Saturday, November 2, 2013

Last Night on TCM...: Screwball Friday Nights Part 1

The month of November, kicking off autumn with (hopefully) some chilly change of seasons, could do with some belly laughs to make the venture into the hibernation of winter more pleasant. Turner Classic Movies has stepped in to provide them, every Friday night, with a weekly spotlight on screwball comedy, that classic mode of hilarity that many have tried to duplicate since it went up in smoke after the Preston Sturges era (more on him later). Hosted by Matthew Broderick, an odd but somehow just right choice for the job, this is a series that is guaranteed to make your Friday nights this month much more fun.

Unwittingly, TCM has actually programmed a Friday night series that combines two comic genres and traces their beginnings from the 1930s into their demise in the 1940s: the screwball comedy and the romantic comedy. It's become commonplace for fans, scholars, and journalists to confuse the two; noted academic Stanley Cavell further complicates things with his branding of some films as "comedies of remarriage", several of which don't feature anything resembling remarriage in them. There are a few factors that make screwball and romantic distinctive from one another. Both were influenced by stricter enforcement of the Production Code, but in very different ways.

Screwball comedy is typified by the struggle between the classes. The best screwball's feature a madcap family of rich yahoos, or in Frank Capra's inversion in You Can't Take It With You (1938), a family of working-class yahoos. These ridiculous comic characters clash with a more reasonable and down-to-earth character(s), the audience stand-in who laughs at the comic rich. 1934 is generally regarded as the beginning of screwball, with Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century (broadcast later on in the series). It's no coincidence that screwball began the same year the Code banished sex, violence, drug use, and various other immoral behaviors from American movie screens. One of these sensitive subjects was criticism of American institutions, like the church, banks, the news, and politicians. Within the witty confines of screwball, ivory tower targets could still safely be pummeled to a Depression-era audience's delight. Where glamorous melodramas romanticized the idea of being in love and wealthy, screwball comedies made the rich and powerful the butt of the joke. And of course it must be noted that the entire reason for a comedy being labeled "screwball" is its pacing. Dialogue flies fast and furious, characters yell and talk over each other, and everything feels much more urgent and engaging.

Romantic comedy developed as more risque approaches to sex in comedy were jettisoned to avoid the censor scissors. These films generally seemed to feature two love interests from different social classes thrown together by some comic mishap, allowing for slight social commentary on the vanity of the rich, but also surrounding sexual pull between characters with comedy as a distraction from any potential questionable behavior. Unlike screwball, however, the emphasis in the romantic comedy is, of course, the romance. Laughs are important, but the guy and the girl getting together is the end goal. This is the chief difference between the two genres, making it slightly simpler to categorize them. Of course differentiating screwball comedies from romantic comedies is difficult; the two subgenres overlap so often that many films could be cited as examples of both. But it's important to note the distinct differences between them in any discussion of either genre. Some films labeled "screwball" are in fact better categorized as "romantic", and vice versa. In any case, when done right, you'll get priceless laughs whichever you choose.

All the comedies shown on the first night of the series were related to the newspaper business, as you'll notice during the rundown. TCM kicked off its November Friday night spotlight with It Happened One Night (1934), the grand-daddy of romantic comedy. The genesis of modern romance in comic scenarios is fully present in Frank Capra's little movie that could, a film that no one was very enthusiastic about while making it but swept the Oscars and made a fortune at the box office. Claudette Colbert was better known for her glamorous dramatic roles at her home studio of Paramount. Clark Gable was gaining momentum as a romantic lead at his home studio of MGM. Ironically, both stars won their only Academy Awards for loan-out work at Columbia, then one of the smaller studios in Hollywood really only known for its Capra features. It Happened features a central theme of screwball, namely social commentary on the over-privileged upper class elite, but it is slight compared to the core romantic development between a down-on-his-luck reporter and an heiress on the run. There isn't much more that can be said about this film that hasn't already, which richly deserves its classic status and then some. It's simply one of the greatest films ever made, still as fresh and funny as it was in the 1930s. Next year will be the film's 80th birthday, and it's mighty impressive that a film nearly a century old can make practically anyone and everyone who watches it fall in love with it. One for the permanent collection, and still a great date night movie.

The whiplash-inducing dialogue of Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940) ensures you can't watch this film any old time. It's a film that requires your full attention, or you'll miss some true comic gems of dialogue as characters speak lines over each other and under their breath. Once it gets going, it never lets up, making for an exhausting but hilarious viewing experience. Pairing Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as a divorced couple, he an unscrupulous newspaper editor, she a gutsy newspaper reporter trying to retire and remarry milquetoast Ralph Bellamy, was a stroke of genius. One can't imagine anyone else playing these parts so perfectly, and having such divine chemistry as they trade barbs and outwit each other. In fact, the entire picture is splendidly cast. Hawks always had affection for character actors, so he populates the news and press rooms with the perfect people to handle his lightning-paced script. It all takes place in one night, which seems insane to consider when you think about everything that happens in the picture. Grant works overtime to keep Russell and Bellamy apart, Russell rushes around the press room trying to juggle a pip of a story and her fiancee's whereabouts, and surrounding the pair are a mentally unfit death row convict with a gun (John Qualen), his misunderstood lady friend (Helen Mack), a gang of the funniest reporters you've ever heard (Roscoe Karns, Regis Toomey, Ernest Truex, Frank Jenks, and Cliff Edwards), the sheriff (Gene Lockhart) and the mayor (Clarence Kolb) trying to cover their incompetence, a mischievous gangster (Abner Biberman), and a goofy delivery man (Hal Roach favorite Billy Gilbert, stealing every scene he's in). I credit the cast because they deserve attention.

MGM, a studio more at home with glamour than comedy, actually made one of the best, yet underrated and underseen classics of the genre, Jack Conway's Libeled Lady (1936). Clearly influenced by the runaway success of It Happened, this is a film that still manages to stand on its own as a breezily paced masterwork of 1930s romantic comedy. The star power certainly helps to blur the similarities, too. The studio "with more stars than there are in the heavens" delivers on its promise, casting four of its biggest names perfectly: Spencer Tracy, engaged to feisty Jean Harlow, accidentally publishes a slanderous newspaper piece claiming socialite Myrna Loy is cheating on her fiancee, so to avoid a lawsuit he hires world-wise reporter William Powell to woo her into infidelity. It is a situation ripe for comic mishaps and, of course, the opportunity for romance to bloom amidst the laughs. In fact, love did blossom between two of the stars, Powell and Harlow, who had a well-publicized affair before her untimely death a year later. By 1936, Powell and Loy were an established dynamite team thanks to the Thin Man films, and they would continue to make beautiful magic together in several films into the 1940s. In my opinion, Tracy was always a better comic actor than a dramatic one, and this is one of his funniest performances.

David O. Selznick, after proving his mettle in the studio era working for the roaring lion of Louis B. Mayer at MGM and the odd-man-out major studio RKO, struck out on his own with Selznick-International, the first major independent film studio of the sound era. Determined to make a big splash from the get-go, Selznick pulled out all the stops to produce two lavish Technicolor films, at a time when color films were still quite uncommon. Nothing Sacred (1937) is the first (only?) color screwball comedy, and the added tones and hues don't have much to do with its laughs. Now, I've never been a huge fan of Nothing Sacred. As a small town girl incorrectly diagnosed as terminally ill who capitalizes on public sympathy by becoming the darling of New York City, Carole Lombard is simply not as good as she was in the previous year's My Man Godfrey, an Oscar-nominated performance. Fredric March, better known for his dramatic work, especially his Oscar-winning Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the 1932 film version, feels miscast at times as the reporter who brings Lombard to the city and splashes her face all over the front page. I initially thought it was because all of the public domain versions of this Technicolor marvel look like they've been used as toilet paper and then transferred to DVD, but having now seen it from a Library of Congress restored print at Film Forum and the new Kino transfer aired on TCM, I'm still not enamored of Wellman's comedy. Its sister film, A Star is Born (1937), is very different, but far more satisfying. Sacred is not without its moments of charm and hilarity, but it's also a film you almost can't wait to be over. One of the tricks of screwball is making traditionally unlikable characters acceptable enough to an audience to want to follow and laugh at or with them. Friday is able to do this. Sacred isn't.

Part of the fun of watching one screwball comedy after another is recognizing the rich community of character actors that made classic Hollywood films so much more special. Smart alecky Roscoe Karns is seen back-to-back as the cackling bus passenger in It Happened... and then as a wisecracking reporter in Friday. He's great in everything. In supporting the stars, some of these familiar faces threatened to steal the show out from under the big guns. Case in point: Charles Winninger in Sacred, as the boozy doctor who misdiagnoses Lombard. Don't confuse him with Gene Lockhart, another rotund uncle type who is so bumbling and funny as the sheriff in Friday. In Sacred, you will also recognize snooty helium-voiced Walter Connolly from two films shown earlier tonight, It Happened... (playing Colbert's desperate father who turns over a new leaf in the finale) and Libeled Lady (as another rich father, this time to Loy). If a film couldn't feature Connolly as a put-upon comic foil, his mirror image, lovable bullfrog-voiced Eugene Pallette, would typically turn up in the role (as in My Man Godfrey and The Bride Came C.O.D.). A general piece of advice when watching screwball or romantic comedies, or any studio-era picture: pay attention to the supporting players. You will be startled and delighted to see familiar faces who become reliable old friends during your journey through classic movies. Pallette practically feels like my great-uncle at this point.

Barbara Stanwyck, soon to become a screwball/romantic comedy legend for Ball of Fire and The Lady Eve (both 1941, a good year), actually kicked off her genre appearances with the unjustly neglected The Mad Miss Manton (1938), a film that also paired her with Lady Eve co-star Henry Fonda for the first time. In a wildly different scenario from the Sturges film, Stanwyck plays the title character, a flighty socialite who stumbles upon a body late one night that mysteriously vanishes when the police arrive. She enlists her gang of giddy high society do-gooders to investigate the crime, much to the frustration of dedicated newspaperman Fonda, who finds himself falling for the amateur sleuth. This is no lost screwball classic, but it has enough zingy one-liners and delightful characters to make it well worth your time. Stanwyck never gave a bad performance, ever, but it's always a surprise to see her in a role like this. Her self-possessed confidence would seem to threaten her chances at successfully playing a slightly goofy lady, but she imbues Miss Manton with both strength and vulnerability, a rare feat considering the nature of the character. Fonda, often looking uncomfortable in comedies, seems looser and to be having more fun here than usual. It must be that Stanwyck-Fonda connection. While not as full of great character actors adding welcome giggles to the proceedings (other than Friday's Qualen), Hattie McDaniel, a year before her Oscar win for Gone with the Wind, is the funniest, sassiest maid you've ever seen in a classic Hollywood film. No warm-hearted Mammy this Hattie!

The evening concluded with the weakest of the bunch, The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941). A film pairing Warner Brothers' two biggest and best stars, Bette Davis and James Cagney, should have been dynamite. Of course, while Cagney had demonstrated his ability to jump from gangster action flicks to tap-dancing musicals, and everything else in-between, Davis was practically untested in the comic genre. By 1941, she had won two Oscars for her dramatic work, so C.O.D. must have seemed like a nice departure for the actress, who was always clamoring for more challenging work at her home studio. The influence of It Happened... is still felt almost 10 years later, as commuter plane pilot Cagney kidnaps eloping heiress Davis to return her to her father. Sound familiar? Just wait, it gets more obvious. The plane crashes and the two have to hit the road together. The undefinable chemistry between Gable and Golbert just isn't there for Cagney and Davis, and it's no surprise. The two had worked together previously on the B-movie cheapie Jimmy the Gent (1934) and were not terribly fond of one another. Ironic, considering both went on strike at Warners in protest against the shabby roles they were being given. Maybe they were just too similar to get along. That delightful screwball comedy blowhard Pallette is perfectly cast as Davis' father, and is easily the best thing about the movie. Warner Brothers' premier handsome character actor of the 1940s, Jack Carson, is also memorable as Davis' bandleader fiancee, but like Pallette, he was always a guaranteed casting slam dunk. So were Harry Davenport and William Frawley (even before "I Love Lucy"), trying to keep things lively and stealing scenes from the stars almost effortlessly. In fact, everyone comes away from this mess pretty nicely except for Cagney and Davis. The same year as this misfire, Davis gave two of her best performances in William Wyler's The Little Foxes and Edmund Goulding's The Great Lie. The following year, she made Now, Voyager and In This Our Life; Cagney won the Oscar for Yankee Doodle Dandy See those instead.

Next Friday, TCM's screwball comedy series continues with a group of films featuring what I'm going to call "marriages of misunderstanding", including another near flawless classic of the genre, The Awful Truth (1937), Hitchcock's very good and oft-neglected Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), and more Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur, Powell-Loy, and Ginger Rogers romantic comedy gems.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Movies viewed in February

This month was TCM's 31 Days of Oscar, which is the perfect time to catch up with award-winning or nominated classics that have eluded my mesmerized gaze over the years. Almost all of the films I watched in February were Oscar winners or nominees, not all of which were great, but the following are the ones I fell in love with. Because TCM's schedule this month liked to lump together films by studio, I've decided to do the same, even when I viewed the film outside of the 31 Days of Oscar program.

Perhaps the most underrated studio in classic Hollywood history is Columbia, never considered one of the majors yet it has survived well into the 21st century after being acquired by Sony, outliving larger contemporary entities like MGM and RKO. For a studio that created the films of Frank Capra, Rita Hayworth, and plentiful Oscar-winners and trend-setters, it's interesting that Columbia hasn't really been recognized for the consistent quality of its product. Even the B-movie quickies churned out for the bottom half of double features were surprisingly capable in the writing, acting, and production departments. Much like Warner Brothers, I will give anything from Columbia a chance, because more often than not I'm surprised and entertained.

Holiday (1938) - George Cukor reunites Bringing Up Baby stars Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in a less frenzied, but just as funny comedy, combining class-based laughs with a vividly felt romance.
Only Angels Have Wings (1939) - Howard Hawks' thrilling tale of planes, women, and salvation in South America. Rita Hayworth and her unnecessary character are the sole sore spots in an otherwise superb film anchored by Cary Grant as the no-nonsense owner of a delivery plane company, Jean Arthur (not as great as in the same year's Mr. Smith) as a showgirl titillated by his dangerous persona, and Richard Barthelmess in a shoulda-been-a-comeback performance.
All the King's Men (1949) - Broderick Crawford's bulldozer performance is one for the ages.
The Harder They Fall (1956) - Humphrey Bogart picked a doozy for his last film, playing a grizzled sports journalist lured into the sordid and corrupt world of boxing. Scorsese borrowed much of the look for his boxing scenes in Raging Bull from the Oscar-nominated photography here.
A Man for All Seasons (1966) - The extravagant, well-written Best Picture winner has aged very well, with a beautiful Oscar-winning performance by Paul Scofield as a member of Henry VIII's court who refuses to endorse the king's divorce of Catherine of Aragon in order to remarry a woman who can birth him an heir.

In addition to the familiar studios, films were distributed by a number of independent companies, including Allied Artists, . The largest of these was, without much doubt, United Artists, a company that both produced its own films in-house and acquired independent productions for distribution. The films of independent producer Walter Wanger, for example, were most often distributed through UA, with a few exceptions (i.e., The Best Years of Our Lives through RKO). In fact, Wanger was responsible for a good deal of the indie studio classics I saw this month.
The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) - A sprightly comic version of Henry VIII's life, beginning with the execution of Anne Boleyn and continuing to his last wife. Charles Laughton deservedly won an Oscar for his bombastic portrayal of the monarch and Elsa Lanchester makes the greatest impression of the wives as the dotty Anne of Cleves.
Dodsworth (1936) - One of the best and most mature early depictions of marital dissolution, with Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton, never better, as a husband and wife whose years of marriage are tested when he retires and she strives to cling to her youth by pursuing a superficial life in Europe.
Vogues of 1938 (1937) - Walter Wanger's extravagant and costly Technicolor musical has never been available in a good quality version, but the version aired on TCM was decent enough. Wealthy heiress Joan Bennett (demonstrating her rarely seen and admirable comic talents) runs from the altar and decides to work as a model for the fashion house that designed her wedding dress, eventually falling for designer Warner Baxter.
The Four Feathers (1939) - The Korda Brothers, UK producers of many eye-popping Technicolor treats, bring a vivid adventure story to life of an army officer who withdraws from duty and struggles to redeem his cowardly reputation after being given four feathers by his former comrades and fiancee. Shot on location in northern Africa and splendidly acted by John Clements (the hero) and Ralph Richardson (his best friend blinded by the desert sun).
Topper Returns (1941) - My unpopular choice for the best of the Topper films, as it features neither Cary Grant nor Constance Bennett, instead bringing back Roland Young as the ghost-friendly Topper and pairing him with comic gold Joan Blondell as a girl murdered instead of her friend at the latter's family home. It's essentially a goofy old dark house murder mystery with comic elements, but a pure delight in spite of its unoriginality.
Stage Door Canteen (1943) and Tulsa (1949), both from Wanger, have fallen into public domain Hell. I'm all for a continuing public domain for artistic works, but one of the benefits of a film remaining within studio ownership is that they will be cared for. While a few quality editions of Canteen exist, there has never been a nicely rendered transfer of the Technicolor splendor of Tulsa, home video versions being often culled from 16mm TV prints. It's a shame, too, because Tulsa is an unsung adventure romp, with one of Susan Hayward's finest and ballsiest performances.
The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)
The Ladykillers (1955)

Room at the Top (1959)

The Champ (1931)
Mrs. Miniver (1942)
Woman of the Year (1942) 
Cabin in the Sky (1943)
Lassie Come Home (1943)
Thousands Cheer (1943)
The Naked Spur (1953)
The Sheepman (1958)
Lolita (1962)
A Patch of Blue (1965)
Victor/Victoria (1982)

Most of the classic Paramount titles currently belong to the Universal catalog, and oddly enough, Universal takes better care of its Paramount properties, releasing them pretty regularly to home video in nice editions, than it does its own home-made library titles! I had never seen this Preston Sturges film but just loved it. Sturges' best films were with Paramount, before he left after the failure of The Great Moment (1944) and never made another noteworthy film again. His cycle of Paramount films is perhaps the most successful and accomplished of any writer-director in the studio system.
Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

Two Fred & Ginger movies (I've still not seen all of their work), two Joan movies, and the biggest comedy surprise I've seen in years, with equal parts laughs and tears. The dancing superstars' first film in 1933 only featured them in supporting roles, but the film is a shining example of the brilliance at work on the RKO musical stages. Swing Time has one of my favorite scenes between the two, where Fred pretends to not know how to dance for dancing teacher Ginger, and when she is threatened with losing her job, demonstrates to the boss what a great instructor she is by engaging in a dazzling number. Joan of Paris brought European actors Paul Henreid and Michele Morgan, on the run from the Nazi wave as it swept through the continent, to America, and paired them in a compelling WWII resistance story. Ingrid Bergman shines as the title character in Joan of Arc, sumptuously photographed in Technicolor and, despite being overlong, still the best version of the legendary saint's life story. Then there was Stage Door. There are no words. See this film. It is one of the greatest films ever made, still fresh and funny and engaging almost 80 years after its release.
Flying Down to Rio (1933)
Swing Time (1936)
Stage Door (1937)
Joan of Paris (1942)
Joan of Arc (1948)

20th Century-Fox
Of the major studios in classic Hollywood, 20th Century-Fox was, for my money, the most lavish and empty, even more so than MGM. Extravagant costume period pieces spilled out of the studio gates for decades, and proved to be the studio's bread and butter, especially with the added splendor of Technicolor in the 1940s and CinemaScope in the 1950s. Considering how I feel about the studio, it's surprising that so many of the great films I viewed this month came from Darryl Zanuck's movie factory. My opinion about Fox has softened a bit, though they are still the studio whose films I get the least excited about seeing.
On the Avenue (1937)
The Rains Came (1939)
The Mark of Zorro (1940)
Sahara (1943)
Fallen Angel (1945)
Captain from Castile (1947)
The Snake Pit (1948)
Pinky (1949)
No Way Out (1950)
Three Came Home (1950)
My Pal Gus (1952)
Titanic (1953)
Peyton Place (1957)
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957)
Flaming Star (1960)

Warner Brothers
For my money, the studio producing the most well-aged and consistently good films in the studio era was Warner Brothers.
The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
The Nun's Story (1959)

Adventures of a Young Man (1962)
Alice Adams (1935)
All the Right Boys (1985) [gay adult]
The Americanization of Emily (1964)
The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) 
The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958)
Berkeley Square (1933)
The Big Sky (1952)
The Black Rose (1950) 
The Black Swan (1942)
Blockade (1938) 
Blood and Sand (1941)
Born Yesterday (1950)
The Boy Friend (1971)
The Brave One (1956)
The Broadway Melody (1929)
Butterfield 8 (1960)
Cafe Metropole (1937)
Captain Caution (1940)
Captain Fury (1939)
The Champ (1979)
Daddy Long Legs (1955) 
Days of Wine and Roses (1962)
Decision Before Dawn (1951)
Destination Tokyo (1943)
East of Eden (1955)
Far from the Madding Crowd (1967)
A Farewell to Arms (1932)
The Foxes of Harrow (1947)
Francis of Assisi (1961)
Friendly Persuasion (1956)
Georgy Girl (1966)
Going My Way (1944)
The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
Growing Years (1986) [gay adult]
The Gunslingers (1981) [gay adult] 
Guys and Dolls (1955) 
Gypsy (1962)
Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)
A High Wind in Jamaica (1965)
Highway Hustler (1971) [gay adult] 
Hold Back the Dawn (1941) 
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
I Remember Mama (1948)
Ice Station Zebra (1968)
The Informer (1935)
Key Largo (1948)
King Solomon's Mines (1950)
Kitty Foyle (1940)
Little Women (1933)
Locker Jocks (1982) [gay adult]
The Lost Patrol (1934) 
Lydia (1941)
The Man in the White Suit (1951)
Mister 880 (1950)  
Mister Roberts (1955)
More Hot Rods (1981) [gay adult]
More Mind Games (1984) [gay adult]
Move Over Johnny, Here Comes Big Dan (1985) [gay adult]
Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)
My Favorite Wife (1940) 

Nylon Noose (1963)
Obsession: The Ultimate Experience (1987) [gay adult]
The Perils of Pauline (1947)
Portrait of Jennie (1948)
Premium Rush (2012)
Prince Valiant (1954)
The Racers (1955)
Rally Round the Flag, Boys! (1958)
The Robe (1953)
The Rookie (1959)
The Sandpiper (1965)
Sea Wife (1957)
Second Chorus (1940)
Seven Days in May (1964) 
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) 
Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman (1947)
Sniper's Ridge (1961)
Soldier of Fortune (1955)
The Spanish Main (1945)
The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)
Susan Slept Here (1954) 
That Hamilton Woman (1941)
That Uncertain Feeling (1941) 
Three Coins in the Fountain (1954)
Top Hat (1935)

Topper Takes a Trip (1938)  
Viva Zapata! (1952)
Way Down South (1939)
Way Out West ( 1937)
The Westerner (1940)
What a Way to Go! (1964)
What Price Glory? (1952)
When Ladies Meet (1933)
Wilson (1944)
Working Stiffs (1989) [gay adult]
You Were Meant for Me (1948)
You Were Never Lovelier (1942) 
Zorba the Greek (1964

Adventures in Downloading!! Vol. 5

Open House (1987)
The first American film from Jag Mundhra, an Indian writer-director who would follow this with a series of progressively dumber sexual thrillers of the cheesy 90s variety, Open House is an intriguing title for horror and cult film fans because of its cast. How many movies bring together Adrienne Barbeau, Joseph Bottoms, Robert Miano, Mary Stavin, Tiffany Bolling, and Scott Thompson Baker? Truth be told, there is enough campy fun to be had with this film, but it falls short as a late-period slasher film.

In a pre-credits sequence, a troubled young woman who has been raped repeatedly by her father (Stacey Adams...whose father is Don Adams from "Get Smart") has a heated telephone conversation with on-air psychiatrist Dr. David Kelley (Bottoms) before blowing her brains out in the phone booth. Flash forward to...some time later, when the "Open House Killer" is brutally murdering real estate agents in their open houses. Det. Shapiro (Miano) is on the case. The Killer eats dog food while stalking the empty homes. The radio host's girlfriend, Lisa (Barbeau), works at one of the top real estate agencies in town, Grant Real Estate. She calls into his radio show as "Mary Lou", a nymphomaniac, and invites him to one of her empty homes for candle-lit sexual liaisons. When the Killer, calling himself Harry, begins calling into Kelley's radio program to rant about the victims deserving it, the doc and Shapiro team up to catch him before he strikes again.

Saddled with one of the stupidest scripts of any slasher film, one would think that would sink Open House. Just the opposite. Mundhra's stumbling through the writing and directing of an American slasher flick makes it one of the most distinctively bad examples of the genres, and at 98 minutes a virtual epic. There is not one moment to be taken seriously, as the film becomes a compelling exercise in camp storytelling. For example: the first discovery of a fly-infested bloody corpse in a shower goes on forever, with a screaming woman practically assaulted by the camera and quick cuts continually capturing blood spatter on the wall and the dead woman's face. It's deliciously over-the-top. Speaking of splatter, gore and grue fans will get the goods. In the most graphic sequence, a man's fingers are sliced off and left twitching on the carpet before he and his female companion (Miss World 1977 and Bond girl Mary Stavin) are sliced to death with a plunger handle equipped with razor blades! Let's not forget the killer's crazed motive and his not one, but two falls to his death, a horrendous synth musical score that really kicks into cheese overdrive during a climactic fight scene, the screamingly gay radio technician Toby (Page Mosely), cartoonishly chauvinistic real estate nemesis Barney Resnick (Barry Hope) and his repulsive S&M date, and the dynamite cinematic pairing of 80s porn star Robert Bullock and 70s drive-in starlet Tiffany Bolling as real estate agents doing an open house together. And wait till you get a load of the killer's motive. Those hoping for the standard slasher movie T&A will be rewarded with some choice Barbeau topless moments. Oh and there's a random male shower scene that comes out of nowhere.

Evil Seducers (1975)
The Shaw Brothers, perhaps Hong Kong's most prolific film producers, were no strangers to the horror genre, releasing unique and bizarre classics like Killer Snakes (1974), Black Magic (1975), The Boxer's Omen (1983), and Seeding of a Ghost (1983). But for some reason, Evil Seducers has languished in obscurity over the years. It has never received a DVD release anywhere, perhaps because that it's simply not a very strong genre title compared to those skin-crawling favorites.

Mengyin Fang, an egotistical calligraphy artist, is persuaded by his friend Zi-an Li to wed the eldest daughter of the wealthy Jin family, but when he sees she is no ravishing beauty, he writes an offensive poem on a fan for her to break the union. He instead sets his sights on Liqing Zhou, a mysterious noblewoman with a beautiful servant after he sees the pair purchase a peony lantern in the marketplace. It turns out that they are neighbors, but after Mengyin spends a passionate night with Liqing, she is quick to rush him out of her home before daybreak. When Zi-an discovers the late night tryst, he confesses he saw Mengyin in the garden making love... with a skeleton!! Zi-an enthusiastically claims that Mengyin and her servant must be ghosts, but the truth is in fact more blood-curdling.

Much of Evil Seducers plays like an old-fashioned romance, or more specifically one of the Shaw Brothers' costume melodramas. It takes a full hour into the 91-minute film for anything of horrific substance to happen, instead developing the relationship between a romantic lead we don't like and a delicate young enigma. When the horror finally arrives, it is typical of Shaw Brothers genre efforts in its effective atmosphere and make-up effects, and in this case very evocative of 1960s Hammer films with its slow-mo effects, cobwebs n coffins n mist, and blood-dripping fangs. There are two very nice twists near the end, one including a wild "dance of the dead" sequence and the other predating April Fool's Day (1986) by 12 years. But the film really is nothing spectacular. There are no maggots or centipedes that would typify the Hong Kong horror film, but there is a priest who instructs Mengyin on how to eliminate the demonic spirits using talismans and ancient procedures. These kinds of traditional Chinese folklore and indigenous horror elements are what set apart western and eastern genre films, creating a distinct genre filled with shocks and surprises. That said, Evil Seducers is not a prime example of the pleasures to be had in exploring Hong Kong horror. It's an enjoyable curiosity, nothing more.

The Green-Eyed Elephant (1960)
A year after writing and producing the colorful sci-fi oddity The Angry Planet (1959), Sid Pink made an unclassifiable quickie for Danish television that is perhaps the worst thing he ever made. Looking at the rest of his resume, that says a lot. Delphi Lawrence and Naura Hayden play Lisa and Sally, roommates in Hollywood who aspire for stardom. Sally is a bitter actress who is having trouble getting work, while Lisa (Hayden has the worst fake Southern accent ever filmed) is an empty-headed model. When the perfect part pops up for Lisa, but they want someone with Lisa's measurements, the two magically pull a Freaky Friday with the help of a pink elephant statue in their apartment who winks its green eyes at them. Not just bodies, but their voices are switched. The less said about this piece of garbage, the better. At least it's mercifully short at 70 minutes. While in Denmark, Pink was able to partially finance and produce another cult classic, Reptilicus (1961), which has much more enduring entertainment value than this experimental misfire.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Adventures in Downloading!! Vol. 4

Cruel Jaws (1995)
Arriving very late in the Italian Jaws rip-off genre, Bruno Mattei's TV movie version of the killer shark classic is widely reputed to be the worst of the lot. Shot on-location in Florida, and fully cast with atrocious local talent, the real reason everyone seems to dismiss Cruel Jaws is that it supposedly has no original shark footage, instead stealing scenes from the original Jaws, Jaws 2 (1978), Great White (1981), and Deep Blood (1990). While one can definitely spot a few instances of outright theft from Jaws 2 and Great White (very sloppily edited together to boot), I didn't notice any from the other two. If that weren't bad enough, the musical score steals shamelessly from the Star Wars theme.

Two scuba divers retrieving top-secret military information from a sunken vessel are trapped underwater by a crafty shark, who then takes out their boat and its skipper. When a body washes up on shore, youthful expert (on what? who cares?) Billy Morrison, on vacation with his girlfriend Vanessa,  is called in to investigate. He concludes that a tiger shark is on the loose and the local coast is in grave danger. Meanwhile, Billy's old friend Dag Snerensen, the owner of a struggling SeaWorld-type park (who looks like a melting Hulk Hogan), is clashing with Samuel Lewis, an obnoxious hotel developer who wants the park's land for his new lavish project. The family conflict between the Snerensens and the Lewises takes up most of the film's "action" until a wind sailing race is disrupted by the man-eating nemesis.

Naturally there is not one original thing about Cruel Jaws. Francis is clearly modeled after Richard Dreyfuss' character in the Spielberg film, right down to the glasses, and sheriff Francis Berger is a poor Roy Scheider replacement; the shark's rampage is poo-pooed by Samuel out of concern for the tourist trade and the annual regata; a key character is eaten, making the pursuit of the shark personal; a buoy attached to the shark warns swimmers of its appearance; and of course the now-famous line, "We need a bigger helicopter!" This also being an Italian exploitation film, logic flies out the window at every turn. A cute little girl in a wheelchair can't walk, but her legs miraculously work well enough to swim around with dolphins. Vanessa and her friend Glenda call a bumbling horny male pursuer "Dickbrain! Dickbrain!", you know, like all American girls do. Vanessa, in fact, gets some of the choicest bits of dialogue: "Billy, I want you to find the tallest skyscraper you can, and then go throw yourself off...and then go fuck yourself!" Because of the stolen footage, the shark changes varieties from a tiger to a great white and back again. If Mattei's pastiche piece had a bit more lovable goofiness to it, it might be enjoyable, but instead it more than lives up to the brand of worst Jaws rip-off to date. It does, however, make me want to watch Castellari's Great White over and over again.

The Seven Vipers (1964)
The late writer/director Renato Polselli is pretty much synonymous with the trashiest cinema Italy had to offer in the 1970s. The Reincarnation of Isabel (1973) is probably his most popular due to its constant presence on the American DVD market, but obscurities like The Truth According to Satan (1973), Revelations of a Psychiatrist on the World of Sexual Perversion (1973), and Oscenita (1980) continue to blow the minds of adventurous Eurocult enthusiasts. Delirium (1972) is perhaps his most coherent work, but it still lives up to the title. In the previous decade, the director bounced from genre to genre. His best-known 60s film is, predictably, another horror outing (The Vampire and the Ballerina), but this comedy of the sexes is not without its moments of amusement.

Shot on-location in Buenos Aires, our story follows Lorenzo and Erika Montesanto, a married couple who work together as executives in a factory. Following an accident at home involving their young son, Lorenzo mandates that Erika retire from her office job and stay home with the children, aiding their nanny Inge with their care. But Erika becomes restless. She's a modern woman, you know. To get even with Lorenzo, she plans to use Argentina's marriage laws and lawyer Emilio to divorce him and get half of his money and custody of the children. Sounds like a laugh riot, huh? After much melodrama and plentiful vicious behavior by the film's heartless women, nauseating Italian comic duo Franco and Ciccio show up as lawyers to deliver the final blow to the film's entertainment factor.

Written and produced by its star, the mysterious Vincenzo Cascino (rumored to be a wealthy businessman who just wanted to make movies), Seven Vipers refers to the seven women in the film, giving an indication of the misogyny to be found here. It's never terribly funny or clever, the many twists in the script aren't so much surprising as they are ludicrous, and all of the characters are thoroughly reprehensible save Lorenzo's saintly secretary Mitu. There may be some interest in the lovely female cast members, including Solvi Stubing (Strip Nude for Your Killer), Lisa Gastoni (War of the Planets), voluptuous Gloria Paul (Three Fantastic Supermen), Annie Gorassini (Danger: Diabolik), Valeria Fabrizi (Women in Cell Block 7), Nicole Tessier (Demons), and the very busy Carla Calo (Diary of an Erotic Murderess). UK writer Matt Blake liked the film far more than I did, and his review can be found here.

Man without a Memory (1974)
Released as Puzzle in the US, this memory loss thriller bears a striking resemblance to Danny Boyle's latest misfire Trance (2013), but actually presents an involving mystery with characters you care about and genuinely surprising twists along the way. The impossibly good-looking Luc Merenda stars as Peter Smith, a psychiatric patient who has been living with amnesia for the past six months. He is surprised by a visit from an "old friend" who promptly punches him in the face, whips out a gun, and demands to know, "Where did you hide it?" The mysterious visitor is able to divulge three important pieces of information (Peter's real name is Ted Wollen, he is British, and is married to an Italian woman who lives in Portofino) before being shot in the back through the window of Peter's apartment. A perfectly timed telegram and airline tickets lure Ted to Italy, where beautiful Sara (Senta Berger, lovelier than ever) works as a swimming coach with at-risk youth. Her home has been invaded several times by a black-gloved figure who never steals anything, but is clearly searching for something. Upon Ted's arrival, he learns he was a negligent husband and vows to start over fresh with Sara, but then another figure from his past following him around town, George, threatens to remind him of just how bad of a guy he really was.

Imagine a more coherent and less frenzied version of Umberto Lenzi's Spasmo (released the same year), and you would have something similar to Man without a Memory, a very solid and undeservedly obscure entry in the giallo genre. Stylishly photographed and edited, and despite a deliberate pace never boring, director Duccio Tessari has put together a surprisingly effective giallo that avoids most of the cliches of the genre and delivers the suspenseful goods. Tessari is responsible for other memorable Italian cult films in various genres, from Eurospy (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) to poliziotteschi (No Way Out) to spaghetti westerns (A Pistol for Ringo). Also writing most of his own screenplays, his resume is so peppered with superb films that I firmly believe he is a Eurocult auteur in sore need of some belated critical and fan attention.

The ensemble here is one of the all-around strongest casts I've seen in any giallo. Merenda, around the time he was starting to become a regular in Italian crime films, proves his mettle as an actor, transforming Ted from a blank slate into a fully formed character we care about, and as a stuntman, throwing himself into a rough and tumble fight scene. Berger, usually sexual window dressing in her many films, is given a chance to genuinely act in a very compelling role. The film really belongs to her, as she becomes an incredible "final girl" in the nail-biting final act, frantically struggling to start a chainsaw to defend herself against the psycho bursting through a locked door. Anita Strindberg, with her striking cheekbones and uncomfortable-looking implants, appears briefly as an important mystery woman from Ted's past. Bruno Corazzari is a suitably menacing George; one of his best scenes features him throwing lit matches at Sara, a scene borrowed from Stanley Donen's Charade (1963) (something George himself admits to). Even the little boy character, Luca, an archetype usually obnoxious and unwelcome in films like this, is an important part of the story, well-portrayed by Duilio Cruciani from Fulci's Don't Torture a Duckling (1972).

In summary: this is one of the best gialli you've never seen, one that has very quickly climbed onto my list of genre favorites. It's just that good. See it however you can. Note: I watched the film in its original Italian with English subtitles. The trailer below is the English dub. It's fine...but try to see it in the original language. It makes it so much more effective.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Adventures in Downloading!! Vol. 3

The Lady of Scandal (1930)
Another early MGM pre-Code title, this time starring the incomparable Ruth Chatterton, on loan from her home studio of Paramount. Her career-best performance was later, in William Wyler's Dodsworth (1936), but at the time of this film, she was one of the stage's most illustrious actresses making the transition to film during the early sound period. The two-time Oscar nominee would develop the reputation of being a diva around the lot, perhaps justified but most likely because she had to compete for good parts within the studio system. After a "talent raid" on Paramount's talent pool in 1932, Chatterton found her talents used far better at Warner Brothers, where the studio's tough male-oriented house style meant very little competition for her type of parts. That said, her behavior made her difficult to work with and work dried up as the decade wore on. A shame, too, as she really was a superb actress, done in by her ego.

Chatterton plays Elsie Hilary, a glamorous stage actress bethrothed to John Crayle (oh-so-proper Ralph Forbes), whose wealthy family of snobs tries to pay her off so she will break the engagement. His cousin Edward (Basil Rathbone, dashing and youthful) is also causing a scandal by carousing with a married woman in public. After Elsie is humiliated when John brings her home to meet the family, Edward swoops in to solve the marriage problem. He proposes that the marriage be postponed for six months, claiming she will grow bored with John and return to the stage...but in fact believing she will win over the stuffy family. Little do Elsie and Edward expect to fall in love in the process.

Considering my feelings about MGM films in general, I quite enjoyed Lady of Scandal. The class politics melodrama was already a cliche, even in this early stage of film history, and would continue to be a storyline mined for box office gold throughout the Depression. But the cast is uniformly good, with personal favorites Chatterton and Rathbone particularly wonderful, and the aristocratic family include many familiar character actors, including Nance O'Neil, Frederick Kerr, Cyril Chadwick, and Herbert Bunston. Moon Carroll, who only made three official screen appearances, briefly makes a striking impression as kindly cousin Alice. There are equally potent moments of humor and romance, even with its silly flowery dialogue exchanges between Chatterton and Rathbone, plus the ending is completely unexpected, and that's more than can be said for most of MGM's films from this period. Watch for this one next time it shows up on TCM.

Key Witness (1960)
We return to MGM 30 years later, a quite different studio on its last legs after the studio system began crumbling in the wake of television and other social changes. Dennis Hopper, between Rebel without a Cause (1956) and Easy Rider (1969), made some very unusual career choices, but he took what he could get considering he developed a difficult reputation rather quickly around town. Darn Method actors. The Hollywood hellion is the perfect actor for the chilly villain role in this Phil Karlson post-noir B-movie thriller from a former A studio.

A rather old-fashioned pre-credits text crawl by the California attorney general beseeches the audience to support law enforcement and be careful because the film's story "can happen to you now, in your town". Ill-fated Jeffrey Hunter stars as Fred Morrow, a Los Angeles businessman who stops at a juke joint in a slummy neighborhood to use the phone and witnesses a brutal stabbing (in one of the quietest and most awkwardly edited rumbles you've ever seen) at the hands of thuggish gang leader Cowboy (Hopper). It's all over a sexpot named Ruby (sultry Susan Harrison, so good in Mackendrick's Sweet Smell of Success). When he runs to the cops and the newspaper reports the crime has a "key witness", Cowboy and his cronies ensnare the neighborhood policeman to learn the witness' name and proceed to terrorize him, his wife (Pat Crowley), and their two kids (cute little Terry Burnham from Imitation of Life and Dennis Holmes).

None of Key Witness really works in the classic sense of gritty suspense and, mainly because of the dated Daddy-O lingo and the fact that these juvenile delinquents aren't particularly threatening. The same problem affected Kitten with a Whip (1964), but like that film, there is camp value to be found here. Karlson was in the middle of his spiral down through the dregs of cinema; it doesn't get any worse than an Elvis movie (Kid Galahad), two Matt Helm flicks (The Silencers and The Wrecking Crew), and...shudder...Ben (1972). His last two films, Walking Tall (1973) and Framed (1975), were a bounce back into the big time for both him and star Joe Don Baker. There are brief flashes of the Karlson responsible for nifty 50s thrillers like Tight Spot (1955) and The Brothers Rico (1957), but this mostly feels like a wannabe-hip super-sized episode of a TV anthology series. Naturally there's entertainment value to be had here, and the final 20 minutes really pop, but don't go in expecting anything that completely lives up to the potential of the story.

Never known for his champion acting talents, Hunter does an adequate job as the put-upon suburban father, but he is out-performed by Crowley, whose tearful hysterics are surprisingly effective. Hopper acts up a storm, yelling at his girl that he likes his hair "greasy" and never speaking plain English, tearing into his jive dialogue. Making up the rest of his gang are Johnny Nash, before he could "See Clearly Now", as good guy Apple, Hopper's Rebel co-star Corey Allen as Magician, and spastic Joby Baker as Muggles. The less said about Harrison, who in a mere three years since her last superb film performance seems to have lost roughly half of her thespian skills. Puerto Rican character actor Eugene Iglesias is uncredited as the murder victim, as is Ted Knight ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show") as Cowboy's lawyer (the same year he was uncredited as a cop in Psycho). The film, shot in CinemaScope, is only available in a partially letterboxed version.

Dancing Mothers (1926)
For the longest time, my favorite silent film actress was Lillian Gish. That was until I saw the work of Clara Bow. Where Gish works beautifully in highly dramatic scenarios for directors D.W. Griffith and Victor Seastrom, Bow was the whole package. She could do comedy and drama, be sexy, sympathetic, sweet, vivacious, and vulnerable, sometimes at the same time, all through a natural untrained ability to inhabit the roles she played. Signed to a long-term contract by Adolph Zukor's Famous Players, soon to be absorbed into Paramount Pictures, Bow spent most of her career making her studio a fortune in mostly poor-quality films that never really captured her full potential. Her final two sound films for Fox Films, Call Her Savage (1932) and Hoop-la (1933), very nearly show her at the peak of her talents, but her best work will always be in the silents, even in hit-or-miss examples like Dancing Mothers.

Based on a play co-written by Edmund Goulding (soon to trek to Hollywood to become one of MGM's most attentive directors), Dancing Mothers follows the age-old story of mother vs. daughter. Catherine Westcourt (Bow), affectionately known as Kittens, is a flighty young girl who accepts gifts from one man while openly flirting with another. She has a special bond with her jet-setter father Hugh (Norman Trevor), even going so far as to cover for him while he has affairs with younger women. This kinship between father and daughter leaves poor Ethel (Alice Joyce), mother and wife, alone at home often, inspiring her to break free to enjoy some fun of her own. However, that fun includes stealing Kittens' paramour Gerald Naughton (Conway Tearle). When warned by her friend that she is playing with fire, she retorts, "I'm playing with life!"

Third-billed underneath Conway Tearle (who was so unimpressive in yesterday's Should Ladies Behave) and Joyce (an established star who retired soon after failing at talkies and married director Clarence Brown), our Clara very easily steals the film from everyone around her. One mere year before It made her a star, there is clear evidence of the winning persona that she worked hard to develop over the course of her career. While Joyce is quite good in a complicated role, the climactic confrontation between mother and daughter places the audience firmly on Kittens' side, solely because of Bow's moving performance. This is one racy little film, with father, mother, and daughter hopping into beds all over town, all blamed on "the Jazz Age", but manages to maintain some taste through it all. The ending takes an unexpected, pre-feminist path for Ethel, and it has aged very well. Tremendously underrated blonde bombshell Leila Hyams, who wouldn't really become a star until the talkie era, appears as brunette Birdie Courtney, Hugh's mistress, and Dorothy Cumming is quite good as Ethel's friend Mrs. Mazzarene, who encourages the married woman's reckless behavior. The claim that only an incomplete 54-minute version exists of the film is inaccurate; the version I saw was the complete 65-minute theatrical release.

Urlaubsreport (1971)
Another West German sexploitation "report film", slightly better than yesterday's Skihasen-Report (1972), Urlaubsreport was directed by genre expert Ernst Hofbauer, with assistant direction by Walter Boos, so you have the two masters working together on one film. Released in America as The Resort Girls (the literal translation of the German title is Vacation Report), this report film follows the sexual adventures of people on vacation in a fun, swinging 70s atmosphere. It's a stark contrast to the rather dour goings-on in yesterday's report film. Like most report films, it is merely a series of vignettes connected by a common theme, in this case sexy vacationers.

Skiing beauty Paula rips a hole in the back of her pants and is rescued by handsome ski instructor Maxl (Hans Hass, Jr.) who whisks her back to his room for repairs. Her two nieces Krista and Uschi (Karin Götz and Juliane Rom-Sock) try to tag team him but are almost caught by their aunt, forcing Maxl to hide nude on the balcony in the snow. It turns out that Maxl's adventures are merely one story being related by a travel agent at a German travel agency run by , where various employees at a round table meeting relate similar stories. In Greece, vacationing girlfriends Margot Mahler, Elisabeth Volkmann, and Marianne Sock plan to seduce their very efficient, all-business travel agent/tour guide (Harald Baerow) by stealing his briefcase. Adorable secretary Andrea (very popular sexploitation starlet Astrid Frank) decides to take a scuba diving vacation in Costa Brava with her busty friend Karla (the peerless Nadine de Rangot), where the pair seduce their instructors Miguel (Laurence Bien) and Luis (Oliver Domnik). In Yugoslavia, three guys traveling in a van painted with "Make Love Not War" (including Gernot Möhner) pick up three girls on a pier, but lose one of their group to love with a local girl. A Bavarian interlude finds a horny married woman (Helen Vita) who, when her clueless husband (Ralf Wolter) ignores her sexual advances and goes on a hike, seduces the hotel manager (Wolf Harnisch). Lovely Evelyne Traeger and her girlfriend travel to Rome, where she confides in a traveling priest (Josef Fröhlich) about a disastrous computer dating match-up. Two young girls go on vacation to become models in Italy, hook up with two handsome agents with a boat, and one of them runs into her father having an affair with a buxom brunette chippie (Monika Rohde). Her mother is sleeping with a young fella in both of their absences. The biggest star in the film, Sybil Danning (before her 80s action star phase, billed as Sibylle Danning), plays Ina, a lovely blonde vacationing in Palma de Mallorca who relates a story of her hitchhiking days, when she fought off a rapist and was rescued by Jürgen (Horst Heuck). The pair get a hotel room and put up the walls of Jericho on the single bed, but they soon come tumbling down.

Sybil is the hands-down stunner of the entire cast, as in all the European films she made. Unfortunately, as with most German sexploitation, credits are spotty, and not everyone is credited. The great Peter Thomas contributes a catchy theme song, "Ich Will (I Want)". Only available in German. I'd love to see the American/English version.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Adventures in Downloading!! Part 2

Disgraced! (1933)
Pre-Code films continue to be some of my favorite movies made during the classic Hollywood studio era, so when an obscure one pops up from a studio that doesn't readily make its catalog available (i.e., Paramount, Universal, Fox Studios), it's cause for celebration, even if the film is a disappointment. Paramount's Disgraced! actually stars a relatively disgraced star, Helen Twelvetrees, who fell from stardom shortly before this film was shot. A long-term contract player at Fox, she floated over to RKO and then Paramount for a handful of features after 1931, when she was accused of trying to kill her suicidal husband. She rose to slight prominence in the early talkie period when she moved from stage to screen, as she had a proper voice for the new sound technology. But she never really made a huge splash in Hollywood and at 49 took her own life with a pill overdose. Here she plays a typical Twelvetrees role, a sprightly affluent blonde model named Gay. Bruce Cabot (in King Kong the same year) is freewheeling cad Kirk, engaged to boozy flirty Julia (Adrienne Ames, who steals the movie), but with his eyes firmly set on the alluring Gay, who he meets as she models the latest fashions for Julia. Their romance seems made in the heavens, especially when Kirk buys her a house on the beach. But it turns out that he intends to go through with his marriage to Julia, discovered by our heroine when she unwittingly models a wedding dress for the other woman! This is when things (finally!) heat up, as Gay goes gun crazy on Kirk and when he calls the police for help...the cop that shows up is Gay's father. Surprise!

This is not one of the better pre-Code offerings from Paramount, I'm afraid, but blame can't be placed squarely on Twelvetrees. She's done good 1930s sinful melodramas. This just isn't one of them. It's a brisk 63 minutes, but where films of that length at Warner Brothers are splendidly paced and overflowing with excitement and intrigue, this one suffers from both poor pacing and a cast of characters we care nothing about. Gay is too simple and naive for us to root for, Kirk is a slimy smooth talker, and there simply isn't enough Julia to save the film from the doldrums. Maybe if, say, Ruth Chatterton had been cast here instead of Twelvetrees...but then Chatterton was always a no-nonsense type, and couldn't have made Gay's doormat behavior any more believable. At least things get lively in the last 15 minutes, but that's a mere 1/4 of the film worth seeing. It's kind of fun to see Charles Middleton (aka Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon) in a character role, and there are some nice swooping camera moves through the courtroom in the finale.

Should Ladies Behave (1933)
Another obscure pre-Code film, this time from MGM, producer of some of the dullest and dated films of the 1930s. Try watching The Divorcee (1930) or A Free Soul (1931) sometime, and enjoy the ensuing nap. This one stars Louis B. Mayer's favorite actor, Lionel Barrymore, who was on the MGM payroll all the way up to his death, pairing him with always-wonderful Alice Brady (My Man Godfrey) as Gussie and Laura, a middle-aged couple with a beautiful daughter, Leone (Mary Carlisle), whose beau Geoffrey is fed-up with her naivete. We also meet Laura's sister Winkie (Katherine Alexander), who is having an affair with the stuffy Max. Max is the key figure in a not-very-believable love triangle (or is a square?) with Winkie, old flame Laura, and anxious-for-experience Leone.

The big problem with MGM pre-Code films is that the studio had a taste level that was considered high-class and extravagant. Dealing with sordid subjects such as drugs, gang violence, prostitution, and white slavery simply didn't mix with the established house style. The kind of proposed sophisticated romance among the rich seen here is typical of MGM in this period, the Thalberg era, and has aged poorly. For more lurid studio fare, one would do best to stick with Warner Brothers, and to a lesser extent Columbia, Paramount, and Universal. At least the cast is enjoyable, and the 30s gowns are fabulous (thank you, Adrian). Brady is marvelous, as usual, and Barrymore takes on his expected grumpy old man persona. As Max, however, Conway Tearle is nowhere near as enticing as a man who has three women wrapped around his finger should be. William Powell would have been a better casting choice.

Mimsy were the Borogoves (1970)
The BBC made some stellar children's fantasy films in the 1970s and 1980s, including favorites like The Box of Delights (1984), Children of the Stones (1977), and The Clifton House Mystery (1978). Apparently the French were doing the same for their TV-watching children, as evidenced with this unusual low-budget telefilm. The 2007 non-hit The Last Mimzy is based on the same short story adapted here.

Brother and sister Philippe and Sylvie, who live in a hotel run by their mother, are fascinated with the stars and the planets. Naturally they are delighted when Philippe finds a mysterious extraterrestrial orb while out in the snow one day and gives Sylvie the weird-looking doll he finds inside, who she names Alice. The young boy discovers that the monitor inside, that resembles one of those mini-TV's that were kinda popular in the 90s, can broadcast unusual scenes on its screen, tapping into the user's thoughts and showing what they subconsciously wish to see. The siblings see weird scenes like a malicious teacher being burned at the stake, a nasty elderly hotel guest forced to drag a sleigh behind her, their mother offering them pie, and tremendously trippy bits like Sylvie getting into a red compartment in a giant eye and a mirror exploding into flames. They also discover that they can question the doll and it will flash its eyes in rhythmic answer, two for yes, three for no. The children's father wants them examined by a psychiatrist for their unusual games with these mysterious toys, but Mom finds their imaginative playing a positive thing and encourages them to continue.

Borogoves would have benefited from a larger budget to allow for better special effects and at least a more believable doll, but it plays like an extended episode of "The Twilight Zone", running a mere 75 minutes, and takes a rather dark turn after most of the film is filled with whimsy and wonder. It wouldn't give BBC any sleepless nights in the children's fantasy department, but is a decent way to spend an afternoon. The child actors, Eric Damain and Laurence Debia, are quite good, as is Madeleine Ozeray as a spirited hotel guest who shares Sylvie's wide-eyed enchantment with other worlds.

Skihasen-Report (1972)
I'm a sucker for German sexploitation films, as they take me back to my adolescence sneaking peeks at them on late-night TV when I lived in Berlin. The most popular genre titles seem to be the Schulmadchen-Report films, and for good reason. They represent everything that is well-loved and remembered of the genre, and all within the faux context of an educational report on the youth of Deutschland. Report films followed like crazy, portraying the shocking sex lives of housewives (Hausfrauen-Report), nurses (Krankenschwestern-Report), stewardesses (Der Hostessen-Sex-Report), travel agents (Urlaubsreport), therapy patients (Sex-Traume-Report), virgins (Jungfrauen-Report), keyholes (Schlusseloch-Report), and even entire cities/regions (Der Ostfriesen-Report). The key directors of the genre were Ernst Hofbauer and Walter Boos, neither of whom was responsible for Skihasen-Report...which should tell you something about its quality. Franz Vass is the one responsible for this one, and it's one of the poorest examples of the genre. Fritz and his girlfriend Else decide to vacation at a ski resort and while there tell each other or hear stories of other sexual vacation encounters. A black woman picks up a German man buying postcards, a rich married redhead on vacation alone considers all the men around her weak and emasculated until the hotel piano player rocks her world (this is the one scene with any sexual heat), a model in a sleigh whisks a young student out of the snow and takes his virginity for sport, an older married man cheats on his wife with a sprightly young blonde hooker, said hooker crashes into two American cowboy types who respond in English to her German dialogue, and a depressed redhead connects with a youthful stud at a weird musical almost-orgy. The manager of the resort is a flaming gay man with an unhealthy relationship with his dog. Herbert Fux (Mark of the Devil) shows up briefly as a drunk in the opening scene. And that's about it. It's only available in German.