Will and Jim are busy trying to convince Will’s father, local librarian Charles Hathaway (Jason Robards), that the good citizens of Green Town are in the greatest of danger. But with his ability to understand people’s desires, as well as their deepest fears, Mr. Dark has a distinct advantage over Mr. Hathaway and the boys, and defeating him will be no easy task.

Something Wicked This Way Comes starts innocently enough, with a depiction of small town America that looks as if it was lifted from a Norman Rockwell painting. There’s a barber shop run by Mr. Crosetti (Richard Davalos), a man hoping to one day find the woman of his dreams; and a saloon in which bartender Ed (James Stacy), a former high school football star whose arm and leg were amputated years ago, recounts his past glories. Not even the sudden appearance of derelict lightning rod salesman Tom Fury (Royal Dano) is enough to disrupt the daily routine.

But the moment that train arrives and Mr. Dark sets up shop, a feeling of dread sweeps over the entire community. From then on, we the audience are poised at the edge of our seats, watching as youngsters Will and Jim (portrayed by two talented child actors) uncover the many secrets lurking beneath the canopies of Mr. Dark’s Carnival (including a merry-go-round with very unique powers). Jonathan Pryce is deliciously evil as the sinister Mr. Dark, and Jason Robards is both understated and effective as the aging Mr. Hathaway, who is troubled by a disturbing incident from his past. Also worth noting is Pam Grier, who is damn creepy as the mysterious fortune teller.

Much like The Lady in White and The Monster Squad, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a horror / thriller you can watch with the kids (some scenes will surely frighten the tykes, but there’s no gore or over-the-top violence). Well-realized and expertly paced, Something Wicked This Way Comes has me wishing that Disney turned out a few more films like this back in the day.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

#2,401. Employees' Entrance (1933)

Directed By: Roy Del Ruth

Starring: Warren William, Loretta Young, Wallace Ford

Line from the film: "There's no room for sympathy or softness - my code is smash or be smashed!"

Trivia: Last film for silent picture star Robert Gran, who died in an auto accident before the film was finished and released

Wow! And I thought Warren William played a prick in The Match King. The hard-nosed executive he portrays in 1933’s Employees’ Entrance makes his character in The Match King look like a saint!

Kurt Anderson (William), the general manager of New York’s Franklin Monroe Department store, knows how to turn a profit; since he’s taken control, the store has gone from $20 million in annual sales all the way up to $100 million. But he didn’t get there by being a nice guy. In fact, Mr. Anderson’s motto is “smash or be smashed”, and if an employee isn’t pulling his or her weight, they’re on the street before they know what hit them.

When the depression takes a bite out of their sales, Anderson becomes more ruthless than ever, and begins grooming young Martin West (Wallace Ford), an employee he feels is every bit as tough as he is, to be his assistant. One of the things Anderson likes most about Martin is that he’s a single man. Anderson believes that women have their place; he himself has had a few dalliances with a pretty employee named Madeline (Loretta Young). But when it comes to marriage, the tyrannical executive feels it’s a distraction, and if Martin wants to follow in his footsteps he can’t allow anyone, especially a woman, to take his mind off of his work.

Martin agrees, and tells his new boss that he has no intention of getting hitched anytime soon. But secretly, Martin is engaged to the woman of his dreams, who just so happens to be Madeline! Martin goes to great lengths to hide his engagement, and eventual marriage, to Madeline, a decision he regrets when Anderson makes a play for his new bride one evening at an employee dinner party.

Warren William is unbelievably brutal as Kurt Anderson; upon learning that a large shipment of coats will be 3 days late, Anderson tells the manufacturer, Garfinkle (Frank Reicher), that he’s canceling the order, a move that is sure to put the poor guy out of business (to add insult to injury, Anderson then threatens to sue Garfinkle to recoup what the store spent on advertising the coats).

Anderson is even tougher on his own employees. When Higgins (Charles Sellon) fails to come up with a new idea to improve sales, Anderson fires him in the middle of a manager’s meeting. Higgens, who had been with Franklin Monroe for 30 years, shows up several times to try and get his job back, but Anderson refuses to see him, and isn’t the least bit remorseful when Higgens eventually commits suicide by leaping from one of the store’s 9th-floor windows. ”When a man outlives his usefulness”, Anderson says to Martin mere seconds after hearing the news, “he ought to jump out a window.” Yes, Kurt Anderson is a cold-hearted bastard, and Warren William plays him to perfection.

Employees’ Entrance does have its lighter moments, most of which are provided by Wallace Ford and Loretta Young, who are extremely likable as the lovers forced to hide their feelings for one another. But it’s when Warren William is on-screen, shouting orders or laying down the law, that the movie comes alive. Thanks to the actor’s fierce portrayal, Kurt Anderson now ranks right up there with Alec Baldwin’s Blake (from Glengarry Glen Ross) as the cinematic executive I would least like to call “boss”.

Friday, August 4, 2017

#2,400. Torch Singer (1933)

Directed By: Alexander Hall, George Somnes

Starring: Claudette Colbert, Ricardo Cortez, David Manners

Tag line: "The worst woman in New York...sang the best love songs!"

Trivia: According to the pressbook, Bing Crosby acted as a technical adviser for a day and coached Claudette Colbert with the lullaby

With its somewhat controversial tale of an unwed mother who claws her way to the top, becoming the most popular (and most salacious) nightclub singer in New York City, Torch Singer is, in every way, a pre-code picture. But more than its so-called “indecent” content, what will stay with you after watching this 1933 film is its heartbreaking story, and how wonderful Claudette Colbert is in the lead role.

Sally Trent (Colbert) is a single mother, trying desperately to give her infant daughter as good a life as she possibly can. With the baby’s father off in China on business, Sally must care for the child alone, and soon the pressure becomes too much for her. Though she loves her daughter dearly, Sally (who cannot find a job) decides to put her baby up for adoption, in the hopes she will end up in a good home.

A few years pass. Sally, who has changed her name to Mimi Benton, is now a well-known night club singer whose scandalous personal life has made her a media sensation. One of her many boyfriends is Tony Cummings (Ricardo Cortez), a radio executive, and one day, while visiting Tony’s studio, Mimi ends up filling in for the nervous host of a new children’s program. Calling herself “Aunt Jenny”, Mimi wows the kiddies, and Tony as well as the show’s sponsor Andrew Judson (Charley Grapewin), sign Mimi to a long-term contract, paying her big bucks to play Aunt Jenny on the radio every night at 5 p.m.

At first, Mimi does it for kicks, laughing along with her friends at the thought of a “vixen” hosting a children’s show. Soon, however, Mimi’s thoughts turn to the baby she gave away years earlier, and she decides to use the radio program to find her daughter. The sudden reappearance of the youngster’s father, Mike Gardner (David Manners), only fuels Mimi’s determination. But with the odds stacked against her, Mimi must face the cold, hard truth that she may never set eyes on her beloved child again.

Claudette Colbert delivers what could be her finest performance as Sally / Mimi, going from a struggling young mother forced to do what’s best for her child (the scene in which Sally puts her daughter up for adoption will reduce you to tears) to a fun-loving singer, always ready to party with whichever man catches her eye (there are hints dropped that she even had a fling with Andrew Judson, much to the chagrin of the snobbish Mrs. Judson, played by Virginia Hammond). In addition to her outstanding performance, Colbert also gets to sing a little, her best number being “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Love”, a suggestive ditty that draws the attention of every guy in the room.

There aren’t many “immoral” pre-code films that will pull on your heartstrings as completely as Torch Singer does. But then, a lot of those other movies didn’t have Claudette Colbert.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

#2,399. Hot Saturday (1932)

Directed By: William A. Seiter

Starring: Cary Grant, Nancy Carroll, Randolph Scott

Tag line: "Her lips offered..what her heart denied!"

Trivia: Carole Lombard was mentioned for the role eventually played by Nancy Carroll

My journey through the pre-code landscape continues with 1932’s Hot Saturday, an effective comedy / drama that draws the curtain back on small-town America, where idle gossip has the power to destroy a person’s life. The fact that the movie also features a pair of Hollywood superstars early in their careers doesn’t hurt matters, either.

Welcome to Marysville, a seemingly peaceful community that’s so tiny it has only one bank. Ruth Brock (Nancy Carroll), a pretty young woman who still lives with her parents (William Collier Sr. and Jane Darwell), is one of the bank’s many employees. Ruth takes her job very seriously, but like most girls her age you’ll find her at the Willow Springs dance hall each and every Saturday evening.

One particular Saturday, before heading out to Willow Springs, Ruth and her date, Conny (Edward Woods), join the rest of their gang, including Archie (Grady Sutton) and Eva (Lillian Bond), at the estate of Romer Sheffield (Cary Grant), a millionaire playboy whose romantic trysts have made him the talk of the town. Romer, it turns out, has the hots for Ruth, and while she too has feelings for him, Ruth knows that getting involved with a so-called “womanizer” like Romer has its consequences, especially in Marysville, where everybody knows everyone else’s business.

But when an act of kindness by Romer is misinterpreted, poor Ruth finds herself caught up in a scandal that threatens to ruin her career. Convinced she’s on the fast track to becoming a pariah in Marysville, Ruth agrees to marry Bill Fadden (Randolph Scott), an old childhood friend who’s returned to town temporarily, and who has loved Ruth ever since they were kids. Fearing that Bill might hear some of the terrible gossip circulating about her and Romer, Ruth does what she can to hurry the wedding along. But is she truly in love with Bill, or does her heart belong to another?

Nancy Carroll turns in a sincere performance as the good girl whose reputation is systematically torn to shreds, and Jane Darwell, who would win an Oscar eight years later for The Grapes of Wrath, is equally good as Ruth’s domineering mother. That said, what makes Hot Saturday something of a modern-day curiosity is the appearance of both Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, each of whom would go on to bigger and better things (Grant refined his comedic flair in such classics as His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby, while Scott became a western star whose work with Budd Boetticher, i.e. 7 Men From Now and The Tall T, is worth noting). Grant is especially strong as the lovesick Romer, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was leading man material (Hot Saturday marked the first time he played a major role in a Hollywood film).

As for content, Hot Saturday definitely has its share of suggestive material; Ruth’s friends like to get drunk and even a little wild on Saturday night (before heading off to Willow Springs, Archie steals some bottles from Romer’s liquor cabinet), and the guys clearly expect the girls to “reward” them for paying for their evening out. But as bawdy as the youngsters can be at times, it’s their parents who receive the brunt of the movie’s scorn. Ruth’s mother cares more about her family’s social standing than she does her own daughter, while the members of the women’s auxiliary pass the time by spreading gossip and innuendo (at one point, director Sieter focuses his camera on a phone operator’s switchboard, which is lighting up as the women of Marysville call each other to discuss Ruth’s “indiscretion”).

Small town America can, indeed, be idyllic (Frank Capra proved as much in It’s a Wonderful Life), but as we see in Hot Saturday, it can also be a living hell.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

#2,398. The Match King (1932)

Directed By: Howard Bretherton, William Keighley

Starring: Warren William, Lili Damita, Glenda Farrell

Line from the film: "Never worry about anything 'til it happens. Then I'll take care of it"

Trivia: The character of Marta Molnar is based on Greta Garbo. Warner Bros. tried unsuccessfully to borrow Garbo from MGM for the role

Most stars emerged from the Pre-Code era virtually unscathed, and went on to have successful careers. A few, like Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable, James Cagney, and a handful of others, even rose to the ranks of Hollywood royalty.

And then there’s Warren William.

A former Broadway star, William appeared in over two dozen movies between 1931 and 1934, including Three on a Match, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Cecil B. DeMille’s version of Cleopatra (in which he was Julius Caesar). Yet what made him such a popular actor during this time period was his penchant for playing total bastards, and one of the most amoral characters he ever portrayed was Paul Kroll, the lead in 1932’s The Match King.

Inspired by the true story of Swedish match tycoon Ivar Kreuger, The Match King opens with Paul Kroll quitting his job as a Chicago janitor to become the CEO (at his uncle’s behest) of a floundering matchbox factory in his native Sweden. By lying about the “financial success” he enjoyed in America, Kroll secures a small loan from the bank, saving the company from ruin. But his dreams for the match factory are much bigger than that, and with the help of his old friend Erik (Hardie Albright), Kroll transforms the business into the world’s largest supplier of matches (with monopolies in countries such as Poland and Germany, just to name a few).

As it did with most businesses, the stock market crash of 1929 hit Kroll’s company pretty hard, forcing the tycoon to get a bit “creative” when trying to raise additional capital. The biggest threat to Kroll’s empire, however, proved to be his love affair with actress Marla Molnar (Lili Damita), which distracted him from his duties for long stretches of time.

With the bank breathing down his neck, Kroll makes one last-ditch effort to save his struggling company. But is it too little too late?

Paul Kroll shows his true colors early on in The Match King; while working as a janitor at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, he convinces one of his co-workers to take a break and watch the ball game, then rats him out to the Foreman (John Wray), who immediately fires the “lazy” employee. But instead of reporting this termination to the main office, Kroll suggests they keep it a secret, thus allowing them to continue collecting the fired employee’s paycheck each week. To make matters worse, Kroll is having an affair with the Foreman’s wife (Glenda Farrell), which ends the moment he bilks her out of $400.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg for Paul Kroll, who, over the course of the movie, lies, cheats, and steals his way to the top of the corporate ladder, blackmailing government officials so they sell only his brand of matches in their country, and, later on, resorting to forgery (and worse) to keep his company afloat. William does a fine job breathing life into what is essentially a despicable character, and in spite of all the wrong that he does, we actually kinda admire Paul Kroll. We don’t root for him, mind you, but William’s spirited portrayal ensures that, at the very least, we want to see what he’s going to do next.

Warren William continued to make movies until his death in 1948, though he never achieved the same level of success he enjoyed at the beginning of his career, when he was dubbed the “King of Pre-Code”. Once the Hays code took effect, the devious characters that had made Warren William a star were either eliminated or reduced to supporting roles. And it’s a shame, too, because if his performance in The Match King is any indication, Warren William was damn good at playing bad.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

#2,397. Beauty Parlor (1932)

Directed By: Richard Thorpe

Starring: Barbara Kent, Joyce Compton, John Harron

Trivia: For a time, this film was considered "lost"

The setting is a barber shop, situated on the ground floor of a swanky hotel. An elderly customer, Mr. Burke (Albert Gran), tells Sally (Barbara Kent) the manicurist that she’s looking good. Sally immediately zips up her blouse, covering her cleavage (which Burke was clearly staring at) and says, sarcastically, “Thank you”. The barber then asks a now-nervous Burke if he’d like a hot towel. Better make it a cold one, Burke says. Then, looking at Sally again, he adds “a very cold one”. 

Based on the above scene (which opens the film), it’s obvious that 1932’s Beauty Parlor is going to be yet another bawdy pre-code drama / romance. Too bad it’s not a very good one.

Sally and her best friend / roommate Joan (Joyce Compton) work for the same barber shop. Sally is happy to have the job, even if it means she has to fight off guys like Burke (who proposes marriage every time they meet). Jeffrey Colt (John Harron) is another of Sally’s amorous customers, and even though she kind of fancies him as well, she knows better than to mix business with pleasure. 

As for Joan, she’s tired of being a manicurist. So, when one of her clients, John Fremont (Wheeler Oakman), offers her a higher-paying job, she quickly accepts. Though happy for Joan, Sally and their other roommate Lou (Betty Mack) have their doubts about Mr. Fremont, especially when Joan tells them he’ll be paying her $75 a week just to “hang out” with rich, older men.

Sally’s fears are soon confirmed: Joan’s new job is, indeed, too good to be true, and before long she’s in trouble with the law. Though she desperately wants to help Joan, Sally knows that doing so may require her to cozy up to Mr. Burke in ways she swore she never would.

Story-wise, Beauty Parlor is a little dull; even the later scenes set inside a jailhouse fail to generate excitement. The film’s biggest problem, though, is in the acting department. Most of the performances are mediocre, to say the least, but the movie’s star, Barbara Kent, is downright awful (she often delivers her lines as if she was reading them for the first time). 

With no real tension or drama to speak of, and a lead actress who just doesn’t seem to care, Beauty Parlor is one of the few pre-code films I’ve seen that falls flat on its face.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

#2,396. Ex-Lady (1933)

Directed By: Robert Florey

Starring: Bette Davis, Gene Raymond, Frank McHugh

Tag line: "So frank . . so outspoken... so true..."

Trivia: A scene from this film was featured early on in 1962's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

After playing minor characters in such pre-code dramas as Waterloo Bridge and Three on a Match, Bette Davis finally stepped into in the spotlight with 1933’s Ex-Lady, a movie that takes more than a few jabs at the institution of marriage.

Helen Bauer (Davis), one of New York’s most prestigious fashion artists, enjoys her independence, and has stated on many occasions that she has no desire to be tied down to one man. Initially, Helen’s steady boyfriend, advertising executive Don Peterson (Gene Raymond), said he felt the same way about marriage, but has recently had a change of heart, and wants Helen to become his wife. At first she refuses, but after realizing she too is deeply in love with Don, Helen says “yes”, and the two are married.

But it isn’t long before Helen’s worst fears are coming true, and she and Don are dealing with problems they never experienced before, including money issues, jealousy, and even infidelity. All at once, Helen and Don realize they made a mistake, but can they return to the way things used to be, or has marriage ruined their relationship forever?

With Ex-Lady, Bette Davis got a chance to show Hollywood what she could do with a lead role, and she’s entirely convincing as the confident Helen, a woman who wants her freedom, yet is willing to risk it for love. As for the men in Helen’s life, Gene Raymond is strong as Don, while Monroe Owsley has some good scenes as playboy Nick Malvyn, who tries on several occasions to lure Helen into his bed. Also interesting in supporting roles are Frank McHugh and Claire Dodd as Hugo and Iris Van Hugh, one of the few married couples in Helen’s circle of friends (Iris is unhappy because her husband takes her for granted, and she even flirts openly with a man just to get Hugo’s attention).

Though tame when compared to other pre-code films (the sexual innuendo is kept to a minimum), Ex-Lady does feature scenes that insinuate both premarital and extramarital sex. That said, the movie’s most heinous violation of the Hays Code is its rather frank assertion that marriage is the end of romantic love. “The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld”, the code states, and from its opening scene Ex-Lady doesn’t just challenge the “sanctity” of marriage; it stomps it into the dirt! Early on, when Helen’s father (played by Alphonse Ethier) barges into her apartment and confronts Don for spending the night with his daughter, Helen stands her ground, telling dear old dad that two people in love don’t need a license to tell them it’s OK to be together. As if to prove this theory, Ex-Lady then reveals what happens when Helen and Don do tie the knot, and from day one it changes their relationship for the worse (even taking a honeymoon leads to marital strife).

While its stance against marriage does get a bit heavy-handed at times, Ex-Lady is solid enough to warrant some attention, and is a movie that every Bette Davis aficionado will want to add to their queue.

Friday, July 28, 2017

#2,395. Secrets of the French Police (1932)

Directed By: A. Edward Sutherland

Starring: Gwili Andre, Gregory Ratoff, Frank Morgan

Tagline: "This marble image that was once a living form"

Trivia: This film re-used some of the sets from RKO's The Most Dangerous Game

Here’s a hidden gem for you: 1932’s Secrets of the French Police, a murder mystery peppered with a dash of political intrigue that is also, at times, quite brutal.

Inspector François St. Cyr (Frank Morgan) of the Sûreté has been assigned to track down the killer of a fellow officer named Danton. The case takes an unexpected turn, however, when a former associate of Danton’s, Anton Dorian (Christian Rub), is also murdered, and Dorian’s adopted daughter Eugenie (Gwili Andre), a twentysomething flower girl, is nowhere to be found. Eugenie’s boyfriend, petty thief Leon Renault (John Warburton), is enlisted to help St. Cyr locate the young woman, who may very well be able to identify her father’s killer.

Meanwhile, General Han Moloff (Gregory Ratoff), a Russian émigré currently residing in Paris, is claiming that he’s found the Princess Anastasia, daughter of the late Czar Nicholas (who was shot dead during the Bolshevik Revolution). As Moloff tries to convince the world that his new protégé is, in fact, the rightful heir to the Russian Monarchy, St. Cyr and Renault are intrigued by reports that the long lost Princess bears a striking resemblance to Eugenie, their missing flower girl!

Frank Morgan, best known to audiences as the title character in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, is quite good as the mostly-serious Inspector (he lets his comedic side shine through, albeit briefly, when posing as a drunk buying cigarettes, but other than that his St. Cyr is all business), and John Warburton makes for a likable crook (his Renault is a patriotic thief: he steals only from foreigners, never his fellow Frenchmen). The most memorable personality in Secrets of the French Police, however, is undoubtedly Moloff, the sinister Russian General whose methods are… shall we say… a bit extreme (at one point he even encases a former accomplice in plaster, then places her among the statues that adorn his Paris residence).

While most of the violence in Secrets of the French Police occurs off-screen, the bodies of the murder victims discovered by the police are often described in graphic detail (According to St. Cyr, Anton Dorian’s death was caused by a severed windpipe, while another corpse found floating in the river couldn’t be identified because its face had been smashed in). The most shocking scene, however, comes late in the film, and involves a car crash that kills a driver and two passengers (a scene staged incredibly well by director A. Edward Sutherland).

A smartly-written pre-code motion picture that moves along at a brisk pace, Secrets of the French Police might be a movie you’ve never heard of, but it’s also one you won’t want to miss.