Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

ANNUAL GAY/LGBT FILM ROUND UP

Gerald Grant and Calvin Culver in Score
As this is Gay Pride Month in New York and elsewhere, it's time for my annual round-up of gay-themed films. Gay-oriented movies have proliferated incredibly in recent years, although many of them seem to be sit-com style independent comedies. However, there are literally dozens if not hundreds of films to choose from,  everything from camp-fests with cavorting drag queens to serious romantic stories to sobering or uplifting documentaries. This week I look at the groundbreaking seventies film A Very Natural Thing, the spicy, ambisexual romp Score, documentaries on gay life both before and after Stonewall, a recent theatrical film about that very event -- which was both controversial and little-seen -- and others.

A word about Score. It is not my policy to review "adult" films here, not because of any squeamishness or priggishness on my part, but because of a general lack of interest. However, Score, in spite of its hardcore sequences, is an example of the kind of erotic movie that began to proliferate in this period, ones in which there were more complex plots, longer running times, more interesting characters, and naked people who could actually act even when their clothing was on. Eventually these movies became out-dated as the increasingly graphic sexual nature of both films and TV shows pretty much made a lot of porn obsolete. I imagine that "adult" films today are back to focusing on the sex act and little else.

A VERY NATURAL THING

An iconic image from Very Natural Thing
A VERY NATURAL THING (1974). Director: Christopher Larkin.

David (Robert McLane aka Robert Joel) is a fairly conservative gay teacher who used to be in the seminary. He falls hard for a guy named Mark (Curt Gareth), who tells him right off the bat that he isn't much for romance. In spite of this David moves in with Mark, and tries to follow his lead by having a more open relationship. It's not a surprise when things don't work out, but it is a surprise as to which man moves out first ... When David meets a nice new fellow, he's somewhat gun-shy. A Very Natural Thing was, to my knowledge, the very first theatrical gay-themed movie (after The Boys in the Band) that was not a porn film. There are erotic scenes in the movie, and some quick glimpses of full frontal nudity, but nothing out and out pornographic. Christopher Larkin's goal in making the film was to present homosexuality unapologetically, and to show how gay couples could be very similar to straight couples, what with issues of monogamy and such, and yet also different in some ways. Of course, it is a little off-base in suggesting that a gay man must be conservative and/or religious in wanting to be monogamous. The film is very low-budget, and the appealing cast consists of talented amateurs who lack spontaneity and are overly earnest at times. Jay Pierce makes a nice professional impression as David's sophisticated friend, Alan. David is apolitical, but scenes from the actual Gay Pride March are incorporated into the film when he meets up with Jason (Bo White), who gently argues with David on gay politics and turns out to be separated from his wife (Deborah Trowbridge). In one interesting scene Jason's cast-off spouse wants him to visit her family but he tells her he's spending the weekend with David, and the pain and disappointment is etched tellingly in her face as she bravely wishes him well. It could be argued that there ultimately isn't that much to A Very Natural Thing  -- one critic stated that it proved that homosexuals could be just as boring as heterosexuals -- but there's something compelling about the movie in spite of it. I found the ending extremely moving, but whether it was because of the music, memories of my youth, the fact that so many in this period would die of AIDS (just when so many, as in this film, were feeling good about being gay), or everything put together, I don't know.

Verdict: Imperfect but groundbreaking and in its attitudes towards gay men a quantum leap forward from The Boys in the Band. ***.

SCORE

Casey Donovan (Cal Culver) and Gerald Grant 
SCORE (1974). Director: Radley Metzger.

Elvira (Claire Wilbur) and Jack (Gerald Grant) are a pair of married swingers who like to invite other couples over for some sexual fun and games. As both spouses are "bisexual," Elvira tries to score with the wife while Jack goes after the husband. The two have turned this into a competition to see who can get the highest "score." Elvira and Jack's latest party-goers are Eddie (Calvin Culver) and his wife, Betsy (Lynn Lowry), who are much less sophisticated than their hosts. As the evening progresses towards a midnight deadline, Elvira and Jack both make strong attempts to get it on with their opposite number and win some points. Score actually works up some suspense as to whether or not the couple will "score," and the major set piece of the film -- not that this will surprise anyone -- is that they do, in a protracted hardcore sequence that jumps back and forth from the two women to the two men. Based on an off-Broadway show by Jerry Douglas, who also wrote the screenplay, Score is typical of seventies "porn" in that there is at least an attempt to develop real characters and storylines -- there are some witty lines and the acting is good -- although this could not exactly be called a bisexual Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? [Like the infamous The Devil in Miss Jones, this picture also played in "legitimate" moviehouses.] Due to the rise of the modern gay rights movement, bisexuality (both real and imagined) also came out of the closet, albeit of the self-conscious, somewhat phony variety demonstrated in Score -- it might be called a gay movie with bisexual pretensions. [There is one straight sex scene in the movie, but most of it is homosexual in nature.] Jack tells his wife regarding Eddie, "you wouldn't appreciate him half as much as I do, and worse than that, he won't appreciate you half as much as me." The film more than suggests that the two gentlemen, at least, are far, far more interested in men than they are in their wives or women in general. While Score is meant to be a fun-loving, open-minded, free love free-for-all in which one's full sexuality is encouraged, one can't escape the suggestion that Jack is basically a gay man living with and off a wealthy lesbian, which actually makes the movie seem dated in these days of gay marriage. Aside from a few genuine bisexuals or the bi-curious, the movie seems to defeat itself because the gay male viewers will be bored by the lesbian scenes and vice versa -- it's a question of the filmmakers wanting to have their cake and eat it, too. Hetero men may enjoy the "girl-on-girl" action but as for the rest ... ? Jerry Douglas (who is not to be confused with The Young and the Restless actor of the same name), also wrote and directed a film entitled Both Ways, in which Gerald Grant again plays a bisexual husband who has an affair with a gay man (Dean Tait) and, in a regressive twist, murders him. Neither film successfully ushered in a new genre of bisexual porn. Calvin Culver was better known as erotic film star Casey Donovan and was the boyfriend of actor-writer Thomas Tryon for several years. Grant and Wilbur had only a few film credits, but Lynn Lowry had a long list of credits, frequently in horror films. Radley Metzger also directed the non-exploitation The Cat and the Canary and did a slick editing job on The Flesh Eaters.

Verdict: If the description gets you excited, than by all means watch it! **1/2 out of 4.

BEFORE STONEWALL

BEFORE STONEWALL (1984). Directors: Greta Schiller; Robert Rosenberg.

This highly interesting documentary looks at aspects of the gay community before the start of the modern-day Gay Rights Movement. It looks at the large number of gay men and lesbians who fought in WW2, chronicles the harassment of homosexuals during the McCarthy era, and examines the change in attitudes towards gay people both within and without the diverse community. Back in those days, gay couples would often mimic straight couples, with, say, the "butcher" of the two women trying to come off like a man so they wouldn't be hassled as "queer" if they went out on a date. Some gay men deliberately overdid the "camping" as a way of declaring themselves and expressing their independence, although there is little outrageous camping in gay bars today. The Civil Rights Movement for black people influenced the Gay Rights movement with its increasing (non-violent) militancy, leading to the Stonewall rebellion. People interviewed for this film include activist Frank Kameny; Allen Ginsberg (who recounts how his famous poem "Howl" was considered obscene); historian Martin Duberman; Harry Hay of the Mattachine Society, an earlier Gay Rights group; Barbara Gittings; Craig Rodwell of the Oscar Wilde bookstore, and many others. There are perhaps too many clips of alleged drag queens from old movies, but many people will find this an eye-opener.

NOTE: It's become obligatory today to say that Stonewall and the whole modern-gay rights movement was started by drag queens of color. If this was true, no problem, but the Stonewall was not exclusively a drag bar. Yes, drag queens would patronize the place, and there were certainly some drag queens there and fighting against the police the night of the riot, but the crowd was an ethnically diverse group -- Black, White, Hispanic etc. -- and the majority were not in drag; everyone played a part.

Verdict: How things have changed! ***.

AFTER STONEWALL

AFTER STONEWALL (1999). Director: John Scagliotti.

This documentary looks at all the developments, both positive and negative, that overtook the gay community and gay rights advocacy after the Stonewall riots of 1969. After Stonewall traces the formation of the Gay Liberation Front, which fell apart from too much divisiveness; the Gay Activists Alliance, which brought a new (non-violent) militancy to the fight for acceptance and gay rights; the scourge of AIDS, unfairly deemed a "gay" disease and which almost took the gay male community back into a figurative stone age; the rise of groups such as the National Gay Task Force, Queer Nation and Act Up (an AIDS Rights group); and the emergence of Anita Bryant and her anti-gay hate group, Save the Children, which served to galvanize many members of both the gay and straight community to organize and fight back. Along the way we meet Out politician Barney Frank; lesbian congresswoman Sheila James Kuehl (who played Zelda on Dobie Gillis); writers Armistad Maupin, Larry Kramer and Craig Lucas; black historian Barbara Smith; and many others. You'll also learn that Betty Friedan wanted lesbians out of the National organization of Women because she saw them as the "lavender menace" that would topple women's rights; watch Out Army officer Sgt. Malkovich get on the cover of Time; revisit the tragic death of young Matthew Shephard; and listen to some activists deplore the media exploitation of gay rights and its increasing commercialization.

Verdict: Excellent documentary which explores the very wide diversity of the gay and lesbian community. ***1/2.

STONEWALL (2015)

Danny gets his first view of Manhattan
STONEWALL (2015). Director: Roland Emmerich.

After he is discovered having sex with another man, Danny Winters (Jeremy Irvine) leaves his small town and his coach-father's rejection and comes to Manhattan. There he meets an excitable drag queen named Ray (Jonny Beauchamp), who befriends him and falls for him unrequitedly. Ray is part of a group of gay hustlers, street people and "queens" who congregate on and around the Stonewall bar in Sheridan Square, a mafia-run dive that caters to different elements of the gay community. Danny, who is masculine and very handsome, has no sexual feelings for the effeminate Ray, but winds up in a brief relationship with Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who works for the early gay rights group, the Mattachine Society. After a series of misadventures, Danny winds up in the Stonewall during a police raid, but this time the angry patrons fight back and a riot ensues ... One would hope that a movie based on this seminal event in Gay Liberation would be better than this, but Stonewall seems overrun with cliches and caricatures. Many people objected to the fictional character of Danny -- white, masculine and good-looking (as if there are no white, masculine, good-looking gay guys!) -- because he doesn't typify the more outre customer of the Stonewall, but considering the fact that a great many white gay guys traveled from their small towns to make their way to Greenwich Village (including the Stonewall), this seems unfair. (And there have certainly been plenty of movies about queens and transvestites so why not equal time?) A bigger problem is that this fictional character takes center stage, throwing the first brick and shouting "gay power!" Worse is that Danny's misadventures in New York with pathetic old johns and sometimes obnoxious drag queens with attitude -- Ray's hopeless crush on Danny, for instance, although, oddly, I almost found myself hoping this unlikely couple would make it -- have been done so often that you think you're seeing something made twenty years ago. (Sheesh, we've even got the bit about the gay guy coming home to discover the man he loved has gotten married!)  Films have been made in which gay characters wind up at the Stonewall riots, and that's what this should have been -- but it shouldn't have been called Stonewall. Jon Robin Baitz' screenplay tries to touch all bases, but with so much time given over to Danny's less interesting and over-familiar life story, there's not much room left for the event itself. If Ed Murphy (Ron Perlman) -- who was involved in the bar, was said to be a criminal, and later became a gay activist -- were alive today he would undoubtedly file a lawsuit. Of the actors Beauchamp does a pretty fine job with Ray, and the British Irvine is credible as Danny, although at times he over-acts when his character over-reacts. He's another English actor who sounds perfectly American (a gift that doesn't always work the other way around.) Meyers is good as Trevor and successfully disguises his Irish origins. Perlman is certainly vivid as Murphy, and there are other effective performances among the large supporting cast. While this is not a terribly good picture -- a shame, considering its honorable intentions -- there are some good scenes, such as when white leather guys come to the defense of a black drag queen that Murphy is about to beat (although Keller's, where the scene takes place, was not a leather bar, and this is more of a "feel-good" moment than a real one). This is not the first fictionalized movie about the Stonewall Rebellion.

Verdict: For a movie based on a real event and certain real characters, this seems rather unreal at times. But some viewers may well find it inspiring and powerful although it, unfortunately, seems to catalog a variety of stereotypes. **1/2.

JUDAS KISS

2 sides of the same coin: Richard Harmon; Charlie David
JUDAS KISS (2011). Director: J. P. Tepnapa.

"My Hollywood career has consisted of parties and rehab."

"I even masturbate cinematically!"

Failed screenwriter Zachary Wells (Charlie David) goes back to his old film school, the scene of his first and last triumph, to help judge a competition. He has a one-night stand with a student who turns out to be in this same competition. But a bigger surprise comes when this student reveals his name as Danny Reyes (Richard Harmon) and his film as "Judas Kiss." The trouble is that Danny Reyes is Zachary's real name, and "Judas Kiss" is the film he made that won the competition fifteen years earlier. This is already an intriguing situation but it turns into the Twilight Zone when it develops that Danny Reyes is Zachary's younger self, and he is told by an old man, who is still another version of Danny Reyes, that his life will turn out much better if he actually loses the competition. Naturally younger Danny objects to this idea ... This could have been a gay variation on a whimsical, fantasy film, but the tone is too heavy (without being profound) and the characters don't seem the slightest bit surprised or perplexed by this odd situation. Zach makes love to his younger self -- a bizarre situation in of itself -- but doesn't recognize him or even think he looks familiar. Judas Kiss isn't the first film in which characters are given second chances by going back in time (although it's never made quite clear that this has happened, even when Zach tells a teacher that she "doesn't look a day older"), but its main problem, perhaps, is that it tries to tackle a little too much in one movie. In spite of its overly complicated plot and surplus of characters, the film is well-produced for an independent and is often strangely arresting, although it drags in the final quarter. Many of the actors could be described as talented amateurs, but the leads in this have had a significant body of work, especially Harmon, who has definite presence and is effectively intense, and David (who looks even better without his beard), although he doesn't quite bother to get across his character's desperation, although that may be due to the generally superficial tone of the movie (despite some serious elements). Former (?) porn star Sean Paul Lockhart* certainly makes an impression as a young man, Chris, who wants a relationship with Danny; there's no reason he can't have a solid legitimate acting career. Julia Morizawa, among others, is also notable as Abbey. The entire cast sings the catchy closing credit number, "If I Fall." Some of the male actors overdo the "girlishness" at times.

* Lockhart (also known as Brent Corrigan for his adult films) is the subject of a 2016 James Franco movie entitled King Cobra, which the former disavows.

Verdict: Well, at least it's certainly different .,. **1/2.

TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL

TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL. Tab Hunter and Eddie Muller. Algonquin Books.
TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL (2015). Director: Jeffrey Schwarz.

As this documentary is based on a book, I'll start with a review of Hunter's autobiography:

Once a movie star, always a movie star – and is there anything on earth more self-absorbed than a movie star? Tab Hunter tells how a great-looking guy with absolutely no acting experience managed to become fading star Linda Darnell's leading man in one of her last pictures, and then moved onward and upward to become a movie star in his own right, appearing in such films as Damn Yankees and The Pleasure of His Company. He doesn't gloss over how he quickly descended to the depths as a Hollywood has-been, then made a comeback of sorts by co-starring with Divine in two funny movies. Hunter's story is reasonably absorbing and somewhat enlightening about Hollywood, but what it mostly does is remind us of the shallowness of movie stars – all movie stars. Not being normal people, they just don't get it. For instance, on one page Hunter [or rather his co-author] writes how disappointed he was that his then-agent Henry Willson wasn't behind him more when he tested for an important role. He complains that Willson didn't care if he got the role as long as it was one of his many clients. So much for loyalty Hunter complains, or words to that effect. What did Hunter expect Willson to do – focus only on him and to hell with all of his other clients!!! It just doesn't occur to Hunter how hypocritical he sounds. Considering that he's out of the closet – a decision that may have had more to do with the fact that his sexual orientation was pretty much an open secret as opposed to true self-acceptance on his part -- Hunter refers to certain people he dislikes as “fags” a lot more often than he should. But then, Hunter comes across as moderately likable but not especially bright. This is by no means an essential read but many people will find it absorbing.

Now on to the film version:

Tab Hunter Confidential was produced by Hunter's long-time companion, so this can hardly be taken as an unbiased examination of the subject and his career. First it seems obvious that Hunter -- who left the Catholic Church years ago due to its attitudes, which made him feel like an outcast, and who has rejoined the virulently homophobic institution in his elder years (there are organized religions that welcome gays, for Pete's sake) -- is not exactly a poster boy for Gay Liberation. One senses that Hunter became openly gay for career reasons more than out of a true acceptance of his sexuality, which still seems to embarrass him. Nevertheless he makes an appealing subject for a biography -- Hollywood heartthrob is secretly gay -- and while he talks briefly about considering marriage to a woman, he doesn't cop out and claim to be bisexual. As in his memoir, Hunter comes off as relatively likable if not exactly an intellectual. The documentary consists primarily of a long, frank interview with Hunter interspersed with comments from everyone from John Waters to Clint Eastwood, Darryl Hickman and Mother Delores Hart, a former co-star of Elvis Presley's who became a nun. Hunter talks about his affair with Tony Perkins, as well as relationships with a prominent figure skater and others, but completely glosses over how and why these relationships came to an end (but one can guess: career reasons). Hunter finally settled down with a young producer, Allan Glaser, who was thirty years younger than Hunter, making him definitely come off like a typical movie star, gay or not. The documentary also offers clips of Hunter's recording career -- he had a nice enough voice but tended to go flat a little too often -- and film highlights, such as a genuinely strong performance in Gunman's Walk as a psychopath. Hunter was better in his second film, Island of Desire, than he gives himself credit for, and his performance of "Reproduction" was a highlight of Grease 2. Hunter also talks about his arrest at a gay party and the report of it in Confidential magazine.

Verdict: Book ***. Film: ***.

CAROL

Lovers: Cate Blanchette and Rooney Mara
CAROL (2015). Director: Todd Haynes.

"What use am I to her, to us, if I'm going against my own grain?"

In the 1950s Carol Aird (Cate Blanchette) is in the process of divorcing her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), when she spots Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) behind the counter of a department store -- and vice versa. Despite differences in age and class, the two embark upon a friendship and then into a full-fledged sexual and romantic affair. Trouble arrives when Harge decides to sue for sole custody of their adorable daughter, Rindy (Sadie Helm), on charges of aberrant morality. In desperation Carol sends Therese out of her life, but will they ever be able to renew their relationship? Carol is based on "The Price of Salt" by Patricia Highsmith (better known for her thrillers such as Strangers on a Train), perhaps the only lesbian novel that has a positive ending for the two ladies. The climax milks the suspense as we wonder if Rooney can get over the hurt and abandonment she felt and embrace a new life with Carol. The acting in this is good, although Blanchette at first seems too affected and even predatory, but Mara is perfect at delineating her character's hesitation, desire, and acceptance of her sexuality. Kyle Chandler scores as the discarded husband, as does Sarah Paulson as Carol's friend and ex-lover, Abby. and there are notable turns from Trent Rowland as Therese's boyfriend, Jack, Cory Michael Smith as a deceptively nerdy private eye, and John Magaro and Jake Lacey as Therese's friends and co-workers. Carol is handsomely produced, and has a sensitive, if occasionally overly sombre, musical score by Carter Burwell [Mildred Pierce], as well as superior production design (Judy Becker) and photography (Edward Lachman). [The screenplay is  by Phyllis Nagy who sports an almost comically out-dated butch haircut as if she were living in the fifties.] Rooney played a rather negative lesbian/bi character in Side Effects.

Verdict: While this has been riotously over-praised in some quarters, it is a well-acted and worthwhile movie that scrupulously avoids dumb stereotyping. ***.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS

The technicolor finale of There's No Business ...
THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS (1954). Director: Walter Lang.

Molly Donahue (Ethel Merman) and her husband Terence (Dan Dailey) are long-time vaudevillians who have three children who join their act: girl-happy Tim (Donald O'Connor); pretty Katy (Mitzi Gaynor); and jazz baby Steve (Johnnie Ray), who actually prefers to enter the priesthood. Tim falls hard for a sexy lady named Vicky (Marilyn Monroe), but a misadventure with her sends him running off from a role in a Broadway show on the eve of WW 2. Is this the end of the Five Donahues? Aside from the title tune (which actually comes from Annie Get Your Gun), you'd be surprised that the music is by Irving Berlin, as the new numbers are pretty terrible and the older ones are ruined by inappropriately jazzy arrangements. As Steve, Johnnie Ray over-sings everything and makes faces, and his rendition of "Alexander's Ragtime Band," which he butchers, has to be seen to be believed. Ray also delivers the pious "If You Believe" (while mimicking Elvis' movements!) while the Adorable One -- La Monroe -- sexes up "Tropical Heatwave" in her inimitable style, although she's dubbed by Delores Gray and the number is otherwise not especially memorable. Although Monroe isn't quite up to her more "serious" scenes, she's positively luminescent in this and delivers her comedy sequences with her usual panache. As for the rest of the cast, Merman is terrific, with fine support from Dailey, Gaynor [The Joker is Wild] and O'Connor; Ray is fairly pleasing when he isn't singing. Hugh O'Brian [Rocketship X-M] shows up briefly as a theater man who falls for Katy; Robin Raymond [The Glass Wall] is the crude Lillian, who dates Tim; and Chick Chandler and Lee Patrick hardly get any lines as a couple of old vaudevillians at the Donahues party. The ending is nicely sentimental, and the last production number is a positive riot of brilliant technicolor.

Verdict: It would be all too easy to quibble about this picture's general mindlessness and often hokey numbers, but it all plays in spite of it. ***.

RETURN FROM THE ASHES

Ingrid Thulin and Maximilian Schell
RETURN FROM THE ASHES (1965). Director: J. Lee Thompson.

"I was revolted, curious, shocked -- even thrilled."

"A man should always marry a woman with beautiful eyes. That way there's always something to love, no matter what happens."

"I came to you for advice, not the truth."

Michelle (Ingrid Thulin), a wealthy widow who also happens to be a doctor, falls in love with a poor chess player named Stanislaus Pilgrin (Maximilian Schell) in pre-WW 2 Paris. After the Nazis occupy the city, Stan marries the Jewish Michelle more as an act of defiance than anything else, but immediately after the wedding she's taken off to a concentration camp. After four years of Hell and a fifth in a sanitarium, Michelle makes her way back to Paris. At first Stan not only doesn't recognize his own wife, but thinks she must be dead and this woman her mere lookalike. He asks her to "pretend" to be Michelle -- herself -- so that he and her step-daughter, Fabienne (Samantha Eggar), can claim her 30 million franc fortune. And things get more twisted after that ... In a pre-credit sequence set on a train taking Michelle to Paris, a mischievous little boy falls through the door, and an old man remarks to his wife that Michelle, who has absolutely no reaction to the child's death, must have an "incredible lack of feeling." Then he sees the numbers tattooed on her arm and realizes why she is emotionally dead inside ... The trouble with Return from the Ashes is that nothing else as powerful as this opening sequence ever occurs in the movie, which turns more or less into a comparatively ordinary suspense film. On the other hand, Return sets up some intriguing situations, isn't entirely predictable, and boasts excellent performances from the entire cast, including Herbert Lom as a doctor friend of Michelle's. Attractive Thulin [The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse] gives an assured and authoritative lead performance; Schell [Judgment at Nuremberg] makes a charismatic "bad boy;" and Eggar expertly limns the petulant, sexual woman-child. The film also has interesting characters and some excellent dialogue. Still one might have hoped that such a momentous occurrence as the Holocaust might have developed into something a little more explosive than a fairly standard murder mystery. Attempts to equate atheism with "evil" are a little tiresome. J. Lee Thompson also directed Happy Birthday to Me.

Verdict: Despite disappointing aspects, this is an absorbing suspense film with some fascinating elements and several fine performances. ***.

THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL

THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL (1951). Director: Robert Wise.

Hoping to have a chance at a new life in America, a woman who calls herself Karin (Valentina Cortese) has taken the identity of a deceased lady whom she befriended in a concentration camp. The real Karin has not seen her little boy, Chris (Gordon Gebert), in many years, and the false Karin winds up married to his guardian, Alan Spender (Richard Basehart), and playing mother to the child. The fourth member of the San Francisco household is the housekeeper and nanny, Margaret (Fay Baker), who seems to resent the other woman's intrusion. Taking another person's identity always has bad consequences in movies -- think No Man of Her Own -- and House on Telegraph Hill is no exception, as Karin finds herself embroiled in sinister events and terrified that someone is out to kill her -- or the boy. The best scene in the movie has Karin driving to the store when her brakes fail. Cortese [Thieves' Highway] is fine, as is William Lundigan as a major who takes an interest in Karin, but Richard Basehart [Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea] underplays way too much in key sequences, and the climactic scenes don't quite work, in part because of this. Arguably Baker gives the most vivid performance in this, even if she also seems a bit perfunctory at important moments. This is not one of Robert Wise's more memorable directorial jobs. Little Gordon Gebert gave a superb performance in Chicago Calling that same year, and is charming in this.

Verdict: Not quite satisfying suspense film. **1/2.




24 HOURS (1931)

Kay Francis and Clive Brook
24 HOURS (1931). Director: Marion Gering.

At a party Jim Towner (Clive Brook) turns to his wife, Fanny (Kay Francis), and asks her where things went wrong. Turns out both of them are seeing other people, with Fanny dallying with David (Minor Watson), and Jim fooling around with singer, Rosie Duggan (Miriam Hopkins). Rosie has thrown out her hoodlum husband, Tony (Regis Toomey), and trouble starts when he demands to be let back into her life again. One of the main characters winds up murdering another, with suspicion falling on a third. 24 Hours doesn't work as drama, mystery, or even melodrama, as it seems too long even at a mere 66 minutes. Of the cast Regis Toomey [Shopworn] comes off best, with Wade Boteler [The Green Hornet] also scoring as the doorman Pat, who is Rosie's sister. Clive Brook isn't bad, but he makes a rather dull leading man, and Francis is competent but not given very much to do as his wife. Miriam Hopkins [Lady with Red Hair] get a little more screen time as Rosie, bur her delivery of a couple of torch songs is almost ruined by her voice. Francis and Hopkins, although involved with the same man, don't have a single scene together, stripping the film of its main point of interest. Its stage origins are apparent, although one can't imagine this was ever any world-beater.

Verdict: This positively creaks. Even if you like Francis and Hopkins this is one you can miss. *1/2.

PROM NIGHT (1980)

The hilarious disco dance from Prom Night
PROM NIGHT (1980). Director: Paul Lynch.

A little girl taunted by classmates is accidentally killed and no one goes to the police or even calls an ambulance. The other children are now grown up and getting ready for the senior prom. Kim Hammond (Jamie Lee Curtis) is the sister of the dead girl, and Alex (Michael Tough) is her brother. Literally an hour goes by before anyone gets killed, with throat slashings and beheadings the order of the day. There is a rather comical Dance Fever-type number featuring Kim and her boyfriend, Nick (Casey Stevens), but some of the attack scenes are well-handled, such as a chase after a "mean girl;" an assault on two likable teens who have just lost their virginity; and the film's bravura sequence featuring the old severed head rolling down the runway. The film employs such cliches as the escaped madman and the weird janitor. Leslie Nielsen [Dark Intruder] and Antoinette Bower [Mission: Impossible] play Kim's parents. The acting is more than adequate -- most of the younger actors had few credits -- with Tough making the best impression as Alex. Clearly influenced by both Halloween and Carrie, this has a not bad final credit song, "Fade to Black." Remade in 2008.

Verdict: Probably helped kill disco. **1/2 out of 4.

DRUMS OF THE DESERT

Ralph Byrd and George Lynn
DRUMS OF THE DESERT (1940). Director: George Waggner.

Paul Dumont (Ralph Byrd) meets up with the pretty Helene Larouche (Lorna Gray) on his way to become a parachute instructor for the French foreign legion and a romance ensues. Once he arrives in Algeria Paul discovers that one of his best friends, Captain Jean Bridaux (George Lynn), is already affianced to Helene. Adding to the complications is an Arab named Abdullah (William Castello), who wants revenge when his brother is executed for attacking Bridaux. The triangle/soldier story has been told many times both before and after this picture, and this version is no more than acceptable. The leads, especially Lynn [The Werewolf], who gives a committed performance, are adequate; Castello makes a striking Abdullah;  and Mantan Moreland adds to the proceedings, as usual, as the head of a contingent of black paratroopers. From Republic.

Verdict: Little more than a time passer but with some appealing players. **.

PROM NIGHT (2008)

Hiding from a killer: Brittany Snow
PROM NIGHT (2008). Director: Nelson McCormick.

Three years ago Donna (Brittany Snow) hid in terror as an obsessed teacher named Fenton (Johnathon [sic] Schaech) slaughtered her entire family. Now on the night of her prom, Fenton escapes confinement and makes his way to the hotel where the dance is taking place. Fenton creeps about and one by one kills hotel employees, cops, and Donna's friends. When he finally reaches Donna, what will he do? Prom Night is a nominal remake of the 1980 film of the same title. This got scathing reviews, especially from gore geeks who were annoyed there were no sequences like the severed-head-rolling-down-the-runway from the original Prom Night (and no especially inventive deaths), but it's actually a better movie than the first version. Prom Night gets little points for originality, but it is well-produced and well-acted, has some rather suspenseful scenes as well as moments of pathos, a few sympathetic characters, and certainly moves at a very swift pace. The film opens with a great helicopter shot as it flies from the sea into the town of Bridgeport. There is an attractive and competent cast, including Dana Davis as Lisa; Collins Pennie as her boyfriend, Ronnie; Scott Porter as Donna's boyfriend, Bobby; Linden Ashby [Anacondas: Trail of Blood] as Donna's Uncle Jack; James Ransone [Sinister] as Detective Nash; and especially Idris Elba [Pacific Rim] as lead detective, Winn.

Verdict: Slick effective thriller for what it is. ***.


Thursday, June 9, 2016

THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE (1921)

Rudolph Valentino
THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE (1921 silent film). Director: Rex Ingram. Tinted edition.

Madariaga (Pomeroy Cannon) is a lusty and very wealthy rancher and entrepreneur in Argentina who has two daughters. One of them has three sons by a German husband, Karl (Alan Hale), while the other is a Frenchman, Marcelo (Josef Swickard), who was a deserter. Madariaga has a special fondness for his grandson, Julio (Rudolph Valentino), Marcelo's spoiled and womanizing son. After the death of his grandfather, Julio moves to Paris with the rest of his family while Karl takes his own family back to Germany. Julio embarks upon an affair with a married woman named Marguerite (Alice Terry), whose much older husband is Laurier (John St. Polis of Mr. Wong, Detective), but her feelings for her lover change when her husband goes off to war. Argentinian, Julio is determined to stay neutral while WW1 rages around him, and his father finds his country estate ravaged by Germans, including his own nephew and a crude Lt. Colonel (Wallace Beery) who tries to rape a maid. By their actions, both Marcelo and Julio eventually find redemption. Based on a best-selling 1919 novel by Vicente Blasco Ibanez, Four Horsemen is a strong and absorbing, fast-paced film beautifully directed by Ingram and with fine photography by John F. Seitz. Strong characterizations and dramatic presentation make this an excellent picture even without Carl Davis' rich and excellent modern score, but the music -- with themes by Liszt -- adds immeasurably to its impact. There are perhaps too many shots of the phantom horsemen riding across the skies, as well as shots of the fire-breathing dragon-like "beast," and the Christ figure at the end is a little much, but this also has many powerful sequences. (One that sticks in the mind is two crying children clinging to their dead mother in the rubble.) Alice Terry and the older actors are all quite good, while Valentino [Beyond the Rocks] gets across his initially superficial character without raising a sweat. This is a sweeping historical epic that is not for one minute dull. Remade in 1962. Alan Hale [Stella Dallas] was the father of Alan Hale Jr. of Gilligan's Island infamy.

Verdict: A silent masterpiece. ****.

THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE (1962)

Glenn Ford and Ingrid Thulin with backdrop of Notre Dame
THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE (1962). Director: Vincente Minelli.

This remake of the silent film of the same title has been updated to WW Two. Argentinian Madriaga (Lee J. Cobb) is dispatched with rather quickly, and most of the story takes place in Paris, where an initially superficial Julio Desnoyers (Glenn Ford) has an affair with the married Marguerite Laurier (Ingrid Thulin of The Silence). Julio's father Marcelo (Charles Boyer) had deserted Army service years before and begs his son to fight the Nazis, unaware that Julio has already joined the resistance. This leads to the movie turning into a ersatz spy picture that has Julio going off on a suicide mission and a final confrontation with his cousin Heinrich (Karl Boehm of Sissi). Other characters include Julio's sister Chi Chi (Yvette Mimieux of Light in the Piazza) who joins the resistance much sooner; Marguerite's husband, Etinne (Paul Henreid); and Heinrich's father, Karl (Paul Lukas). It's amazing that adding all the excitement and peril of WW Two, plus technicolor and CinemaScope, has not resulted in a better movie than the original, but a far worse one. A middle-aged Glenn Ford is horribly miscast -- Minelli wanted a more appropriate Alain Delon but MGM nixed it -- and his love affair with Marguerite never for a minute seems passionate or believable. Scenes that should crackle with tension and drama are frittered away by Minelli's lacklustre direction. Not a single actor ever gets a close up, further distancing us from the characters, and Andre Previn's musical score can best be described as insipid. Milton R. Krasner's cinematography is a plus, but the sweeping vistas do little to pull us into the story. Other changes from the silent version include more wartime interaction between the two families -- one French, the other German -- and Etienne is not blinded. A bizarre sequence has Marguerite telling her husband she's leaving him for Julio the exact instant after he shows up, shattered by being tortured, after months away -- what perfect timing! Badly written and poorly made despite all the technological advances, this is a colossal bore. Of the cast, only Charles Boyer makes much of an impression. Like the silent version, this also has shots of phantom horsemen floating through the skies, and this time it seems even hokier.

Verdict: Stick with the original. ** out of 4.

KING OF BURLESQUE

Alice Faye and a bevy of chorus cuties
KING OF BURLESQUE (1936). Director: Sidney Lanfield.

Kerry Bolton (Warner Baxter of Just Before Dawn) has been very successful as a producer of burlesque entertainment, but he longs for Broadway respectability and embarks on a new career. He also decides to romance a society lady named Rosalind Cleve (Mona Barrie), who is down on her luck and already engaged to handsome singer, Stanley Drake (Charles Quigley of The Crimson Ghost). In a bizarre development Rosalind agrees to marry Kerry if the latter will back Drake financially for a career in opera as well as give him the lead in a high-brow Broadway show. Obviously this is not a recipe for marriage -- or musical -- success. In the meantime, Pat Doran (Alice Faye), who's been carrying the torch for Kerry, is heartbroken and leaves his employ. Will true love win out in the end? Since not enough is made of the strange marital triangle, we're left with some winning production numbers, especially when Bolton finally stages his big show for a comeback. You have to see the gals swinging like trapeze artists over a supper club set to believe it. Fats Waller sings "Got My Fingers Crossed;" little Gareth Joplin tap dances his little heart out; Kenny Baker does a sterling rendition of another of the catchy numbers; and a piece with the chorus boys adroitly tap dancing with Faye is also delightful. The leads are all fine, with nice work from Jack Oakie as Kerry's pal, Joe; Dixie Dunbar as secretary turned singer, Marie; and especially Gregory Ratoff [All About Eve] as a man who impersonates a wealthy Russian backer of the revue. This is a near-MGM style musical from Twentieth Century Fox. Remade as Hello, Frisco, Hello, also with Faye and Oakie, and John Payne replacing Warner Baxter.

Verdict: The story takes a back seat to the snappy numbers. ***.

GERTRUDE LAWRENCE

GERTRUDE LAWRENCE. Sheridan Morley. McGraw-Hill; 1981.

This entertaining biography, written by the son of Robert Morley, looks at the life of stage star Gertrude Lawrence, who also appeared in a few movies, such as Rembrandt and The Glass Menagerie. The book delves into her early life and career appearing in traveling revues, her friendship with Noel Coward, her marriages, her London and Broadway triumphs, and the incredible amount of debts she amassed during her lifetime, until her friends and the tax people on two continents had to take matters into their hands. She starred in the unusual musical Lady in the Dark (Ginger Rogers did the film version), Tonight at 8:30, and finally in Rodgers and Hammerstein's spectacular The King and I with co-star Yul Brynner. During the run of the show she grew ill, never received proper treatment for hepatitis, and died suddenly in the hospital at only 54. Talented Lawrence lived primarily for her work and never made the best mother, attested to by quotes from her daughter, Pamela. The book is also bolstered by interviews with others who knew and worked with her. Julie Andrews played Lawrence in the film Star!

Verdict: Morley is perhaps not always as admiring of his subject's talent as he should have been, but otherwise this is a fine look at a fascinating artist. ***1/2.

BATTLE BENEATH THE EARTH

Martin Benson as General Chan Lu
BATTLE BENEATH THE EARTH (1967). Director: Montgomery Tully.

Commander Jonathan Shaw (Kerwin Mathews), and his old Korean War buddy, scientist Arnold Kramer (Peter Arne), discover that the Chinese have come up with a horrendously diabolical plot. Using laser drills on tank-like vehicles, they have burrowed tunnels under U. S. space centers, military bases, and large population areas, and plan on using atomic bombs to wipe out the whole country. A geologist, Tila Yung (Vivienne Ventura), helps the others discover the tunnel under the sea where the Chinese forces have made their way to America. Can they stop their plan in time? Battle Beneath the Earth somewhat reminds one of Crack in the World in that its interesting (if absurd) situation is undermined by a very low-budget, although there is one marvelous shot showing the sea pouring into the Chinese tunnel. Another highlight is a suspenseful business involving the disarming of a bomb. Mathews has little opportunity to display the derring do of, say, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, but Peter Arne offers a flavorful performance as Kramer, Ventura is very pretty, and Martin Benson [The Cosmic Monsters] steals the show as General Chan Lu, the leader of the assault. Robert Ayres [Black Widow] makes a very intense Admiral Hillebrand. This is like a TV production, and might have been enlivened by the appearance of some underground man-eating monsters, but no such luck. Montgomery Tully directed several thrillers, such as Strange Awakening; this was his last credit.

Verdict: In some ways it's like a poor man's James Bond. ** out of 4.

THE SPANISH CAPE MYSTERY

Helen Twelvetrees and Donald Cook
THE SPANISH CAPE MYSTERY (1935). Director: Lewis D. Collins.

"They're so rich and snooty that half the time they don't even talk to each other!"

Ellery Queen (Donald Cook) and his dyspeptic buddy Judge Macklin (Burton Churchill) arrive in Spanish Cape for some fishing and are instead embroiled in a mystery concerning the household of Walter Godfrey (Frank Sheridan). Some of Godfrey's relatives are gathered on his estate for a meeting to see if they can break an old aunt's will, while Godfrey just wishes they would get the hell out of his house. One by one the heirs start getting murdered, with the suspects including Godfrey; his wife (Betty Blythe of Charlie Chan and the Chinese Cat); his daughter, Stella (Helen Twelvetrees), with whom Ellery becomes involved; Stella's handsome alleged fiance, Leslie Court (Arnold Gray); and other heirs; as well as the butler, Teller (Frank Leigh) and other domestics. Sheriff Moley (Harry Stubbs) does his best to solve the case but is no match for the insouciant wit of Ellery Queen. There are so many murders that the grumpy, intense Judge says, "It's getting so the corpses are in the majority. If this keeps up, we won't have a quorum for the inquest!" The leads and supporting players are competent enough, and Katherine Morrow has a nice bit as the grief-stricken maid, Miss Pitts. A Republic production. Lewis D. CXollins also directed several serials, such as The Mysterious Mr. M  [Universal].

Verdict: Easy enough to figure this one out, but modestly entertaining. **1/2 out of 4.

ALIEN VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM

An "Alien" squares off with a "Predator"
ALIEN VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM aka AVP: Requiem and AVPR (2007). Director: The Brothers Strause (Colin/Greg).

The two ugly alien races referred to as "Aliens" and "Predators" wage war in a small 21st century Colorado town and the body count -- of both humans and aliens -- grows higher and higher. Dallas (Steven Pasquale), a "bad boy" just out of jail -- and apparently no relation to the "Dallas" of the original Alien -- and his younger brother, Ricky (Johnny Lewis); a lady soldier named Kelly (Reiko Aylesworth); and a sheriff named Eddie (John Ortiz) try to stay alive while killing off as many of the nasty creatures as they can. AVPR completely lacks the elements that made the first Alien vs. Predator film so successful and comes off more like a bad teen slasher flick with too many uninteresting characters running around to little effect. Believe it or not, there's no one in the cast who has the presence of Sigourney Weaver. Some of the actors aren't bad but this is not the kind of picture that builds careers. What has already been established as to how the Aliens reproduce is amended just so the filmmakers can include a tasteless sequence in which an Alien forces eggs down into the throat of a terrified woman about to give birth. The picture is so under-lit that at times its difficult to tell if the monster is an Alien or a Predator. AVPR is basically a big, dull, noisy mess that is far, far below the level of the other films in the franchise.

Verdict: The last -- and least -- of the Alien films. **.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

"FRANKIE" AND FRIENDS

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein
"FRANKIE" AND FRIENDS.

Great Old Movies has already posted reviews of the classic Universal Frankenstein films, as well as many of the Peter Cushing verions  -- just type "Frankenstein" in the search bar above for them all to come up --  but this week we look at some later films about Frankenstein's monster. First there is a review of Mary Shelley's original novel -- a really great and faithful film adaptation has yet to be made of it -- then reviews of a later Peter Cushing/ Frankenstein entry; a flick with Robert De Niro playing the monster; Roger Corman's Frankenstein Unbound; and others. Mary Shelley could not possibly have known that her creation would explode into all aspects of popular culture -- indeed she might have been horrified!

FRANKENSTEIN by MARY SHELLEY

FRANKENSTEIN Mary Shelley.

First published in 1818, Mary Shelley's masterpiece has been (often badly) reinterpreted by filmmakers, other writers, comic book publishers and so on. Victor Frankenstein creates a living creature (the details are vague) and is so horrified by it and what he's done that he simply runs off, abandoning it, leaving the monster (who feels like an ordinary human abandoned by God) to fend for himself. The whole business with the monster having a defective brain was invented by the movies. The monster is shunned everywhere he goes, but learns language and mores by observing a family with a blind father. When he reveals himself at last, he is brutally attacked by the blind man's son. Furious at Victor for creating him and causing so much anguish, he lashes out, murdering his creator's loved ones. He importunes Victor to make him a mate; the scientist initially complies but can't go through with it, initiating another killing spree. (Victor is depicted as a morally weak man. He knows that his creation is responsible for the death of his little brother, William, but allows a young woman to be hanged for the offense. While people may have had trouble believing his tale of a monster, surely he could have told everyone that he had a disfigured enemy who was out to get him and his loved ones.) Modern-day readers may be put off by Shelley's epistolary approach and writing style (the book doesn't really get started until after a series of letters from a ship's captain -- who discovers Victor in the Arctic -- to his sister), but the book is nevertheless absorbing and well-done, and emerges as a fascinating study of ultimate loneliness. Film versions include the 1931 Frankenstein and such Hammer films as Horror of Frankenstein.

Verdict: A certified classic. ****.