Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Island of Lost Souls

Island of Lost Souls
seen @ Landmark Loews Jersey Theater, Jersey City, NJ

One wouldn't associate Charles Laughton exclusively with the horror genre, but the few films he has done are keepers: he was the hunchback of Notre Dame, for starters. I've never seen Lon Chaney's version, so I don't know how Laughton's version compares, but damn, was he good. He was one of the guests in The Old Dark House, though his role in that wasn't anywhere near as showy. He directed Night of the Hunter which, although it's not traditional horror, it's scary in places - such as every time Robert Mitchum is on screen. Plus, Laughton was married to the bride of Frankenstein!

Island of Lost Souls was in keeping with what would become a long tradition of Laughton playing scoundrels, outsiders and villains, and few were better in his time. Souls, of course, is H. G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau by another name, nor was this Laughton's first association with the famed SF writer. In 1928, he appeared in three shorts featuring wife Elsa Lanchester, written by Wells. (Here's one of them, Blue Bottles.) Wells allegedly didn't like Souls; too much horror, not enough philosophy.

The Moreau story has been redone and parodied enough times where you probably know the basics: mad scientist creates humanoid life forms out of animals; dude trapped on the island has to escape. Laughton is terrific, as you would expect him to be. After this film, he would take on larger-than-life roles: Henry the VIII (twice), Inspector Javert, Captain Bligh. Here you can sense the evolution of his on-screen persona: walking around whipping his animal-men; manipulating people, playing them like chess pieces; even the style of his dress and his goatee are suggestive of somebody different from other mortal men.

The credits list "the Panther Woman" in the part of the vampish were-woman Lota. In reality, she was former dental assistant Kathleen Burke, who won a national contest held by Paramount for the part. She went on to do some other stuff throughout the 30s. Also, an unrecognizable Bela Lugosi plays the leader of the animal-men, though if you listen to his voice, I think you can make him out.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover this was where the band Devo cribbed the "Are we not men?" line. In fact, several bands have paid tribute to this film in song, including Van Halen and Oingo Boingo; plus, there was a hip hop group called House of Pain.

Devo's debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! included the song "Jocko Homo", which can be read to be about the evolution/creation divide, I suppose, but honestly, it's hard to pay attention to the lyrics when you're watching that video. Seriously, take a look at it; this was back when bands made videos that were more like short films, and while this one has nothing to do with the Moreau story per se, it's still got its fair share of Nightmare Fuel.

The Loews JC showed Souls as part of a Halloween triple feature that also included House on Haunted Hill and Halloween, which brought out the biggest crowd, as you can imagine. A dude in a Michael Myers mask played the piano in the lobby. Regrettably, I could only stay for Souls, the second film, but at least I had company...

You're familiar with Aurora, of course. To her left is Monstergirl (AKA Jo) from The Last Drive In and her girlfriend Wendy, both of whom I met for the first time. It will come as little surprise, I'm sure, when I say all of them were there for all three movies. I remember chatting a bit with Jo by email a few years ago when I found out she was local. Sadly, she hasn't posted in awhile. Here's hoping she comes back to her blog soon.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Five movies to represent me

With thanks to Michelle for the idea, however indirectly.

What five films would you tell a significant other to watch to know what kind of person you are?

The reasons why are in the post. Also here. This movie alone would be more than enough.

Love Jones
I wanted to be like the characters in this movie, or at least meet them in reality. Eventually, I did, in more ways than one - only they all live too far away from me.

Not just the Mets, not just baseball, but sports in general. And my father. Duh.

Again, the reasons why are in the post.

Pee-Wee's Big Adventure
I've actually never seen this... but for a movie about the joy of biking, I can't imagine a better choice.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Bigamist

The Joan Fontaine Centenary Blogathon is an event celebrating the actress on the occasion of her 100th birthday, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and The Wonderful World of Cinema. For a complete listing of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.

The Bigamist

YouTube viewing

Finally, I watched an Ida Lupino-directed movie, only I was slightly disappointed. The Bigamist was good, better than I had expected, but I kind of hoped to find something in it, some visual flair in the cinematography or editing or acting that would mark it as "an Ida Lupino film." I didn't see one; it looked like most Hollywood movies of the early 50s tended to look. If Lupino had a directorial style, perhaps it will take more than one film of hers to spot.

I used to think this movie was exploitative in some way; like, because it was such an unusual subject matter for the time, it would be lurid or cheap somehow? Obviously, this was long before I knew about Lupino. In fact, the movie bends over backwards to make Edmond O'Brien sympathetic, despite the crime his character commits. (Anyone else think he kinda looked like Raymond Burr?)

It was a choice he made, no doubt, but the screenplay works hard at painting him into a corner: traveling salesman; oblivious (though not cold) wife unable to have kids; other woman who he knocks up. It'd be easier if he was a cad, like say, Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction, but O'Brien wants to do right by Lupino as much as by Joan Fontaine. Given the morals of the time, he must have known how a single woman who had a baby out of wedlock would be regarded. He didn't want Lupino to suffer that fate. That's honorable, in a twisted way.

Fontaine "compensates" for her infertility by supporting O'Brien in his business. At first she doesn't want to adopt. There's a good scene where the two of them are entertaining clients at home. She schmoozes and makes with the sales pitch while O'Brien is quieter, more withdrawn, like he knows she cares more about business than their marriage. It's a great scene for a woman character, yet the implication is she would not be this way if she was a mother. Fontaine confirms as much later on, when she changes her mind about adopting, saying how she realized "something was missing" in her life. Just like Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in Penny Serenade, the couple's self-worth is predicated on their ability to start a family.

Since this blogathon is devoted to her, a few quick words about Fontaine. If I had to choose between her and Olivia De Havilland, I think I'd go with Livvie. Joan always struck me as being a little too soft. Yes, I saw her in Born to Be Bad, where she goes way against type; maybe if she had made more movies like that, I wouldn't think of her as mousy. Plus, the shape of her mouth is off-putting to me. She had that odd curl to her upper lip I always notice whenever I see her in something and once I see it, I can't un-see it. Livvie doesn't have it. Still, Fontaine was okay. Don't have anything against her, really.

Edmund Gwenn plays the adoption agent who uncovers O'Brien's dirty little secret. In the beginning, he and Fontaine joke that Gwenn looks like Santa Claus. If Lupino had stuck with this one harmless wink to the audience, that would've been fine. Later on, however, there's a scene on a Hollywood bus tour; it's where O'Brien meets Lupino. The driver says things like, "There's Barbara Stanwyck's home," and "There's Jack Benny's home," and then he says, "And there's Edmund Gwenn's home!"

That threw me out of the movie completely. Such a blatant metatextual flourish, coupled with the earlier in-joke, seemed completely at odds with the rest of the movie. I couldn't understand why Lupino would do that. Were she and Gwenn pals? Maybe that was her directorial flair.

Movies with Joan Fontaine:

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

It (2017)

It Chapter One
seen @ AMC Loews Fresh Meadows 7, Fresh Meadows, Queens NY

My childhood fear was dogs, and I had it for a long time. It's perhaps my earliest memory: me, at perhaps two or three, on vacation at my grandma's house in Florida, running away on account of her dog. It was the first time I had ever seen one; don't remember what kind it was. I just know it disagreed with me. I didn't get far - at least I'm fairly sure I didn't - but by the time my parents caught up with me the psychological damage was done.

For many years afterward, I could not be within barking distance of a dog, no matter what size, no matter if it was on a leash or not, no matter how friendly its owner claimed it was: if I saw one on the sidewalk coming toward me, I'd cross the street and continue on the far side. It took a combination of therapy and sheer willpower to overcome that fear. I'm actually starting to like them more. Recently, I was at Lynn's apartment and I played with her therapy dog Mackenzie like it was no big deal.

My childhood, all things considered, wasn't terrible. Sure, there were lots of things I wish I could change, but I had a stable home life with both parents, I did well in school, and I had good friends. Not the kind of material on which horror novels are based, or for that matter, movies.

I would guess the appeal of the Stephen King opus It lies not only with the demonic killer clown Pennywise terrorizing little kids; scary as he is, the real world threats within the story are almost as bad, if not more so. Watching this new film version, originally done as a TV mini-series, I realized Pennywise is little different from his cinematic forebears: Jason, Freddy, Michael, Jigsaw, etc. It's the contrast between him and characters like the sadistic bully, the sexually abusive father, the over-protective mother, that elevates this material, however slightly.

I remember the TV version, of course - no one who saw it the first time could forget it - but this cinematic remake has to have a CGI-enhanced showdown at the end like so many SF/fantasy/horror movies these days. I suppose it was inevitable. Still, the film was okay overall. I liked how Derry felt like a real place, with a history, specific locations, and an environment all its own. It was a smart idea to make this a duology: one film set in the past, one in the present. I'll probably come back for the second half.

King, it seems, is more popular than ever now. I've read little of his work because so much of it gets scooped up by Hollywood that I suppose I've never felt the need. The one King book I own is, oddly enough, one of the few that hasn't been adapted: Rose Madder. Mousy wife flees crazy abusive husband; he pursues. She acquires a certain painting... and things get weird. Jim Sheridan was attached to a film version back in 2011, but nothing has happened since.

I've seen it written that part of King's skill is in finding the creepy out of the mundane. Based on what I've read of him, I agree. He's also not afraid to make his villains truly evil - not just his supernatural ones, but his real-world ones too; It is the perfect example. 

I can't say whether he's coasting on his reputation or if he's still got it at this point in his career. Regardless, King has earned his reputation for sure, and as someone who's struggling with one novel, to see him crank out books as consistently as he does is intimidating, to say the least. I hope I can achieve a fraction of his success.

Friday, October 13, 2017

A Rita Hayworth Primer

Hollywood's Hispanic Heritage Blogathon es un evento dedicado a celebrar los logros de los latinos en la industria del cine a lo largo de la historia, organizado por Once Upon a Screen. Para obtener una lista de bloggers que participan, por favor visite los enlaces en cualquier sitio.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Loving Vincent

Loving Vincent
seen @ Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, New York NY

I threw out most of my oil and acrylic paintings prior to my move to Ohio, in an attempt to straighten my closets and unburden myself of non-essential material, but I remember some of what they looked like. They were from my high school and college years, which also includes the summer I spent in a painting class in Barcelona. None of the work - none of what I remember, anyway - was anything special. My artistic talent has always manifested itself better in pencil and pen & ink and watercolor; oils, and especially acrylics, were a different animal.

Monday, October 9, 2017

What a Life

What a Life
YouTube viewing

What a Life is a largely forgotten entry in the careers of Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett. Wilder doesn't even mention it in Conversations with Wilder, Cameron Crowe's book-length interview with the writer-director.

It's based on a play, but Paramount liked it enough to turn it into a franchise, featuring Jackie Cooper's lead character, Henry Aldrich, no doubt to compete with Andy Hardy over at Metro. Prior to this, I only knew Cooper from the Superman movies from the 70s and 80s, but of course, he had a notable career as a child star in the 30s, as one of the Little Rascals and in films like The Champ.

Henry is more of a schlemiel than Andy; he doesn't try to get into trouble, but it seems to find him anyway - and you can bet he gets the blame. He's Peter Parker without the benefit of a radioactive spider bite. Dad is implied but never seen, so there's no one with whom he can have a "man-to-man" talk (though a sympathetic teacher offers him guidance late in the film). There's a Mary Jane character for him to pine over and a Flash character to bully him, some oddball teachers, a semi-romantic adult couple, Hedda Hopper as Henry's mom, a glowering principal, even a cop!

To be honest, if this was the first Wilder film I saw (he only co-wrote; he didn't direct), I would not guess he'd go on to make films like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It Hot, though there are hints, however small. The film opens with the school marching band parading through the campus and into the halls, and at the tail end, one kid provides a jazzy flair to the music before his music teacher scolds him. It's easy to miss, but it's there, and it's funny. The cop is called in to investigate some missing musical instruments, for which Henry is framed. The cop is belligerent to the snooty music teacher at first, but by the end, they're dancing together at the climactic school dance. The love interest actually has braces - but of course, she's only Hollywood Homely, so she gets a makeover and suddenly becomes a hottie.

What a Life came out in 1939, the same year as Ninotchka and Midnight; a huge difference. Here's a quote from Wilder about the film from Charlotte Chandler's Billy Wilder: A Personal Biography:
...The picture doesn't seem like much now, but at the time it was a very, very big challenge for me, it was so American. I had never worked on that kind of subject before, and this one was twice as tough, because it was about American teenagers in an American high school. The Europeans in Hollywood usually got European subjects, but with Charlie Brackett, they trusted me. The lines I contributed didn't speak with an accent.
Given those circumstances, I can certainly cut him slack. Still, this would probably be best appreciated by Wilder completists.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Books: The Star Machine

The Star Machine is the third book I've read by Jeanine Basinger, and for someone who doesn't read a great deal of books about Old Hollywood (at least not as much as some), I've found I really enjoy her writing in particular. She totally knows her stuff about film, but she writes almost like a really smart blogger than a university professor, which she is.

You get a sense of her through her books: her life, her history with film, the things about them she values, even her sense of humor. Her books give you an education for sure, but it's one filtered through her specific experiences. In a way, it's within the same ballpark as what I do here, only she's way smarter about film than me.

Oh, and she has some pretty famous students: Michael Bay, Joss Whedon, Akiva Goldsman, Martin Scorsese's daughter Domenica, among others. They talk about her in this THR article from a couple of years ago.

Machine is about how the old studio system, from the dawn of the sound era onward, took the actors in their films and made them stars. In a way, it's a rather sobering account: Basinger emphasizes the business side of show business, the way the studios took a given actor's on-screen persona, crafted films to match that persona, and sold it to the public through the media. The studios regarded stars the way GM regarded cars: as product, and they treated them as such - but they gave them fame, fortune and a sort of immortality in return.

Basinger provides examples of the machine at work, profiling the careers of not only A-list stars, but supporting players, actors who found stardom later in their lives, stars created to fill the void left by World War 2, stars who were, to put it kindly, less glamorous than others, even child stars. We see actors who worked with the system and those who rebelled against it, actors who strove to make quality material and those who provided light escapist fare.

Basinger understands their appeal. She writes critically about why a Tyrone Power or a Lana Turner were marked for stardom, and how the machine shaped their careers, but she never forgets the audience's perspective; indeed, it's crucial to that understanding, and she is as much a part of that audience as the reader. She never forgets that either. She also does a brief comparison at the end with today's stars, free of the studio system but with a different set of obstacles.

The Star Machine provides an intimate understanding of what it meant to be a star in Old Hollywood that's both terrifying and mesmerizing. It's a very unique film history book.

Also by Jeanine Basinger:
I Do and I Don't
Silent Stars

Monday, October 2, 2017

Link runner

I'm sure I've talked about this before, but I was reminded of it again recently and I feel like complaining. As you know, I come from a comics background. Marvel and DC Comics have broken into television and film in a big way now, to the point where secondary and tertiary characters, the ones only hardcore comics fans would have known in the past, are getting their moments in the spotlight.

If you still actually read the comics themselves, I imagine it's pretty exciting, though my passion for superhero comics cooled long ago. If you're a fan of a certain age, like I am, you can remember when they were - not a secret thing, exactly, but something that required specialized knowledge to fully comprehend, and only a minority possessed it. Having that knowledge made us unique and distinctive, if not exactly popular, but that was the price we paid for knowing important things like Wonder Girl's convoluted history or the fate of Cyclops' second brother.

It's more than a little grating to me to know the walls of the fortress called Comics Fandom have been breached; that anybody with a Netflix account can get a basic education on the fringe elements of the Marvel Universe, the kinda stuff that used to be the exclusive province of the fanboy. Even ten years ago, TV shows based on characters like Luke Cage and Iron Fist and now the Inhumans would have been nothing more than fodder for a Wizard magazine "Casting Call" column. It's just a struggle to accept (though I wonder how many people who watch these shows and films read the comics on which they were based).

Speaking of TV, between DiscoveryThe Orville and Feud, I've watched way more of it this year than usual, and um, how do I say this without sounding like a prude... It's surprising what you can say and do on TV now. You're all saying "No duh," but it's one thing to write about how shows look more like movies now and another to actually see it for myself. I mean, they were bandying the word dick around pretty casually on The Orville (it's a Fox show, so I really shouldn't have been surprised).

Feud was on basic cable, but even so, I couldn't quite get used to the profanity - which is odd, because if I were watching a movie on IFC or Cinemax that had profanity, I wouldn't think twice. Maybe it's because I know it's a movie that makes the difference?

It's not just the language. The production values on Feud, as I said at the time, were outstanding: sets, wardrobe, cinematography and editing. The aliens and ships in Discovery and Orville, not to mention the visual effects, make every episode look theatrical. It's no wonder film is suffering another downturn in sales. I guess that's why some theaters are so eager to install luxury recliner seats and have a wait staff bring you your food. What's next?

In other news, my novel is close to done. When it comes time to revise it, I'll have to do things like fill in research gaps, such as for medical and legal story details; rethink certain character traits now that I know more about them; rethink certain plot details; and rewrite where necessary... and it will be necessary. In a lot of ways, it's a bigger task than writing the story. This was a good idea, right?

Two blogathon posts for you this month, and now that fall is here, the good new releases will multiply. I may even write about a few.

Your links:

Ivan checks out an early film from dance legend Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.

Marsha explains why Marilyn Monroe made her cry.

Aurora has a terrific guest post from a woman who grew up a classic film fan in Spain.

Silver Screenings Ruth peeps behind the curtain at movie stars before they were glamorous.

Le looks at the friendship of Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow.

The reaction to Mother! is the latest example of the need for audiences to have everything explained to them. (Excellent article.)

One of my favorite childhood TV series, The Carol Burnett Show, debuted 50 years ago last month.

John Lennon once appeared in a fourth wall-breaking war comedy.

Ever wonder how theaters started selling popcorn?

Wanna buy some of Audrey Hepburn's old clothes?