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Month: June 2011

House of Frankenstein (1944)

House of Frankenstein (1944)

“If I had Frankenstein’s records to guide me, I could give you a perfect body!”

Synopsis:
A mad scientist (Boris Karloff) and his hunchbacked cellmate (J. Carrol Naish) break free from jail and take over the traveling sideshow run by Professor Lampini (Bruno Zucco), who they promptly murder. After reviving the skeleton of Dracula (John Carradine), Karloff and Naish dig up the bodies of Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) and werewolf Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney), hoping they will know the whereabouts of Dr. Frankenstein’s records. Meanwhile, Naish falls in love with a local gypsy girl (Elena Verdugo), who in turn is smitten with the doomed Chaney.

Genres:

Review:
Peary is nothing if not complete in his coverage of Universal’s Frankenstein pictures, including all eight entries in his GFTFF. This final “legitimate” film in the series (before things went completely humorous by introducing Abbott and Costello into the mix) is — like its immediate predecessor, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) — primarily designed to capitalize on the success of more than just one of the studio’s infamous monsters. Here, no less than three (Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, and the Werewolf) are introduced in the space of just 71 minutes (and apparently scenes with the Mummy were planned but cut due to budget limitations): Dracula (now played by John Carradine, wearing a gentlemanly top hat) comes and goes within the first half hour, after which point Chaney’s Werewolf dominates proceedings, with the Monster (played by Glenn Strange) only given a few minutes of semi-meaningful screentime towards the end. The result is rather schizophrenic, with the film feeling more like a series of short television episodes than a cohesive narrative. With that said, it all moves quickly and is certainly watchable: Karloff gives a fine (if too limited) performance in a radically different Frankenstein-ian role, Naish is appropriately demented as his sidekick, and the love triangle between Chaney, Verdugo, and Naish generates a bit of pathos. The cinematography is (once again) appropriately atmospheric, and there are a few impressive sets. Fans of the genre likely won’t be disappointed.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography
  • Effective sets

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for fans of the series.

Links:

Cry of the Penguins / Mr. Forbush and the Penguins (1971)

Cry of the Penguins / Mr. Forbush and the Penguins (1971)

“Now remember this, Forbush: sex and Scotch in either order do not a biologist make.”

Synopsis:
A womanizing biology student (John Hurt) tries to impress his latest crush (Hayley Mills) by accepting a job studying penguins in Antarctica.

Genres:

  • Antarctica and the Arctic
  • Hayley Mills Films
  • John Hurt Films
  • Scientists

Review:
This intriguingly titled film is sure to pique the interest of most film fanatics, especially given that it stars cinematic favorites John Hurt and Hayley Mills — but be prepared for disappointment. While Arne Sucksdorff’s extensive footage of penguins struggling to survive in the Antarctic is impressive (and must have been especially so to audiences at the time), we’ve since seen the exact same “story” told to even greater effect in the haunting, must-see documentary March of the Penguins (2005). Meanwhile, the surrounding narrative — involving womanizing Hurt’s infatuation with Mills, and his bizarre attempt to impress her by taking a position as a penguin researcher — is unspeakably lame on every count. Hurt’s character is not only insufferable, but — even worse — we never really believe in him as a viable researcher, given that the screenplay fails to offer us any credible scenes actually showing him intelligently engaging with scientific material. Once he’s out living with the penguins, we see him keeping vague track of the birds, and (in one truly weird scene) slaughtering a penguin to analyze its innards (?? really ??) — but unlike Charles Martin Smith’s protagonist in the infinitely superior Never Cry Wolf (1983), he’s simply never convincing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Impressive footage of penguins in Antarctica
  • The exciting blizzard scene

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book, most likely because of the novelty of the penguin footage at the time — but rent March of the Penguins (2005) instead.

Links:

Ghost of Frankenstein, The (1942)

Ghost of Frankenstein, The (1942)

“There’s a curse in this village: the curse of Frankenstein!”

Synopsis:
The best friend (Bela Lugosi) of Frankenstein’s Monster (Lon Chaney) resurrects him and brings him to Frankenstein’s son, Ludwig (Cedric Hardwicke), who agrees to replace the Monster’s brain.

Genres:

Review:
This fourth entry in Universal’s Frankenstein series is, unfortunately, a disappointment. While each of the first three films — Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Son of Frankenstein (1942) — were unique in their ability to milk new life out of Mary Shelley’s fabled tale about the monstrous effects of man-made life, this film seems merely like a formulaic attempt to extend the popular franchise. The essential plot device — focusing on the brilliant idea to finally replace the Monster’s brain with a non-criminal one — seems like a no-brainer (sorry), and one wonders why this was never attempted before; regardless, it’s difficult to care very much about the ultimate outcome, given that Chaney is unable to imbue the Monster with any of the depth or pathos Karloff brought to this most pitiable creature. Meanwhile, the surrounding subplots — a lame, undeveloped romance between Ludwig’s daughter (Evelyn Ankers) and Ralph Bellamy, and the vaguely power-hungry desires by Ludwig’s colleague (Lionel Atwill) to interfere in the brain transplantation — fail to engage us on any level. Lugosi gives his all once again in the critical role of Ygor, but doesn’t bring anything new to the character. Feel free to skip this one.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effectively spooky cinematography

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see if you’re a true fan of Universal’s Frankenstein franchise.

Links:

Son of Frankenstein (1942)

Son of Frankenstein (1942)

“Nothing in nature is terrifying when one understands it.”

Synopsis:
The grown son (Basil Rathbone) of Dr. Frankenstein returns to his father’s hometown with his wife (Josephine Hutchinson) and son (Donnie Dunagan), finding that the villagers still live in fear of the Monster (Boris Karloff) who terrorized them years before. When a rash of murders occurs, the town’s chief inspector (Lionel Atwill) begins to suspect Rathbone of colluding with a blacksmith named Ygor (Bela Lugosi) to revive the Monster.

Genres:

Review:
I was pleasantly surprised to find that this follow-up to Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) — two of the most highly regarded horror films in cinema history — remains an atmospheric, effective little flick in its own right. The sets are once again highly expressionistic, the cinematography is stark and moody, and director Rowland Lee confidently frames his actors for maximum effect. The performances throughout are memorable: Bela Lugosi is surprisingly effective as a crook-necked murderer obsessed with bringing his best friend, the Monster, back to life; Rathbone does a nice job showing his character’s gradually increasing interest in carrying on his father’s work; Lionel Atwill is memorable in a critical supporting role as the one-armed detective determined to prevent the Monster from resurfacing in his hometown; and young Donnie Dunagan proves himself to be one of the more natural child actors of his generation, holding his own with quite a bit of important dialogue. Karloff, unfortunately, isn’t given much to do this time around; he was right to refuse further roles as the Monster, recognizing that the creature’s character arc was essentially complete. The film’s biggest liability is its contrived premise, which essentially just recycles the original film’s storyline via a new generation of Frankensteins — but it’s nonetheless remarkably easy to get drawn into this well-crafted, timeless tale of scientific madness and hubris.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bela Lugosi as Ygor
  • Lionel Atwill as Inspector Krogh
  • Basil Rathbone as Wolf von Frankenstein
  • Jack Otterson’s expressionistic sets
  • Atmospheric cinematography
  • Accomplished direction by Rowland Lee

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable follow-up to two of cinema’s most famous early horror films.

Categories

Links:

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

“Science — like love — has her little surprises.”

Synopsis:
Having survived a fire, the Monster (Boris Karloff) created by Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) goes on another rampage, this time seeking temporary companionship with a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie) and learning to speak a few words. Meanwhile, Dr. Frankenstein’s former mentor (Ernest Thesiger) — obsessed with creating a race of monsters — forces Frankenstein to collaborate on his scheme to craft a mate (Elsa Lanchester) for the Monster.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that “James Whale’s stylized, stunningly imaginative, wickedly funny horror masterpiece” is “surpassed only by King Kong among the all-time best monster movies”, and notes that “not even [Kong] has as much ‘class'”. Indeed, it’s a rare sequel which is widely cited as better than its predecessor. While I’m quite fond of the original Frankenstein (I think it holds up equally well, on its own merits), I’ll concede that Bride — a darkly humorous campy romp — is even more fun in many ways. Peary notes that “there are many reasons the film is better than the original, not the least being that it deals with the Monster’s need for female companionship, which is central to the second half of Shelley’s novel”. Indeed, to that end, I would actually argue (as I’ve read elsewhere) that the two short films could/should be viewed as Part One and Part Two of the same movie, given that they possess (mostly) the same roster of actors, and were directed by the same visionary.

At any rate, Peary goes on to argue that this second film “is not cold, bleak, or depressing like the original” (apples and oranges, anybody? I find nothing wrong with the first film having more of this tone), and that it “has a higher budget [so that] the production values breathe life into the story” (though again, I found the production values just fine in the original). He notes that “the claustrophobic castle and laboratory sets are balanced by spacious, candle-lit chambers with shiny floors and columns, all covered with shadows”, and exclaims (rightfully so) over “how wonderful the expressionistic forest [is]!” As Peary points out, “neither Whale nor cameraman John Mescall strove for realism”, given that this “film is meant to be a visualization of a story”. He calls out the way Whale “has fun with the four stars’ angular faces”, shooting them “in tremendous close-ups, often using wild camera angles” — indeed, it’s this particular element of the film that strikes one as most innovative and astonishing. (“Really? He’s filming from THAT perspective?!” you’ll find yourself wondering aloud.)

Peary accurately argues that the 5’4″ Lanchester is “marvelous in her brief appearance as the Bride”, walking on “2 1/2-foot stilts that make her movements birdlike” — yet despite her visual dominance in our collective consciousness of this film, she’s really a very minor character, not showing up until the very end, and on-screen for less than five minutes. Thus, Peary’s right to note that “it is Karloff’s touching performance” (as in the original) “that makes this film great.” While he’s “almost hidden beneath Jack Pearce’s remarkable make-up, his sensitive eyes still come through, expressing the Monster’s feelings”. Peary sums it up perfectly: “With Karloff in the part, the Monster is eloquent even when silent”. Just as memorable, however — and arguably an equally essential ingredient in the film’s success — is the bold performance given by Thesiger as “one of the genre’s most eccentric scoundrels”. Whenever this angular villain is on-screen, we simply can’t look away — particularly as he’s showcasing his display of miniaturized humans, each perfectly realized, and reminding one of the expert special effects work done a year later in Tod Browning’s The Devil Doll.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Boris Karloff as The Monster (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius
  • Elsa Lanchester’s brief appearance as the Monster’s would-be bride
  • John Mescall’s atmospheric cinematography
  • Charles D. Hall’s Gothic sets
  • Expressionistic direction by Whale
  • Franz Waxman’s score

Must See?
Yes — as one of the undisputed classics of early horror.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein (1931)

“Now I know what it feels like to be God!”

Synopsis:
With the help of his assistant (Dwight Frye), a scientist (Colin Clive) steals a human brain and brings a monstrous creature (Boris Karloff) to life — but the creature struggles to adjust to his new world, and soon causes both fear and havoc.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Although it’s consistently overshadowed by its esteemed sequel (Bride of Frankenstein), this classic Universal Pictures horror film “still holds up due to striking, innovative direction by James Whale, who employs bizarre camera angles, high-ceiling sets, imaginative set design (especially in the Baron’s lab), and sharp editing to create a remarkably tense atmosphere”. In his review, Peary also highlights the “excellent acting by Colin Clive” (though not all critics agree with him) and by “Boris Karloff, as the Monster he creates”, noting that “the timelessness of Mary Shelley’s morality play” adds to its enduring interest as well. He calls out numerous memorable scenes, including “Clive and [his] weasly assistant Dwight Frye robbing graves; the Monster coming to life; the Monster trying to make friends with a little girl”; and others.

In the remainder of Peary’s review, he provides an interesting analysis of the film’s themes and philosophical groundings. He argues that “Whale seems to go along with Shelley’s controversial belief that Frankenstein’s sin is not that he defies God by creating life but that once he becomes a creator he both emulates God and competes with him for sovereignty”. Indeed, this is evidenced by the powerful scene in which “Karloff beautifully conveys the recently born being’s newfound feelings of warmth and wonderment” as he “shuffles directly under the light” which is “flickering into the dark chamber”, only for Dr. Frankenstein to “block out the light, jealously refusing the creature any knowledge (symbolized by sunlight) that he didn’t offer himself, as well as any contact with the god who sent his sun ray.” Peary’s interpretation here is spot-on, and demonstrates the level of care taken with turning Shelley’s complex tale into more than just a standard horror flick.

What’s most tremendous about Frankenstein is the way in which we come to genuinely care about the Monster — even when (in perhaps the movie’s most affecting, devastating scene) his new friendship with a young girl goes tragically wrong. Karloff’s ability to convey depth of emotion through layers of expertly applied make-up (which apparently took five hours each day to apply, and two hours to remove) is truly impressive; it’s understandable why Peary chose to nominate him as one of the Best Actors of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book. Also impressive (if less astonishing) is Clive’s performance as Dr. Frankenstein. Knowing Clive’s personal history (he died just six years later, at the age of 37, from complications related to his alcoholism) adds an extra layer of pathos to his portrayal of a man who “has withdrawn into self-imposed isolation… and become an elitist”, ultimately neglecting “his fatherly obligations and abandon[ing] his ‘son’, leaving the creature to make its way in a world repulsed by grotesquery”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Boris Karloff as “The Monster” (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Fabulous set designs (reprised in Bride of Frankenstein)
  • Jack Pierce and James Whale’s copyrighted monster make-up
  • Arthur Edeson’s cinematography
  • James Whale’s direction
  • Many powerful, memorable sequences — including the initial “birth” scene, the “girl in the lake” scene, and others

Must See?
Yes, most definitely, as a genuine classic.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

International House (1933)

International House (1933)

“That guy’s invention must be plenty hot to drag us from all around the world like this.”

Synopsis:
A group of eclectic individuals — including a wealthy socialite (Peggy Hopkins Joyce), her jealous ex-husband (Bela Lugosi), and a professor flying an “auto-gyro” (W.C. Fields) — all gather in the town of Wu Hu, China to bid on an invention created by Dr. Wong (Edmund Breese).

Genres:

Review:
Essentially a comedic variety show (some have likened it to “radio on-screen”), this typically bizarre W.C. Fields film (he’s not top-billed, but might as well have been) whizzes by in a flurry of vignettes featuring big-name stars of the era — many of whom are now forgotten, but some of whom remain a delight to see in their prime. George Burns and Gracie Allen, for instance, are given several moments of screentime to perform their characteristically deadpan banter together, while Cab Calloway’s band offers an energetic rendition of “Reefer Man” (ah, Pre-Code times!). The infamous socialite Peggy Hopkins Joyce does a surprisingly fine job playing herself, and may be of minor cultural interest to some viewers as well. Be forewarned: the central plot device is merely a MacGuffin to get all these random characters together.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • George Burns’ and Gracie Allen’s comedic rapport
  • A fun Pre-Code sensibility
  • The truly surreal teapcup/mug dance

  • Typically enjoyable (Pre-Code) one-liners by Fields:

    Peggy: I wonder what their parents were?
    Fields: Careless, my little dove cake, careless.

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth a look.

Links:

My Favorite Spy (1951)

My Favorite Spy (1951)

“It’s nights like this that drive men like me to women like you for nights like this.”

Synopsis:
A vaudeville performer (Bob Hope) with an uncanny resemblance to wounded international spy Eric Augustine (also Hope) is recruited by the U.S. government to impersonate Augustine and obtain critical microfilm in Tangiers, where he falls for a beautiful but dangerous female agent (Hedy Lamarr).

Genres:

Review:
The third and final film in Bob Hope’s My Favorite… “trilogy” is also the least successful of the bunch. Lamarr is as beautiful as ever (and truly stunning in some of Edith Head’s dresses), but ultimately lacks the comedic sensibility and timing necessary for her role as Hope’s foil; she takes everything far too seriously. Hope, meanwhile, seems to be merely repeating his character from My Favorite Blonde (minus the trained penguin); at least his protagonist in My Favorite Brunette had the unique job of being a baby photographer. Equally disappointing is the failed use here of Hope in doppelganger roles: as others have commented, the one scene in which they’re both present on-screen is shot from such an awkward angle that it doesn’t quite look realistic, and the two characters never even have a chance to talk to one another. My Favorite Spy ultimately ends up feeling oddly similar to entries in the Road to… series, complete with Paramount’s faux-exotic backlots and soundstages — which suddenly shift to real-life outdoor sets in California during the film’s wacky slapstick ending (involving a firetruck and Spanish-speaking firemen — in Tangiers??). Stick with My Favorite Brunette as the only one of the My Favorite… outings that’s must-see for all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Hope’s characteristically deadpan one-liners: “When I look into a girl’s eyes, I can tell just what she thinks of me. It’s pretty discouraging, too.”

Must See?
No; this one is strictly for Hope fans.

Links:

My Favorite Blonde (1942)

My Favorite Blonde (1942)

“Do you know what it feels like, to be followed and hounded and watched every second?”

Synopsis:
A vaudeville performer (Bob Hope) goes on the lam with a British secret agent (Madeleine Carroll) after being framed for murder by a Nazi spy (Gale Sondergaard).

Genres:

Review:
The first of three similarly-titled satires which paired Bob Hope with a classic Hollywood beauty (followed by My Favorite Brunette with Dorothy Lamour in 1947, and My Favorite Spy with Hedy Lamarr in 1951), this comedic thriller — co-written by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama — allowed Madeleine Carroll the opportunity to spoof her most famous film, Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935). While it’s full of plenty of humorously throw-away one-liners and gags, however, the film as a whole isn’t as consistently enjoyable as My Favorite Brunette (the best of the “series”). It’s interesting to know that Hope (in real life) was head-over-heels in lust with Carroll, who was going steady with Sterling Hayden at the time and eventually broke Hope’s heart by marrying Hayden on the sly; in the film, Carroll’s “push-me-pull-you” romantic teasing with Hope seems like an especially appropriate fictional approximation of these tensions. Watch for a cute shot showing Hope’s trained penguin, Percy, bowing to the audience in roller skates.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A high-energy satire of Hitchcockian thrillers

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look.

Links:

I.F. Stone’s Weekly (1973)

I.F. Stone’s Weekly (1973)

“People read, but they miss most of what they see. Izzy misses nothing.”

Synopsis:
Blacklisted journalist I.F. Stone discusses the weekly political newspaper he founded in 1953, which eventually reached a circulation of 70,000.

Genres:

Review:
Peary’s recommendation of this hard-to-find documentary about investigative journalist Isidor Feinstein Stone — who published his own muckraking weekly after being blacklisted by major newspapers for his “radical” views during an era of anti-communist hysteria — clearly reflects his personal interest in championing films about social justice and liberal individuals fighting against The Machine. In an era of increasingly widespread, You-Tubed documentaries about nearly every subject and individual under the sun, it’s easy to take an hour-long film like this for granted — but one shouldn’t, as it remains invaluable documentation of an intriguing figure in the history of journalism. However, it’s not innovative enough as a film that I would recommend it as something all film fanatics need to seek out. With that said, it would make an interesting double-bill with All the President’s Men (1976), given the presence of a young Carl Bernstein as a talking head at one point.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An invaluable glimpse at the life and times of a little-known iconoclastic journalist crusader

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for those interested in the subject matter. If you’re curious to locate it, try checking your local university library for a copy.

Links: