Saturday, October 25, 2014

Limousine Love (1928)

Very funny two-reel farce, with Charley Chase -- en route to his wedding -- finding himself stuck in a car with a woman who's lost her clothes, and her jealous husband who would kill them both if he found his wife with another man. The second half of the film, with Chase trying desperately to hide the woman with the help of both her unsuspecting husband and the entire wedding party, is a masterpiece of construction.

Chase milks the comic possibilities of this situation for all their worth, and creates a classic comedy of embarrassment that ranks among the very best of the films he made for Hal Roach. He's expertly directed here by Fred L. Guiol, and supported by a fine ensemble cast including master of the slow-burn Edgar Kennedy as the jealous husband, Viola Richard as the embarrassed wife, and Edna Marion as the suspicious bride-to-be.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Thale (2012)

I was in the mood for a break from the usual Hollywood fare tonight, and this Norwegian sci-fi fantasy fit the bill just fine. A pair of young men, who run a cleaning service specializing in bloody crime scenes, are called out on a job at a remote station in the woods. Once there, they discover a young woman with a troubled past who turns out to be a mythical, tailed creature that inhabits the woods, and is being hunted by the ruthless scientists who have been performing experiments on her since childhood.

Shot on a low budget, it is a bit slow going at times, especially toward the end, but it's nonetheless an effective and haunting supernatural flick that lives up to the potential of its unusual premise, and its atmospheric sense of unease and dread is certainly a welcome change from the shock-a-minute torture porn typical of the horror films coming out of Hollywood these days.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Last Picture Show (1971)

I watched this one for the first time tonight and was not prepared for how it moved me. Bogdanovich's film is set in a small town in Texas, and is an evocative portrait of a group of young people on the cusp of adulthood as they struggle to come into their own. Having grown up in a similarly small town myself, it certainly struck a chord with me as one of the best depictions of the sense of malaise and directionlessness endemic to that milieu.

It deals fundamentally with America's present by reflecting on its past -- how did we get here from where we've been? Watching it in 2014, it inspires further reflection on the fact that it's impossible to imagine a film like this being made today.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Mammy (1930)

Excellent Al Jolson vehicle and pre-Code musical drama, from the Irving Berlin play, about romance and intrigue behind the scenes of a traveling minstrel show. Al, the troupe's endman and star attraction, is in love with manager's daughter, but finds himself accused of the attempted murder of the company interlocutor after real bullets are substituted in his prop gun during the act one night.

Berlin's hit songs include "Across the Breakfast Table, Looking at You", "Night Boat to Albany", "Who Paid the Rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle?", and "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy", all performed with great gusto by Jolson. Louise Dresser turns in a touching performance as Al's mother. Directed with snappy pacing by Michael Curtiz, and featuring sequences shot in 2-color Technicolor, capturing the atmosphere of the minstrel show with a vibrant sense of immediacy and authenticity.

Clarence Cheats at Croquet (1915)

A pleasant and genteel little comedy, produced by the Thanhouser company in New Rochelle, NY -- one of the many films produced by this pioneering studio in the early days of motion pictures. The premise is standard stuff, centering around a croquet match between two opponents squaring off for the affection of a young woman.

Nicely photographed and deliberately paced with mild slapstick and subdued characterizations. Of special interest now as an example of the wide range of short comedy subjects being produced at that time outside of the major comedy "factories" like Keystone.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Hatchet Man (1932)

Bizarre, lurid pre-Code melodrama, directed by William Wellman and starring Edward G. Robinson as Wong Low Get, the "hatchet man" (a highly-respected assassin) for the warring Tong factions in San Francisco's Chinatown. When he is dispatched to kill his closest friend, Wong Low takes charge of the man's daughter. Years pass and Wong Low marries the now-grown daughter (Loretta Young), but she is in love with another man, and this discovery causes Wong Low's life to fall apart around him. When he learns that the other man has dishonored his wife and sold her in to sexual slavery, Wong Low sets out to seek revenge.

The absurdity of seeing stars like Robinson and Loretta Young playing Chinese characters in yellowface is worsened by the insensitive, simplistic characterizations and awkward, uncomfortable cultural stereotyping (with characters frequently either speaking in proverbs or engaging in barbaric fighting), and is representative of the inherent racism in the "Yellow Peril" trope so prevalent in Hollywood films -- and American culture in general -- during this time.

One of the lesser films that Wellman made during this prolific and interesting period of his career for Warner Bros., his normally subtle and economic directorial style too often lapses into heavy-handed symbolism and other effects that call unnecessary attention to themselves (such as filming Robinson's murder of his friend in silhouette). Despite the obviously problematic nature of his role, Robinson's performance is otherwise characteristically sensitive and restrained, while the rest of the cast-- which includes Leslie Fenton, Dudley Digges, Edmund Breese, Tully Marshall and J. Carrol Naish -- fares far less well in their parts.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

English Without Tears (1944)

Dry British romantic farce -- by Terrence Rattigan and Anatole de Grunwald -- about a wealthy, eccentric amateur ornithologist (delightfully played by Margaret Rutherford) who travels to the League of Nations on a mission to protect the rights of English birds at home and abroad. Her campaign is interrupted both by the outbreak of war, and a budding, complicated romance between her daughter and the family butler, now an enlisted man in the British army.

Both a comedy of manners and a mild satire on British wartime attitudes, with amusing dialogue and a good performance by Rutherford that showcases her considerable gifts for playing comedy. The cast also includes Michael Wilding, Penelope Dudley-Ward, Lilli Palmer, and Albert Lieven, under the direction of Harold French. AKA HER MAN GILBEY.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Hello, Sister! (1933)

Erich von Stroheim's first talkie -- and final directorial effort -- was this surprisingly frank and grim pre-Code romantic drama, based on an unproduced play by Dawn Powell, about a young couple struggling to find happiness in Depression-era New York. Originally titled WALKING DOWN BROADWAY, Stroheim had his version of the film taken out of his hands by Fox producers Winfield Sheehan and Sol Wurtzel, who re-worked it with new footage shot by a team of directors reported to include Alfred L. Werker, Raoul Walsh and Alan Crosland (though the final film contains no directorial credit), and released it as HELLO SISTER in 1933, which was a commercial failure. That failure, combined with the wild and untrue rumors surrounding the production regarding Stroheim's supposed excesses (in reality, he brought the film in on-budget and ahead of schedule), spelled the end of his career as a filmmaker. Stroheim's original cut of the film was destroyed, and even the theatrical release version was long thought to be lost until a print was recovered by William K. Everson in the 1970s.

Seen today, it's a fascinating and frustrating work. It is disappointing that Stroheim's original cut has not survived, but what remains -- even after the studio tampering -- is an exceptional film in many ways. It is -- despite the multitude of directors involved in its final incarnation -- an astonishingly personal film, too, filled with Stroheim's stylistic and thematic touches that are startlingly powerful and brilliant in their simplicity. James Wong Howe's cinematography is exquisite as usual; there is one camera move in particular -- a slow tracking shot on a mural of "The Last Supper" -- that is breathtaking for its sheer perfection. The fine cast includes earnest and sympathetic James Dunn, the lovely Boots Mallory, tough, sexy Minna Gombell, and most effectively, ZaSu Pitts in an intriguingly offbeat and quirky performance that one wishes there remained more of in the final film. Overall, a flawed but noble end to Stroheim's remarkable filmmaking career.