Oct 28, 2016

On DVD: Six Horror Classics in The Legends of Horror Collection

This batch of six MGM and Warner Bros. shockers is a quirky cousin to the classic literature-inspired horror classics of Universal Studios. It features familiar stars of horror: Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and champion screamer Fay Wray, in flicks that get a little naughtier, creepier and more bizarre than those better known classics. It is a sort of adventure to explore this varied set, which is now available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Mark of the Vampire (1935)

Enjoyment of this quirky horror flick with a touch of comedy depends upon your ability to enjoy its parts and ignore how it comes together. Amid the clunky scenes of exposition and Lionel Barrymore intensely chewing on his lines are great spooky moments: a supposed dead man playing a droning tune on an organ; Carroll Borland, an early prototype of the goth girl, eerily peering through a window in her deathly pale make-up, and a soundtrack full of angst-inducing moans and night noises. When it works it's effectively creepy, but a few goofy touches keep it from truly plunging you into horror.

The Devil-Doll (1936)

Lionel Barrymore gets the opportunity to go full ham in this quirky sci-fi horror with special effects that remain intriguing to modern eyes. He masquerades as an old lady in several scenes, and clearly relishes the opportunity to act without restraint. The plot is a busy affair, with a mad scientist who plans to miniaturize the world with his ghoulish sister, Barrymore as a wrongfully convicted escaped prisoner out to clear his name and Maureen O'Sullivan completely unaware of it all as his daughter. The miniaturization effects are a lot of fun and seem to have aged well partly because they are in black and white. Tiny people, horses, dogs and the like are used to often creepy effect to steal, exact revenge and essentially cause chaos.

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

Beautifully designed, acutely racist and oozing with camp, it's amusing to imagine what is going on in Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy's minds as they valiantly attempt to portray "Asians" in this pre-code adventure horror flick full of colonial swagger. Though they play characters that kill and torture, they're somehow more sympathetic than the supposed British heroes who stop a moment to marvel at the legacy of Genghis Khan before pillaging his tomb without a hint of self-awareness. Even the normally entrancing Karen Morley looks like a jerk in her pith helmet and khakis, while Loy is sadistic fun, peering through a headdress of beads, delighting in sticking it to the white man.

Mad Love (1935)

Completely bald, so that he looks like an vaguely menacing egg, Peter Lorre is especially unsettling as a famous doctor who becomes fixated on a Grand Guignol actress (Frances Drake). When her concert pianist husband's (Colin Clive) hands are crushed in a train accident, he attaches the hands of a murderous knife thrower to his arms, make her feel she owes him a debt when he has actually brought her more trouble because of the still violent impulses of the newly-attached appendages. The early scenes in the theater are good fun with its grotesquely-masked attendants and proto-torture porn melodrama. It's a bit baffling that Drake is the only one who seems to see how unbearably creepy Lorre is, but as it unfolds, a guy that socially malignant isn't going to stay under wraps forever.

Doctor X (1932)

Two-strip Technicolor is a great look for a horror film, as can also be seen in The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). It gives Caucasian flesh an eerie pink hue, so that everyone looks like a creepy doll come to life, and holds back just enough color to keep dark corners and looming shadows sufficiently forbidding. Lee Tracy is probably the only comic relief journalist that I could bear in a horror film, though it is still baffling that Fay Wray as a crime-solving scientist's daughter would give him a tumble. The look of the film gives it most of its power to chill, though the grotesque make-up effects used to simulate synthetic flesh are also delightfully sickening and the final sequence is suspenseful in a gut-churning way.

The Return of Doctor X (1939

I was ready to throw my drink at the annoying snappy reporter in this awkward comedy/horror sequel that has nothing to do with the 1932 film, when the oddly-cast Humphrey Bogart made his appearance as a mad scientist. Just before his true break-through in Hollywood, the actor played this villain with greasy skin, a skunk stripe in his hair, and the bearing of a man who doesn't get much fresh air. He's a simultaneously awful and brilliant choice for the role of a mad scientist, as deliciously campy as an old school Bond villain. The rest of the film is silly and forgettable, but seeing pre-headliner Bogie in such a bizarre part made it worth the watch.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Oct 21, 2016

Book Review--Jean Cocteau: A Life

Jean Cocteau: A Life
Claude Arnaud
Originally published: Gallimard, 2003
English translation by Lauren Elkin and Charlotte Mandell:
Yale University Press, 2016

Jean Cocteau never quite fit in with the human race. Lost in fairy land fantasies and opium reveries, with even his hair refusing to part right and standing on end in rebellion, he was an oddity who inspired rage and affection, but rarely disinterest. Unable to find a cohesive thread throughout his many pursuits: novels, poetry, plays, films and drawing, he would sometimes agree with his critics that he was nonsensical and not of this planet. He lived in his own world.

In 2003, Claude Arnaud drew on years of research to compose an epic take on the life of this misunderstood artist, giving him his proper due as a unique and influential artist. It is a dense work, full of daily details and a cast of characters more populated than a Russian novel. It takes great patience to navigate, but offers a rewarding history of a man, the great geniuses he knew and the time in which he lived. In its recent English translation the beauty and irritation of this massive work retains the feel of its culture, occasionally even taking on the otherworldly, fanciful voice of its subject.

Cocteau in 1923
It took me a while to engage with Cocteau. The first half of the book was jammed with so many quotes and references to various personalities that it didn't have room to breathe. Eventually Arnaud finds his flow though as he begins to trust his own voice and settles into more cohesive storytelling. Cocteau was a narcissist, in constant need of love and attention, and as a result he knew just about every creative soul of note and patron of the arts in early Twentieth-century Paris, and all of these relationships are important to his story. It's a complex tale to unwind.

In associating almost entirely with creative people, the sensitive Cocteau found himself surrounded by intense and ambitious personalities. The pressure of these dynamos molded him as much as they destroyed him. He counted among his allies major modern influencers like Coco Chanel, Marcel Proust and Igor Stravinsky. He was mentored by writers including the now mostly forgotten Anna de Noailles and nurtured new talents like the doomed Raymond Radiguet, who was also his great romantic obsession, and the eternal thief Jean Genet.

Jean Marais, 1947

Throughout his life Cocteau also made many enemies, irritating many with his unusual and erratic ways. Among his worst detractors were the Surrealists, who, led by movement founder André Breton, waged a public campaign against him in the twenties and thirties. The artist held no grudges though and his forgiving nature would often win over his most vehement critics, though notably not Breton, who hated him for life. Cocteau also had an enduring frenemy in Pablo Picasso, who was as loyal as he was toxic over the course of a decades-long relationship.

As Cocteau lived for other people, it is appropriate that his relationships form the core of his biography. While most attracted to the male physique, he could be fluid both sexually and with the nature of his friendships, which included platonic romances and a highly-satisfying threesome late in life that was more affectionate than erotic. He had a passion for young men and would mentor many to great artistic success throughout affairs that were sometimes romantic and always paternal. Along with Radiguet, his most famous "son" would be actor Jean Marais, with whom he would have a complicated, but essentially supportive relationship for the second half of his life. His rare romances with women are also examined, and in particular his love affair with socialite and princess Natalie Paley with whom he dreamed of having a child.

Natalie Paley
While I was fascinated to learn about the culture and creators who affected and formed Cocteau, I craved more detail about his process of creation. I found the text especially uneven and lacking detail when it came to the production of his films, which was especially disappointing as I approached the book with a particular interest in his cinematic works. For example, while the process of filming Blood of a Poet(1930) is described in satisfying detail, from conception to completion, there is very little space devoted to his marvelous post-war masterpiece Beauty and the Beast (1946). Given that film offered Cocteau the opportunity to combine so many of the different arts that inspired him, it surprised me that these unusual works did not get more attention.

Overall Cocteau is effective because it takes you under his skin, making clear his desires, motivations and dreams. He led a tortured existence, sensitive to criticism and hate, and plagued with skin ailments, allergies, insomnia and myriad other discomforts. For much of his adult life he dealt with his physical and emotional pain by self-medicating with opium. It is a habit that would take him out of the world to an alarming degree, and Arnaud captures that disconnect with reality effectively.

Cocteau offers a far-reaching, detailed history that cannot be recommended for a casual reader. Committing to this massive text offers many rewards, but it is a demanding book, with much to absorb and understand. It is well worth the effort for any fan of French culture of the early Twentieth century in addition to Cocteau devotees.

Many thanks to Yale University Press for providing a copy of the book for review.

Oct 14, 2016

On DVD: Four Atmospheric Horror Classics Produced by Val Lewton

In the early forties, Russian-American film producer Val Lewton was head of horror production at RKO Studios. In a precise agreement with the studio, for each film he was given a strictly limited budget, a title and instructions to keep the running time short. With these basic elements, an efficient and effective cast and crew for each production, and his own talent for scriptwriting, he made a series of viscerally chilling films, in a distinctly shadowy style, that would become horror classics.

In a pair of double feature DVDs, four of Lewton's classic chillers are now available from Warner Archive. One disc features Boris Karloff in two of the three films he made for the producer: Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946). The other showcases stars Dennis O'Keefe and Richard Dix in The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship (both 1943) respectively.

Isle of the Dead/Bedlam

The future director of plush productions like Peyton Place (1957) and Valley of the Dolls (1967), Mark Robson would show a flair for horror with this pair of Karloff flicks. Isle of the Dead and Bedlam are two of five films the director would make for Lewton (the others: horror flicks Ghost Ship and The Seventh Victim [1943], and the drama Youth Runs Wild [1944]). Both movies are notable among Lewton's productions for building horror with more disturbing than creepy content. Here the fear isn't so much of what is hiding in the dark, but human nature.

Inspired by a mysterious painting by Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin,
Isle of the Dead, by Arnold Böcklin
Isle of the Dead takes a while to build momentum. Like the static world in that work of art, it maintains a feel of lingering dread, but it takes much of the film's running time to escalate to anything truly compelling. It almost plays out like a stage production, its characters quarantined in a house on an island infested with the plague, afraid of the real threat of death, but also wary of local legends. There is a pay-off though, with a truly terrifying final sequence that descends into palpable confusion and madness.

While Karloff is a dominating presence in Bedlam, it is also a remarkable showcase for Anna Lee. The actress rarely had the chance to dig into a role as meaty as this 18th century tale of a woman accustomed to living among the rich, as a sort of jester for prominent men, who is inspired by a Quaker to fight for improved conditions in a local insane asylum. Karloff is the cruel overseer of the institution in which inmates are treated like animals and brought out for parties to be mocked by the upper classes.

Through Karloff's machinations, Lee is wrongly committed to the asylum and there she finds strength in the sort of feminine traits typically mocked as weak by men. Though horrified and unsettled by the inmates, she relies on the wit that has given her a plush life to keep her own sanity. She finds herself capable of disturbing behavior herself, the sort of dark impulses that provide the true horror in this unusual film.

The disc includes commentary on Bedlam by film historian Tom Weaver

The Leopard Man/The Ghost Ship

While the dangerous men in The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship are as gripped by the dark side of human nature as Karloff, these films present those impulses more firmly in the threatening, shadowy world that formed Lewton's unique style.

The Leopard Man would be the last of three horror films Jacques Tourneur directed for Lewton. He was as responsible as the producer for the feeling of fearful anticipation that would characterize these RKO productions. Like his previous efforts Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943), it draws its chills from dangers lurking in the darkness; its most terrible moments drawn from something as simple as the fear of a sheet of pure, black night, with just enough light to show the fear on the face of whoever must enter that void to reach safety. 

There's a feeling of doom chasing the residents of a small New Mexican town, where an escaped leopard used for a nightclub publicity stunt seems to be killing women who walk the streets alone late at night. Voices, sounds and the swish of tree branches increase the feeling of being alone and doomed. A gush of blood oozing from beneath a doorway simply and efficiently communicates the horror of what is happening on the other side.

The Ghost Ship approaches that terror of isolation in a different way, leaving a man feeling alone among a crew of many because they can't see as he can how dangerous their obedience-obsessed captain has become. As played by Richard Dix, the unhinged seaman leads with icy calm, sending his men to doom simply to test his own powers and satisfy his need for revenge over anyone who defies him. The ship feels like a haunted house, empty, shadowy and with the feeling of being filled with dark spirits that possess the captain and his men.

Special features include commentary by director William Friedkin on The Leopard Man and a trailer for the film.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Oct 6, 2016

On Blu-ray: Doris Day and James Cagney on Blu-ray in Love Me or Leave Me (1955)

So much of the joy of Love Me or Leave Me is in the luxurious MGM-style polish of the production. There's the beautiful sets, the too gorgeous to be real costumes and the beauty of the luscious color photography. This glossy fictionalization of the rise of chanteuse Ruth Etting and her relationships with the gangster Martin "Mo" Snyder and pianist Harry Alderman, starring Doris Day, James Cagney and Cameron Mitchell respectively, is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Doris Day is a curious choice to play Etting, as the pair have vastly different personas. Day is the wholesome, determined daffodil, while Etting was a sexy, slinky chanteuse. Despite the longing and sadness in so many of her torch songs, there's always a bit of laughter in Etting's eyes. Her appeal is in seeming strong enough to stand up for herself while still exuding inviting warmth. These qualities are in evidence in the shorts A Modern Cinderella (1932) and Roseland (1930), which feature the singer and are available as special features on the disc.

While Day is also a candy-coated woman of steel, she doesn't quite capture these aspects of Etting's personality in her portrayal. For one, she takes the toughness too far, coming off like a glum Doris instead of tough but tantalizing Ruth. Day's also not the kind of actress to disappear into a character. Though she was able to play comedy, drama and musical moments with satisfying success, her persona and sense of self was always too powerful for her to be anyone but that side of herself she had crafted for public view.

Though footage of Mo Snyder is not as readily available as that of Etting, it is likely fair to assume that Cagney's persona was just as dominant in his portrayal of the mobster who launched and promoted the singer's career. Photos of Snyder show the face of a tough man who could get incredibly unpleasant if pushed. While Cagney has plenty of moments where he is just that kind of overbearing bully, his take on Snyder is ultimately that of a pathetic, if powerful man with plenty of sadness hidden within him.

You begin to feel sorry for Snyder as Etting takes full advantage of his generosity, pushing him to do things even he finds morally repugnant, while offering nothing in return. He is too rough and controlling to deserve her love, but as portrayed here, the singer often doesn't show respect or even gratitude for what he does to help her. She sees him as a means to an end, and he can never do enough. However, she does offer a much-needed challenge to his overbearing ways: he thinks he is buying himself a malleable lover, but is humbled when she proves to be more than his match.

Day and Cagney are an effective team, because both actors are effective listeners. They're not meant to have chemistry and they manage to portray the friction between the two well. It isn't nearly as messy as it was in real life, but they capture the jarring effects of a toxic relationship, where there is always a thin grime of ugliness weighing them down.

It is difficult to accept Cameron Mitchell as Etting's irresistible piano playing lover. He may be nicer than Cagney, but he's not nearly as interesting. I found myself looking around for a third option to please this lovelorn songbird.

Day sings several of Etting's hits in her own distinctive style. While she doesn't sound at all like the cooing torch singer, her interpretation of her catalog is pleasing in its own way. The tunes are presented in simple, but visually-appealing production numbers which rightfully keep the focus on the songs.

While the MGM take on Etting's story has its own slick delights, I can't help but pine for a pre-code version of this story. Of course the timeline of her life would make such a thing impossible, but imagine Jean Harlow playing Ruth and a young Cagney still in the role of Snyder. Maybe Robert Montgomery as the piano player? Perhaps it wouldn't be a much more accurate take on the tale, but the spirit of the age would serve the story well.

As that scenario is impossible; I'll take Doris and Jimmy, who always deliver, even when they don't hit the bullseye.

In addition to the Ruth Etting musical shorts A Modern Cinderella and Roseland, special features on the disc include the star-studded MGM promo A Salute to the Theatres which highlights upcoming features also produced the year of Love Me or Leave Me's release, and a theatrical trailer.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Oct 4, 2016

UPDATED WITH WINNER! Book Review and Giveaway: High Life on Via Veneto in Dolce Vita Confidential

Dolce Vita Confidential: Fellini, Loren, Pucci, Paparazzi, and the Swinging High Life of 1950s Rome
Shawn Levy
W.W. Norton & Company, 2016

When I learned of the publication of Shawn Levy's Dolce Vita Confidential, my first thought was, "Please let him write about the time Anita Ekberg threatened the paparazzi with a bow and arrow!" Levy does chronicle this brief, amusing episode and many other sensational tales of the wild life in 1950s Rome. However, these bits of dolce indulgence sit on a solid foundation, one where I found even more intriguing storytelling and a fascinating history of a city, and country, pulling itself out of the devastation of World War II and glittering more brightly than it had before.

While Levy devotes plenty of attention to the glamour and chaos of the scene that centered on the famed Via Veneto, most of the book focuses on the cultural changes that led to its establishment. He charts the post-war growth of Italy in fashion, film and celebrity and how these things were affected by crime, scandal and the birth of the paparazzi. At the center of it all is Federico Fellini's great Roman master work La Dolce Vita (1960), which mixed the director's fanciful imagination with real life events among the city's fabulous and depraved.

Though I admit I was eager to get to the more sensational stories, it was fascinating to read about Italy's rise from the destruction of war. Much is made of the contribution of fashion to this rebirth, from the solidly stylish Fontana Sisters who dressed stars like Ava Gardner and Linda Christian, to Emilio Pucci and his distinctive, colorful prints and innovative sportswear. I also loved the various profiles of the characters who made up the scene: including movie stars Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren and Marcelo Mastroianni; filmmakers Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Pier Paolo Pasolini; and the men who originated the concept of paparazzi-style photography, only to later abandon it for respectability, Tazio Secchiaroli and Pierluigi Praturlon.

Even more fascinating were the stories of personalities who are lesser-known today, but who were a sensation in the press at the time. Swedish actress Anita Ekberg stands out as the face of La Dolce Vita: a sensual, glamorous and free-spirited presence who knew how to enliven a party. Wealthy, titled members of the upper class like race car driver Fon de Portago were also stars in their own right, inevitably living so hard they came to tragic ends. There are also the quieter, more devastating stories; among the most intriguing, Iranian Princess Soraya, who pined for a lost love amid the clamor of this busy scene.

There is plenty of sensation woven into these various histories. Among the scandals disclosed: an infamous strip tease at a private party made public by photographers, wild nights of paparazzi mischief and tangles with the famous and of course that story about Ekberg and her bow and arrow, which she really did shoot at a group of determined photographers. American movie stars are also included in the mix, with special attention given to the uproar over Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's illicit romance during the production of Cleopatra (1963), which was exposed via the determination of a single photographer.

Many of these stories were retold through Fellini's unique lens in La Dolce Vita. A significant portion of the book is devoted to this influential, controversial film. The director was stunned to inspire such anger with his film and perhaps also a bit amazed by the extent of the acclaim it won as well. Upon exiting the premiere, Sophia Loren said to him, "Poor you: What do you have inside of you?"

Levy charts the growth of the Italian film industry as well, including the construction of the government-owned film studio Cinecittà and the local and international productions it attracted in its heyday.

A passage about Italian music of the era, or rather the lack of an significant local scene, was one of the more half-baked aspects of the book. While I understood Levy's intent in acknowledging that this important medium was not a key part of Italy's growing cultural influence on the world, I would have liked a bit more insight as to why that was the case.

Overall this is a breezy read which gets at the core of what made post-war Rome so exciting with a well-paced, but nicely detailed style. I found it engrossing to read and difficult to put down.


Excited to read this book?

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-Deadline to enter Monday, 10/10, 11:59 PST
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-Winner to be announced in an update to this post Tuesday, 10/11

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Thank you to all who entered the Dolce Vita Confidential giveaway!

This morning I drew a name from the season-appropriate jack-o-lantern:

And the winner is...


Congratulations! Please send your name and mailing address to classicmovieblog@gmail.com and I will send you your book.

Many thanks to W.W. Norton & Company for providing a copy of the book for review and the giveaway prize.