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Month: June 2021

School for Scoundrels (1960)

School for Scoundrels (1960)

“He who is not one up is one down.”

Synopsis:
A meek executive (Ian Carmichael) seeking assistance from the head of the School of Lifemanship (Alastair Sim) shares his story of falling in love with a beautiful young woman (Janette Scott) who is seduced away from him by a slick competitor (Terry-Thomas) with a sportscar. Will Henry (Carmichael) learn enough “ploys” to be able to earn back both his self-respect and the object of his affections?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Alastair Sim Films
  • Character Arc
  • Comedy
  • Love Triangle
  • Mentors
  • Rivalry

Review:
This adaptation (by director Robert Hamer) of Stephen Potter’s “Gamesmanship” books remains a delightful British comedy featuring plum roles for top talent of the day (Sim, Thomas, Carmichael, and Scott). While it’s initially painful watching Carmichael being taken advantage of left and right — particularly when he (very stupidly) buys a lemon of a car without even giving it a test drive — the storyline nicely loops back to show Carmichael using his newfound skills to fight back against each and every one of his multiple nemeses.

Dennis Price and Peter Jones nail their supporting roles as shady car salesmen ultimately taken in by their own rhetoric, and Terry-Thomas is so consistently insufferable that we take great delight at his increasing frustration later in the film.

Meanwhile, Scott is delightful as the men’s object of romantic interest:

… and Sim steals the show in his crucial role as Carmichael’s personal mentor.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ian Carmichael as Henry Palfrey
  • Terry-Thomas as Raymond
  • Janette Scott as April
  • Alastair Sim as Mr. Potter
  • Dennis Price and Peter Jones as two supremely shady car salesmen
  • Many humorous sequences


Must See?
Yes, as a fun cult favorite. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Cult Movie
  • Good Show

Links:

Colossus: The Forbin Project / Forbin Project, The (1970)

Colossus: The Forbin Project / Forbin Project, The (1970)

“This is the voice of world control. I bring you peace.”

Synopsis:
Brilliant Dr. Forbin (Eric Braeden) and his team — including colleague Dr. Markham (Susan Clark) and the U.S. President (Gordon Pinsent) — celebrate the launch of a supercomputer known as Colossus, which has been designed as the “perfect defense system”; but within minutes Colossus has discovered the presence of a similar supercomputer in the U.S.S.R. known as Guardian, and the two begin talking with one another. Soon the state of the entire world is in peril as Colossus and Guardian threaten to destroy various cities and people unless their demands are met.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cold War
  • Computer-out-of-Control
  • Nuclear Threat
  • Science Fiction
  • Scientists
  • World Domination

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “thought-provoking, exciting science fiction” “expanded on the computer-out-of-control theme of 2001: A Space Odyssey and anticipated the computer-out-of-control theme of WarGames,” showing that putting trust in a “fail-safe” machine “will have catastrophic results.” He notes that the film is “extremely well directed by Joseph Sargent and scripted by James Bridges, who adapted D.F. Jones’s novel Colossus.” Very quickly, “as in 2001, we can see that the computer’s emotionless and arrogant personality is a reflection of the people — specifically Forbin — who made it.”

Indeed, a deeply disturbing element of the smart screenplay is how smug and bemused the humans remain for far too long after it’s clear that their creation has gotten the better of them. They continually — stupidly — assume that by using their own intelligence they can outsmart a computer they’ve designed to be literally impenetrable.

In his review, Peary makes numerous comparisons between this film and 2001, noting that in both stories, “man must regain his human nature before challenging the computer. Whereas Keir Dullea’s 2001 character, Bowman, becomes emotional for the first time, Forbin distinguishes himself from the machine by having regular sex with his female assistant (Susan Clark) in order to pass on ideas about rebellion.”

Peary notes that “as we see, man becomes a human being only when he fights for his survival and the preservation of personal liberties — the freedom to do even the most inconsequential things by choice and by using his own brain and hand,” though as the film cautions, “by then it may be too late.” What I appreciate most about this thriller is how quickly it moves; the only time we have a chance to breathe (appropriately so) is when Dr. Forbin and Dr. Markham have negotiated their private (unmonitored) sex time together. Otherwise, we’re taken along on the relentless ride of two super-smart computers — which, of course, would be even more “intelligent” at this point, decades later — driven purely by their own (uber-rational) logic, thus leading to several shockingly abrupt moments of brutality. Be forewarned that this isn’t a feel-good film by a long stretch, though it remains scarily compelling.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Eric Braeden as Dr. Forbin
  • Susan Clark as Dr. Markham
  • Creative cinematography
  • A truly freaky screenplay

Must See?
Yes, as a classic sci-fi thriller.

Categories

  • Good Show

Links:

Night Tide (1961)

Night Tide (1961)

“Mora is quite dangerous to you.”

Synopsis:
A sailor on leave (Dennis Hopper) falls in love with a beautiful woman named Mora (Linda Lawson) who works for a carnival barker (Gavin Muir) as a sideshow mermaid attraction. When Johnny (Hopper) learns from a merry-go-round operator (Tom Dillon) and his granddaughter (Luana Anders) that Mora’s last two lovers have mysteriously died, he wonders if his own life may be in danger, and seeks input from a tarot card reader (Marjorie Eaton).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Dennis Hopper Films
  • Mermaids
  • Obsessive Love
  • Sailors
  • Star-Crossed Lovers

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “peculiar low-budget, low-key horror-fantasy was the first commercial feature of former experimental filmmaker Curtis Harrington,” who later directed the GFTFF-listed titles Planet of Blood / Queen of Blood (1966), What’s the Matter With Helen? (1971), and Who Slew Auntie Roo? (1972). He points out that “the plot owes much inspiration to Val Lewton’s Cat People,” while “stylistically, it is obviously influenced by Cocteau” given that “in approach, the mood piece is a mix of the surreal (perhaps this is Hopper’s dream) and avant-garde.”

He concludes that while the film is “always interesting and the ending is satisfying,” it “could use a few jolts that would at least temporarily turn Hopper’s dream into a nightmare.”

Unfortunately, I disagree with Peary that this film is “always interesting.” While it’s atmospheric and strives hard to be intriguing, the dialogue is dull and it simply plods along. Hopper is presented as a man obsessively (perhaps stupidly) in love with a beautiful cipher:

… while Anders pines away too-obviously for Hopper (back up love interest, anybody?):

… and “Captain Murdock” (Muir) is simply creepy (wait until you hear the bizarre exchange he has with a cigar-chomping, bare-chested masseuse).

Writer/director Harrington had amazing access to prime location shooting spots (I felt a ton of nostalgia for my home town of Santa Monica), but the storyline doesn’t do them justice.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine location shooting in Santa Monica and Venice


  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
No; you can skip this one.

Links:

Earth / Soil (1930)

Earth / Soil (1930)

“May we prosper with the machines!”

Synopsis:
A peasant (Semyon Svashenko) whose father (Stepan Shkurat) prefers old-fashioned means of farming arrives in his Ukrainian town with a tractor purchased to help them collectivize — but a land-owning “kulak” (Ivan Franko) and his son (Pyotr Masokha) resist the transition, with lethal results.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Farmers
  • Russian Films
  • Silent Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “simply filmed, lyrical” film by Alexander Dovzhenko, “about the formation of a collective in a Ukrainian village” whose celebration of a tractor purchase is cut tragically short when a murder takes place, is a movie which “celebrates life”: while it “expresses grief for the recent dead, it is more concerned with rebirth than with the inevitable death.” Peary points out that Dovzhenko links “people to the soil…, the crops (there is dignity in work), [and] the farm animals.”

While “several scenes were [originally] deleted for foreign distribution” — including “the peasants cooling down the tractor with their urine (we see connection between man and machine)”:

… “Semyon’s grieving fiancee (Yelina Maximova) tearing off her clothes”:

… and “a woman giving birth at Semyon’s funeral”:

… these have now all been restored to the modern-day version one can easily find online. Peary concludes his review by noting this is “an optimistic film about people who refuse to be defeated by what might appear to be major setbacks.”

Peary’s review is all accurate, but viewers should be forewarned that this “landmark” film — like Dovzhenko’s Arsenal (1928) — is heavy on symbolic imagery, and short on narrative depth. We are vaguely introduced to characters who — appropriate for a collectivist society — represent an entire class of people rather than nuanced protagonists; what’s important here is the class struggle, not these individuals. With that caveat in mind, film fanatics will likely appreciate seeing the visual creativity on display, including ample use of montage and “painterly” close-ups.


Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Memorable imagery


  • Daniil Demutsky’s cinematography


Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical significance in world cinema.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant

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

Links:

Arsenal (1929)

Arsenal (1929)

“Hurry up, brothers — Arsenal is dying!”

Synopsis:
A Ukranian soldier (Semyon Svashenko) returns home from World War I to participate in the Kiev Arsenal January Uprising.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Revolutionaries
  • Russian Films
  • Silent Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary asserts that this “beautifully photographed, poetic silent film by Alexander Dovzhenko” exalts “the revolutionary spirit of Russia’s farmers, workers, and soldiers.” He notes that it takes place near the end of World War I, which “is causing misery throughout Russia,” with “poverty and hunger… widespread and women mourn[ing] the fathers and sons being killed in combat” — a time when “the seeds for armed insurrection against the Czar have been planted, but for now the bourgeois Social Democrats, the White Russians who would eventually support Kerensky’s provisional government, try to crush the Bolsheviks.” Meanwhile, “we stand firmly behind the arsenal workers in Kiev who go on strike and the common men of Ukrainia who bravely stand up to the guns of the counterrevolutionaries.”

One should be forgiven for not immediately understanding the nuances of this very-specific slice of time, which is likely not well known to anyone other than Russian history buffs — but suffice it to say that this second of three films in Dovzhenko’s “Ukraine Trilogy” does indeed have a “story [that] is hard to follow at times” (most of the time!) while also containing “a succession of images (many used symbolically) [which] have amazing force.” Peary calls out a number of especially memorable scenes, including “a one-armed farmer standing in the field with his skinny horse”:

… “a funeral procession in the snow”:

… “the bourgeois reacting with fear when the motors of the arsenal come to a halt”:

… “the portrait of a revolutionary leader, Shevtshenko, coming to life”:

… “and, in an uplifting final shot, our own hero… standing firm”:

… though Peary surprisingly leaves out an impactful early sequence in which a bald, bespectacled German soldier becomes insane from laughing gas:

Unfortunately, the film’s lack of narrative clarity — coupled with our overall ignorance of the specifics of what’s going on — make for a frustrating viewing experience; this one isn’t must-see other than for fans of early Soviet cinema.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many powerful, disturbing images


  • Danyl Demutskyi’s cinematography

Must See?
No, unless you’re particularly interested in early Soviet cinema.

Links:

Shooting, The (1966)

Shooting, The (1966)

“I pretty much believe she means to kill someone.”

Synopsis:
In the desolate west, a miner (Warren Oates) and his dim-witted working companion (Will Hutchins) are hired by a strong-willed woman (Millie Perkins) to lead her to town across the desert; but it soon becomes apparent that she’s sending signals to a sharpshooter (Jack Nicholson) along their path.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Deserts
  • Jack Nicholson Films
  • Millie Perkins Films
  • Monte Hellman Films
  • Revenge
  • Strong Females
  • Warren Oates Films
  • Westerns

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “puzzling but excellent existential western” — “directed by Monte Hellman in the Utah desert in 1965, in conjunction with Ride in the Whirlwind” — presents an “unusual, interesting West” that “is ugly, barren, and godforsaken.” He notes that “Oates gives a solid performance as a [former] bounty hunter” and Hutchins “is surprisingly effective as his simple-minded companion,” while Jack Nicholson — “who produced this film and wrote Whirlwind” — plays an “evil Jack Palance-like gunslinger” who “keeps threatening Hutchins,” though “we have faith that the intelligent Oates could outwit Nicholson in a fight.”

Peary discusses the film in greater detail in his first Cult Movies book, where he points out that despite Hellman presenting a “realistic” West, “the situations he places his characters in are existential in nature.” He writes that, “In The Shooting, neither Grashade [Oates] nor… Coley [Hutchins] understands why the Perkins character refuses to give her name or why she hires them“:

… and he points out that “just like the driver and the mechanic in Hellman’s modern-day ‘road’ film Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), the men in these two films end up taking part in journeys that go nowhere.”

Watching Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting back-to-back, it’s interesting to imagine Perkins’ character(s) somehow spanning both. Her unnamed “Woman” has a lot more speaking time than put-upon Abigail in Whirlwind — perhaps not surprising, given The Shooting was scripted by a woman (Carole Eastman); and while The Woman comes across as harsh, demanding, annoying, and even cruel (she shoots her own horse), one can easily see how things would get to that point while living in this type of unforgiving environment, with no other women seemingly around. As Peary writes, the mysterious “end may ask more questions than it answers” — but it does give some sudden and fascinating insights into what this otherwise inscrutable film may have been all about.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Warren Oates as Willett Gashade
  • Will Hutchins as Coley
  • Millie Perkins as The Woman
  • Gregory Sandor’s cinematography

  • Carole Eastman’s authentic-sounding dialogue

Must See?
Yes, as a unique cult favorite.

Categories

  • Cult Movie

Links:

Thousand Clowns, A (1965)

Thousand Clowns, A (1965)

“You know, you are not a person, Mr. Burns — you are an experience!”

Synopsis:
An unemployed writer (Jason Robards, Jr.) caring for his 12-year-old nephew (Barry Gordon) refuses to settle down and get a job, even when two social workers (William Daniels and Barbara Harris) come to warn him he’s under supervision. Will an affair with Harris — or cajoling by his responsible brother Arnold (Martin Balsam) — finally convince Murray (Robards, Jr.) to accept a job as a writer for an unfunny children’s performer (Gene Saks)?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Barbara Harris Films
  • Jason Robards Films
  • Nonconformists
  • Play Adaptation
  • Raising Kids

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that the “cult following has nearly disappeared for Herb Gardner’s adaptation of his Broadway play,” which “was one of the first films that dealt with the theme of nonconformity, rather than merely having a nonconformist lead character.” Peary argues that “its sellout conclusion” “doesn’t sit well” and this “dated film is predictable, too chatty, and no longer funny… But it’s still a pleasure to watch the acting by Robards, Harris, and Gordon, an excellent child actor” who GFTFF fans will likely recognize from his starring role in Out of It (1969). I agree with Peary that this film hasn’t aged all that well, though I disagree that the ending is a sellout; instead, I’m relieved that Robards, Jr. cares enough for someone other than himself to finally look beyond his narcissistic desire for freedom and rebellion at all costs (that’s the responsible adult/parent in me speaking). Harris is delightful in her screen debut, and the supporting cast is all excellent — including Saks as “Chuckles the Chipmunk”, Daniels as Harris’s no-nonsense colleague, and Oscar-nominated Balsam in a rather thankless role as Robards, Jr.’s always-supportive brother.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jason Robards, Jr. as Murray
  • Barbara Harris as Sandra
  • Barry Gordon as “Nick”
  • Gene Saks as Leo (a.k.a. “Chuckles the Chipmunk”)
  • Martin Balsam as Arnold
  • William Daniels as Albert
  • Fine cinematography by Arthur Ornitz

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

Links:

Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)

Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)

“Don’t make no trouble, is what’s best for all of us.”

Synopsis:
When three cowboys (Jack Nicholson, Cameron Mitchell, and Tom Filer) accidentally spend the night with a group of outlaws headed by one-eyed Blind Dick (Harry Dean Stanton), they become wanted by vigilantes, and after Otis (Filer) is killed, Vern (Michell) and Wes (Nicholson) set out as fugitives across the harsh landscape. Eventually they come upon a homestead run by a patriarch (George Mitchell) whose wife (Katherine Squire) and daughter (Millie Perkins) live a hard-scrabble existence; will Vern and Wes be able to stay safe in their home until the vigilantes have passed?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cameron Mitchell Films
  • Falsely Accused
  • Fugitives
  • Harry Dean Stanton Films
  • Jack Nicholson Films
  • Millie Perkins Films
  • Monte Hellman Films
  • Westerns

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary begins his review of this “existential western” by noting it was “written by its co-star, Jack Nicholson, and directed in Utah in 1965 by Monte Hellman, back to back with The Shooting.” He points out that “just as in other Hellman films, our heroes make a long journey that seems to go nowhere,” and he describes the movie as a “gritty, fascinating western with solid acting, offbeat characters, [an] intriguing setting, and odd bits of dialogue” (as during Nicholson and Mitchell’s checkers game):

He further notes that at the time of GFTFF’s publication in 1986, it remained an “unpredictable cult movie” with a “strong reputation in Europe.” Peary analyzes the film in greater detail in his first Cult Movies book, where he formally lists The Shooting but discusses it hand-in-hand with this (slightly) earlier film. Indeed, many reviews seem to take the two movies as an automatic double-billing, given their coupled production history and many similarities, with Peary even asserting that “they seem to have been written by the same person.”

In his (dual) review, DVD Savant further describes what makes Ride in the Whirlwind so unique, noting that its “finer qualities begin with Monte Hellman’s refusal to go for big dramatic effects and climaxes. We’re given no standard cues for ‘genre outcomes’ — nobody is an obvious hero, characters don’t live and die based on their billing in the credits… The crooks aren’t particularly vicious:

… the posse is honest in their duty:

… and everybody knows the score.”

Indeed, while Hellman’s two westerns have been described as the first “acid westerns” — a term coined by Pauline Kael to denote westerns that subvert earlier conventions of the genre in favor of more openly acknowledging that some western journeys are towards death rather than liberation — it’s also easy to see them as simply a more depressingly realistic look at the harshness of survival in Western times. While we watch in fascination to see how the unusual storyline will unfold, we hold out no hope that anything resembling a happy ending is in sight — and as Peary writes, the “life endured by Perkins and her mother sticks [particularly] in the mind.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jack Nicholson and Cameron Mitchell as the lead protagonists
  • Natural and convincing supporting performances
  • A powerful depiction of vigilante justice and harsh survival in the West

Must See?
Yes, as a unique western with a cult following.

Categories

  • Cult Movie
  • Good Show

Links:

Beat the Devil (1953)

Beat the Devil (1953)

“We simply mustn’t let anybody murder Harry.”

Synopsis:
When a British couple (Edward Underdown and Jennifer Jones) in an Italian port town meet up with a group of men (Humphrey Bogart, Robert Morley, Peter Lorre, Ivor Barbard, and Marco Tulli) hoping to claim uranium-rich land in Kenya, various adventures quickly ensue — including Gwendolyn (Jones) falling for Billy (Bogart), and Billy’s wife Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) falling for Harry (Underdown).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • At Sea
  • Black Comedy
  • Con-Artists
  • Get Rich Quick
  • Humphrey Bogart Films
  • Infidelity
  • Jennifer Jones Films
  • John Huston Films
  • Peter Lorre Films
  • Robert Morley Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary describes this “legendary lark” — “directed by John Huston, scripted by Huston and young writer Truman Capote, and starring Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morley, and Peter Lorre” — as “the fifties’ most peculiar A-budget film.” While it was “a flop at the box office, it immediately became known as a ‘cult film’ and has remained a favorite of movie connoisseurs ever since.” Peary points out parallels between this and “the Huston-directed The Maltese Falcon,” in which Bogart plays “a tough, morally ambiguous hero who sidesteps his way through a corrupt world of greedy, double-dealing savages, outrageous flirts, and pathological liars” — however, in the case of Beat the Devil, Capote ultimately devised “a sly, one-of-a-kind spoof of all international-intrigue pictures and populate[d] it with a cockeyed, disparate group of people,” some of whom play “the film for comedy” while others continue to play it straight.

Peary writes that in this film about a “boat trip from Italy to Africa,” “no one is happy with their station in life. Each wants what the other has” — and while “all hope the journey will result in personal happiness,” “as in most Huston films, characters fail at [their] missions” (though a few “reach some sort of fulfillment”).

Peary goes on to write that this “film has [a] unique Continental flavor (it was filmed in Ravello, a small coast town in Italy), hilarious, delectable moments, and wonderfully attitudinizing characters.” While he wishes “it had more coherence… and a couple of more serious, creepy scenes like the bit with the player piano”:

… he concedes that the film is “so disarming and so lionized by intelligent film fans that [he worries] it may be better than [he thinks].”

In his Cult Movies 2 book, Peary analyzes the film in greater depth, pointing out that the film’s “remarkable fascination” has “as much to do with its background” (including, crucially, hiring Capote to work on the script) “as with its zany characters, performances, and tone.” While it wasn’t well-received upon release, Peary argues that it has a sort of timeless, international quality, given that “the emotional, involved, chatty people in this film could mingle easily with those in a Jean Renoir film, particularly Rules of the Game (1939).”

He adds that “whatever their failings and degrees of pomposity, they believe in living life to its fullest” — yet they “have conflicting personalities” that make them a decidedly “disparate group,” with “even the married couples [not seeming] to belong together.”


The best performance of all is given by “Jones, once the sainted Bernadette but now a compulsive liar… Wearing a blond wig (!), gabbing nonstop, flirting with Billy, knitting, exercising (while Maria paints), Jones turns in a bravura performance that equals her only other comic role of note in Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown (1946).”

All the supporting players are game as well, making this a unique trip worth taking at least once.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jennifer Jones as Gwendolyn Chelm
  • Truman Capote’s wildly unique screenplay:

    “Time. Time. What is time? Swiss manufacture it. French hoard it. Italians squander it. Americans say it is money. Hindus say it does not exist. Do you know what I say? I say time is a crook.”

Must See?
Yes, as a quirky cult favorite by a master director.

Categories

  • Cult Movie
  • Important Director

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

Links:

Flight for Freedom (1943)

Flight for Freedom (1943)

“You’re a great guy — about all the woman there is.”

Synopsis:
When an aviatrix (Rosalind Russell) falls for a dashing pilot (Fred MacMurray) who refuses to settle down, she decides to continue her own career and becomes world-famous — but after getting engaged to her devoted flight instructor (Herbert Marshall), Tonie (Russell) must decide whether to help out with a potentially lethal mission of worldwide significance.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Airplanes and Pilots
  • Feminism and Women’s Issues
  • Fred MacMurray Films
  • Herbert Marshall Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Rosalind Russell Films
  • Strong Females

Review:
This heavily fictionalized imagining of what might have happened to Amelia Earhart (i.e., perhaps she was helping to spy on Japan) gave Rosalind Russell a chance to shine in one of her numerous “strong female” roles — in this case, an intrepid pilot who refuses to let her love for a man get in the way of her love of competitive aviation. The love triangle aspect of the film (which takes up far too much script time) is its weakest:

What we’re really waiting for is more evidence of Russell’s derring-do and patriotism.


Thankfully, Lee Garmes’ cinematography makes the entire affair enjoyably atmospheric to watch.

Be forewarned that, given the time it was released, this propaganda film posits the Japanese as sneaky and evil.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Rosalind Russell as Tonie Carter
  • Lee Garmes’ cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look if you’re curious. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Links: