Archive for Twilight Zone

Pre-code Love

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 8, 2012 by dcairns

My scavenging through the archives to find films for my Forgotten Pre-Code season at The Daily Notebook naturally threw up some interesting entries that didn’t make the final cut — here are some thoughts.

THE GIRL IN 419 (1933)

This medical/crime thriller was one of the best things I saw, but arrived too late to be prominently featured. Thanks to La Faustin for the disc. Dr James Dunn refuses to let patient Gloria Stuart die — “She’s too beautiful!” and falls in love with her while she’s still comatose. You’ve seen her act, there’s really no point waiting. If the central love interest is a trifle anemic, the comedy relief from Vince Barnett and the villainy from William Harrigan and Jack LaRue more than compensate. La Rue gets a spectacular death scene, after shooting everyone in sight. One survivor is David Manners, whose slightly bland demeanor is brilliantly exploited by the script’s final moments. Although this is a Paramount Picture, the social microcosm and throwaway black humour is reminiscent of the best Warners capers. Jules Furthman wrote the story, no doubt laying down the creepy, sick tone — he was Sternberg’s go-to-guy for scriptwork at this point, and the medical gallows humour here parallels the death row skittishness in Sternberg’s THUNDERBOLT.

DOWN TO THEIR LAST YACHT (1934)

~ is even weirder than it sounds. It starts out with a family of millionaires, busted by the Crash, reluctantly agreeing to sail a bunch of horrid nouveau riche types around on the titular last yacht. Shipwrecked on an uncharted island, they fall under the thrall, if “thrall” is the word I want, of Mary Boland, an insane dowager who’s declared herself Queen of the native population. The plot disintegrates before our eyes, nobody seems to know who or what the film is about, but every so often there’ll be a sideways snarl from Ned Sparks or a bit of fey haplessness from Sterling Holloway. A fever dream.

THE WITCHING HOUR (1934)

This is the earliest Henry Hathaway job I’ve seen. It’s a slightly stagey mystery/drama/thingy with telepathy, hypnosis and a ghost thrown in. Best thing in it is Sir Guy Standing, who previously I’ve mocked because I find his name funny, but he’s wonderfully natural for a theatrical knight. (ERROR — I am confusing Standing with John Halliday, who looks a touch similar and gives the best perf in this) I guess he never made a canonically recognized great film, although LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER was rumoured to be Hitler’s fave.

Sir Guy John Halliday plays the owner of a gambling house who can always anticipate raids due to his mysterious sixth sense. One evening he hypnotizes his prospective son-in-law, as you do, to cure him of a phobia pertaining to cat’s-eye rings. Unfortunately, he unconsciously implants a post-hypnotic suggestion to kill Halliday’s enemy, which the obliging youngster does. Much of the plot turns on the quest to find a lawyer eccentric enough to take on this case — while one can appreciate the difficulty of such a chore, it’s just about the least interesting tack the drama could have taken. Hathaway directs with somewhat bloodless efficiency, but with some nice low angles.

THEY LEARNED ABOUT WOMEN (1930)

Vaudevillians Gus Van and Joe Schenk lack screen chemistry, but Bessie Love plays her ukulele nicely, and you know how I love a good uke. Interesting to trace Love’s progress from Hollywood starlet to character actress in Britain (THE RITZ, REDS, THE HUNGER). And no, that wasn’t her real name (it was Juanita Horton).

THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET (1933)

Oddly structured but affecting, with Kay Francis suffering and Ricardo Cortez dependably oleaginous. Robert Florey merits more love: he made a slew of great pre-codes, some decent 40s films, and some excellent TV episodes (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits). Pair him up with John Brahm as a pro with expressionist chops. It all dates back to THE LOVE OF ZERO in 1927, with cardboard designs by William Cameron Menzies. Nothing as baroque here, but Florey was in synch with the pre-code era, for sure.

UP THE RIVER (1930)

Early John Ford, but really it’s primo Maurine Dallas Watkins, the snappy women-in-prison stuff being the highlight. This is also Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart’s only movie together (it’s a co-ed prison), but Bogart isn’t really Bogart yet — the rather preppie young fellow can act a bit, but doesn’t compel attention. Tracy is in his loutish, disorderly, proletarian Irishman mode, much better value than his stolid paterfamilias trudging later on. The surviving print is incomplete, with some missing scenes and some scenes spliced into blipverts by absent frames. This adds a not-unpleasant, but quite unintended William Burroughs feel to the jaunty hi-jinks.

BIG CITY BLUES (1932)

Mervyn LeRoy, in his most insanely prolific phase, presides over this little beauty. Eric Linden is the naive goof trying to make his way in New York, Walter Catlett is his rip-off artist distant relative taking him for a ride. The mood darkens when an uncredited Lyle Talbot and Bogie crash the party. Bogie gives us a news bulletin —

I enjoyed this so much I forgot to even notice the solution to the whodunnit part. Most of the film is Linden and la Blondell, typically soulful. Grant Mitchell bookends it with a nice turn as station agent, commenting on our hero’s prospects, or lack thereof, in the big smoke.

MIDNIGHT CLUB (1933)

When Billy Wilder pitched DOUBLE INDEMNITY to George Raft, what the actor wanted to know was “When do I flip my lapel and show her the badge?” He assumed his character, outwardly a stinker, must turn out to be an undercover cop. Well, MIDNIGHT CLUB is the origin of that misconception, with Raft flipping his lapel for fire-and-ice Helen Vinson. This diverts the film from its weird starting point, in which heist team Vinson, Clive Brook and Alan Mowbray operate under the noses of the law by hiring lookalikes to impersonate them at the titular club, providing a foolproof alibi. These unruly doppelgangers threaten to develop into some kind of storyline, but never do. Hall & Somnes, who helmed this, also made the more successful GIRL IN 419 (see top). Alexander Hall went on to a long-ish career, Somnes packed it in.

CHILD OF MANHATTAN (1933)

Lugubrious rewrite of a Preston Sturges Broadway hit, with only a few moments of real wit —

“While my carriage was detained, I looked around.”

“Naturally, Miss Sophie.”

“Naturally or not, I looked around.”

Nancy Carroll seems like she could have handed out the required pep if they’d given her the authentic Sturges script, but John Boles would have dragged it down no matter what. Watchable, in a thin way. Luis Alberni would get some proper Sturges dialogue in EASY LIVING — I can’t work out why Sturges didn’t pick him up for his rep company of gnarled bit-players. Still, we’ll always have Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis.

This scene strikingly anticipates the big shopping trip in THE PALM BEACH STORY. You can certainly see how such sequences would have resonated with depression-era dreams.

Bwana Bubble

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2009 by dcairns

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So — like a lot of people who’ve read some basic film history, I knew that the first 3D feature was BWANA DEVIL, promoted with the tagline “A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!” There were things I did NOT know, however  —

1) I didn’t know that BWANA DEVIL is based on the same astonishing true-life case as THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS: an unheard-of incident of two man-eating lions who hunted together, finishing off scores of hapless humans and delaying construction of the first trans-African railway.

2) I didn’t know that the film was made by Arch Oboler, genius of scary radio with a background in low-budget noir, and that he carried on pushing 3D into the 70s, long after the rest of the world had given up on it.

domoarigatposterOboler just wouldn’t give up on “Space-vision.”

I had occasion to mention Oboler this summer when I met Bruce MacDonald, director of the stupendous PONTYPOOL, which deals with the power of radio. He mentioned Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast. I mentioned Oboler’s Chicken Heart broadcast, in which a giant, ever-expanding chicken heart eats the world, and discovered that MacDonald was familiar with the Bill Cosby routine based on the show, but not the show itself.

It still strikes me as weird that Oboler would come from radio, which uses only the dimension of imagination, sparked by sound, and yet the ordinary two-dimensions of cinema were not enough for him.

Here’s a classic slice of Oboler — listen with the lights out!

Oboler’s cult output also includes the slick psycho-noir BEWITCHED, which I wrote of here, post-atomic survival drama FIVE, and THE TWONKY, a bizarro comic fantasy about an alien visitor who takes the form of a TV set. As a drunken sports coach says, “I used to have a Twonky when I was a kid. A Twonky is something that you don’t know what it is…”

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The big problems with BWANA DEVIL are that (1) it doesn’t really benefit from 3D much at all, and Oboler’s flat, washing-line compositions are a waste of the medium. The lion leaps over the camera every time it appears, but there’s not enough suspense to make us afraid of the thing. Paul Schrader’s CAT PEOPLE gets one thing right — the very tactile  and three-dimensional big cats in the movie feel really alive and present, in a way Oboler’s cut-out creations never get a chance to. What’s needed is some Val Lewton atmospherics, giving the lions the aura of the supernatural the African and Indian characters ascribe to them. The real motheaten beasts in this movie, and the CGI creations in the more modern version (another form of 3D — computer-generated 3D cartoons) are neither real enough nor phantasmagorical enough.

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(2) The wonder of the story depends on the audience carrying it its head the fact that this is TRUE and UNIQUE, two qualities from outside the frame of the movie. We have to remind ourselves, in the midst of important action “Seems implausible, but apparently it really happened,” and “I don’t know much about lions, but apparently they never normally do this.” It’s a story that works brilliantly in the history books and when William Goldman tells it in prose. And the movie begins with a title, “This is a story that was told to me in Africa,” hinting at the excitement he must have felt when encountering this great yarn around the campfire.

Robert Stack tries hard in a role not so much underwritten as unwritten, and Nigel Bruce, the beloved Dr Watson from the Basil Rathbone Holmes films, makes a good fist of his Scottish accent — he ought to, despite being born in Mexico (!) he was a descendant of Robert the Bruce.

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“Take these damn Space-Vision glasses! Take them, I say!”

Much better is THE BUBBLE, Oboler’s penultimate Spacevision production, which draws on some of the pulp mystery and numinous terror of his best radio work. A group of 1D characters is trapped in a 3D town which seems to be surrounded by a giant perspex dome. The town is as incomplete and inconsistent as a movie set reconstruction of Patrick McGoohan’s Village, left half-finished, and its populated by humans reduced to robotic repetition, who “feed” by some kind of gross osmotic process conducted in a queer biomechanical temple. Is there no escape?

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The groovy yet unexplained brainwashing sequence.

Oboler’s direction is much friskier here, with carnivalesque effects created by camera movement and odd angles, but the aesthetic is still one of sticking stuff in the viewer’s eye. Why was Oboler obsessed with 3D if that’s all he could see to do with it? Unfortunately, his compelling premise fizzles out, and a lack of consistency in the characters’ behaviour robs it of a lot of its potential. The crux of these Twilight Zone scenarios is that they only work if played out to their natural conclusions, with the crazy idea followed through step by step with impeccable logic.

But the hackneyed effects are still enjoyable, the underwritten character are played by fresh, unskilled but somehow believable actors, and the idea is a nice, creepy one. If Oboler had only come up with a neat, PLANET OF THE APES-style zinger ending, the movie would probably have found its place as a minor cult object.

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Buy Arch Oboler from Amazon —

Five

The Bubble

Lights Out Everybody