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.

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