Monday, October 5, 2015

Film Review: The Phantom of the Opera

"The Phantom of the Opera"  *** (out of ****)

Younger movie fans may think "The Phantom of the Opera" is an Andrew Lloyd Weber stage musical which was turned into a movie in 2004  and starred Gerald Butler and Emmy Rossum. While that is true, older movie fans may recall this motion picture starring Lon Chaney more quickly.

"The Phantom of the Opera" (1925) was based on a novel by Gaston Leroux and is the oldest known surviving film adaptation of Leroux's work. There was believed to have been an adaption made in 1916 that is now considered lost.

Though often considered a "horror" movie I've never felt that description was accurate hence why I have been reluctant to review it in the month of October when I review horror movies. But, the public regards the character, The Phantom, as a horror figure, so, who am I to disagree? To me though, "The Phantom of the Opera" is a macabre romantic / comedy / mystery story, if such a thing exist. And, if it doesn't, that should give you a sense of the direction of the movie. It is all over the place.

While today is the movie is considered a "classic" during its time of release Universal Pictures was not happy with the original final product and there were said to have been three different versions of the movie as during test screenings audiences reacted negatively towards the movie. The original version was directed by Rupert Julian. His version was thought to have been too macabre for audiences. Universal then hired Edward Sedgwick to direct new scenes. Sedgwick was a comedy director who had worked with Buster Keaton and Joe E. Brown. He naturally added more comedy to the story. Finally Universal got its hands on the movie and edited it down to the product we now have. This is what makes the movie lack a consistent tone.

Prior to starring in this movie Lon Chaney had acted in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) as Quasimodo. It is a movie and a character I was constantly thinking of as I watched Chaney in this movie. Both men are disfigured freaks shun by society. Both men have encounters with a beautiful woman. Both men kidnap the beautiful woman. And both men face an unkind fate. For me, "The Phantom of the Opera" is nothing more than another "Hunchback of Notre Dame", which was written by Victor Hugo well before Leroux wrote his novel.

It would seem only Chaney could have played both of these characters. Chaney had secured a reputation in Hollywood for playing lonely, tortured souls. He was also known to be a wizard with make-up, transforming himself into these hideous creatures. If they gave out Academy Awards in those days for best make-up, he would have been a lock.

"The Phantom of the Opera" largely takes place at the Paris Opera House where we hear rumors from performers and stage hands of a Phantom lurking around scaring everyone in sight with its ghastly appearance. The Phantom though may be the person behind demands that Christine Daae (Mary Philbin) play the lead role in each opera by writing threatening letters to the current leading lady of the troupe, Carlotta (Mary Fabian).

Christine has never seen The Phantom, but, he communicates to her while she is in her dressing room, as he stands behind walls. He tells her she must give up all worldly pleasures and focus on her art. The Phantom wants all of Paris to take pleasure in her voice as he does. But The Phantom is not doing all of this purely for his appreciate of opera. He is also in love with Christine. Christine, while not in love with The Phantom, is infatuated by the idea of him and tells The Phantom she eagerly awaits the day they can meet face to face.

This is not welcome news to Raoul (Norman Kerry) who is in love with Christine and she says she is in love with him. However, she is willing to accept the demands of The Phantom and tells Raoul they can no longer see each other. The Phantom's ultimate goal is to separate the two so he may have Christine all to himself, but, can Christine ever love The Phantom? Can anyone ever love a man that looks like The Phantom?

The first thirty minutes of "The Phantom of the Opera" is meant to build suspense and create anxiety. Who is The Phantom? What does he look like? It is an approach we would see many movies made afterwards follow. The best example may be Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" (1975). You don't scare the audiences right out of the gate with the monster. You slowly build suspense. You create a buzz. You have characters describe what The Phantom looks like. And of course those descriptions will be exaggerated, which only heightens our anticipation. It is one of the few things about "The Phantom of the Opera" viewers may admire.

What is missing from "The Phantom of the Opera" though is a background story. The viewer only sees what The Phantom has become not how he became The Phantom. That would be an interesting story to tell and perhaps invest more involvement from the audiences' perspective. It could even make viewers sympathize with the character to a degree and add more drama or make us fear him more because we can understand his desire for revenge on a society which he feels hates him. Having never read the novel, it is said The Phantom was born disfigured. That's fine but that only explains his looks not his mind and furthermore the origins of his looks is never stated explicitly in this movie. There is no clearly defined motive for the character as it stands now to fully explain his actions.

There is also not enough of the Carlotta character in the movie. How does she feel about getting these threatening letters? Is she scared or does she feel it is all a hoax? If she believes it is a hoax does she believe Christine is up to it? Does this create friction between the two women? If she is scared this creates many opportunities for scary scenes between The Phantom and her.

At the end of the day though "The Phantom of the Opera" becomes another story dealing with the theme of a woman as man's downfall. You usually equate these kind of stories with film noir of the 1940s and femme fatales but its origins go back further to biblical times with the story of Adam & Eve, when woman tempted man to eat forbidden fruit. You will also see this theme in "King Kong" (1933) and "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" (1954).

However Christine is not completely innocent herself and the movie treats her too lightly by not judging her actions. She was perfectly happy with the attention she received thanks to The Phantom. She was perfectly willing to meet The Phantom's demands and not see Raoul again. It is only when the identity of The Phantom is revealed (in one of the most memorable moments in all of silent horror films) that Christine is now repelled because The Phantom is not the handsome figure she had created in her mind. That tells us something about society and our obsession with beauty. Don't trust ugly people. They are dangerous. If The Phantom was handsome I believe we would have a totally different movie on our hands.

"The Phantom of the Opera" is worth seeing despite whatever I may have written this is viewed as negative about the the movie if only for Lon Chaney's performance. This has become one of his signature roles and younger movie fans, that have never seen him in a movie, should be exposed to his acting. There are moments when Chaney and the movie do present The Phantom as a menacing figure and those are the moments which work best. There is a terrific sequence on a roof top that has a Gothic feel to it and we see The Phantom as a real threat.

If "The Phantom of the Opera" was to be the story of unrequited love, jealousy, betrayal and chandeliers falling on top of people, it does a marginal job of telling that story. It is not really a horror film either. I have a hard time believing even by 1925 standards the movie was considered scary. Still you can see how the movie could have been these things. The seeds are there unfortunately there were just too many chefs in the kitchen working on this movie all with a different contrasting vision which would make it too difficult to bring together into one story.

By the end of the movie the only way one can describe what has happened is by stealing a famous ending line from another movie. "It was beauty killed the beast".

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Film Review: Mummy's Boys

"Mummy's Boys"  ** (out of ****)

Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey cry for their mummy in the RKO comedy / horror movie "Mummy's Boys" (1936).

Movie fans are not always kind to the comedy team of Wheeler & Woolsey. Many consider their comedy dated and corny. They simply feel Wheeler & Woolsey don't "bring the funny". The movies in which they appeared in together are not "timeless" the way Laurel & Hardy or Marx Brothers comedies are. Those movies seem to be able to continue to attract younger generation of fans. Also, a lot of people have not heard of Wheeler & Woolsey. Time has not been their friend. Once they were a hugely popular team in the 1930s and today they are almost completely forgotten. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies (TCM) they stand a chance of being re-discovered, as the channel occasionally airs their comedies.

Unfortunately "Mummy's Boys" is not going to be the best example of Wheeler & Woolsey at the top of their game. Watching "Mummy's Boys" will lead you to believe the comedy team should be forgotten. There is no reason the masses should suffer and be forced to watch this.

"Mummy's Boys" fails on two levels. First it fails as a Wheeler & Woolsey comedy. Secondly it fails as a comedy / horror movie. Wheeler & Woolsey comedies often have music in them. Bert Wheeler fashioned himself as something of a singer and was the "romantic lead" of the team. He was usually paired with Dorothy Lee (whom sadly does not appear in this movie) and they would often do a duet together. Robert Woolsey was the "leader" of the team. He was the "big idea" man who often came up with get rich quick schemes for the team. A lot of his jokes were one-liners, in the tradition of Bob Hope or Groucho Marx, and were risque for the times. Dialogue in a Wheeler & Woolsey comedy was peppered with sexual innuendos.

There is no singing and dancing in "Mummy's Boys". There shouldn't have been anyway. There is no time for a romantic sub-plot either. There shouldn't have been one to begin with. But, on the other hand, that's what made a Wheeler & Woolsey comedy. But, this is a comedy / horror movie. A comedy / horror movie needs to be able to blend the two styles. You need to find the right balance of comedy and scary scenes. You need to almost think of it as two movies in one. Take your comedy scenes serious and create a realistic horror plot.

It may not sound easy. Some may think it is impossible. But it has been done. The best examples include "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948), the Ritz Brothers in "The Gorilla" (1939) and a pair of Bob Hope comedies; "Ghost Breakers" (1940) and "The Cat & the Canary" (1939). Those movies had funny sequences but they also created an eerie atmosphere. They put the comedian in typical horror scenarios and then poked fun at the genre. "Mummy's Boys" forgets to do that. It creates a nice set-up but doesn't fully capitalize on the situation it has created.

Wheeler & Woolsey star as Aloysius C. Whittaker (Woolsey) and Stanley Wright (Wheeler). They are a couple of ditch diggers who answer a newspaper ad by an archaeologist, preparing to go on an expedition to Egypt, who acquires assistance.

What Aloysius and Stanley don't know is the archaeologist, Phillip Browning (Frank M. Thomas), was one of 13 men that traveled to Egypt a year prior and discovered the tomb of King Pharatime. Each man brought back treasures with him and now Phillip feels a curse has been placed on him as 10 of the men that traveled with him have died. Phillip now plans to go back to the tomb and return what he took. He only hopes he will live long enough to make it to Egypt.

Going along with Phillip is his daughter, Mary (Barbara Pepper) who is supposed to serve as the romantic interest for Stanley. The two take a liking to each other and some scenes are created to allow them to flirt with one another. There is also a stowaway, Catfish (Willie Best, a popular black comedian of the time) who agrees to accompany the group. He is as big a coward as Aloysius and Stanley and was supposed to provide more humor.

The banter between Aloysius and Catfish may borderline as racist to younger, liberal audiences. One joke for example, has everyone about to enter a dark cave. Aloysius, afraid, asks Catfish to go first, but he is also afraid there may be ghosts, to which Aloysius replies, even if there are ghosts they won't be able to see Catfish in the dark. To me it is not racist. Poor taste? Maybe. But not racist. Those are the kind of jokes though you will hear in this movie.

"Mummy's Boys" reminds me of "So This Is Africa" (1933) starring the comedy team. Both movies take the team out of the country and has them clash with different cultures, which is where the humor stems from. But, "Mummy's Boys" takes too long to get the team inside the tomb. The movie doesn't do enough to scare us. We don't feel anyone's life is in danger. Aloysius and Stanley aren't put in enough compromising situations. The movie isn't having enough fun with the horror genre.

This was the third to last movie Wheeler and Woolsey starred in together. Woolsey died in 1937 of kidney failure. After 1934 with the movie "Hips, Hips, Hooray!" the quality of their movies started to decline. Much of this was due to the declining health of Woolsey which prevented him from performing with the same high energy he normally would.

The director of the movie, Fred Guiol, directed two other movies starring the team; "The Rainmakers" (1935) and "Silly Billies" (1936). Neither one of them is any good, showing you what the team was capable of when performing at their best. The fault may not have been Guiol, who also directed a few Laurel & Hardy silent comedies, but perhaps the writers, who were trying to capitalize on the stories of a decade earlier and the discovery of King Tut and the "curse of the pharaohs".

If "Mummy's Boys" does anything it shows you how difficult comedy / horror can be. "Mummy's Boys" is not the worst Wheeler & Woolsey comedy out there but it is far from their best. This movie belongs in a class with "Zombies On Broadway" (1945) and "Ghost Catchers" (1944), which is not the kind of company you want to keep. If you are looking for a good comedy / horror movie watch "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" or "The Cat & the Canary" instead.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Film Review: The Cat and the Canary

"The Cat and the Canary"  **** (out of ****)

The guests are the canaries and the scary old mansion is the cat, which hunts down its prey in the silent horror classic, "The Cat and the Canary" (1927).

Although it may not have the scares modern movie fans expect from today's blood and guts slasher films "The Cat and the Canary" was an extremely influential film released by Universal Pictures and directed by the brilliant German Expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni.

"The Cat and the Canary" helped established the "haunted house" sub-genre of horror films. Director Leni displays great innovation using visual techniques such as superimposition and dissolves while using extreme long shots and close-ups for dramatic effect, creating an eerie atmosphere.

What makes "The Cat and the Canary" so entertaining to watch is not that it is scary. It is not that there is Oscar worthy performances or even an original plot. What makes it so enjoyable is the way this story is told. It is a wonderful example of style over substance. You will take delight in the now standard shots of seeing an empty hallway, expecting someone to be at the end of it. Hands appearing in frame about to attack unsuspecting victims.

A small group of relatives gather together for the reading of Cyrus West's will, twenty years after his death, in his abandoned creepy old mansion where only a caretaker, Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox), has lived and claims Cyrus' ghost haunts the estate.

The relatives of Cyrus West were believed to have driven him insane due to their greed and desire to get their hands on his fortune.

Arriving at the mansion is Annabelle West (Laura La Plante), Cyrus' most distance relative, his three nephews: Paul Jones (Creighton Hale), Harry (Arthur Edmund Carewe) and Charlie (Forrest Stanley). Cyrus' sister Susan (Flora Finch) and Cecily (Gertrude Astor) Susan's niece.

It is suspected one of them opened the will prior to the reading when the envelope which sealed the will in a locked safe is discovered to have been unsealed. With the family fortune at stake each of them is a suspect. What will the family do to the one that does inherit the West fortune?

To make matters worst we find out the mansion is not far from an asylum, where one of the inmates, known as the Cat, has escaped. An asylum guard informs everyone he followed the inmate to the mansion.

"The Cat and the Canary" does a very good job combining comedy with horror (though I'm reluctant to refer to it as a comedy), often in the same scene. The character of Paul Jones serves as the movie's comic relief. He is terrified of his own shadow and is often seen with the female characters hiding. This is the role Bob Hope would play in the 1939 remake. After seeing Creighton Hale's performance you can see why Hope would be a perfect fit for the role.

There is also a bit of risque humor in the movie. One scene involves one of the male characters afraid there is a ghost and hiding in one of the many bedrooms in the mansion under the bed. What is not realized is the bedroom is being used by one of the female characters who begins to undress, getting ready for bed. The viewer only sees everything played out at the ground level from the point of view of the character under the bed.

The star of the movie, Laura La Plante, is shown to be a damsel in distress not the heroic, tough women we see in many of today's horror movies. She is reliant on the male characters to help defend her yet at the same time the question of who can she trust arises. Each character could potentially be a killer trying to murder the remaining family members so they inherit the family fortune.

Paul Leni may be best known to movie fans for directing the German silent movie "Waxworks" (1924) and the American silent movie "The Man Who Laughs" (1928), which featured a character that inspired the look of the Batman villain The Joker. Unfortunately he is not often put in the same category as other German filmmakers such as F.W. Murnau, G.W. Pabst or Fritz Lang. Mostly because he career did not last as long as theirs. Leni died in 1929.

"The Cat and the Canary", which was based on a 1922 stage play, is an extremely inventive, entertaining haunted house story filled with great camera techniques and visual style. It may lack the big scares today's movie fans have become accustom to but there is no way to deny the influence this movie has had on future horror films. "The Cat and the Canary" is a masterpiece which deserves much more attention. I hope Criteria buys the rights to it someday and gives it a proper DVD release with a new musical score (the only weak point of the movie). But don't wait until than to see it!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Film Review: Son of Frankenstein

"Son of Frankenstein"  *** (out of ****)

The good name of Frankenstein needs to be restored in "Son of Frankenstein" (1939).

Although it was the third film in the "Frankenstein" series, "Son of Frankenstein", thematically, works better as a sequel to "Frankenstein" (1931) than "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), which are the two most popular films in the entire "Frankenstein" franchise.

Unlike the previous two films released by Universal studios, "Son of Frankenstein" was not directed by James Whale but instead Rowland V. Lee. It stars Basil Rathbone, best known to us old timers as Sherlock Holmes, as the son of Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), Baron Wolf von Frankenstein.

Upon his father's death Wolf has inherited the Frankenstein castle and returns to the village, also called Frankenstein, where his father created the infamous Monster (Boris Karloff), along with his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and their son Peter (Donnie Dunagan).

Twenty-five years have passed since the Monster ravaged the countryside, striking fear into the hearts of the townspeople, but many have not forgotten what happened. The name Frankenstein is synonymous with death and violence. The villagers do not want another Frankenstein living among them for fear someone from the family may want to create another Monster in the name of science.

When Wolf and his family arrive in the town they are treated coldly. When Wolf tries to assure the townspeople, with a speech, about his intentions, they quickly walk away. Only one man, Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) dares to speak to Wolf. The townspeople would like the good Inspector to spy on the family and make sure Wolf has no intentions of repeating his father's work.

The Inspector also remembers the Monster. He was a child when the Monster roamed the village and entered his home. The Monster ripped the young boy's arm out of his socket causing him to use an artificial arm which he needs to maneuver with his good arm.

Despite Wolf's desire to clear his family's name he learns several of the townspeople have been murdered. Many believe it is the doing of the Monster or the ghost of the Monster and soon fingers are pointed at Wolf.

While investigating the family estate Wolf meets Ygor (Bela Lugosi), a disfigured blacksmith, who was hanged for being a grave robber, but didn't die. He has been hiding in the Frankenstein laboratory, where Henry Frankenstein created the Monster. Ygor has kept the Monster alive and reveals this to Wolf, who as fate would have it is intrigued by his father's work and would like to carry on in order to prove his father's theory was correct. But, can he control the Monster?

If you've ever seen any movie before you can probably guess what happens in "Son of Frankenstein" and the fate of all the characters but that is not what's important when watching this movie. The pleasure of "Son of Frankenstein" comes in the production design, musical score and watching this great cast interact. The movie creates a very nice mood. There is a well developed back story which makes it interesting to watch. Wolf is a character the audience can understand and is a joy to watch, even though, by today's standards, the performance sometimes borders on camp. Still, you must give credit to Basil Rathbone. He carries the movie.

By 1939 Universal studios no longer showed much interest in horror films, which is shocking since this was the studio, at the time, that was well established as the studio known for horror films. They had released "Dracula" (1931), "Frankenstein" and "The Mummy" (1932). Horror was a significant part of their brand. But, Universal felt these movies would no longer attract the attention of audiences. After a hugely successful re-release of "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" on a double-bill, Universal realized the potential of these movies and wanted to cash in so it was decided to make another Frankenstein sequel.

Going into "Son of Frankenstein" audiences will notice some differences compared to the previous Frankenstein movies. One of the best decisions made was the Monster would no longer speak as he had done in "Bride of Frankenstein". We hear him moan and grunt and in one scene he screams. Having the Monster speak was something I always felt was a mistake. It was a clumsy attempt to humanize the character but instead I felt it turned the character into a joke. In "Son of Frankenstein" the character goes back to being a terrorizing figure, as in the first movie. The townspeople fear him, the Inspector fears him, Wolf fears him. The Monster is shown as a murderer.

The Monster is dressed differently as well. This time he wears a fur vest. No explanation for this is given.

As in "Bride of Frankenstein" there is a homosexual undertone to the story. In "Son of Frankenstein" much is made of the relationship between Ygor and the Monster. Ygor is the one that has kept the Monster alive. The Monster is Ygor's companion. Only Ygor can control the Monster. At one point in the movie, when questioned by Wolf as to why he kept the Monster alive, Ygor says the Monster "does things for him". Of course one can assume Ygor meant the Monster carries out his bidding and kills people for him, still, the way in which the line is delivered leads one to interpret their relationship in another way. The Monster only shows humanity towards Ygor, who constantly pats him down.

While I do feel Basil Rathbone carries the movie with his cool demeanor which slowly slips away as the movie progresses, Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi do stand out as well. In lesser hands Ygor could have been a forgettable supporting character but through make-up (he kind of resembles the Wolf Man) and a clear vision Lugosi really makes the character memorable and a significant part of the story. Sadly I don't believe Lugosi had a great career. He lived off the fame brought to him by playing Dracula. However, his performance here ranks among his best on-screen.

Lionel Atwill was a well known character actor who appeared in several horror films, including the Frankenstein series. He was also  in "Mystery of the Wax Museum" (1933) which was later remade as the Vincent Price vehicle "House of Wax" (1953). He always had a tendency, in my opinion, to be very stiff. He would take his roles serious and in a strange way I think his stiffness was a result of him trying to be dramatic. He does that here as well but it is a nice contrast to Rathbone who really starts to chew on the scenery.

The original Frankenstein movie had an art design inspired by German expressionism, which was quite popular at the time. "Son of Frankenstein" doesn't aim that high but it has large sets that have a Gothic feel to them. There is a minimalist touch however. There is not a lot of furniture in the castle. Just the bare essentials. It is also worth mentioning, this would be the last Frankenstein movie to have an "A" production budget. Every Frankenstein movie after "Son of Frankenstein" would have "B" movie production values.

"Son of Frankenstein" is often overlooked. The first two movies in the Frankenstein franchise carry the most cultural significance and the rest of the movies are generally considered lesser efforts. That may be true for some of the other titles but I truly believe "Son of Frankenstein" deserves more credit. I actually prefer it over "Bride of Frankenstein", which I feel was basically a parody of the first movie. "Son of Frankenstein" goes back to its roots. This is a "serious" movie.

Like "Frankenstein" and other Universal horror movies released in the early 1930s, "Son of Frankenstein" hits on the same theme - the dangers of science. The lack of respect for tradition society shows. Man should not play God. Science is dangerous. It can lead to great harm. Scientist say they want to do things for the greater good however they are ego-maniacs. They over - reach and will cause harm to the rest of us. You would see this in "The Invisible Man" (1933), "The Mummy" and "Frankenstein".

This theme would become more prominent after World War Two with America dropping the bomb. People would then realize the destruction science was capable of and this would be presented in science-fiction movies of the 1950s. "Son of Frankenstein" though beats it to the punch.

It would be a huge error on my part if I didn't mention the influence this movie had on the Gene Wilder / Mel Brooks collaboration, "Young Frankenstein" (1974), which was also about a young Frankenstein restoring the reputation of his family. The Inspector Kemp character played by Kenneth Mars was directly lifted from Lionel Atwill in this movie, artificial arm and all! Gene Wilder channels Basil Rathbone in both his look and cool demeanor. The dart scene between Wilder and Mars was taken from this movie. Ygor controls the Monster by playing music, just as the violin music in "Young Frankenstein" soothes the Monster. The character of Ygor itself first appeared in this movie, though Marty Feldman was not dressed the same way. And of course, the giant knockers (no not the ones on Terri Garr) inspired a joke in "Young Frankenstein". Strangely enough you never hear Brooks and Wilder specifically mention "Son of Frankenstein" as an influence. They repeatedly have only mentioned the first two movies as sources of inspiration.

Fans of older, classic black & white horror movies would do themselves a great service by watching "Son of Frankenstein".

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Film Review: Werewolf of London

"Werewolf of London"  *** (out of ***)

"Werewolf of London" (1935) proves to be a howling good time!

When movie fans, especially older movie fans, with a bit more knowledge of film history, think of werewolf movies it is safe to assume the first movie which instantly comes to mind is "The Wolf Man" (1941) starring Lon Chaney Jr. Unfortunately "Werewolf of London", directed by Stuart Walker and starring Henry Hull, often is neglected and overlooked. Many in the general public may have never heard of it.

Werewolves have been a part of the American culture starting in the early twentieth century. One of the earliest known films depicting werewolves is "The Werewolf" (1913) which is sadly considered a lost movie. "Werewolf of London" was released on the heels of a famed novel "The Werewolf of Paris" (1933) written by Guy Endore.

Those familiar with "The Wolf Man" will say "Werewolf of London" is not a faithful origin story. That would only be true if you believe "The Wolf Man" is the most faithful adaptation of the werewolf folklore. However these two movies have nothing to do with each other. "Werewolf of London" is telling its own story though it is worth noting both movies were released by Universal Pictures, the movie studio best known for its horror monsters. Besides "The Wolf Man" Universal released "Dracula" (1931), "Frankenstein" (1931) and "The Mummy" (1932).

The "Werewolf Of London" takes the viewer to Tibet where a wealthy English botanist, Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull), has come to search for a mariphasa plant, which is very rare and only known to exist in this part of the world. It is while searching for it Dr. Glendon is attacked by a werewolf, though he is able to bring the plant back to London with him.

Dr. Glendon we learn is a married man. His wife, Lisa (Valerie Hobson), believes he spends too much time with his plants and not enough time with her. Though the doctor is obsessed with being able to make the mariphasa plant bloom. Legend has it the plant can only bloom by the light of a full moon. Dr. Glendon creates a moon lamp which is constantly placed above the plant.

It is in London Dr. Glendon meets Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland, best known for playing Charlie Chan) who is also a botanist who traveled to Tibet looking for the mariphasa plant. It is through Dr. Yogami the viewer and Dr. Glendon learn about werewolves and the power of the mariphasa plant, which is the only known antidote to temporarily prevent a man from turning into a wolf. Dr. Yogami even knows Dr. Glendon was attacked while in Tibet. Dr. Glendon however leads Dr. Yogami to believe he has no time for such superstition and dismisses all of Dr. Yogami's ideas and warnings.

Dr. Glendon however secretly knows he was attacked by a werewolf and believes the mariphasa plant is an antidote which will prevent him from turning into a werewolf and killing the thing he loves most, Lisa.

Visually there is little I found impressive about "Werewolf of London". The director, Stuart Walker, is not one of the giants of cinema. His most popular title, after this one, is "Great Expectations" (1934) which Henry Hull also appeared in. He did not have much of a career in Hollywood. The cinematography was by Charles J. Stumar, who also shot "The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). The movie makes some good use of shadows when the werewolf is about to attack and like all the truly great horror films this one knows it is best to keep the violence off-screen. When the werewolf is about to go in for the kill the camera turns away and all we hear is the victim (always a woman) scream.

The make-up, done by the great Jack Pierce, who worked on all the Universal Horror Monsters, is effective and the transformation sequences are decent, especially when you consider the time period.

One of the reasons "Werewolf of London" is not considered being a truly great movie is the lack of character development for the Dr. Glendon character. Although I hate to compare this movie to "The Wolf Man", in that movie we get a story of an innocent man caught in a situation he does not want to be in. It is a story addressing the good and evil within man. The problem with "Werewolf of London" is we never sense the good in Dr. Glendon. We aren't witnessing much of a personal struggle, though there is one good scene showing the doctor praying to God to not turn into the werewolf. The movie on a whole is too concerned with telling the big picture and not interested in the details of expanding these characters.

"Werewolf of London" actually has more in common with "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", though that story and "The Wolf Man" comment more on the duality of man and the brutal, animal instincts which lurk inside of us. When Dr. Glendon turns into the werewolf he kind of looks like Mr. Hyde and both movies deal with a man trying to kill the woman they love once they turn into a beast.

At its best "Werewolf of London" feels like the blueprint of a better story. "The Wolf Man" may have only been as good as it is because this movie existed first and Universal could look at it, take the good parts and expand on the weaker elements, which is exactly what they did.

One of the big differences between "Werewolf of London" and "The Wolf Man" has to do with a surprising amount of comic relief in "Werewolf of London". Only "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935) may come close to having as much comic relief in a Universal horror movie. The comedic scenes feel slightly out of place and one sequence, dealing with a boarding house, takes up a good amount of screen time for what is already a relatively short movie at roughly 75 minutes. Comic relief is a distraction this movie did not need. One doesn't watch a horror movie for laughs. "The Wolf Man" made the correct choice and was consistent throughout with its tone taking its material serious.

Henry Hull plays the mild-manner botanist at the level you'd expect him too. There is nothing distinguishing about him. Dr. Glendon is supposed to be an average person. The problem is the character is too dull. Larry Talbot was a more "complete person". The viewer could tell he was a man with secrets, a disturbed soul. But, we also saw a warmer side to him. We see him flirt with woman and want to re-connect with his father. Dr. Glendon is not much of a character.

When we see the werewolf, he doesn't act like a wolf. He walks upright. Has time to put on his hat and cape and at one point speaks. Dr. Glendon doesn't take on animal traits which affect the way he walks or speaks. Which leads to another comparison to the Mr. Hyde character.

The movie also doesn't have much fun with the werewolf folklore. It doesn't create a real sense of dread and have the lead character slowly learn more and more about his predicament. There is no sense of impending doom looming over the movie which would make it scary to audiences.

One wishes there would have been more for the Lisa character to work with. She is married to Dr. Glendon, but, the two rarely spend time together as Lisa has rekindled a friendship with Paul (Lester Matthews) whom she has known since childhood and who is in love with her. This sadly takes away what could have created an element of suspense in having the wife slowly begin to suspect her husband is a werewolf. Instead the viewer suspects Lisa is cheating on her husband which doesn't have the same effect. It is a missed opportunity. Imagine all that could have been done with the set-up of a woman knowing she is stuck in a house with a werewolf, afraid for her life.

This all makes it sound as if "Werewolf of London" is a bad movie. It is not. It is not a completely effective movie but it is not a time waster. It is a worthwhile effort and only fails when compared to "The Wolf Man". "Werewolf of London" is your typical 1930s horror movie. I wrote it feels like the blueprint of a better story. That is not necessarily a put down. It makes this movie a curiosity piece. It has its place in film history as a source of inspiration for what was to come. For that I feel it is worth seeing.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Film Review: The Gay Divorcee

"The Gay Divorcee"  **** (out of ****)

There's beautiful music and dangerous rhythms for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to sing and dance to in RKO musical "The Gay Divorcee" (1934).

"The Gay Divorcee" marked the first time Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were given starring roles in a movie together. Previously the two appeared in "Flying Down to Rio" (1933), where they were given co-starring roles. Astaire played the "funny best friend" to the male lead, Gene Raymond, with Rogers playing a singer in a band.

Astaire and Rogers were given one song to dance to in that movie, the Carioca, which sadly ends on a comical note. Though their dance together was brief, audiences liked the two in the movie, and so RKO allowed the two of them to play lead roles opposite each other.

"The Gay Divorcee" was based on a Broadway musical called "The Gay Divorce", which opened in 1932 and starred Fred Astaire. It featured a musical score by Cole Porter and included songs such as "I've Got You On My Mind", "After You, Who?", "How's Your Romance?" and the hit song of the show, "Night & Day", often considered the finest song Porter ever wrote. Unfortunately, every Porter song, with the exception of "Night & Day", was scraped from the movie and replace with a new score.

Hollywood censors would also demanded the title of the movie be changed from "divorce" to "divorcee" since "divorce" could not be considered a "gay" or "lighthearted" matter. During this time the production code was being enforced and Hollywood wanted to promote and encourage the idea of marriage and morality.

Fred Astaire stars as Guy Holden, a famous American dancer on vacation with his friend, Egbert Fitzgerald, (Edward Everett Horton) an attorney, in London. While in London Holden meets Mimi (Ginger Rogers). For Holden it is love at first sight. For Mimi it is annoyance at first sight. Mimi has accidentally caught her dress in a locked truck and requires assistance to get loose. Not knowing the situation but attracted to Mimi, Holden takes the opportunity to speak to Mimi and offer his help. He ends up tearing the back of her dress and provides his raincoat as aid for Mimi to cover herself.

Holden gives Mimi his address for her to mail the raincoat back to him but Mimi does not give Holden her name, telephone number or address, discouraging him. This forces Holden to walks the streets of London in the hopes he will casually bump into Mimi again.

The reason for Mimi's secrecy is because she is in a loveless marriage and has come to London to visit her aunt, Hortense (Alice Brady), who knows a lawyer, that will be able to help Mimi get a divorce. Hortense is friends with Egbert, whom she once dated and was almost engaged to, except for the fact Egbert never asked her. It is Egbert who will serve as Mimi's attorney.

In London it is difficult to get a divorce if the husband does not agree to it. So, Egbert arranges for Mimi to be caught with a co-respondent at a seaside hotel. The co-respondent is suppose to be an Italian singer, Tonetti (Erik Rhodes) but due to plenty of confusion and misunderstandings Mimi thinks Holden is the co-respondent.

"The Gay Divorcee" plays around with the theme of mistaken identity, which was a central part of several Astaire and Rogers musicals. The best example is "Top Hat" (1935) which takes the material to the furthest extent it can stretch it. "The Gay Divorcee" doesn't go as far with the material as the set-up takes too long to capitalize on.

Watching "The Gay Divorcee" again two elements stand out most. One, how much the move has to do about sex and two, how the movie serves as more of a vehicle for Fred Astaire and not Ginger Rogers.

The opening number in the movie is called "Don't Let It Bother You". It is sung by an all-female chorus at a French nightclub. The ladies are wearing very short dresses so the viewer can see their legs and garter belts as the stand on a revolving stage. There is a counter top where they can rest their hands, as they wear miniature dolls, with their fingers acting as the doll's legs. After the chorus sings the song the lights go dim and the camera closes in on the dolls as they appear to be dancing. However, you will notice the camera doesn't go in for a close-up. Instead it is a long shot. The viewer can still perfectly see the ladies' legs in frame with the dolls providing a not so subtle hint of sex appeal. Certainly you could have filmed this sequence with a close-up of only the dolls in frame without showing the chorus girls and their legs.

Another musical number is called "Lets K-nock K-nees", it is introduced by a very young Betty Grable, who hadn't reach fame yet, as she sings to Egbert. A lot of time and effort goes into the piece but lets purely focus on the name of the tune. It is without question a euphemism for sex. In the movie it is suggested it simply means to dance together as every time the line "lets knock knees" is sung, two characters (one male and one female) gently tap each other with their knees. But who are you kidding? They aren't singing about dancing my friends. The song is fun and flirtatious and clearly has a sexual vibe.

Then there is the character of Egbert played by Edward Everette Horton. Us old-timers know him quite well, he was once jokingly credited as having appeared in every movie made in the 1930s. He was a character actor, often playing the "funny best friend" of the male lead. In real life Horton was a homosexual and that would subtly find its way through into the characters he played. He, along with another character actor, Eric Blore, who also appears in this movie, helped established the "sissy man" stereotype in Hollywood films. While you would never hear someone refer to a character as gay in a Hollywood movie of this time period it would be implied. Egbert is an effeminate male. He is seen playing with the doll the chorus girls were using in the opening number, he is timid and shy, women frighten him and at one point Hortense says Egbert "always had a mother's instinct". In his relationship with Hortense it is she that pursues him. She is the aggressor.

After the opening number of the movie, in an attempt to quickly introduce the characters, Holden and Egbert are unable to pay the check at the nightclub because they have left their wallets at their hotel. In order to avoid trouble Egbert and Holden introduce themselves to the owner of the club suggesting they will mail the amount of the bill to the restaurant. The owner doesn't believe Holden is the famous dancer he says he is and ask, as a form of ID, he dance in front of the audience at the club.

Later in the movie, when Holden decides he must find Mimi, he sings "Needle in A Haystack" and briefly dances. It is also he that gets to sing "Night & Day". By the time we see Ginger Rogers dance, it is with Fred in the "Night & Day" number, 50 minutes have went by and the total running time of the movie is 105 minutes. The movie makes sure, from the beginning, to establish Fred Astaire as a song and dance man. He sings two songs and dances to four in total. Rogers gets to sing "The Continental", the most time consuming number in the entire movie. Rogers sings it first, then a chorus dances to it, proceeded by Astaire and Rogers dancing to it, then Erik Rhodes sings it, again followed by a chorus dancing to it, next Lillian Miles sings it and Fred and Ginger dance to it once more to various tempos; a latin tempo, an Eastern European one and finally a waltz.

Seeing how RKO treated Astaire and Rogers it is no wonder Ginger Rogers had it in her contract she must get to sing one song in each Astaire and Rogers movie because she feared the studio would push Astaire more than her. Remember, at this time in both of their careers, Rogers had appeared in more movies than Astaire, who had only appeared in two prior movies; "Dancing Lady" (1933), which starred Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, and "Flying Down to Rio".

Still, one could argue it is Ginger that gets to sing the best song in the movie, The Continental, which would win the Academy Award for best song, the first time the award was ever presented. Though the "Night & Day" number is also a strong contender for best musical sequence. In both numbers we get to see what made Astaire and Rogers so great together. For me, watching the two of them dance together is movie heaven. They had wonderful chemistry together. Their dancing is fun and flirtatious, sophisticated and intimate all at once. At the end of the "Night & Day" number Holden offers Mimi a cigarette, as if to suggest their dancing, the closeness of their bodies together, reached the same intimacy as sex.

When "The Gay Divorcee" was released America was in the Great Depression but watching the movie you wouldn't know that. Everyone is happy, sing and dancing, in love. People are traveling to Europe, sending money without a care. It was a kind of Hollywood escapism audiences craved at the time. Hollywood was once referred to as a "dream factory". We watched movies to live out our fantasies, to escape our mundane lives and forget our worries. "The Gay Divorcee" is a prime example of this type of entertainment. When we old-timers watched these movies and saw the way these people lived we thought that was what life was like. Maybe not for us but we believed somewhere people lived like this and we hoped to one day do the same.

The question becomes, can today's audience appreciate this movie? Will it be able to appeal to the 18 - 29 year olds? I would love to say "yes"! But, it wouldn't be difficult for me to imagine some people saying the movie is too corny. They don't like the music. They don't buy into the romance. Still, I have had some success introducing movies of this era to friends who don't watch movies from this time period.They find that they like the movies and are quite surprised by that. So, maybe there is an audience today that will enjoy it. If not, well, at least us old-timers know about it and enjoy it.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Film Review: The Magician

"The Magician"  *** (out of ****)

Ingmar Bergman will put a spell on you in the Swedish drama "The Magician" (1958).

When I was a teenager I discovered the films of Ingmar Bergman, in fact, while in high school, taking a French language class, I discovered the world of foreign films. It was during this time I first saw Mr. Bergman's "The Magician". I didn't like the movie very much. I don't think I understood what Mr. Bergman was trying to say. The movie had a nice visual style and created an eerie atmosphere though it left me cold.

I have seen "The Magician" again recently. Am I brave enough to say I understand everything going on in the movie? No. But I do see a deeper meaning in it. That has raised my appreciation for it.

When "The Magician" was released in America, Ingmar Bergman had already established a name for himself with the art house crowd in this country. Prior releases included "The Seventh Seal" (1957) and "Brink of Life" (1958). Each movie dealt with existential issues. Is their a God? What is the meaning of life? What is man's place in the world? Mr. Bergman, the son of a Lutheran minister, was an atheist. Religion had been a major theme in a string of his movies. He even directed a "faith trilogy"; "Through A Glass, Darkly" (1961), "Winter Light" (1963) and "The Silence" (1963).

It is when looking at the movie in this context that I begin to think Mr. Bergman wanted to make another movie which makes a commentary on religion. The question then becomes, what was Mr. Bergman trying to say? If you can answer that question you have found the key to understanding the movie and possibly enjoying it.

It is 1848 and there is a traveling magic show headed by Dr. Albert Emanuel Vogler (Max von Sydow) which makes its way into a small European town where they have been advertised. Before they can begin with their show they are taken to the home of Consul-man Egerman (Erland Josephson) where the Police Superintendant (Toivo Pawlo) and Dr. Vergerus (Gunnar Bjornstrand) await to question the troupe, consisting of Vogler's assistant, Mr. Aman (Ingrid Thulin), Vogler's grandmother (Naima Wifstrand), who supposedly is a witch, their coach driver (Lars Ekborg) and Johan (Bengt Ekerot) the spokesman.

There has been some suspicion spreading from town to town concerning the authenticity of Vogler's act. The Superintendent and Dr. Vergerus demand the troupe put on a private show for them so they may ascertain (and possibly humiliate) whether or not Vogler's act is full of tricks or miracles.

Egerman and Dr. Vergerus are both men of science and have a wager going on between them. Egerman believes there are things in this world which happen that cannot be explained by science thus proving the existence of God. Dr. Vergerus believes in all logic and reason. Science will be able to explain everything. Vogler will confirm one of their beliefs.

So the movie comes down to science vs God. Is there such a thing as the super natural? The interesting question becomes what does the magician, Vogler, represent? Is Vogler God? Is he Jesus? Max von Sydow did play Jesus in "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965). Who do Egerman and Dr. Vergerus represent? Could they be the non-believers that always required Jesus to prove himself by performing a miracle in front of them? Perhaps.

To a similar extent the viewers should should also ask themselves what about the grandmother? Is she really a witch or just a deceitful con artist like Vogler?

Besides not being able to completely understand what Mr. Bergman is attempting to say in this movie, what also lessens the experience for me is who is Vogler? I wish Mr. Bergman would have played around more with the mystique of this character. Does he actually have the ability to do what he says he does or is he a phony? Much of the movie seems to be about deception, so we may have our answer there. The same goes for the grandmother.

One could make a case, a small one, the movie is also addressing the censorship of the artist. However I do not believe this theme is fully addressed but if one does feel it is addressed properly in the movie, again, we must ask ourselves what is Mr. Bergman trying to say? Those that do not understand art try to de-value it? We are threatened by what we do not understand; art, religion?

"The Magician" doesn't rank alongside some of Ingmar Bergman's best films but it does play around with some very interesting concepts which seem typical of themes Mr. Bergman explored in a great number of his films. Because of that it should not be avoided however I feel this movie works best for those that have already developed an appreciation for Mr. Bergman's films. It should not be your introduction into his work.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Film Review: Nothing But Trouble

"Nothing But Trouble"  ** (out of ****)

Laurel & Hardy live up to the title of this MGM comedy and get involved in "Nothing But Trouble" (1944).

When first officially paired as a comedy team in 1927, when both men worked for Hal Roach studios, until 1951, when the duo appeared in their last feature-length comedy, "Utopia", Laurel & Hardy's work has been generally praised by movie fans as among the greatest screen comedies in the history of cinema. Their output between 1929 - 1940 ranks alongside the work of their contemporaries; Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Harold Lloyd and W.C. Fields. The boys (as they were often called) are routinely listed among the greatest comedy teams of all time.

You'll notice I mentioned the work the team did between 1929 - 1940 is what is often celebrated. "Nothing But Trouble" was released in 1944. What's the difference? It was until 1940 Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy worked for Hal Roach. Though the men had appeared in several silent comedies as solo acts and as a team, they are a rarity in that they were among the few silent film stars that not only lasted in "talkies" (sound pictures) but their work actually improved. Their voices perfectly suited their characters. That is why I use 1929 as a starting point. It was in 1929 Laurel & Hardy began to exclusively make "talking pictures"; two reelers and feature-length comedies.

While working for Hal Roach, Stan Laurel, off-screen considered the brains of the team, had creative input into their work. Laurel was able to write gags for the team, edit their movies and serve as an uncredited director. On a few of their movies Laurel was properly given a "producer" credit. It was during this time Laurel & Hardy appeared in "The Music Box" (1932), which won an Academy Award for best live action short, "Sons of the Desert" (1933), "Way Out West" (1937), "Going Bye-Bye" (1934) and "A Chump at Oxford" (1940).

Due to contract disputes Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy left Hal Roach studios in 1940. The team then released eight movies released by either 20th Century Fox or MGM between 1941 - 1945 and one European production, "Utopia". It was here the boys lost creative control of their work. At a major studio the boys were hired only as performers. These movies are often described as "B" movies. These were considered hard times for the team. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, the movies made money which made the studios feel they were justified and continued the same approach movie after movie. "Nothing But Trouble" was the team's second to last American movie.

I am generally thought to be a sucker for a Laurel & Hardy comedy. They were admittedly my childhood heroes. I have seen every feature-length comedy they starred in, every sound two-reeler they appeared in and almost all of their silent work together. Because of that I often "go easy" on their later work during this period. I actually like "The Bullfighters" (1945), their last American comedy. I have fond memories of "Utopia", "Air Raid Wardens" (1943) and "A-Haunting We Will Go" (1942). I used to have fond memories of "Nothing But Trouble" too. I remember laughing at it when I was a child. After watching the movie again recently I think I was just a happy kid and laughed at everything because boy does "Nothing But Trouble" feel like a letdown!

It is 1934 the country is in the midst of the Great Depression, Stan & Ollie are looking for jobs as a cook (Hardy) and a butler (Stan). They come from a family of a long line of cooks and butlers. Stan & Ollie want to follow in the footsteps of those before them and keep their family tradition going. But, with everyone in the country looking for a job, Stan & Ollie are unable to stand out in the crowd. Stan has an idea. If jobs are so difficult to come by in America why not try another country? So the boys head to Europe for the next 10 years. Still unable to find work.

In 1944, the movie informs us, jobs were very easy to come by. There weren't enough workers to fill the vacant positions. Stan & Ollie return to America not knowing this and quickly find themselves jobs working for Mrs. Hawkley (Mary Boland) and her husband (Henry O' Neill). The Hawkley's are going to be hosting a dinner party where the guests of honor will be the king of Orlandia Christopher (David Leland) a young boy and his uncle Prince Saul (Philip Merivale).

Prince Saul would like to one day be king. The fastest way for him to be king is to kill the young king. However Stan & Ollie end up befriending the boy, not knowing he is a king, and inadvertently save his life.

The idea of the story may not immediately sound like the basis of a good comedy to some however I firmly believe any story can be made into a good movie if done properly and humor can be found in any story. The problem with "Nothing But Trouble" is there are no big laughs. There are no big laughs because there is nothing for Laurel & Hardy to do. There are no engaging comedic set-pieces written for them. There are no memorable moments. There is nothing to compare to the block & tackle sequence in "Way Out West" or moving the piano across a bridge in "Swiss Miss" (1938) or Stan helping Oliver put his boot on in "Be Big!" (1931). You might be tempted to say it is because of the age of Laurel & Hardy. In 1944 Stan Laurel was 54 years old. Oliver Hardy was 52. Maybe age did have something to do with it but even in their other later movies the boys had good sequences in their movies. I remember a very funny "rescue" scene in "Air Raid Wardens" and the bull fight sequence in "The Bullfighters".

The best sequences in "Nothing But Trouble" involve the boys trying to steal a piece of raw steak from a lion at the zoo and then trying to cut the cooked steak at the dinner party.

On top of this the boys don't seem to have any energy. Did they realize this movie was a dud? Did they feel unappreciated at MGM? Were they just going through the motions? Maybe. It sure appears that way as you are watching the movie.

In these later movies there always seems to be a scene where either Stan or Ollie will acknowledge they are dumb. They will have a moment of self-pity. Lick their wounds. They usually say this to another character in the movie. They do it again in "Nothing But Trouble". Each time I see and hear it in one of their movies it feels out of place. Did Laurel & Hardy face hard times in their comedies? Yes. Did their plans and get rich quick schemes fail? Yes. But the boys never felt sorry for themselves. They never asked the world to take pity on them. They would fall down and get back up. They would never say, "we are two dim witted guys. Lets give up." Never! The only reason I can think of that these type of lines were put in their movies was because of their age. How could Laurel & Hardy be so old and still not realize their short comings? Perhaps it was odd seeing two 50 year old men falling down, getting hit on the head, making mistakes. But these lines of dialogue go against the nature of their characters.

The movie was directed by Sam Taylor, who had a long career in the movies and whose name was most associated with silent comedies. He worked with Harold Lloyd on "Safety Last!" (1923) and "The Freshmen" (1925) as well as the Mary Pickford sound picture "Coquette" (1929). You would have thought Taylor might have seen the problems with "Nothing But Trouble" but maybe he had no power against the studio and/or didn't want to rock the boat. Who would listen anyway?

"Nothing But Trouble" is not a bad movie. It would be uncalled for if viewers declared it the "worst movie of all-time" or something along those lines. It wouldn't be fair to call it a successful movie either. It certainly doesn't hold a candle to Laurel & Hardy's earlier work in the 1930s. But, I doubt anyone would ever claim that it does. At best you can describe it as a harmless, uninspired diversion. That's too bad. One shouldn't say such things about a Laurel & Hardy comedy.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Film Review: Fury

"Fury"  **** (out of ****)

Fritz Lang's "Fury" (1936) is one of the most powerful films I ever seen. That is quite a statement considering the man who directed it is best known for masterpieces like "Metropolis" (1927) and "M" (1931). Back when I created a list of the best films of the 1930s I made sure to include it. When I composed a list of the 100 greatest movies I remembered to recognize it. I embrace "Fury" as the greatest American movie Fritz Lang directed.

Unfortunately when Lang left Germany in 1934 for Paris and eventually America, the critics (sheep) and the public never recognized his greatness again until decades later after re-evaluating his films. The damage was done however and today his work is not as well known as it should be to American audiences particularly younger movie fans. "Fury" was his first American movie.

"Fury" is the story of moral authority. A terrible event occurs, a mob attempts the lynching of a man. The victim isn't killed but miraculously survives. The mob wants to pretend the event never happened. The victim vows revenge. Who is right in this situation?

"Fury" is one of those movies that grabs you and doesn't let go. It makes you face the sinister nature of man. Perhaps even confront feelings which lurk inside of you. It is on a list of movies that makes me pity society. It shows the true violent nature of the world we live in. A world where individuals are filled with hate and anger. It shows humans are nothing more than savage animals.

The movie can serve multiple meanings. In America lynching has been historically associated with race crimes and white supremacist lynching black people. But the movie can also serve as a commentary on what made Lang leave Germany. When Lang left his homeland the Nazis were in power. The movie is a strong indictment against "mob mentality". People wandering aimlessly fighting a cause they don't have all the facts about.

In the end "Fury" offers a nice Liberal message about due process. Doing the right thing. Not allowing our emotions to get the best of us. Not acting out on our violent impulses. This is fitting considering it comes from the same man who directed "M". "M" was the story of a child murderer who is captured by a mob, angry parents, all who want the murderer killed. But one person stands up and says the murderer is clearly mentally disturbed. You cannot kill him. You must place him in a mental institution. It is the right thing to do. The moral and just thing to do. And so in "Fury" we get the same message. Do we, as humans, have the strength and courage to do the right thing when we have been wronged?

The man is Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy). As his name suggest he is an "average Joe". He always tries to do the right thing and stay out of trouble. He is in love with Katherine (Sylvia Sidney, who gets top billing). They plan to marry as soon Joe has saved enough money. With the prospect of a better job, Katherine moves to Washington. Within a few months Joe will meet her there. The months pass, Joe runs his own business, a gas station, and saves up enough money to go to Katherine in Washington.

While driving through a small town, Strand, Joe is arrested by the police. In this small town a gang of three men have kidnapped a child. Joe fits the description of one of the men. Although the town's sheriff cannot prove anything he must keep Joe overnight until the District Attorney can arrive and the governor sends help to protect the jail.

The townspeople learn the sheriff has arrested a man in connection with the kidnapping. Because of the townspeople simple mindedness and thirst for blood, they conclude, surely if the police arrested a man, he must be guilty! You never heard of the police doing the wrong thing, did you? And so the news spreads, a gossip always does, and more and more people get that thirst for blood and make-believe justice. One by one they join together and head to the jail and demand the sheriff show them the prisoner. The sheriff tries to calm the people down telling them there is no proof the man being held is guilty. But, you know how savage people are. Once they have an idea in their head, heaven help us if you can get them to see the error of their ways. And so they attack. They break into the jail and try to capture Joe, who is locked away in a cell. When the mob can't get him they decide to set the jail on fire. One way or another Joe is going to die.

News makes it way to Katherine, who tries to protect Joe by heading to the jail. She is not able to make it in time and sees the mob set the jail on fire and through the cell's window they see Joe, desperately pleading for help, while they throw rocks at him, to keep him away from the window. The fire department arrives and may be able to help Joe but the townspeople decide to throw dynamite in the jail causing it to explode. Katherine faints and suffers a terrible trauma from witnessing the incident.

Joe didn't die in the explosion though. Everyone thinks he is dead including Katherine. Joe is tormented by what happened to him. He relives the moment over and over again in his mind. How could humans be so despicable? How can people succumb to such violent impulses? This builds a hatred in Joe. He vows revenge. He learns the townspeople can be trialed for first degree murder for his "death"

The town learns Joe was innocent after the real kidnappers are captured. So the people do what people normally do after they commit a bad act. They pretend it never happened so they can go on living their ordinary lives and tell themselves they aren't bad. They simply made a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes, right?

The question becomes can Joe allow the people involved with breaking into the jail to die themselves and be convicted for murder when Joe didn't die? Does that make Joe just as sinister as the townspeople? In other words, do two wrongs make a right?

What makes "Fury" such a great movie is the intense feelings and range of emotions it makes the viewer go through. You can understand Joe's desire for revenge and yet you can understand the moral argument being made. We ask ourselves, what side do we far on? "Fury" is hard-hitting. It is a visceral experience. The writing was nominated for an Academy Award, The film's only nomination. But you have to give credit to Lang and Tracy too. Tracy makes us believe everything we see on screen. Lang, like so many great filmmakers, holds a mirror to society and forces us to stare and the ugliness within ourselves, just as the lynch mob must face themselves and images of what they did.

This may make some feel "Fury" is preachy. The characters give long speeches about justice and society. There is none of that. At least I never came away feeling that way. The movie's message is obvious but not pushy. It doesn't beat us down. Another admirable quality of the movie.

That Lang never received the respect his work merited in this country makes me flat out mad. Do you know Fritz Lang never received an Academy Award nomination for best director? Do you know to this very day the Academy has not given him an honorary award? Lang's films changed after this. They became more psychological and fitted into the noir genre. Among his best include "Hangmen Also Die!" (1943). "The Woman in the Window" (1944), "Scarlet Street" (1945), "Cloak and Dagger" (1946), "The Big Heat" (1953) and "Human Desire" (1954). Granted, none of them quite grabbed me the way "Fury" does but Lang should not be ignored. See "Fury" and all of Lang's movies.

Film Review: The Mark of Zorro

"The Mark of Zorro"  *** (out of ****)

Tyrone Power gives Douglas Fairbanks a run for his money as the masked bandit Zorro in the 20th Century Fox remake "The Mark of Zorro" (1940).

When I was growing up I had four favorite crime fighters. There was Dick Tracy, The Shadow, the Long Ranger and Zorro. Though I was never one to cheer the heroes in movies as a child Zorro was a character I found exciting.

When I think of Zorro two things come to mind and represent Zorro of  my childhood. One was Guy Williams in the role as part of the Walt Disney television series "Zorro" which ran from 1957 - 1959. The other Zorro I fondly remember is Tyrone Power in this movie. For me this remake of the original Douglas Fairbanks silent version also called "The Mark of Zorro" (1920) vastly improves the origin story of the character. Of course it is not even fair to make such a statement because the Fairbanks version gives the background story in inter-titles. It makes no attempt to visually show us how Zorro came to be Zorro.

Comparing the two versions should give one a greater appreciation of this movie though even if you haven't seen the original version this remake is still an entertaining picture which movie fans should enjoy watching regardless.

"The Mark of Zorro" was the beginning of 20th Century Fox billing Power as a swashbuckler instead of the romantic lead they had previously cast him as in movies such as "In Old Chicago" (1937) and "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1938) where he starred opposite Alice Faye in both pictures. "The Mark of Zorro" was such a success the studio would continue to cast him in more action movies: "The Black Swan" (1942), "Captain from Castile" (1947) and "Prince of Foxes" (1949).

In this version the movie starts off showing us a young Don Diego Vega (Power) in Madrid, where he was sent by his parents, to get an education. In Spain Don Diego becomes a great horseback rider and fencer. He is also known as something of a ladies man. However one day his father, Don Alejandro Vega (Montagu Love), request Diego came back home to California, much to the disappointment of Diego, who sees a life in California as simple and dull.

Prior to Diego leaving for Spain, his father was the Alcalde of the town and was a well respected man but when Diego returns to California he hears nothing but horror stories from the townspeople who speak of the mistreatment they have endured from the Alcalde. One man says he was lashed 20 times for misspeaking, another we are told had his tongue cut off when complaining about the high taxes the poor have to pay. Diego has a hard time understanding how the citizens can say such awful things about his father.

It is only later, when going to what he believed was still his family's home, does Diego learn there is a new Alcalde, Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg), who along with Captain Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone), who serves as head of the army, have forced Don Alejandro to retire. The new Alcalde has no regard for the poor and heavily taxes them.

Diego, outraged by this injustice, decides to disguise himself as a bandit named Zorro (Spanish for fox) who will defend the rights of the people and force Don Luis to resign and reinstate Don Alejandro as the Alcalde.

In order to not bring suspicion to himself Diego hides his sword fighting and horse back riding abilities pretending to be a lazy nobleman who is disgusted at the thought of fighting and would much rather spend his time sleeping or doing magic tricks.

Zorro proves the be quite effective at scaring Don Luis though Captain Pasquale awaits the opportunity to sword fight Zorro and kill him.

Because of Zorro's plan to reinstate Don Alejandro, the Captain and Don Luis suspect Don Alejandro must be collaborating with Zorro and so the two men decide the arrange a marriage between Diego and Don Luis's niece Lolita (Linda Darnell). Diego has spoken to Lolita once before, when dressed as Zorro, and immediately fell in love with her. He gladly accepts the offer while Don Alejandro opposes such an arrangement joining the two families together. However Lolita is not attracted to Diego and is in love with Zorro.

"The Mark of Zorro", though not a comedy, has a sense of humor about it and creates situations which are comedic in nature. Diego, trying to escape from the Captain's troops, while dressed as Zorro, disguises himself as a priest while unknown to him, Lolita is praying in the same chapel and would like to speak to the father but Diego, even though dressed as a priest, can't help himself from making passes at Lolita.

Eugene Pallette, a popular character actor at the time, plays Father Felipe, who also disproves of the new government and constantly wishes harm to Don Luis and after his harsh words follows up with "God forgive me" while looking up at the heavens.

I find a lot of the supporting characters are just as much fun to watch as the lead characters. That was the way it was during the studio system. You had a lot of good character actors like Pallette, Edward Everette Horton, Eric Bore, Edna May Oliver and Eve Arden. They would often steal their scenes. Usually they played comic relief to the star of the picture. The studio would consistent put them in picture after picture that soon audiences would begin to recognize them and took just as much delight in seeing them as a star like Tyrone Power. "The Mark of Zorro" is no different. Pallette, J. Edward Bromberg and Gale Sondergaard, as Don Luis's wife, are all enjoyable to watch.

Unfortunately I didn't find much chemistry between Linda Darnell and Power. Separately I enjoy watching them but together you don't feel they are in love with one another. Instead it feels like we are watching two actors give separate performances even when they are in the same scene together.

You will also find some complain there is too much Don Diego and not enough Zorro. The movie almost gets the right balance but one or two more scenes with Zorro wouldn't have hurt in an attempt to build more suspense.

Like the 1920 version "The Mark of Zorro" is based on Johnson McCulley's "The Curse of Capistrano" written in 1919. This time around the screenplay was adapted by John Taintor Foote, who also wrote "The Story of Seabiscuit" (1949) with Shirley Temple. The movie's musical score by Alfred Newman received the movie's only Academy Award nomination.

The movie was directed by Rouben Mamoulian who did not direct too many movies but is best known for "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1931), "Love Me Tonight" (1932) and "Silk Stockings" (1957).

"The Mark of Zorro" does the best job of presenting the Zorro origins compared to many of the movie adaptations. Power was a good choice to play the character. I like the movie's playful sense of humor as well as several of the fencing scenes. Basil Rathbone actually did know how to fence. This, for me, will always be the definitive Zorro and take me back to my childhood.