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.

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