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Month: March 2020

Treasure Island (1934)

Treasure Island (1934)

“We’ll always be mates, won’t we?”

Synopsis:
When an alcoholic sea captain (Lionel Barrymore) visits and then dies at an inn run by a widow (Dorothy Peterson) and her son (Jackie Cooper), he leaves behind a coveted treasure map. Cooper sets sail on an adventure with Captain Smollet (Lewis Stone), Dr. Livesey (Otto Kruger), and Squire Trelawney (Nigel Bruce), also befriending a one-legged pirate known as Long John Silver (Wallace Beery).

Genres:

Review:
This first sound adaptation of Robert Louis Stephenson’s classic adventure tale re-paired MGM stars Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper — who first appeared together in The Champ (1931), then The Bowery (1933) — in a hokey retread of their “paternal bonding” from these earlier films. The cinematography and sets are appropriately atmospheric, but Beery’s over-acting and Cooper’s limited range severely hamper our ability to believe in this tale as anything other than a young boy’s fantasy writ large. (Why in the world was it considered appealing to have loutish, lying Beery take advantage of gullible Cooper time and again?) Film fanatics should check out Disney’s live action version instead.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
No, though fans of the book may be curious to check it out.

Links:

One Night of Love (1934)

One Night of Love (1934)

“You must work, work, and work.”

Synopsis:
When an operatic guru (Tullio Carminati) takes an aspiring soprano (Grace Moore) under his wing, they maintain a strict and highly regimental work environment — but will romance inevitably flourish between the two?

Genres:

Review:
Operatic diva Grace Moore was notoriously challenging to work with on multiple fronts. After being denied Jeanette McDonald’s role in The Merry Widow (1934) with MGM due to her fluctuating weight, she signed on with Columbia Pictures, but studio head Harry Cohn was nervous about making a film with operatic music for mass audiences. As described in TCM’s fact-filled article:

“Columbia’s chief negotiator in uneasy situations, Sam Briskin, summoned Miss Moore and told her the deal was off; Columbia would buy out her contract. She responded with what was to be recognized as the Moore style. She screamed her refusal and stalked out of the office, slamming the door hard enough to shatter the glass.”

The resulting film is a fairly standard “I wanna be a star and will do whatever it takes!” romantic musical melodrama, with the twist that Carminati — having recently ended an affair with an untalented but wealthy ingenue (Mona Barrie) — sets strict “work only” guidelines despite Moore living with him. Will Carminati and Moore fall for one another, even though he works her like a dog and doesn’t appear to have much charisma? I’ll leave that to you to find out. Moore’s musical numbers are a treat, so at least this is a good opportunity to see and hear her in action.

Note: It’s especially touching and timely to see the impromptu balcony concert taking place during the beginning of the film, as Italians join together across apartments to make collective community music.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The opening balcony concert scene

  • Several enjoyable musical sequences

Must See?
No, though opera fans may be curious to check it out.

Links:

King Steps Out, The (1936)

King Steps Out, The (1936)

“I’ll look you in the eye later; I’m too busy now.”

Synopsis:
To prevent her sister (Frieda Inescort) from having to marry the Emperor of Bavaria (Franchot Tone), “Sissy” (Grace Moore) travels incognito to Tone’s court, where she poses as a dress-maker and attempts to seduce him.

Genres:

Review:
Loosely based on the life of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, this romantic comedy — directed by Josef von Sternberg for Columbia Pictures after he completed Crime and Punishment (1935) — featured operatic soprano Grace Moore, who only appeared in nine films before dying in a plane crash at age 48. Unfortunately, the storyline here is utterly tiresome, and Moore’s presence grates on one’s nerves (at least, my own). This is clearly a film for those who like their narratives feathery light, and don’t mind scenarios interrupted by trilling arias which instantly cause male romantic leads to swoon. Meanwhile, the ongoing “comic relief” is tiresome; nobody, really, comes off well here. According to Wikipedia’s article on von Sternberg:

Columbia had high hopes for Sternberg’s next feature, The King Steps Out, starring soprano Grace Moore and based on Fritz Kreisler‘s operetta Cissy. A comedy of errors concerning Austrian royalty set in Vienna, the production was undermined by personal and professional discord between opera diva and director. Sternberg found himself unable to identify himself with his leading lady or adapt his style to the demands of operetta. Wishing to distance himself from the fiasco, Sternberg quickly departed Columbia Pictures after the film’s completion. The King Steps Out is the only movie that he insisted be expunged from any retrospective of his work.

I can’t say I blame him.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Creative sets

Must See?
No; you can definitely skip this one.

Links:

Tale of Two Cities, A (1935)

Tale of Two Cities, A (1935)

“There is a sickness these days which labels itself humanitarianism.”

Synopsis:
Just prior to the French Revolution, an alcoholic British lawyer (Ronald Colman) falls for a sweet young woman (Elizabeth Allan) whose father (Henry B. Walthalle) was held captive by the French ruling class for years — however, Allan’s romantic sights are set on the kind relative (Donald Woods) of an evil aristocrat (Basil Rathbone) whose fate is about to change as the people of France rise up in rebellion.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “popular adaptation of Dickens’s novel of the French Revolution, expensively produced by M-G-M”, is “slow in spots and the direction by Jack Conway is too restrained during the scenes after the common people take over”, but concedes that “the picture is well cast, has sweep, and captures the times in which it is set.” He adds that “Basil Rathbone makes a brief but effective appearance as a heartless marquis who’s upset that his horses might have been injured while trampling a peasant boy” (!), and notes that another highlight is “Blanche Yurka steal[ing] the film as the vengeful revolutionary Madame Defarge”, who engages in a “wrestling match with Miss Pross (Edna May Oliver).” Having never read this particular novel by Dickens, I found it a bit challenging to dive into the complex tale and care about the characters — but as soon as Colman entered the scene, I was more engaged: it actually took me a moment to recognize him, given how deeply immersed he is in his performance as “a crooked, heavy-drinking, politically apathetic English lawyer” who undergoes a significant change of heart. His role, as well as the fine cinematography and period sets, make this worth a look by those who are curious, but it’s not must-see for all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton
  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
No, though of course Dickens fans will want to check it out.

Links:

Theatre of Blood (1973)

Theatre of Blood (1973)

“They’re not going to start killing critics for giving bad notices, are they?”

Synopsis:
With assistance from his loyal daughter (Diana Rigg), a vengeful actor (Vincent Price) systematically murders each of his critics while a hapless detective (Milo O’Shea) attempts to stay ahead of each Shakespearean-inspired crime.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “in what must have been his dream role, Vincent Price hit his horror-movie peak as Edward Lionheart, a Shakespearean actor who is as hammy as Price himself”. He argues that while “some of the death scenes are a bit too gory” (I disagree; Shakespeare wrote some undeniably gory sequences!), “this is a suspenseful, witty, flamboyantly stylish film” with an “excellent all-star cast” — and “viewers should have as much fun as Price seems to be having”. Peary points out that the “writing by Anthony Greville-Bell and direction by Douglas Hickox” (who helmed Entertaining Mr. Sloane a few years earlier) “are imaginative”, and notes that “Diana Rigg makes one of her rare screen appearances as Price’s daughter, who isn’t as sweet as she appears to be.” There are many layers of satisfaction in this darkly comedic thriller: watching Price wreak skillful revenge on all who refused to name him best stage actor of the year; waiting to see how the next murder will faithfully (albeit with a twist) enact a Shakespearean scene; witnessing both Price and Riggs’ delightful array of disguises and costumes (none of which the snobbish critics ever cotton onto). This companion piece to The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) is well worth a visit, and likely return viewings as well.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vincent Price in numerous “roles”


  • Diana Rigg as Edwina
  • Many effectively gruesome sequences

  • Atmospheric sets and cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a most enjoyable suspense film, and for Price’s stand-out performance(s).

Categories

Links:

Oblong Box, The (1969)

Oblong Box, The (1969)

“Tell me — what really did happen in Africa?”

Synopsis:
After being disfigured in an African voodoo ritual, a now-insane man (Alister Williamson)– whose guilt-ridden brother (Vincent Price), hoping to peacefully marry his fiancee (Hilary Dwyer), keeps him locked in the attic — seeks help from a crooked lawyer (Peter Arne) in receiving a potion from a witch-doctor (Harry Baird) that will put him into a death-like coma and allow him to escape. Complications ensue when a scientist (Christopher Lee) studying grave-robbed bodies opens Williamson’s oblong-coffin, and Williamson — wearing a red mask — begins a spree of revenge across the city.

Genres:

Review:
Gordon Hessler directed this Edgar Allan Poe-“inspired” AIP flick, originally slated as a project for Michael Reeves — director of The She-Beast (1966), The Sorcerers (1967), and The Witchfinder General (1968) — before Reeves’ unexpected death at age 25. Unfortunately, everything here seems to have suffered as a result of this shift at the helm: while the film isn’t confusing, and the sets and cinematography are appropriately atmospheric, it never quite coheres or engages; not even Price can resurrect the overall mood. The most refreshing element of the film is Price’s admission about whites wreaking havoc on and taking advantage of the people of Africa, leading to mutual misery.

Note: Price and Lee appear together on-screen near the end, but only for a brief moment, and they don’t exchange dialogue.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography and sets

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one.

Links:

Masque of the Red Death, The (1964)

Masque of the Red Death, The (1964)

“Famine, pestilence, war, disease, and death — they rule this world.”

Synopsis:
In plague-ridden medieval Italy, a Satan-worshipping prince (Vincent Price) approached for help by two local villagers (David Weston and Nigel Green) sentences them to death unless a young woman (Jane Asher) — Weston’s fiance and Green’s daughter — chooses which one will live. When she refuses, Asher is taken to Price’s debauchery-ridden castle, where his lady (Hazel Court) attempts to marry the Devil, and a court performer known as Hop Toad (Skip Martin) hatches a plan of revenge against a nobleman (Patrick Magee) who has mistreated his tiny dancing partner (Verina Greenlaw).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Roger Corman’s best film” — this “super-stylish mix of Edgar Allan Poe (the title story plus ‘Hop-Frog’) and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal” — features a “forceful performance” by Vincent Price as “Prince Prospero, a sadistic 12th century Italian satanist” who, while “the Red Death wipes out the God-fearing villagers”, “calmly retreats to his castle for the nightly orgies of his aristocratic guests.” Peary notes that this is a “strange film because one expects… ”

SPOILER ALERT

“… that the denouement will contain the standard triumph of good over evil, but this is not the case” — rather, “the Death that claims victims does not choose according to whether one believes in God or Satan”. He argues that the “film is in its way as philosophic as Bergman’s picture; Corman’s characters are as hopelessly confused and terrified, because the God in whom they had faith abandoned them”. He points out that this movie, “filmed in England, in Technicolor” is “the most handsome of Corman’s films”, with “the set design by Daniel Haller and photography by Nicholas Roeg” “exceptional”.

I chose to (re)-watch The Masque of the Red Death as part of my ongoing revisit of all the Poe-inspired films made by Roger Corman, not quite realizing exactly how timely this tale would feel during our COVID-19 pandemic. (Yes, I need to revisit The Seventh Seal as well.) This film about an evil nobleman and his willing compatriots denying refuge to plaintive villagers provides a potent cautionary tale about the need to continuously support one another through the hardest of times, across all boundaries: social, economic, racial, and religious. The “Red Death” can come at any time, to anyone, and no amount of denial or cruelty can stop its path. Viewers should be prepared for some surprisingly disturbing scenes — such as Price nastily ordering his guests to act like beasts (“How like a worm you are. Be one.”); Magee openly leering at a young woman (Greenlaw) who looks like a girl (and was actually performed by a child); Court orgiastically bonding herself to the devil through self-branding an upside-down cross onto her bosom; and Price voicing countless creepy lines (“The way is not easy, I know, but I will take you by the hand and lead you through the cruel light into the velvet darkness.”)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vincent Price as Prospero: “I understand; life is often ugly.”
  • Atmospheric cinematography


Must See?
Yes, as the most memorable and provocative of the Corman-Poe series.

Categories

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

Links:

Fall of the House of Usher, The / House of Usher (1960)

Fall of the House of Usher, The / House of Usher (1960)

“The Usher line is tainted, sir.”

Synopsis:
When a man (Mark Damon) visits his fiancee (Myrna Fahey) at her house, the butler (Harry Ellerbe) warns him to stay away and Fahey’s protective brother (Vincent Price) insists he must leave — but Damon is determined to rescue and marry Fahey at any cost.

Genres:

Review:
Peary writes that this “first of Roger Corman’s successful Edgar Allen Poe series for AIP” — followed by (among others) The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) — was, like the majority, “set in decaying, oppressive, life-consuming mansions that represented the minds of their unfortunate inhabitants”. He points out that “because there are only four people in the film”, screenwriter “Richard Matheson was stuck with the problem of writing a horror movie in which nothing could happen to anyone until the end” — so he “inserted numerous filler scenes that are there strictly for atmosphere”, and “to take up more time, his characters use about 10 lines when one or two would suffice.” However, Peary concedes that “the house is designed interestingly by Daniel Haller, the photography by Floyd Crosby is properly moody, and the film includes a typical flamboyant performance by Price (who was to these films what John Wayne was to Hawks and Ford westerns).” I’m in full agreement with Peary’s assessment; this one isn’t must-see but is worth a look, particularly for Price.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vincent Price’s delightfully hammy performance as Roderick Usher
  • Fine direction by Corman
  • Atmospheric cinematography and sets

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look.

Links:

5 Fingers (1952)

5 Fingers (1952)

“There’s nothing as real as money.”

Synopsis:
A valet (James Mason) working in Turkey for a British ambassador (Walter Hampden) to Germany enlists the help of an impoverished French countess (Danielle Darrieux) in carrying out espionage, planning to retire to South America with his gains — but will an investigator (Michael Rennie) discover his identity and foil his plans?

Genres:

Review:
Based on the real-life exploits of Albanian-born spy Elyesa Bazna, this smart thriller — directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and scripted by blacklisted writer Michael Wilson — features Mason giving one of his best performances (not an easy call to make), and remains suspenseful from beginning to end. Mason coolly takes calculated risks to achieve his goal of financial security, collaborating with an equally pragmatic and savvy woman (Darrieux) he believes he can rely on. The cinematography and sets are appropriately atmospheric, and Bernard Herrmann’s score gives clear indications of what was to come with his best-known work in Psycho (1960).

Note: According to TCM’s article, Mason referred to this as “one of the few films he made in Hollywood that he could still watch with pleasure”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • James Mason as Ulysses Diello
  • Fine use of location shooting in Turkey
  • Atmospheric cinematography
  • Bernard Herrmann’s score
  • Michael Wilson’s screenplay:

    “Herr von Papen, I hope your country appreciates you. You’re the only unpredictable German I have ever met.”
    “So many more people go into German embassies than come out. I’ve often wondered what attraction could keep them there so long.”

Must See?
Yes, as an overall good show.

Categories

Links:

Pit and the Pendulum, The (1961)

Pit and the Pendulum, The (1961)

“I am responsible; if it were not so, she would not want to haunt me.”

Synopsis:
In 16th century Spain, a man (John Kerr) visits the grieving husband (Vincent Price) of his recently deceased sister (Barbara Steele), demanding more details about her mysterious death — but he quickly learns that supernatural forces may be at work in this house with a morbid past.

Genres:

Review:
After The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), producer/director Roger Corman’s second adaptation of an Edgar Allen Poe tale was this atmospheric horror flick which, as usual, uses Poe’s story as merely the vaguest inspiration. The sets and cinematography are lush, but the storyline takes a while to get going, and the acting (other than Price’s ham-fest) is fairly wooden. However, once various plot twists occur, things suddenly get quite exciting, and the finale is (literally) gripping.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Price’s hammy performance as Nicholas Medina
  • Atmospheric sets
  • Fine cinematography
  • An exciting finale

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

Links: