Archive for the FILM Category

The Victoria Day Matinee, Episode 6: Disaster from the Skies

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on May 22, 2017 by dcairns

With best wishes for our Canadian chums. Last we saw, Gene Autry seemed in imminent peril of being placed in a room and let out through another door, but to our surprise, he was actually electrocuted and fell dead to the floor. Now read on…

This episode sets a new standard for dishonesty, worthy of the Trump administration, as this time Gene DOESN’T get electrocuted and is released before the voltage flies. Rewriting history. Did Big Brother get his start editing movie serials, or were the makers of THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (our Shadowplay serial) taking tips from Uncle Joe Stalin?

“Argo,” says Queen Tika, “You may now start Autry’s charred body on its trip to the cavern of the doomed!” An odd thing to say, one would have thought, but after all, she’s the queen, not us, so she can say it if she wants to. I’m just observing that it’s odd. I’m not proposing we invoke the twenty-fifth amendment, or anything. But we might want to keep it at the back of our minds. Maybe all that radium is clouding her judgement.

Autry, from his little atrium off the lightning chamber, watches through a hatch as Argo’s secret revolution foments itself, if “foment” is the word I want. One guy claims to have invented a disintegrating device which can destroy the universe. I’m sure there’s a crying need for that. Then they catch Autry and propose to vivisect him, to find out how a surface man’s lungs work. I’m curious about that too, since the Muranians need special respiratory gear to canter about on the surface, but Autry is happily puffing away at the subterranean oxygen with no ill effects. A vivisection seems just the thing to clear the matter up, and I’m broadly in favour of the move.

Autry, however, disagrees, and after throwing the wimpy scientists around for a bit, seizes a ray gun, essentially resembling a large whisk, and holds them at bay. Somebody tries to jump him, and the disintegrating guy gets blinded by a powerful beam from his own whisk. “I’m blinded! I’m blind!” cries the disintegrator inventor, and then, “I’m blind! I’m blind! I’m blind! I’m blinded!” he continues, before adding, “I’m blind! I’m blind! I’m blinded! I’m blind!” We can tell he’s a man partial to strong statements, and eager to get his point across in the most effective way. Also, he’s blind.

The blinded disintegrator man’s friends crowd round and assess the situation. “This is unfortunate,” one of them concludes. But then they decide the condition is only temporary. (The blindness, that is. The fondness for forceful repetition is probably innate.)

Now it’s time for one of Queen Tika’s tape-slide presentations, a highlight of any episode of THE PHANTOM EMPIRE. An underling activates her circular floor monitor (basically a high-tech version of the pool of visions used by Boris Karloff in THE MUMMY for flashback exposition purposes). This time, however, there’s to be no disquisition on the relative merits of living in the open air versus in a stinking hole in the ground (the latter being far superior, according to Queen T.) We see an image of a five-bar gate. “Take me closer, I want to hear what they have to say!” demands the Queen. Just in time to catch a medium shot and listen in on the evil Professor Beetson plotting to discover Murania’s hidden entrance. “So they think they will discover Murania and become rich, do they?” sneers the Queen. But her eavesdropping is itself eavesdropped, by Gene Autry, standing unobserved in full view in a window right in front of her.

Now Gene takes hostage the television operator, who we will learn is called Gasper or something, and tries to communicate with his buddies at Radio Ranch (Hey, maybe he could perform the next edition of his show live from 20,000 feet below the earth’s surface?). But Gene can’t reach his pals due to something called a Word Scrambler. Gasper tries to explain this, but his own words come out pretty scrambled: “It’s an un-instrument which mixes up the words of our wireless telephone so that nobody outside um-Murania can unnerstand what is said.” Just as this Gasper’s becoming my favourite actor ever, Gene punches him unconscious.

Now Gene reroutes the Word Scrambler, or something (his radio experience coming in handy in dealing with a totally alien technology) and enjoys a quick chat with Frankie and Betsy, telling them the location of the entrance to Murania. But now Queen Tika comes back (her palace seems to contain only three rooms, so she spends a lot of time in the television room). Gene hides behind a console, but the Queen overhears Frank promising to ride to the rescue, so she orders a bomb prepared to blow up the Junior Thunder Riders. Sounds like another cliffhanger is on the way.

Meanwhile poor Gasper, still unconscious, is accused of patching through the call to the surface world, a treasonable offence. I really don’t want to lose this thespian genius to the lightning chamber so soon…

Time for a quick demonstration of the robots’ workings. Two guards set them on alert by pressing buttons on their chests, and activate a photocell which will cause them to chop, with their might scimitars, anyone who crosses the beam. Everything in Murania seems to operate on the principle of the garage door.

Then there’s some confused running about — there seem to be shots missing — and a fight in an elevator (not as good as the one in THE WINTER SOLDIER) and then Autry breaks into the aerial torpedo silo, which he easily locates despite never having been there, and causes the missile to boomerang back (great reaction from the missile operator — the flapping hands of big jessie panic), right in his face, definitely, beyond any question, killing him instantly.

Which seems awkward, as the serial is only half over.

To be continued…


The Psychic Sunday Intertitle: Thinking Aloud

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on May 21, 2017 by dcairns

Heard about this one in a Facebook discussion about surtitles or supertitles or whatever you call them — the rare practice of superimposing an intertitle over action. Not very popular due to the difficulty of re-doing the opticals for foreign markets. Academic Carol O’Sullivan was asking for examples, citing BEN-HUR as one. I weighed in with Hitchcock’s THE RING, which uses the effect during a climactic boxing match possibly for the same reason they used it in the BH chariot race — to keep the action going under the dialogue, for a faster pace.

Eric Scheirer Stott recommended WALKING BACK, directed by Rupert Julian under Cecil B. DeMille — right under him — which is a hectic jazz age road to ruin romp, exulting in Charlestons, hip flasks and slang while wagging a stern finger at them simultaneously. The DeMille Hypocrisy in full cry.

The superimposed intertitles are fascinating — they represent the hero’s stream-of-consciousness inner monologue. A unique bit of film language, at least until ANNIE HALL’s date scene.

If you can think of any other examples of superimposed intertitles, let me know and I’ll make sure Carol hears about them.

In a jam, alright

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2017 by dcairns

All I knew about LADY IN A JAM is that it was a late one from Gregory La Cava — at the Edinburgh Film Fest retrospective, Chris Fujiwara declined to show it but said it had elements which were defensible, unlike its follow-up, LIVING IN A BIG WAY. I feel bad for La Cava, finishing his career, more or less, with Gene Kelly. A great talent, Kelly, but a vulnerable alcoholic shouldn’t have to work with a man like that.

I guess elements of LIAJ are defensible. I expected, based on the vague description, that it would start strongly and go off the boil — a number of La Cava’s great films have slightly shaky endings — but in fact it only simmers throughout, with an occasional gleeful bubble. The movie never seems to know what it’s about, and it’s a very strange case of casting Irene Dunne as a ditzy heiress but making her bitchy too — she’s a horrible person. The idea that she has no sense of money, and therapist Patric Knowles is trying to cure her of this irresponsibility, is a potentially appealing one. But she has no sense of people either, and basically tried to trample all over anyone in her path. She’s like Katherine Hepburn in the early scenes of BRINGING UP BABY but removed the comedy.

Knowles as therapist is a kind of machine-man, so the idea should be that he’s humanized by Dunne and maybe she gains a bit of orderliness from him, but La Cava can’t seem to get anywhere with this, so they’re still the same half-persons at the end that they were at the beginning, and we can never really empathise with either of them. I was a little mean about Knowles’ boringness in IT’S LOVE I’M AFTER but he does have good comic timing here, and throws himself into playing the buttoned-down, repressed aspects of the character.

Ralph Bellamy comes along as a cowboy doofus, a grating exaggeration of his Okie dope from THE AWFUL TRUTH. Mainly you feel embarrassed for the actor. Eugene Pallette is his reliable self, but hasn’t been given any comedy to play. Queenie Vassar is pretty great and there’s an unconventional little blob of a child actor, Jane Garland, who’s a nice presence. But it’s all predicated on nothing.

It reminds me of IF YOU COULD ONLY COOK, an early screwball in which millionaire Herbert Marshall, if I’m recalling this correctly, takes a job as kitchen staff. We were about half an hour into it when we asked, “Wait a minute, WHY is he doing this?” Similarly, why does Knowles abandon his research work to masquerade as Dunne’s chauffeur (a plot thread which goes nowhere as she immediately loses her car) and then head out to a desert ghost town and help Dunne strike gold? He complains often enough about having to do it, but we couldn’t see why he has to do it at all. That kind of thing certainly matters.

Still, the bossy heiress recalls FEEL MY PULSE, the earliest La Cava shown at Edinburgh, which had Bebe Daniels in the role. The interest in psychotherapy reminds me of PRIVATE WORLDS — La Cava had spent time in at least one sanatorium and I think his interest is genuine — he just doesn’t understand anything about it. Still, Knowles here communicates in psychobabble and stuff about represssed feelings, which is a bit better than Joel McCrea’s Horatio Alger homilies in PW. The earlier film is still far superior, though.

Maybe what kept La Cava from resolving this one (apart from the hooch) is that it’s not MY MAN GODFREY. A butler reforming the family he works for is an amusing conceit. A therapist reforming anyone isn’t, because that’s his job, after all. FIFTH AVENUE GIRL was able to use the reform plot, because Ginger Rogers was a low-status character who turned out to have more smarts than the millionaires she moved in with. SHE MARRIED HER BOSS did it with Claudette Colbert marrying into the family, which was less amusing on the face of it, but the clue is in the title — she’s still kind of an underling. But she can win too easily, and there’s nothing absurd about it, so the film starts relying on broad drunken knockabout towards the end to distract from a certain flatness which up until then we haven’t felt, thanks to La Cava and his cast’s skill.

So La Cava does all he can with Knowles, which is drive him to distraction. Which makes his half of the picture fairly amusing, but you never saw a less agreeable Irene Dunne. Her talent is working overtime, but it’s been aimed in the wrong direction.

After this and THE AFFAIRS OF CELLINI, I really must reconnect with some GOOD La Cava, but I’m also morbidly drawn towards LIVING IN A BIG WAY…