Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Grant Mystique: In Name Only (1939)

If Cary Grant was the king of the screwball comedy, then the queen was Carole Lombard. Grant and Lombard appeared in the same film three times before Lombard's untimely death in 1942, but none of those films was a comedy. In Sinners in the Sun, Grant had no more than five or six minutes of screen time in total opposite Lombard. In The Eagle and the Hawk, they never shared the screen at all. The only true co-starring vehicle they made together was In Name Only (1939, directed by John Cromwell), a romantic drama. It is ironic that Grant's most famous comedy co-stars--Irene Dunne and Katherine Hepburn--were primarily known as dramatic actresses, while the greatest female comedienne of the age made only dramas with him. This teaming of Lombard and Grant might not have happened at all if Katherine Hepburn hadn't been tagged as "box office poison" in the press after the failures of Bringing Up Baby and Holiday (among other films). Hepburn had subsequently been released from her contract with RKO. It is conceivable that his trio of early films with Hepburn delayed or inhibited Grant's ascent to superstardom. None of them was a financial success in spite of the classic status accorded them years after the fact. In any event, Hepburn was out and Lombard was in. Lombard herself was taking a break from comedies. Her other film from 1939 was Made for Each Other opposite James Stewart, another weepie directed by John Cromwell. It had been a financial disaster. Lombard's life at the time paralleled the plot of In Name Only. She was biding her time until Clark Gable could divorce his wife and she could marry him. Gable, for his part, was off making Gone With the Wind. Her career at the time was also eerily similar to Grant's. Like Grant, she had been contracted to Paramount during her early career, a contract that she finished in 1938. Like Grant, she had chosen to become a free agent when that contract expired. Like Grant, she wasn't starring in comedies in 1939 (Grant's other two films that year, Only Angels Have Wings and Gunga Din, were nominally adventure stories). For both actors, In Name Only was something of a crossroads. Grant had already had a couple of big hits after he left Paramount, though he had had some disappointments, too. He hadn't had a major hit in a serious drama, though. Lombard hadn't yet had her own hit after leaving Paramount and it remained to be seen if she could carry a serious drama. In Name Only turned out to be a film both of them needed. It was moderately successful.

Monday, May 06, 2024

Revisiting Horror 101 with Dr. AC: The Brood

My friend, Aaron Christensen, invited me back on his video podcast to talk about one the horror movies that made the biggest impact on the young version of me: David Cronenberg's 1979 film, The Brood.


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Sunday, April 28, 2024

A Retro Prometheus

Lisa Frankenstein (2024, directed by Zelda Williams). I'm sure the name came first. Surely screenwriter Diablo Cody thought of the play on "Lisa Frank" and tailored a Lisa Frank-inflected Gothic to suit the name? I can't imagine it started with the story. The title is too big a cultural illusion. There are plenty of films where this was the order of operations in their creation, including at least one great one. Cody denies that this is the case. She says that this is just a coincidence, that the genesis of the film is as a distaff reworking of Weird Science. Maybe that's true. I have a suspicious nature. Cody is certainly capable of writing stories of great sophistication. Juno and Young Adult are both layered, complex character studies underneath the hipster dialogue that made their screenwriter famous. That's not this film, alas. This is a ramble-y nostalgia piece. It's so savvy about its time and influences that one can't help but be suspicious about its provenance. It has its pleasures, sure. It's just...if you're not a specific kind of viewer, one raised at the right time and in the right place, one steeped in a specific kind of culture from the late 1980s, then this film is kind of a mess.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Favorite Stars in B-Movies Blogathon 2024: Graylisted

It is easy in film critic land to ascribe the shape and form of most films to an overriding artistic impulse on the part of the filmmakers, but this is only true in a small number of films. Most films are at the mercy of social and commercial forces that are well outside the control of directors, producers, and even studios. Back in the day, B-films were particularly susceptible to these forces. The function of these movies was to make money, after all, not plumb the depths of the human condition. If they sometimes managed to exist as actual art, it was often entirely accidental. Whatever their artistic aspirations may be, most of the people who do the nuts and bolts work of making a film are there because it's a job. This includes actors, who may appear in films for entirely mercenary reasons. There are plenty of B-movies starring A-list actors or directed by A-list directors who for one reason or another needed a paycheck at the time. It's a cruel twist of fate that Michael Caine couldn't accept his first Oscar in person because he was busy making Jaws 4: The Revenge. Caine got a lovely house out of the deal, or so he says. The commercial and social pressures on the art of movies were especially strong in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when making a living in movies often depended on one's politics.

For example:

In the 1930s and early 1940s, Edward G. Robinson was one of the cinema's biggest stars. He was principally known for playing gangsters, co-equal with James Cagney as an attraction in such roles. He was also able to expand into more varied roles where he played against the tough guy image. There is a wide gulf of difference between Caesar Rico Bandello in Little Caesar and the morally righteous insurance investigator, Keyes, in Double Indemnity or the henpecked and pussy-whipped artist, Chris Cross, in Scarlet Street. He had a broad range, which was often ignored by the studios who cast him. His range was certainly ignored by Warner Brothers where he made his breakthrough films. They cast him in a long succession of gangsters and tough guy parts. When Robinson was entertaining the troops on a USO tour during World War II, he found he got no response from the GIs unless he started his bits with an in-character speech by Rico, Little Caesar himself, before speaking as himself as a strident anti-fascist. The real Robinson was an intellectual, a famed art collector, a lion of the Hollywood Left, and an immigrant Jew. He put his money where his convictions were, too, donating to over 800 left wing and anti-Nazi and anti-fascist organizations in the 1930s. He was among the first big stars to make openly anti-Nazi films, starring in Confessions of a Nazi Spy well before the United States entered the war. After the war, he agitated for racial equality in the workplace and campaigned for civil rights. But no good deed goes unpunished.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

A Tangled Web

It takes real effort to make a movie as breathtakingly awful as Madame Web (2024, directed by S. J. Clarkson), a film that can stand with the likes of Catwoman, Batman and Robin, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace as the nadir of superhero cinema. Given the disjointed nature of its plot, I'm going to assume that what ended up on screen is the product of studio notes rather than any incompetence on the part of its main contributors. Certainly, the actors here are left hanging in the wind, actors being at the mercy of other departments. A bad performance isn't always the fault of the actor. Performances are created and sometimes undermined in the editing room. There's a failure to trust the audience in this film that is striking and conspicuous. You can't miss it. So probably the studio. I'm trying to be generous, here.

Friday, February 09, 2024

The Grant Mystique: Thirty-Day Princess (1934)

Thirty-Day Princess (1934, directed by Marion Gering) finds Cary Grant fading into the scenery a bit. This isn't the only case of this in his early films, but it's one of the most conspicuous. Grant was wholly unsatisfied with his part in this film and complained about it, prompting Paramount to loan him out to United Artists as punishment. Grant never forgot this. When his contract with Paramount was finished in 1937, he went freelance rather than re-up or sign with another studio. He wouldn't make another film for Paramount for a couple of decades. He held a grudge. Grant wasn't the only contributor unsatisfied with his work, either. This film credits Preston Sturges as one of its writers and, like Grant, he was unhappy with how little of his work ended up on screen. This is the only film on which Sturges and Grant both worked, so it's a missed opportunity.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Godzilla Is Inside All of Us

Godzilla in Godzilla Minus One

It seems absurd at this late date to be rediscovering the depth of metaphor in Ishiro Honda's Godzilla. Godzilla has been an icon of world cinema for seventy years, an embassador for international moviemaking in spite of the derision his films have sometimes received. After years of interpretations have pulled Godzilla out of the realm of metaphor and into the world of monster versus monster wrestling fights, that original nightmare born of the hydrogen bomb has faded into memory, but it hasn't vanished completely. Godzilla's home studio, Toho Pictures, has been leasing Godzilla to American studios for years at this point, and Americans don't have that memory of atomic destruction. They see in Godzilla a franchise to exploit, like good little imperial capitalists. Art isn't even in the equation. When it happens at all, it's purely by accident. Every so often, Toho makes a film of their own to keep their hand in and remind the world who owns Godzilla. On the occasion of Godzilla's seventieth year, they've taken Godzilla back to his roots. The result, Godzilla Minus One (2023, directed by Takashi Yamazaki), is an astonishment, a film that can stand not only with the original film from 1954, but as one of the best fantasy films ever made, full stop. It's certainly one of the best films of 2023. It's the real thing. It's a film with something meaningful to say about history and nation and the human heart in conflict with itself. It's a film that the makers of the American "Monsterverse" films should look at with dismay and shame and envy.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

The Grant Mystique: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944, directed by Frank Capra) is probably the most divisive film in Cary Grant's filmography. It is perennially popular among fans of old movies, among fans of Cary Grant, and among fans of what I can only describe as "cozy horror." Many other viewers, including the actor himself, don't much like it. Grant thought his performance was among his worst. Some viewers don't care for Frank Capra's brand of corny, though I would argue that this is a different kind of corn than the director usually served up. There is a category of viewer who dislikes the film not for what it contains, but for what it left out. Let me explain: Arsenic and Old Lace was a huge success on Broadway. Most of the Broadway cast reprised their roles in the movie version, with the conspicuous exception of Boris Karloff. Karloff played the criminal, Jonathan Brewster, the film's villain. The script mentions Karloff by name in describing Jonathan Brewster. That the role was played by Karloff himself is one of the play's best jokes. Karloff had a financial stake in the play, so rather than abandon the production for a piecework paycheck in the film version, he remained in New York for a more lucrative and extended paycheck. His part in the film was filled with Raymond Massey, but the Boris Karloff joke remains, with Karloff's blessing. The film was shot in 1941 with the stipulation that it couldn't be released until the play closed. The play ran for three years, much to the consternation of Warner Brothers. Karloff backed the right horse.*

Saturday, November 25, 2023

A Remarkable Collection of Dopes

It's a shame that they're killers, because cigarettes used to be the most valuable prop in movies. There are whole films from the 1940s and 1950s--the heart of the cigarette century--that consist of people aggressively smoking at each other. Film noir was rife with such films. It's a miracle anyone can see the players in Laura (1944, directed by Otto Preminger) through the haze of cigarette smoke. I'm exaggerating, I suppose, but only a little. The last time I wrote about Laura, I was taken in with its doomed romanticism and with its old Hollywood elegance. This time through, I was struck by the hard-boiled wit and the queerness of it all. It's a film that repays repeat viewings, because it's one of those films that changes with the viewer.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Ants in the Pants

"I got ants in my pants and I need to dance!" -- James Brown

It's been a while since I've seen Them! (1954, directed by Gordon Douglas). I didn't remember how hard it goes when generating its scares. I maybe never knew that it was intended to be framed in a moderate widescreen. I don't ever remember seeing the red and blue title card. The last time I saw the film was in the 1990s, maybe? I don't honestly recall. There's a lot of water under the bridge. The two things I did remember about the film are the sound of the giant ants and the blank expression on the little girl at the beginning of the film. That blank expression is terrifying.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

You Reap What You Sow

Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping? Use them after your own honour and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.
--William Shakespeare, Hamlet

The word "pagan" derives from the latin word, "paganus/pagani," which means, literally, "peasant." Its original usage also connoted "bumpkin" or "hick," though significantly not "farmer" ("agricola"). At its most benign, it meant countryman or civilian. Its modern usage reminds us that Christianity was originally an urban religion. Wander out into the sticks if you're a good Christian, and you'll run into a bunch of bumpkins who still practice the old religions. That's the root of folk horror right there. When you combine this with an America that still occasionally dreams of itself as an agrarian society, you can see how paganism and Americana get inextricably woven together. The people out in the country may think of themselves as god-fearing Christians, but the old ways still linger. Particularly around Halloween. In Dark Harvest (2023, directed by David Slade), a Halloween-y movie if ever there was one, this gets a treatment that's equal parts nostalgia and deconstruction. Like the inhabitants of Summerisle in The Wicker Man, the farmers make a sacrifice to their crop, but they stage it as an all American tradition, like football and fast cars. It's a film that inhabits an archetype, one that would be familiar to Stephen King or Shirley Jackson or (pointedly) Ray Bradbury. It's part "Children of the Corn", part "The Lottery," part Dark Carnival. Certainly, novelist Norman Partridge knew the signposts on the back country roads he was traveling when he wrote the novel on which this is based. And so does Director David Slade.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Flesh of My Flesh

My first impression of Suitable Flesh (2023, directed by Joe Lynch) during its first act was that it didn't feel like a horror movie at all. It felt like one of those direct to video "erotic thrillers" of the late 1980s/early 1990s. Do you know the ones? They often starred former centerfold Shannon Tweed (who in her defense was a pretty good actress in a limited range) or Andrew Stevens. Suitable Flesh has the same shot on video look to it and the same baffling erotic impulses. I mean, sure. The film starts with an autopsy about to begin, and a psychiatrist visiting her friend and colleague after that colleague has been locked in a padded cell. And this all happens at "Miskatonic Medical School." But once that mental patient begins her story, you can queue up the candles for a night of soft-core. Or maybe not. Because this film doesn't get very naked, even if it does include oral pleasures. And once the film gets to the horror parts of the program, it goes at it full bore. It goes so over the top that I found myself giggling at two of its more outre` set-pieces. The second impression I had in its early going was that this was a film with a serious case of gender. The source material is Lovecraft's "The Thing on the Doorstep" which has as protagonists Lovecraft's usual neurasthenic male academics. This film gender swaps the leads and then mixes the novelty of female sexuality into the story's body-hopping shenanigans. Old Howard would run screaming from this, I'm sure.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Bats in the Belfry

Lionel Atwill staring down a frightened Fay Wray in The Vampire Bat (1933)

The Vampire Bat (1933, directed by Frank R. Strayer) is filmmaking opportunism at its finest. Its studio, Majestic Pictures, had a reputation for turning out higher quality product than its poverty row brethren, in part because the studio had a habit of renting out the facilities of bigger studios when those facilities were idle. That's what happened here. The producers filmed great whacks of the film on the sets Universal built for Frankenstein and The Old Dark House, and borrowed a number of character actors from Universal to give it the appearance of being a new Universal production. Lionel Belmore, who played the Burgomaster in Frankenstein, plays the Bürgermeister here as if this film was set in the same universe. Dwight Frye appears here, too, and you could be forgiven for mistaking him for Renfield's imbecile cousin. It's practically the same performance. The real impetus for this film was making use of the two stars of Warner Brothers' Doctor X and The Mystery of the Wax Museum. Doctor X had been a substantial hit, and The Mystery of the Wax Museum had every indication of surpassing it. But the latter film's production took longer than expected and both Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill were idle at the time. Wray already had experience with waiting out complicated productions, having already starred in The Most Dangerous Game while the special effects for King Kong were being completed, using Kong's sets and technicians. In stepped Majestic, with a production ready to go for the two actors. Melvyn Douglas, fresh off James Whale's The Old Dark House, completed the cast. The film beat The Mystery of the Wax Museum into theaters by a little over a month, letting Warners' publicity department do the heavy lifting. Given the improvisational nature of its production, it's a miracle that the film is watchable at all. Seriously, there's no reason at all for this to have turned out to be a good movie. It's a rip off at its core. And yet...this is surprisingly entertaining. Personally, I think the secret ingredient is Melvyn Douglas. He was a talent much too large to stay confined in the horror movie. Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill (and to a lesser extent Dwight Frye) are talents too big for poverty row, too, though perhaps not too big for horror films. Fay Wray made five of them in quick succession in 1932, and they are the films for which she is best remembered. This is a film where the cast provides the alchemy that makes the movie work, which is a good thing because the script has serious deficiencies. To quote The Bard, it's a tale told by an idiot...

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Scare-a-Thon 2023: We Have Always Lived In the Castle

Here's another edition of my friend, Aaron's, Scare-a-thon. I'm on the panel here. It's for a good cause.

There are a couple of these on the horizon, so stay tuned.

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Friday, October 13, 2023

A Murderer's Dozen

"Stiff." That's the word for most films from the dawn of talkies. "Stilted" is a good one, too. The Thirteenth Chair (1929, directed by Tod Browning) fits both descriptions. It's a bit of an evolutionary missing link, given that it was filmed in both a silent and sound version while Hollywood was still in the process of learning how to make talkies. Many theaters at the time were still unable to even show them. The silent version is lost, alas, and I can't help but think that it's a much better film. The silents of the late 1920s were some of the glories of cinema, attaining heights of artistry it took sound pictures almost a decade to equal. This assumes you believe they ever did. I'm dubious of that very last point. This particular film is notable for two reasons. First, the lead role was offered to Lon Chaney. Had he accepted it, it would have been his last collaboration with Browning, and their only talkie before Chaney died of cancer. Chaney did not accept the part. Second, it teams Browning with Bela Lugosi for the first time and prefigures Lugosi's screen image in the films that followed Dracula. Browning ultimately made three films with Lugosi. Beyond the trivia, The Thirteenth Chair is a slog for a contemporary audience, but it's not without interest.

Sunday, October 08, 2023

The Blood is the Life

Tod Browning's Dracula (1931) is a pivotal movie in the history of horror movies. It is the first major horror film of the sound era. Without its success, the explosion of horror movies during the pre-Code era possibly doesn't happen, or, maybe, happens on a smaller scale or just differently. The movie studios of the day, big and small, were increasingly desperate for hits in 1931 as the Great Depression deepened and paying audiences evaporated. Anything that drew a crowd was all right by the heads of the studios. What drew crowds in those days was sin, salaciousness, violence, licentiousness, and sensation. Horror movies could provide all of that. The genre itself is built on transgression, after all. Moreover, the elements of what came to be defined as the Universal horror movie were already in place. Universal made big money on horror movies during the silent era. Two of Lon Chaney's biggest hits--The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1926)--were made at Universal, as was the John Barrymore version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920). Universal was also the landing spot for Paul Leni, the German director who had huge success for Universal with The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Man Who Laughs (1928). So Universal, at least, was already in the horror movie business before Dracula.

Carl Laemmle, Sr., the company's founder, did not want to make Dracula. He thought it was essentially demonic, unlike the studio's previous horror films, which he viewed as essentially humanist. Carl Laemmle, Jr., however was keen on the property and only convinced his father to buy the rights to the play because MGM was ready to step in if Universal passed on it. It is likely that an MGM production would not have been very different from what Universal eventually made. Tod Browning was under contract to MGM, after all. Universal had to borrow him for their film. Browning for his part wanted Dracula long before Universal took an interest. He had already discussed the possibility with Lon Chaney. Chaney had already worked up a make-up look for The Count. He wanted it as much as Browning. Other filmmakers at Universal wanted Dracula, too. Paul Leni was keen to make Dracula with HIS frequent collaborator, Conrad Veidt, in the role. In some alternate universe, such a picture is one of the masterpieces of the genre. Veidt might even have made the film had he not gone back to Europe at the time, afraid that his thick accent would be a hindrance to his American movie career. If he only knew... Two things conspired to shape the film that was ultimately made: Leni died of blood poisoning in September of 1929. Chaney died of lung cancer in August of 1930. Without Chaney, MGM lost interest in the property. Browning, without a star for the project, decided to cast the relatively unknown Hungarian actor, Bela Lugosi, in the part. He had worked with Lugosi once before in The Thirteenth Chair (1929). Lugosi had drawn crowds to the theatrical version by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston on the stage and had a much publicized dalliance with Clara Bow, so he wasn't obscure, exactly. Just obscure in movies. The match was made and Dracula went into production on September 30, 1930.

Thursday, October 05, 2023

Scare-a-Thon with DR. AC: Crimes of the Future

Here's another roundtable discussion with my friend and former erstwhile editor, Dr. AC about one of my favorite filmmakers. I need to turn up the volume on my microphone next time. Anyway, I'm the smurfette here...

I've got a couple of these coming this month, so enjoy.

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Wednesday, October 04, 2023

X Marks the Spot

Lionel Atwill as Doctor X at the controls of his weird science device, which has many green glass tubes arrayed around him.

According to one of my old spiral-bound movie notebooks, I saw Doctor X (1932, directed by Michael Curtiz) some time during my time as a video store owner back in the day. I still have the database from that fiasco, and sure enough, Doctor X was in our inventory. I don't remember seeing it, though. My suspicion is that the version we had on VHS was a seriously deficient edition, probably the black and white version of the film, though it's possible we had a washed out version in technicolor. The timing was right. It's a miracle that the technicolor version exists at all, given that it was thought to be a lost film after Warner Brothers discarded all their two strip technicolor materials in 1948. A print was found in Jack Warner's collection of private film holdings after his death in 1978, however, which found its way into distribution over the next decade or so. It underwent an extensive restoration in 2020.

All of the major Hollywood studios were getting into the horror movie business in 1932 after seeing box office returns for Dracula and Frankenstein a year before. All of the major studios except MGM--and all of the minor ones too--were in dire financial straits in 1932. It was the worst year of the Great Depression. Everyone was desperate enough to try anything to stay afloat. Movie studios were not exempt. They were even willing to try horror movies. Warners handed the keys to Michael Curtiz for a pair of technicolor horror films--the other one was The Mystery of the Wax Museum the following year. Both are distinct from the films made by Universal or Paramount (we'll get into that as the month goes on). They feel like Warner Brothers movies, in spite of the horror elements. Doctor X in particular is more overtly a characteristic pre-Code film than most of the films Universal was making, particularly in regards to the strata of society it was willing to depict. The ostensible hero--or at least the audience surrogate--is a hard boiled reporter who hangs out in whore houses. This is not in the subtext. It's right there on screen. Warners always strove for street cred, for want of a better phrase. They were the studio of the common man, the everyday Joe, The New Deal, and that runs through their horror movies and makes them distinct. That they were willing to lavish two strip technicolor--a process that was not at all common--on horror movies WAS out of character, but it was a gamble that paid off handsomely. Both films were successes for a studio that desperately needed them.

Tuesday, October 03, 2023

Behind Castle Walls

Taissa Farmiga as Merricat in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, standing in an arched door

My partner and I were speculating in the course of a long drive last week about favorite authors we would like to have met. We've met a fair few of them, but she would like to have met Toni Morrison and I would like to have met Robert Bloch. I don't know what that says about us. An author I decided I would prefer not to have met is Shirley Jackson. On the evidence of her work and the general outline of her biography, I don't think I would have liked her. The dominant theme of her work is a neurotic paranoia that in her own life was apparently completely justified by the dynamics of her marriage. I watched the recent biopic starring Elisabeth Moss as Jackson and found myself nodding along even when I knew that they were fudging the details (they fudged the details a LOT). Jackson has been enjoying a bit of a renaissance lately, what with the Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House and renewed interest in her last completed novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which serves as an ur-text for Park Chan-wook's Gothic potboiler, Stoker, and which was made into a film in 2018 by director Stacie Passon based on the book itself. Passon's film does an admirable job of meeting Jackson on her own terms, neurotic paranoia and all.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Keep Watching the Sky!

I was eight years old the first time I saw The Thing from Another World (1951, directed by Christian Nyby). It played in the middle of a Saturday afternoon block of science fiction films on an independent TV station out of Denver. If memory serves (unreliable at this distance in my life), it was sandwiched between The Neanderthal Man and Tarantula. For all of Tarantula's virtues, The Thing was very much the cream of this crop. I knew its quality even then, and it's a film that rewards an adult viewer maybe even more than a monster kid. When I was talking about the film last year with a friend, we both were struck by the idea that all of the characters seemed to have a purpose in the film with their own motivations and inner lives. I went further by suggesting that, unlike the characters in many science fiction films, the characters in The Thing seem particularly adult to me. I take that to be the influence of Howard Hawks and Charles Lederer (and the unbilled Ben Hecht). This is a grim world of men--aviators and scientists--tasked with doing a job. Like Hawks's own films as a director, it's a film that builds communities in its shot compositions and compresses the dialogue in overlapping salvos that make its characters seem world weary and sly at the same time. The other thing that eight year old me noticed was that the monster wasn't so great. It seemed then and seems now to be a Frankenstein rip-off and not a particularly good one. It doesn't help that that's not the monster one finds in the film's source text, nor the one in the film's various remakes. That's why its star has dimmed over the years. Possibly, that's why it has been all but eclipsed by the 1982 remake. In common with the 1982 film, though, it is a portrait of its time etched in microcosm.

Friday, September 01, 2023

The Grant Mystique: Operation Petticoat (1959)

Operation Petticoat (1959)

If you were to name Cary Grant's most influential movies, you might name films like North by Northwest, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, or The Philadelphia Story, which are all bona fide Hollywood classics. You might not get around to Operation Petticoat (1959, directed by Blake Edwards), and you would be wrong to omit it. In its way, it is among the most influential of all of Grant's films, and not just because it was Grant's biggest box-office hit (spoiler: it was). My own relationship with the film might be instructive. I originally saw the film when I was a kid. I saw it on television with my dad on a Saturday afternoon. It was very much a "dad" kind of movie: a comedy about the experiences of a military unit in the war. This was familiar territory because service comedies were a staple of the television of my youth. Hogan's Heroes, McHale's Navy, Gomer Pyle, F-Troop, M*A*S*H, all of these were everywhere back then, playing endlessly in the vampiric half-life of syndication. All of them trace a lineage to Operation Petticoat, either directly or in passing. Because, as I've said, Operation Petticoat was an absolutely gigantic hit. Hollywood follows the money. The downside of its influence is that Operation Petticoat sometimes feels like a TV sitcom. Many of its supporting actors--particularly Dick Sargent and Gavin McLeod--went on to long television careers. The film begat a TV spinoff in 1977 unto itself, which I may have seen before I saw the film proper (this happened with M*A*S*H, too). Its director, Blake Edwards, was at that time primarily known as a television writer and director, whose work on Peter Gunn was contemporary with Operation Petticoat. Operation Petticoat would launch him into the big time, and his films over the next decade would include the Pink Panther movies, Breakfast at Tiffanys, Days of Wine and Roses, and Experiment in Terror, among others. For all that, the presence of Cary Grant and, to a lesser extent, Tony Curtis removes the film from being merely an elaborate TV sitcom. The film persona of Cary Grant guarantees this. Grant was well rewarded for his service here, too. The film netted him three million 1959 dollars, which is about thirty-one million in 2023 dollars. It's not for nothing that Grant was among the wealthiest movie stars who ever lived.

The film itself? It has its pleasures.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Strange Cargo

The Last Voyage of the Demeter

I commented on social media last week that I thought you could stage The Last Voyage of the Demeter (2023, directed by André Øvredal) as a play. Find a production of The Pirates of Penzance that's closing and mooch on their sets and you're all ready to go. One of my friends asked if I would make it a musical. I absolutely would. It would be the off-off-Broadway hit of the season. Buy your tickets now.

The story of the Demeter is from Dracula, of course. It occupies chapter seven of Stoker's novel, represented as news clippings pasted into Mina Murray's journal and as the logbook of the ship as reported in those clippings. The Demeter is usually seen at the end of its journey in movies. In the Tod Browning film, the sole survivor is Renfield (he is not on the ship in the book), with Dwight Frye's mad grin staring up at the investigators when the Demeter drifts into harbor. In Murnau's film version, there's an abbreviated version of the voyage. The first still from Nosferatu I ever saw was of Max Schreck standing on the deck of the Demeter. This was years before I ever saw the film. The most indelible version of the Demeter I ever saw was in John Badham's 1979 version of Dracula in which Harker joins the rescuers for the wrecked ship only to discover a man lashed to the wheel with his throat ripped open. A version of this image appears in Jon J. Muth's graphic novel, Dracula, A Symphony In Moonlight and Nightmares. The final voyage of the Demeter from Varna, Bulgaria, to Whitby, United Kingdom is such a vivid part of the Dracula story that it's shocking that no-one has made a film of its voyage until now. It's been, what? A hundred and twenty-six years at this point?

Nosferatu (1922)
Dracula (1931)
Captain of the Demeter in Dracula (1979)
Dracula: A Symphony in Moonlight and Shadows by Jon J. Muth

A lot of the imagery from previous versions makes it into this new film, but most of that imagery was already there in Stoker's book. It's a rich novel for interpolations.

Sunday, August 06, 2023

Hand in Hand

There's a deep mythological undercurrent in Talk to Me (2022, directed by Danny Philippou and Michael Philippou). When I described the film to my partner, she immediately suggested that the film's Maguffin is a hand of glory, a magical artifact made from the left hand of a hanged man which has powerful magic abilities. You may remember the hand of glory's appearance in The Wicker Man, among other places. The thought that it was a hand of glory occurred to me, too, while I was watching the movie. The severed hand in Talk to Me isn't exactly that, but bears a strong enough resemblance nonetheless, even down to the related use of a candle to invoke its power. It reminds me a little of the monkey's paw in the W. W. Jacob's story of the same name, as well, which itself seems descended from the hand of glory and its other mythological relatives. In Talk to Me, the severed hand of a medium is preserved inside a ceramic shell. It enables someone holding the hand, as if shaking it, to see and talk to the dead. If the holder invites the ghost, the ghost can possess them. Like the hand in "The Monkey's Paw," the hand in this film promises answers and wishes. Sort of. In the film, it's the center of teenage shenanigans so it all ends badly, as it must. These kids could have prevented a lot of heartache if they had all watched The Ring or Witchboard or some other tale of teens dabbling in the supernatural. But then you wouldn't have a movie.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

A Sympathy of Choices

Mission: Impossible--Dead Reckoning Part 1

“If there were a sympathy in choice,
War, death, or sickness, did lay siege to it,
Making it momentary as a sound,
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,
Brief as the lightning in the collied night
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth,
And ere a man hath power to say 'Behold!'
The jaws of darkness do devour it up;
So quick bright things come to confusion.”
--William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act I, Scene I

The espionage thriller has been flirting with science fiction for decades now. The first James Bond film, Dr. No, set the precedent, and the Harry Palmer films, the Flint films, and the Jason Bourne films have all followed its lead. The Marvel films are built in equal measure on the espionage thriller and on science fiction, with their very own super spy organization as a through-line lacing the entire franchise together. Get Smart had a character who was an android. It's in the DNA of the form now in spite of the best efforts of John le Carré and Graham Greene to ground the genre in reality. The Mission: Impossible television series and films are science fiction-y most of the time, with their cyberpunk stylings, but this year's Mission: Impossible-Dead Reckoning Part 1 (2023, directed by Christopher McQuarrie) crosses the border into broad sci fi with nary a backward glance. Like a good science fiction story, it starts with a what if: "What if a self-aware artificial intelligence infiltrated every corner of the internet? What if truth and reality became suspect, at the whims of that intelligence? What if the world's powers raced to gain sole control of that intelligence, and by extension, the world? And what if that intelligence had plans of its own?" Given the socio-political moment into which the film was released, an aware viewer can be excused for wondering if this question is even science fictional. She should ask, rather, are we living in a science fiction reality? (Note: we absolutely are). This is another film about The Singularity, a subject matter that is moving more and more out of science fiction and into the broader discourse about, well, everything. At this writing, the artists who create movies are on strike specifically to thwart the movie industry from replacing them with machines. There's a meme on social media noting that a future in which AIs compose poetry and art while human beings perform subsistence menial labor is NOT the future anyone imagined. More ominously, there is debate in technology schools like Cal Tech and MIT about the ethics of developing autonomous AI for use in drone weapons for the military. Every job in the world that doesn't require a pair of hands is under threat right now. If this sounds like a scenario that leads to Skynet, don't think the makers of Mission: Impossible haven't noticed this too. Dead Reckoning is absolutely descended from Colossus: The Forbin Project and The Terminator.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

The Grant Mystique: Charade (1963)

Cary Grant made three films with director Stanley Donen between 1958 and 1963. Those three films arguably define the sunset of his acting career. The last of the three, Charade (1963), is Grant's last legitimately great film. He made two more films afterward and then retired from acting in 1966. Charade is also a transitional film for American cinema generally, perched as it is between the last gasps of big studio filmmaking in the 1950s and the first rumblings of the American New Wave. Stanley Donen was the ideal director for such a film, given that his filmmaking style already resembled various New Waves before any of them even began to swell on the cinematic horizon. Donen was flexible and creative, able to slot right into whatever genre to which he was assigned (maybe not science fiction, but that may not have been his fault). Even though Donen was primarily known for making musicals in the 1950s including arguably the greatest musical ever made, Charade demonstrates a surprising--and surprisingly brutal--facility for thrillers in the mode of Alfred Hitchcock. Charade is sometimes described as the best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made, though that might be hyperbole.

Donen was also one of Audrey Hepburn's principal directors, having made Funny Face with her in 1957 and with Two For the Road--a New Wave film if ever there was one--ahead in 1967. The pairing of Hepburn and Cary Grant perhaps delayed Grant's retirement. Of his experience on Charade, he said, "All I want for Christmas is to make another movie with Audrey Hepburn." Alas, that never came to pass. He was lured into making Father Goose with the promise of Hepburn as a co-star, though the part ultimately went to Leslie Caron. Maybe that's just as well. Donen intended to make a further film with Grant, too, but the actor retired and the part in Arabesque went to Gregory Peck instead. For what it's worth, that's a pretty good movie, but I don't think Grant and Sophia Loren would have gotten along well. They had a history. And Grant was probably too old by then for that kind of globetrotting adventure anyway.

Saturday, July 08, 2023

The Quatermass Legacy

I sat in on this vodcast (is that even a word?) celebrating the 70th anniversary of the original broadcast of The Quatermass Experiment. Please pardon my nervous energy. I have a fear of speaking in public.

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Tuesday, July 04, 2023

Victory Through Air Power

Air Force (1943)

Air Force (1943, directed by Howard Hawks) is absolutely propaganda. Let's make that crystal clear at the outset. Almost all war films made during the Second World War were propaganda and there was no space for anti-war sentiment in the cinema of the day. Nor was there room for criticism or pacifism in the era's politics more generally. Many such propaganda films are a drag, reducing characters into symbols without any interior life and choking on their own patriotism. This one is not like that, or not much like that, which makes it effective. It's a gripping adventure film from beginning to end, even in spite of the fact that it starts with a quote from the Gettysburg Address and ends with a speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In between, though, is a pure Howard Hawks action film about his favorite types of people: Flyers. Men banded together to do a job. Professionals.

Monday, June 26, 2023

The Prodigal Daughter

Monica (2022)

One of the first questions I asked myself about Monica (2022, directed by Andrea Pallaoro) as the projectionist closed the curtains on the screen to a narrower tableau than is usual for the contemporary cinema was, "why is this in the Academy ratio?"* The flippant answer I gave myself is that transgender people don't get widescreen epics. Upon reflection, that's not far off. The frame of the film constrains its central character as much as her circumstances. It creates a claustrophobic space for her to exist in with no obvious room to transcend that space. The second question I asked myself, mid-film, was "why is this character a sex worker?" I know the answer to that, too, but it would be a huge relief to see a film about a trans woman who wasn't a sex worker. No shade toward sex workers, or trans women who are sex workers, but I think I can name three films this century where a trans woman character wasn't a sex worker when her occupation was known to the audience. Maybe. The third question, and it's one I asked about the similar A Fantastic Woman a few years ago, was, "is there no possibility for joy for this character?" Monica veers perilously close to trans misery porn. But then its B-plot is about a woman dying of brain cancer, so these things are relative.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

The Grant Mystique: To Catch A Thief (1955)

To Catch a Thief (1955)

Of the films Cary Grant made with Alfred Hitchcock, To Catch A Thief (1955) is the one that has been dismissed most often by the director's admirers and detractors as a lightweight "entertainment." A bauble, if you will. Candy. Empty calories. It is certainly a film conceived of and drenched in the glamour of classic Hollywood. It pairs the biggest star in the world opposite one of the most unattainable beauties of its era. It sets its action against a backdrop of wealth and intrigue on the French Riviera and Monaco. It hobnobs with the idle rich. It's a caper film about an international jewel thief. It's pop filmmaking at its most trivial. It's a fantasy. And sure: It lacks the sinister undertones of Suspicion, the complex psychological depth of Notorious, and the stakes and forward motion of North by Northwest. But to look only at its surface gloss is a mistake. Smuggled under the candy coating is a story about hollow men in a Europe still recovering from the calamity of the great wars, in which bad men never escape their pasts and visit their sins on the next generations. It's a significantly darker film than its reputation would have you believe. It's also a portrait of Hollywood films in transition from the studio era--whose days on the stage were numbered--into a conversation with the rest of the world. This was partially filmed in Europe, perhaps with a propagandist intent. Like many American films of its era, it's a weapon in the Cold War, when Hollywood movies that wallowed in a gaudy affluence were a bulwark against the gray economic heat death of Soviet communism. All weapons should be so brazenly sexual.

Wednesday, June 07, 2023

Art School Blues

Kelly Reichardt's new film, Showing Up (2022), strikes me as a film with a verrrrry specific audience, and unless you're either a fan of Reichardt's brand of minimalism or a member of the specific audience I have in mind, a potential viewer might have a hard time with it. I'm part of that very specific audience, having been through art school and having worked on and off in the arts throughout my adult life. As a result, there's a bracing shock of recognition in this film. It captures something ineffable about trying to make art in the wreckage of late capitalism and in a world that no longer values art and artists as it once did. I've never seen a film about art before that captures just how utterly tired artists are. It's no wonder that so many artists turn into cranks as they age.