Archive for Boris Karloff

Ned Land Ahoy

Posted in FILM, literature, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2021 by dcairns

So, first Lana Wood finally confirms the rumours of her sister Natalie’s account of being raped by Kirk Douglas. I’d long been inclined to believe this rumour, not religiously or anything, it just seemed likely to be true based on Douglas’ character as he presented it himself. “I didn’t become a nice guy until after my stroke,” he said. His memoir is a saga of sexual conquests, with a meaningless anecdote about Wood as a young girl dropped in for no comprehensible reason, right before he tells us about his affair with Evelyn Keyes, a married woman at the time. So, even though Dennis Hopper was one source for this story (“Not a reliable witness” according to a judge who heard his testimony in an unrelated case), I found it credible. There didn’t seem any reason for inventing it.

It was, however, a coincidence that led us to watch the 1916 version of 20, 000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, in whose remake Douglas would star forty-eight years later. And we didn’t know, going in, that the film’s plot would eerily turn on a whole succession of fate-worse-than-death tropes. Kind of strange.

The film is available — FINALLY! — from Masters of Cinema as centrepiece of their Early Universal Vol. 2 box set. As one might expect from its being a very early feature film, it’s a mixture of the surprisingly skilled and the clunkingly naive. The blame for the bad and the credit for the good belongs to the film’s director and writer, Glaswegian Stuart Paton. His script is pretty terrible — he mashes up Verne’s novel with its sequel, Mysterious Island, resulting in two lots of heroes who never interact, dividing the action between them, slowing narrative development to a crablike sidewise crawl and depriving most of his multitudinous heroes of anything dramatic to do. Ned Land, “prince of harpooners,” the Kirk Douglas character, ricochets a single spear off the Nautilus’ hull and then troubles us no more, except as a face in the crowd. When things get too slow, Paton adds an attempted sexual assault or three to spice things up. While the Kirk Douglas news story may have subconsciously inspired our viewing of the film, only the long arm of coincidence or synchronicity can account for this persistent theme of toxic masculinity.

On the other hand, his filming is often quite sophisticated for the period. The Williamson Brothers provided the production with special reverse periscopes for filming underwater, the full-sized Nautilus upper portions, and the biggish miniature for subsurface action, are impressive. As are some of his angles, such as a startling top-shot of Indians playing their tom-toms (!).

The only cast members to make much of an impression are Allen Holubar as Nemo, and Jane Gail as A Child of Nature, both in brownface, both fairly terrible. Gail goes Cavorting around the woodlands in a permanent state of pixilation: “Being a child of nature seems a lot like just being drunk,” Fiona observed. Nemo, coated in shoe polish with vivid white eyelashes, looks simultaneously exactly like Santa Claus and exactly like a Woodsman from Twin Peaks season 3. Never not disturbing. The idea of either figure being in charge of a submarine is somehow deeply wrong. In fairness to Holubar, one never suspects him of being in his early thirties, or of being about to drop dead, both of which he was. One never suspects him of being an Indian submariner either.

The film is very worth seeing — “dated,” lavish, loopy, sophisticated and primitive. If Paton had any idea of narrative structure it would be a lot more watchable than it is, but it piles on enough spectacle and absurdity and innovation — there are flashbacks and dream sequences and giant sets as well as the aquatic footage — to be consistently surprising.

I may have to see more work from my crazy countryman — Kim Newman in the extra features suggests THE HOPE DIAMOND MYSTERY, another Indian-themed epic with Boris Karloff in one of his early Asian roles.

Brainswapping

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2021 by dcairns
Bryan Powley relaxes between takes

THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND turns out to be really good — thanks to Joe Dante for bigging it up at Trailers From Hell. He points out that this little (61 minute) British sci-fi shocker is the role model for all of Boris Karloff’s later Columbia mad scientist flicks, and better than all of them (and I like those films, as I suspect does Joe).

Director is Robert Stevenson, far from his Disney doldrums — his late British films are huge fun, those I’ve seen — NON-STOP NEW YORK and KING SOLOMON’S MINES. Does this mean I have to watch his Jack Hulbert comedies? I suppose it does.

Karloff essays one of his usual turn-on-a-dime plunges into insanity from kindliness, but he’s never THAT kindly — the seeds are sewn in the first act. Anna Lee is smiley again, perhaps a little TOO smiley, and John Loder is a fast-talking newspaperman. But the film’s real treat comes from Donald Calthrop as the disabled assistant/co-conspirator, and the great Frank Cellier, the newspaper tycoon who funds Boris’ experiments in mind transference.

Karloff’s Dr. Laurience has found a way to extract the information — memories and personality — from one brain and transfer them to another. He’s proven this with a placid and an irate chimp, played, I think, by the same ape — the IMDb lists one Bryan Powley as “undetermined role (uncredited)” so I’m going to call the chimp Brian Powley from here on in. Cellier at first backs Karloff, but withdraws support after Karloff, a genius as a brain scientist but a lousy salesman, gives an unsuccessful presentation to the media. So Karloff transplants Calthrop’s mind into Cellier’s body, so his underling can keep the funds flowing in Cellier’s guise.

And, it turns out, Cellier can do a terrific impression of Calthrop’s wheedling delivery. While it’s weird that Karloff doesn’t get to transplant his own mind at this point, our reward is more Cellier and more Karloff. We get less Calthrop but we get enough of him.

It’s also weird that no human character changes bodies with Bryan Powley the chimp of a thousand faces, since he appears in the movie’s most famous still. I’m sure HE could have put on a very convincing and accurate Donald Calthrop act as well.

Boris DOES get to try his invention on himself in the third act, and John Loder, who one never particularly admires, pulls off a striking (and cruel) imitation of Karloff’s stance, which is an assumed old-man gait at this point, but uncannily like the bow-legged hobble Karloff will acquire for real by the 1960s, so I’m assuming he was already suffering it a bit here.

The clever script is by John L. Balderston, a regular writer on Universal’s horror cycle (DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY, BRIDE OF) and Sidney Gilliat, a regular writer on just about every entertaining British film of the period, and one L. Du Garde Peach, who certainly has a good name.

There are very few British horror films from the thirties — THE GHOUL and MOTHER RILEY MEETS THE VAMPIRE — they’re all of interest. This one is perhaps trying to have plausible deniability since the BBFC really didn’t like the “H” Certificate films… so it’s funny and fantastical too. Worth your time.

Costumes by Molyneux

THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND stars ????; Ianto; Bronwyn; Bob Cratchit; Wright; Mr. Todhunter; Dr. Grimesby Rylott; Herbert Ponting F.R.P.S.; Joshua Trimble; and Dr. Gribble.

PS The fact that Bryan Powley’s other IMDb roles include Dr. Gribble, Cmmdr Mannering, Capt. Hardy, single gentleman, Col. Burgoyne of the French Secret Service and Sir Isaac Newton may be thought to argue strongly against his being a chimpanzee. But by careful study of his features I’m convinced he is one, albeit a particularly versatile one.

Yesterday

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2020 by dcairns

A busy day at Il Cinema Ritrovato online:

LIEBLING DER GOTTER, Emil Jannings in an early German talkie. Surprisingly sophisticated — I guess Europe had a couple of years to absorb the early mistakes and discoveries of American sound film, so there’s immediately an understanding that UNsynchronised sound — separating sound from image — offscreen voices and noises overlaid on top of contrasting images — is one of the most powerful and absorbing techniques, at least as valuable as lip-synched dialogue.

CALIFORNIA SPLIT — I’d seen this years ago and knew it was good — Fiona hadn’t. More sound innovation, as Altman mixes untold layers of overlapping gab, sometimes allowing a clear conversation to emerge from the wordstream, sometimes smothering bits of it in crosstalk, sometimes submerging everying in burbling accretions of babel.

The film itself is terrific. I recall Elliott Gould talking about it in Edinburgh. He was a producer on it and said that the ending was originally supposed to show him and George Segal exiting the casino, filmed from outside: they’re friendship is over.

Altman approached Gould and suggested, it being very late/early and everyone tired, that they could end the film indoors and save themselves relocating and setting up a new shot. Gould agreed, and has wondered ever since if he made a mistake, and if the film underperformed because of it.

Maybe the very end is a tiny bit lacking — but not in a way that hurts your memory of the experience. A good illustration of Kurosawa’s point that, when you’re tired, your body and brain tell you that you have enough footage when you really don’t. The only solution, AK counsels, is to go ahead and shoot twice as much as you think you need.

A hard lesson!

The movie is wonderful — I miss the pre-McKee era when films could shamble along loosely, apparently neglecting all rules of structure, until at the end you realised that everything was there for a reason and an artful design had been functioning all along, UNDETECTED.

We also watched TAP ROOTS (George Marshall, 1948), beautiful Technicolor but by God it was dull.

Apart from Boris Karloff as a Native American with an English accent, and a fairly well-written part for Van Heflin, and the odd political interest of this GONE WITH THE WIND knock-off (Susan Hayward being flame-haired at the top of her voice) in which the South wins the Civil War against itself (a valley of abolitionist Southerners is invaded by the Confederates), the most striking moment was a surely unplanned incident in a river battle where one horse, improvising wildly, mounted another, trapping the hapless actor on Horse (2)’s saddle in a kind of Confederate sandwich with horses instead of bread. Looked painful. I have never weighed a horse but I believe they’re not featherweights.