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Dedicated to the Study and Appreciation
of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Cinevent 2016, Concluded


Sunday, the last day of Cinevent 2016, got off to a vivacious start with a double feature showcasing that most utterly, charmingly, irresistibly delightful of movie stars, Clara Bow. Only the persistent prejudice against silent movies keeps Clara Bow from her rightful place among the movies' greatest stars -- in the minds of the general public, that is; true movie buffs know her worth. Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe, at the height of their careers, were never as popular or as sexy as Clara. But Greta and Marilyn are enshrined in the Temple of Screen Immortals, even to people who know them only by name, while the name of Clara Bow is something out of a quaint, distant, forgotten prehistory, like Nell Gwyn or Minnie Maddern Fiske.


This is unfair. To see Clara Bow at her best -- in Mantrap (1926), or in It or Wings (both '27) -- is to see someone who is still as animated and as immediately alluring as she was the day she reported to the set. Everybody who ever worked with Clara spoke of her ever after with a wistful smile. More to the point, the camera loved her as it has loved few other women who ever stood in front of one.


She's been the victim, perhaps, of the legend that her atrocious Brooklyn accent doomed her when sound came in. Not so. While it's true that the microphone terrified her at first, she rolled with the punch and gamely soldiered on. In her 11-year career she appeared in 56 features, and 11 of them were talkies. There was nothing wrong with her voice, any more than there was with Jean Harlow's (the two women's careers overlapped by a few years). Clara's sound pictures did reasonably well at the box office, though it's true, not as well as her silents. But that's not because Clara was talking now. The simple truth is that her day was passing, while Jean Harlow's was coming on.


I'll save any further thoughts for another day. For now, let's turn to Clara's Sunday double bill in Columbus.

First came The Saturday Night Kid (1929), based on Love 'Em and Leave 'Em, a 1926 play by George Abbott and John V.A. Weaver. The play was filmed silent (also in '26) under its original title (and screened at Cinevent in 2010), with Evelyn Brent and Louise Brooks playing Mame and Janie Walsh, two sisters who work together at a big department store. Mame is the older, more responsible one, forever mother-henning her hedonistic, troublemaking kid sister Janie. For this talkie remake, Clara played the slightly renamed Mayme and Jean Arthur was Janie (though she was in fact five years older than Clara). Janie is a hell-raiser and borderline sociopath, playing the ponies with the store empoyees' charity fund, losing it, then blaming Mayme for the embezzlement -- and even trying to steal Mayme's boyfriend (James Hall). Clara wasn't looking her best (she was, just this once, a trifle overweight and a bit frowzy), but the picture was a hit in 1929 and it still plays well; when Mayme finally got fed up and slapped Janie clear across their bedroom, applause rippled through the Cinevent audience.


Next, Kid Boots (1926) was one of those oddities, a silent movie based (albeit loosely) on a Broadway musical comedy produced by Florenz Ziegfeld. Ziegfeld's star Eddie Cantor made his screen debut here, playing a man hired to flirt with a rich man's gold-digging wife and give the husband grounds for divorce. At a mountain resort, Eddie hits it off with the swimming instructor -- but their romance proceeds awkwardly because every time she sees him he's wooing somebody else. Since Eddie couldn't resort to song-and-dance, he was teamed with Clara (as the swimming instructor) for box-office insurance. It was a felicitous pairing. The two got along famously; Eddie helped Clara with her comic timing and she helped him learn how to act for the camera, and their rapport and mutual affection still come through on the screen.

After lunch there was a new wrinkle this year. They called it the Audience Choice Picture: Earlier in the year, on the Cinevent Web site, those of us planning to attend were polled as to which of four titles we'd like to see screened in this slot. I can't remember what the four choices were, nor which one I voted for, but we wound up with The Parson of Panamint (1941), from a story by Peter B. Kyne. Like Kyne's perennially popular The Three Godfathers, the story was a parable. Charlie Ruggles (in a change-of-pace straight dramatic role) plays the mayor of the rough-and-tumble mining town of Panamint, California. The mayor goes to the big city of San Francisco to hire a preacher for his town's new church, and that's where he finds the Rev. Philip Pharo (Phillip Terry) -- not in a church, but taking the mayor's part in a saloon fight. The Rev. Mr. Pharo accepts the job and rides back with the mayor to his new congregation.

At first things go well between the parson and the townspeople. But as it becomes clear to them that he takes the Christian doctrine of "love thy neighbor" quite literally, his innate goodness begins to make people uncomfortable -- plus, his concern for the welfare of the town's gold miners incurs the enmity of the self-styled leaders of the community, who set about stirring up public outrage against him. The script by Adrian Scott and Harold Shumate, and Kyne's original story, bore obvious parallels to the life of Jesus (although -- spoiler alert! -- in the movie things work out rather better for the Parson of Panamint than they did for the Carpenter of Nazareth). The picture garnered good reviews but poor box office; today it's an unusual little jewel of a movie, marred only by a too-bland performance by Phillip Terry as the parson. But Terry was more than compensated for by others in the cast, especially Ruggles and Ellen Drew as a local saloon girl (the movie's equivalent of Mary Magdalene).


The Parson of Panamint was the final highlight of this year's Cinevent, but the weekend didn't exactly end with a whimper. The last two features were The Tomboy (1924), a rural romance starring the now-forgotten silent comedienne Dorothy Devore (just the kind of scheduling Cinevent excels at, spotlighting former stars for whom there's no market on video but who deserve to be remembered); and King of Alcatraz (1938) a marvelously tight little Paramount B (running a lightning 68 min.) starring Lloyd Nolan and Robert Preston as frenemy wireless operators on a tramp steamer matching wits with an escaped crime kingpin (J. Carrol Naish) who hijacks their ship in mid-Pacific.

And so it was at 5:48 p.m. on Sunday, June 5, 2016, that the 48th Annual Cinevent Classic Movie Convention came to a close. I've posted on it in some detail, as I have in the past, because movie buffs everywhere should know about it and be encouraged to take it in. I haven't even touched on the dealers' rooms this year, though I once again acquired my share of books, videos, and memorabilia (some of which will no doubt find its way here from time to time).

As film festivals go, Cinevent is hard to beat. Financially, it's just about the bargain of the century: a pass for the entire weekend goes for less than you'd pay for a single screening at some classic film festivals. But it's more than that. Cinevent is a get-together of friends; historian and bestselling biographer Scott Eyman calls it "the most relaxed, friendly, unpretentious, accessible and enjoyable of the Cinephile Conventions." I hope to see you all there one of these years. Be sure to say hello.

Afterword

There are changes afoot here at Cinedrome. That's why this series on Cinevent 2016 has taken longer than I would have liked: I've been working two blogs, in a way, putting together these posts on the one hand, while working on the other hand with my friend Jean at My Big Fat Sites to develop a new and (I hope) improved Cinedrome. This will be the last of my posts here on Blogspot, though I'll update this afterword with my new Web address when it's ready to be seen.

And oh yes, all previous posts will still be available (maybe, if plans work out, even more so) at Cinedrome's new location.
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Friday, June 17, 2016

Cinevent 2016, Part 4

Day 3


Another regular -- and eagerly anticipated -- feature of Cinevent is the Saturday morning cartoon program, compiled and curated by animation maven Stewart McKissick. This year the bill included a specimen from each of the major cartoon studios of the 1930s through '50s -- Disney, Warner Bros., MGM, Fleischer, UPA, etc. The clear highlight of the morning was MGM's Magical Maestro (1952) by the great Tex Avery, in which a spurned vaudeville magician wreaks vengeance by disrupting an operatic recital by "the Great Poochini" (as the poster shows, the cartoon is populated by dogs). It's a wild and zany ride that anticipates (may even have inspired) Chuck Jones's Duck Amuck over at Warners the following year, and it's better seen than described.


Fortunately, that can be arranged. Click here to see the cartoon complete from beginning to end -- including a few fleeting (and fairly harmless) seconds of non-p.c. ethnic humor. It's only six-and-a-half minutes, and worth the side trip. I'll wait till you get back. (NOTE: The cartoon is on a Romanian-language Web site and is preceded by a commercial for one product or another. Look for a white "X" in the top right corner of the frame or the word "Inchide" ["skip"] in the bottom right; click on either of those and it'll go directly to the cartoon.)


The cartoon program was followed by Houdini (1953), a purported biopic starring a youthful Tony Curtis and then-wife Janet Leigh as the legendary escapologist and his wife Bess. A big hit in 1953, the picture was a mainstay of Saturday afternoon kiddie matinees when I was going to them -- I remember seeing it three or four times -- and I've always had a soft spot for it. There was, of course, a magician and escape artist (born Erik Weisz) who billed himself as Harry Houdini, and his wife Wilhelmina Beatrice was known as Bess; aside from that, the movie is arrant fiction from first frame to last -- but it's as entertaining as it is made-up. Seeing it in Columbus this year -- especially right after a whole slew of cartoons -- made me feel seven years old again.


The afternoon was devoted to two silent programs: Douglas Fairbanks in His Picture in the Papers (1916), followed by a selection of rarely seen comedy shorts, also from 1916, consisting of The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, starring Doug Fairbanks again as a detective named (get this) Coke Ennyday (a spoof on the name of Craig Kennedy, a character created by Arthur B. Reeve in 1910 and popular in magazine fiction until Reeve's death in 1936); An Angelic Attitude, directed by and starring Tom Mix, already seven years into his movie career and poised on the brink of superstardom; and A Scoundrel's Toll, a Mack Sennett short starring Raymond Griffith. (Griffith would be a mid-level comedy star throughout the 1920s, but his badly damaged vocal cords would relegate him to behind-the-camera work writing and producing, and quite successfully, once talkies came in.)

This was followed by Tim McCoy in Law Beyond the Range (1935), an unpretentious and quite entertaining B western from Columbia. Tim McCoy was one of those interesting characters who sort of backed into movies because making movies was fun and he himself was fairly comfortable in front of  camera. Born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1891, he became fascinated with the Wild West as a student in college; he dropped out and resettled in Wyoming, where he became a ranch hand and expert horseman. After serving in World War I (he rose to the rank of colonel and later, in his movie career, was sometimes billed as Col. Tim McCoy), he was appointed adjutant general of the Wyoming National Guard. In that capacity he worked diplomatically and well with Wyoming's native Arapaho and Shoshone tribes, and in 1922, when Paramount came to Wyoming to film their epic The Covered Wagon, McCoy served as liaison between the company and several hundred Indian extras. That gave him the bug. He resigned his commission and cried "Westward ho!" once again, settling in Hollywood, where he worked steadily through the 1940s, then tapered off into retirement, making his last appearance in Requiem for a Gunfighter in 1965.

In Law Beyond the Range McCoy played a Texas Ranger who leaves the force to take over an old friend and mentor's crusading newspaper in a neighboring town. Arriving in town shortly after his editor friend's death, he carries on the paper's crusade against the crime boss who is running the town (Guy Usher). In the end he brings down the bad guy, but not because the pen is mightier than the sword; in fact it takes a blazing shootout that fills the local saloon with a dense cloud of gunsmoke, a rip-roaring climax that Col. Tim's 1935 fans had no doubt been waiting for all along. At the final fadeout he has not only cleaned up the town but cleared an old friend (Robert Allen) of a bogus murder charge and won the heart of the late editor's daughter (Billie Seward).


After dinner came of two of the highlights of the whole weekend -- both, as it happened, from Universal. First was California Straight Ahead (1937). I here reproduce the title card from the movie's credits, rather than a poster or lobby card, to make a point: It's 1937, two years before Stagecoach, and John Wayne is billed above the title. And not in a B western from Monogram or Republic, but in one of six pictures he made at Universal (none of them westerns) before returning to the saddle at Republic. It's still a B picture, of course; it would take John Ford to promote the Duke out of B's once and for all. But California Straight Ahead has a better-than-B professional gloss to it; with Universal's backlot and production infrastructure a few dollars could go a lot farther than they could on some location ranch up in the San Fernando Valley.


Wayne plays a partner in a struggling Chicago trucking firm, trying to make a go of his little two-truck operation against sometimes unscrupulous opposition from other truckers and railroads (he faces some unsporting competition for the affections of the fetching Louise Latimer too). The story climaxes in a cross-country race between Wayne's convoy of big-rigs and an express train, both seeking to deliver a shipment of airplane parts to the Port of Los Angeles to be loaded on a ship and dispatched across the Pacific before a general strike closes the port. With a smart script by W. Scott Darling and lickety-split direction by Arthur Lubin, the picture makes for an enjoyable 67 minutes.


In his introduction to the screening, Wayne biographer Scott Eyman told us that Wayne regarded his six-picture foray at Universal as a mistake; it had failed to take him out of the "juvenile ghetto" of Saturday afternoon B westerns, and when it was over he found himself back at Square One in Republic horse operas -- without his former momentum and unsure when, or if ever, he could work his way out of them. (He couldn't know, of course, that his big break was just around the corner.) I quote Scott at length on California Straight Ahead and the Duke's five other Universal B's: "This is a good movie; they are all good, solid movies. They're better, frankly, I think, than the Republic westerns he'd been making, because the technicians are a little bit better, the scripts are a little bit better, and the production schedules a little bit longer, and you can get more of where he's not just riding and roping and slugging people. He actually gets a chance to do a little acting in these movies. And as you'll see, he's getting better and better. By 1937, and finishing up this series of pictures, he's ready. He's ready for John Ford, he's ready for the Big Time."


And then came the deluge, again courtesy of Universal Pictures. The title of this onslaught was Crazy House, and the leading inmates of the loony bin were two slap-happy vaudevillians named Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. How do you describe these two to someone who's never seen them? In my last post I called them the Monty Python of the 1940s, but the truth is, Olsen and Johnson made Monty Python look like a Sunday afternoon game of whist between Oscar Wilde and James MacNeill Whistler.

John Sigvard "Ole" Olsen and Harold Ogden "Chic" Johnson first teamed up in 1914 as members of a more or less straight musical vaudeville quartet. Their personalities and wacky senses of humor clicked, and they eventually morphed into a madcap improvisational comedy act, with neither of them playing the customary straight man. Eventually they wound up on radio in "The Padded Cell of the Air", a segment of NBC's Fleischmann's Yeast Hour, hosted by crooner Rudy Vallee. The rather stodgy Vallee evidently left Olsen and Johnson pretty much to their own devices, and the team's wild act was free-wheeling and utterly unpredictable. They reached their apotheosis in 1938 with the Broadway musical comedy revue Hellzapoppin, whose title remains a byword for insanely corny, anything-for-a-laugh comedy. It was a show where nobody ever knew what was going to happen next. And I don't mean just the audience -- I mean the stagehands, the orchestra and the other performers. Hellzapoppin ran for over three years -- 1,404 performances, and it was never the same experience twice.

In 1941 Universal induced Olsen and Johnson to put the show on film (as Hellzapoppin', adding the apostrophe). It might have seemed like a fool's errand, and Universal hedged their bets by forcing the insertion of a conventional romantic subplot, but the movie clicked. It was screened at last year's Cinevent and stole the whole weekend, as hilarious as ever.

And so it was this year with Crazy House, Olsen and Johnson's follow-up movie two years later. It begins with Olsen and Johnson staging their own triumphant return parade down Hollywood Boulevard, with the cry preceding them: "Olsen and Johnson are coming!", while everyone from studio bigwigs to hairdressers and carpenters flies into a panic. (On one soundstage Basil Rathbone tells Nigel Bruce of the dire devastation in store for them all when the two comics arrive. "How do you know all that?" Bruce asks. "I'm Sherlock Holmes," snaps Rathbone. "I know everything.") The boys show up to find the Universal lot deserted and barricaded against them. Unfazed, they resolve to produce their next movie themselves.


Let's leave it at that, shall we? Crazy House goes on in that vein for a lightning 80 minutes, throwing jokes so fast you miss every third one because you're still laughing at the first two. Olsen and Johnson's governing principle was that a joke not good enough to use once might be bad enough to use five times, and it still works; O&J's influence can be seen not only in Monty Python but elsewhere, including Laugh-In in the 1960s and Jim Henson's original Muppet Show 20 years after that.

After the boisterous delirium of Crazy House anything
would have been an anticlimax, so 1927's silent The
Fighting Eagle started off at a disadvantage. Still, it
was an engaging, slightly tongue-in-cheek swashbuckler
with Rod La Rocque (such a perfectly Hollywood name,
and yet it was his own) swaggering grandly as a braggart
popinjay French soldier engaging in swordplay, intrigue
and romance (with countess Phyllis Haver, the movies'
original Roxie Hart in Chicago) in the days of
the Emperor Napoleon.

And finally, another midnight snack: The Monkey's
Paw, a low-budget 1948 British thriller with a good
but uniformly unfamiliar cast, adapted from the
classic short story by W.W. Jacobs. If you haven't
read the story, you should; give yourself a sleepless
night or two. It concerns the eponymous, mummified
simian extremity, a talisman with the power to grant
three wishes. But this monkey's paw is no rabbit's
foot; it's the ultimate illustration of be-careful-what-
you-wish-for: In a touch not in the original story
but added for the movie, one woman wishes to be
free of her boring, alcoholic husband; her freedom
is granted to her when he shoots her dead.

Jacobs's story is a vivid one, but short, and the
script by Barbara Toy and director Norman
Lee fills it out without diluting its sinister
spirit -- as that flashback scene with the bored
wife makes clear. And so it was, at 2:00 that
Sunday morning, after the monkey's paw had
wrought its dark magic on the hapless
Trelawne family (played by Milton Rosmer,
Megs Jenkins and Eric Micklewood), that
those hardy night owls among us were
finally trundled off to our rooms, our lights,
and the comforting drone of an all-night
television...



To be concluded...
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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Cinevent 2016, Part 3

Day 2 (cont.)



A regular feature at every Cinevent is a program of Charley Chase shorts. If you don't recognize the name, it's worth the effort to familiarize yourself. Unlike some other greats of silent comedy (Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy), Chase never graduated from shorts to features (though he turned in a delightful supporting performance in Laurel and Hardy's Sons of the Desert in 1933). Still, his output was prodigious; Cinevent could present a program of five of his shorts (assuming they all survived, which unfortunately they don't) and go 50 years without repeating one. Cinevent regulars and others familiar with him may skip the next two paragraphs.

Charles Joseph Parrott was born in Baltimore in 1893. He began performing in vaudeville as a teenager and started in movies at 19. After stints with Al Christie and Mack Sennett, he joined Hal Roach as a director in 1920 and by 1922 rose to be general manager of the studio. It was Parrott who brought Oliver Hardy to the Hal Roach "Lot of Fun"; he also recruited Robert McGowan to oversee Roach's Our Gang comedies, which McGowan did for 14 years.

But Parrott found admin work unrewarding, and by 1924 he returned to performing. Rechristened Charley Chase (a wordplay on the title of a popular World War I-era song, "Chase Me Charlie"), he developed his own comic persona as a lanky, dapper, bedeviled everyman, and was a mainstay of Hal Roach shorts for over ten years, silent and sound, though always a third banana behind Our Gang and Laurel and Hardy. When Roach cut him loose in 1935 (the reasons are a little vague; Roach may simply have been retrenching), he wound up at Columbia starring in his own series of shorts and directing others for the Three Stooges (including one of their best, Violent is the Word for Curly). By this time health problems, exacerbated by alcoholism, were dogging him, and when his beloved younger brother James (who had his own substance-abuse problems) died in 1939, Charley's drinking soared out of control until a heart attack killed him in June 1940 at age 46.

That's the quick-and-dirty version of Chase's career, and some day I may post on him in more detail. For now, suffice it to say that Cinevent is doing its share to keep Chase's name alive (as Richard Roberts aptly put it, he's not so much neglected as taken for granted) with these regular annual tributes. This year the Cinevent audience got a real scoop: in addition to the shorts Powder and Smoke, Stolen Goods, Too Many Mammas (all 1924), and Looking for Sally ('25), the Chase program included The Way of All Pants ('27), complete for the first time in a couple of generations. A truncated version of Pants has survived in the Robert Youngson compilation The Further Perils of Laurel and Hardy ('67), but the complete two-reeler was long believed lost. A British release print was recently discovered, with some damage due to age and decomposition; it was digitally restored, then transferred back to 16mm film for screening in Columbus. The whole thing was touch-and-go right down to the wire: the print wasn't completed until just a few weeks beforehand; it wasn't even mentioned in the program book because they weren't sure it would be ready in time to be "re-premiered" at Cinevent.

Anyhow, The Way of All Pants (U.K. title The Way of All Dress, since "pants" was considered vulgar in Britain at the time) was an ingenious delight, ringing endless changes on men (beginning with Charley) losing their trousers at a high-tone dinner party. A canine performer identified as Buddy the Dog all but stole the show. (NOTE: Lacking program notes, I've had to rely on my memory. Richard M. Roberts, if you're reading this and I've got any details amiss, feel free to set me straight.)

The evening highlight of Day 2 was Slightly Scarlet, a 1956 Technicolor film noir (if that's not a contradition in terms) about two sisters, one nice (Rhonda Fleming) and one naughty (Arlene Dahl), with John Payne as the political muscle man to a corrupt city boss (Ted de Corsia) serving as the rope in a tug-of-war of female sibling rivalry. It was based on a novel by James M. Cain (better known for Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice) entitled Love's Lovely Counterfeit; if nothing else, the movie at least improved on Cain's title. Directed by the venerable Allan Dwan, it was a suitably fast-paced melodrama of sex and politics set amid the now-retro decor of 1950s moderne-ity, and it demonstrated conclusively that whatever you might think, Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl are not, in fact, the same person (both ladies, God bless 'em, are still with us at this writing, 92 and 90 respectively; continued long life to them both). Cinevent's print had deliciously lurid Technicolor but was presented in the standard 4:3 aspect ratio and not screened in "Superscope". Whatever that is.

After that, another silent, White Tiger (1923), with Wallace Beery as a jewel thief who teams up with two confederates, Priscilla Dean (top-billed) and Raymond Griffith -- concealing from them both the fact that not only are they brother and sister separated in infancy, but Beery himself betrayed their father and brought about his death. It was directed and co-written by Tod (London After Midnight) Browning, who could always be counted on to come up with a real whopper.


Day 2 closed out with a midnight snack: An episode of the short-lived (1961-62) TV series Bus Stop, which was unrelated to the William Inge play or the Marilyn Monroe movie, but essentially a dramatic anthology series with a few continuing characters playing peripheral roles in each episode. This one was "I Kiss Your Shadow", from a story by Robert (Psycho, "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper") Bloch, about a man (George Grizzard) haunted -- in every sense -- by the death of his neurotic, possessive wife (Joanne Linville) in a car crash. It was (spoiler alert!) a creepy, atmospheric variation on Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart", just the thing to send you back to your hotel room to sleep with the lights on and the flat-screen TV blaring all the rest of the night.

Next up: Day 3, Saturday, featuring a supremely anarchic turn by Olsen and Johnson, the two-man Monty Python of the 1940s, and an exhilarating horseless turn by the pre-Stagecoach John Wayne...

To be continued...
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Saturday, June 11, 2016

Cinevent 2016 (Continued)

Day 2


The second day of Cinevent began with a departure from custom and a real curiosity: Die Reise nach Tilsit (The Trip to Tilsit), a 1939 German film. That's the departure; Cinevent has heretofore screened almost exclusively (if not entirely so) English-language movies. The curiosity is that The Trip to Tilsit is based on the same Hermann Sudermann story that inspired F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (1927): a cheating husband plots to murder his wife and make it look like an accident, but changes his mind when the couple visit the big city and rekindle their love for each other. The compare-and-contrast lends The Trip to Tilsit a fascination it doesn't have all by itself; it's well-crafted and well-acted, especially by Kristina Soderbaum (wife of director Veit Harlan) as the wronged wife. But Sunrise is one of the supremely transcendent visual poems of movie history, a movie that, once seen, is never forgotten; The Trip to Tilsit, well-made as it is, is just a mundane Teutonic soap opera. Historian and Cinevent regular Richard M. Roberts dismissed it as "the Nazi Sunrise", and that just about nails it. (Director Harlan was an ardent Nazi who joined the party in 1933 and prospered during the '30s turning out propaganda for Josef Goebbels, culminating in the viciously anti-Semitic Jew Suss in 1940.)


One more point of interest about The Trip to Tilsit. Playing the philandering husband (and also good) was a Dutch actor named Hein van der Niet, billed as Frits von Dongen. Unlike his director, van der Niet fled the Nazis at the outbreak of World War II and wound up in Hollywood working as a freelance actor under the name Philip Dorn. He was Hal Wallis's first choice to play Victor Laszlo in Casablanca -- personally, I say it's a pity he didn't -- but he had already signed for Random Harvest at MGM and the scheduling wouldn't work. No telling how Dorn's career might have gone if he had done Casablanca instead of Paul Henreid, but as it was he still managed to rack up a pretty good career -- Ziegfeld Girl, Tarzan's Secret Treasure, Calling Dr. Gillespie, Passage to Marseilles and The Fighting Kentuckian, among others (he was especially fine as Irene Dunne's husband in I Remember Mama) -- before ill-health forced his retirement in 1955. He died in Los Angeles 20 years later, age 73.







After "the Nazi Sunrise" it was back to Hollywood and the English language for Every Night at Eight (1935), a well-above-average musical from Paramount. George Raft and Alice Faye (on loan from 20th Century Fox) were top-billed, but the prime role went to radio singer Frances Langford, in her feature debut. Alice and Frances played two of three pals (the third was Patsy Kelly) seeking and finding radio stardom with bandleader Raft. Raoul Walsh, better known for movies like High Sierra, They Died With Their Boots On and White Heat, directed at a lively pace, and there was a bunch of first-rate songs, two of which are still with us: "I Feel a Song Comin' On" and "I'm in the Mood for Love".










...And then came Cecil B. DeMille's This Day and Age (1933). Talk about a curiosity! Richard Cromwell plays the leader of a group of high school students who get appointed to ceremonial positions in city government -- judge, chief of police, district attorney, etc. -- as a way to give them an on-the-job view of how the grownups run things. When a friend of theirs is murdered by a local gangster (Charles Bickford) who gets off scot-free thanks to an oily high-priced attorney, the kids take over the government for real, kidnapping the gangster and torturing a confession out of him ("We haven't got time for rules of evidence!"), after which the adults see the error of their ways. The trauma of the Great Depression spawned more than one movie like this -- check out a little oddity called Gabriel Over the White House ('33) sometime -- movies where audiences could vent their frustrtion with "the System" by vicariously experiencing things they'd never get away with (or seriously contemplate) in real life.





I'm going to cut this post short in the interest of getting it up. But stay tuned; we're not even halfway through the weekend, and there's more where this came from.

To be continued...
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Thursday, June 9, 2016

...A-a-a-and We're Back...!

It's been way too long -- over a year-and-a-half -- since I posted anything new here at Cinedrome. I want to apologize for that. I won't overstate the concerns and conditions that led me to suspend blogging. Nor will I exaggerate the number of posts I began and never got around to finishing. But there have been some of both.


Be that as it may, I've had my necessary vacation and I feel rested, refreshed, and ready to soldier on. So with that, I file the following report on the 48th Annual Cinevent Classic Film Convention in Columbus, Ohio.


This was Cinevent's second year in its new home, Columbus's Renaissance Downtown Hotel. The convention's previous, longtime venue, which had changed hands and names several times over the decades, closed suddenly -- and permanently -- in February 2015, only three months before that year's Cinevent. Which, with an undertaking of this scale, qualifies as "at the last minute". The Cinevent Committee had to scramble madly to find another venue, and by the grace of a merciful Providence the Renaissance was available. Better yet, the new place proved to be a step above the old one. Did I say a step? Actually, the new place is about three flights above the old one: superior accommodations, a better screening room with more comfortable chairs, a bigger dealers' room, everything centrally located on one floor -- and the hotel itself centrally located in a much better neighborhood, one block from the Ohio State House, with plenty of good restaurants nearby.


The Renaissance is now, as I said, Cinevent's new home -- but it wasn't available for Memorial Day Weekend this year, so the get-together was delayed a week to June 2 - 5. Next year (the contract has already been signed) they'll be going back to Memorial Day.


Cinevent 2016, Day 1


The first day featured a screening of King Vidor's classic slice of life The Crowd (1928), one of the greatest pictures of the silent era -- and probably one of the top 40 or 50 of all time. The Crowd is readily available on video and pops up regularly on Turner Classic Movies. Much harder to find -- incredibly rare, as a matter of fact -- was a program of all-but-lost comedy shorts from Fox Film Corp. For me, the highlights of the first day were Melody Cruise, a 1933 comedy starring Charlie Ruggles and Phil Harris (in his movie debut, 30-plus years before voicing Baloo the Bear in Walt Disney's The Jungle Book); and The House of Rothschild (1934), from Darryl F. Zanuck's fledgling 20th Century Pictures.


And by an astonishing coincidence, those happen to be the two pictures at this year's Cinevent for which I supplied the program notes. And here they are:

Melody Cruise (1933)  With a title like Melody Cruise and a leading man like Phil Harris, you can be forgiven if you expect this picture to be one uninterrupted songfest. Well, it's not exactly, so you'll be wise to dial those expectations back a bit so you can join in the fun. It's not really a musical -- a "comedy with songs" would be a better term. But director Mark Sandrich -- who was finally, after six years directing shorts for various studios, beginning to graduate once and for all to features -- assembles the picture with an intuitive sense of musical rhythm that would come to full bloom in his partnership with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.


Melody Cruise concerns a trip by sea from New York through the Panama Canal to Los Angeles undertaken by two men, both well-to-do and each with an eye for the ladies: Pete Wells (Charlie Ruggles), a married man best described as a "male flirt"; and Alan Chandler (Phil Harris), a confirmed bachelor who loves to romance the fair sex but is (in the words of one of the movie's semi-songs) "not the marrying kind." In order to avoid any possibility of being waylaid into matrimony, Alan dispatches a letter to Pete's wife in California "to be opened only in the event of my marriage" and detailing all of Pete's marital indiscretions while husband and wife were on separate coasts; this, Alan figures, will give Pete a vested interest in scotching any shipboard romances that his bachelor pal may fall into.


Ah, but the best-laid plans...No sooner does the ship leave the pier than Alan meets winsome Laurie Marlowe (Helen Mack), and this bachelor suddenly finds himself feeling much less confirmed. Throw in an old flame of Alan's who is also aboard (Greta Nissen), and a couple of randy party girls from Pete's bon voyage celebration who linger in his stateroom after the vessel sails (June Brewster, Shirley Chambers), and the ingredients of an old-fashioned farce of misunderstandings and mistaken identity are in place, and the voyage promises to be a busy one for all concered.


The plot of this RKO pre-Code may be tissue-thin, but the execution gives it a gloss of frivolous fun. We can detect the influence of the previous year's Love Me Tonight (from over at Paramount) right off the bat, as passengers in a shipping office negotiate for their respective cruises in a sort of recitative of rhyming dialogue, while the underlying music suggests a melody for their words that would become a song if anyone wanted to sing (the songs are credited to Val Burton and Will Jason). It happens again later as the ship sets sail, with the activities of the crew carefully choreographed to Max Steiner's music, and later still as the ladies aboard (look sharp and you'll catch a glimpse of 16-year-old Betty Grable) gossip about Alan Chandler in "He's Not the Marrying Kind". And in the picture's one full-fledged song, sung by Phil Harris to Helen Mack as their ship waits its turn at the moonlit Panama Canal, both the title ("Isn't It a Night for Love?") and the staging are redolent of "Isn't It Romantic?" from Love Me Tonight.


Making his screen debut here (if you don't count an uncredited background bit as a nightclub drummer in 1929's Why Be Good? with Colleen Moore), Phil Harris is younger, sleeker and smoother than the big loveable galoot we all remember from Jack Benny's radio program and movies like The Wild Blue Yonder (1948) and The High and the Mighty (1954). Later on in 1933, he and director Sandrich would collaborate on the short So This Is Harris!, which would go on to win an Oscar for best comedy short subject.


Melody Cruise got an indulgent recpetion from the critics. Variety's "Rush" found it "just a well-rehearsed trifle, padded out unmercifully with incidentals, atmosphere and other embroideries", but allowed that "photography and technical production are better than first class, becoming notable for excellence at many points" -- an apparent nod to the many whimsical screen-wipes Sandrich and conematographer Bert Glennon use to transition from scene ot scene. Likewise Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times, who called it "an adroit mixture of nonsense and music which makes for an excellent Summer show...It is, however, not the singing or the clowning that makes this a smart piece of work, but the imaginative direction of Mark Sandrich, who is alert in seizing any opportunity for cinematic stunts. From the viewpoint of direction this production is quite an achievement, for there are moments when it has a foreign aspect and there is some extraordinarily clever photography."



The House of Rothschild (1934)  At the beginning of 1933, Darryl F. Zanuck was head of production at Warner Bros., the man behind The Jazz Singer, Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, 42nd Street, and other seminal pictures of Warners' pre-Code era. On April 15, Zanuck abruptly resigned. As might be expected -- especially with Warner Bros. -- it was due to a dispute over money.  For once, though, it wasn't Zanuck's money that was being disputed. Zanuck had reluctantly agreed to be the bearer of the bad news when the brothers imposed temporary studio-wide pay cuts in the wake of FDR's bank holiday in March '33. When studio chief Jack Warner decided to extend the cuts beyond the agreed-upon end date, Zanuck felt that he (Warner) had broken his (Zanuck's) word to the employees. Harsh words flew, and Zanuck took a walk.

Zanuck wasn't idle long. Three days later he consulted Joseph Schenck, president of United Artists, for advice on some job offers he was considering. Schenck made an offer of his own: the two of them should go into business together. Schenck secured a loan from his brother Nicholas, president of Loew's Inc., and 20th Century Pictures was born -- with Schenck as president, William Goetz (son-in-law of MGM's Louis B. Mayer, who also put up some money) as vice president, and Zanuck as production chief.

The new concern hit the ground running. One of Zanuck's first moves was to sign contracts with stars George Arliss and Loretta Young, whose contracts with Warner Bros. had just recently expired. That must have been a source of grim satisfaction to Zanuck.

It certainly rankled Harry Warner, who filed a protest with Will Hays of the MPPDA complaining that the creation of 20th Century was a deliberate, unethical slap in the face to Warner Bros, financed by loans from MGM's Nick Schenck and L.B. Mayer and poaching Warners' empoyees -- particularly Arliss and Young. Joe Schenck got wind of Harry's letter and filed his own rebuttal: neither Arliss nor Young, he wrote, had signed with 20th Century until after their Warners contracts expired. As for where Schenck got his financing, "it is absolutely none of [Harry Warner's] business."

Arliss and Young's first project for 20th Century was The House of Rothschild. Arliss played the dual role of Mayer Rothschild, patriarch of the clan in 1780, and 32 years later, Mayer's eldest son Nathan, who with his four brothers secured the family's fabulous wealth by backing the right side in the Napoleonic Wars. Loretta played Nathan's daughter Julie, who visits consternation on her devoutly Jewish father by falling in love with a Gentile officer in the Duke of Wellington's army, a young captain played by Robert Young (no relation, of course).

George Arliss was, like his contemporary Marie Dressler, one of the most unusual movie stars of the 1920s and '30s -- neither handsome nor young, but charming and witty, with a twinkling eye that nicely complemented and softened his typically English stiff upper lip. Born Augustus George Andrews in 1868, Arliss cut his teeth as an actor on British provincial stages in the days of Henry Irving and Herbert Beerbohm Tree. He made the transition from stage to screen with remarkable ease, and, thanks to his orotund elocutions, he moved just as easily from silents to talkies when sound came in. His signature stage role was as Queen Victoria's favorite prime minister in Disraeli, which he filmed twice, as a silent in 1921 and a talkie eight years later (winning an Oscar the second time). Historical figures were a bit of a speciality -- Disraeli and Alexander Hamilton before Nathan Rothschild, the Duke of Wellington and Cardinal Richelieu afterward -- but, with appropriate changes in costume and hair style, they all semed to look and sound pretty much like George Arliss. That was good enough for audiences in the 1930s, and time hasn't dimmed the old boy's charm; it's good enough for us today.

The House of Rothschild was directed by Alfred Werker, a reliable studio workhorse whose work was generally unobjectionable if undistinguished. According to the IMDb, some scenes were directed by the uncredited (and similarly reliable) Sidney Lanfield, though without combing the studio's archives there's no way of knowing which. Oddly enough -- or perhaps it's not so odd at that -- both men would have their finest hours in 1939 directing Basil Rathbone's first two outings as Sherlock Holmes: The Hound of the Baskervilles (Lanfield) and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Werker). The screen also credits, as "Associate Director", Maude T. Howell, a member in good standing of Arliss's informal support group on both stage and screen.

Written by Nunnally Johnson from a play by George Hembert Westley (real name George Hippisley, a humor writer and editor for the Boston Evening Transcript), House of Rothschild has the distinction of being one of the first movies (probably in fact the very first) to deal with the subject of anti-Semitism -- this, mind you, just as the Nazis were coming to power in Germany. Nathan and his brothers deal with Jew-haters again and again, epitomized by Boris Karloff as the reptilian Count Ledrantz of Prussia and personified by the rioting mobs Ledrantz sets on the Jews in their ghettos all across Europe -- until Napoleon's escape from Elba puts Nathan once more in the financial driver's seat. The picture was a powerful argument for tolerance in 1934, and it looks even more powerful today in light of what we now know was to come.

The House of Rothschild was a major hit and a succes d'estime for 20th Century, Oscar-nominated for best picture (it lost to It Happened One Night). Reviewers hailed it as one of the best pictures of George Arliss's career, maybe even the very best -- a judgment that holds up today. Variety's "Land" called it "one of those occasional 100% smashes which Hollywood achieves." In the New York Times, Mordaunt Hall enthused, "Mr. Arliss outshines any performance he has contributed to the screen, not excepting his expert and highly revealing interpretation of Disraeli." In The New Yorker, even the perennially sniffy John Mosher concceded, "Mr. Arliss at last condescends to appear in a film of some maturity of purpose. His 'House of Rothschild' compares with his 'Disraeli' in quality as well as in the basic theme." However, Mosher couldn't forbear sniffing that the final scene was "soaked in abominable Technicolor for some mysterious reason." The print we're screening includes that scene in true IB Tech, so the Cinevent audience can judge for themselves the justice of Mr. Mosher's complaint.

The first night was rounded out by Tomorrow at Ten, a British picture from 1962. Robert Shaw -- already a veteran of British TV (The Buccaneers) and on the cusp of stardom that would come his way with From Russia With Love ('64) and A Man for All Seasons ('66) -- plays Marlowe, a cold-eyed criminal who kidnaps a wealthy man's little boy and stashes him in an isolated, anonymous rented house with a little "golliwog" doll to keep him company. Then he brazenly walks into the boy's home and demands 50,000 pounds sterling and free passage to Brazil. Only then will he phone the father and reveal the boy's location.

Inevitably, the police are called in, but Marlowe is unruffled. His trump card: that golliwog doll is a time bomb, and it's set to go off the next morning at ten a.m. How all this plays out, especially after Marlowe dies without disclosing the boy's whereabouts, makes for a nifty little thriller, a rare (for Americans) look at a British B-picture. (This one, unlike most British Bs, got a stateside release in 1965, after Shaw had made a name for himself with U.S. audiences in From Russia With Love, playing a role very similar to Marlowe.) It was a good way to close out the first day of Cinevent.

And the weekend was only beginning.

To be continued...
.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Fog of Lost London, Part 4 (Republished)

NOTE: As the Spooky Season reaches its climax, I repost the climax of my four-part tribute to the legendary lost Tod Browning-Lon Chaney collaboration London After Midnight. Here it is, with a few afterthoughts. If you haven't read the first three parts yet, you'd better scroll down and catch up -- you don't want to get ahead of the story!

*                         *                         *

The concluding chapters of London After Midnight by Marie Coolidge-Rask:

Chapter 19 - The Man in the Beaver Hat

At Balfour House, the man in the beaver hat, lantern in hand, climbs the stairs to the secret room where the bat-woman hovers near the ceiling. Come down, he says, all is ready; she is on her way.

In the overgrown garden the bat-woman waits as Lucy approaches. As the two come together, a shriek like a woman's voice rends the air. Lucy cowers, but the bat-woman soothes her: "It's nothing. They're awake -- coming." Lucy feels herself taken in two strong arms and carried bodily into the house. She sees that her bearer is the man in the beaver hat described by Smithson.

Lucy looks around; tears well in her eyes as she takes in the home she has not seen since her father's death five years before. She begs the pair with her to tell her who they are.

The man in the beaver hat silences her with a gesture. Footsteps are heard outside. Suddenly there's the crash of a shattering window and a man tumbles into the room at their feet.

Chapter 20 - Hibbs' Madness

In Hamlin House, Hibbs dashes downstairs to where the servants cluster, roused from their sleep by the sudden hue and cry from Lucy's room. They urgently entreat Hibbs to tell them what's going on, but he is incoherent, raving -- They're coming! They're all around! I go to destroy them!

The unfortunate Hibbs rummages around the kitchen, yard and outbuildings of the estate, raving about an axe and a hickory stake, the implements he must have to destroy the "vampyrs." He finds an axe in a chopping block and sharpens two pieces of wood into stakes, muttering madly all the while. The servants watch in amazement, afraid to intervene in his maddened state. Soon he is off on his way to Balfour House on his desperate, fevered mission.

At Balfour House he lurks outside a window, his eyes wide, barely suppressing the wild beating of his heart. What he sees through the window drives him madder still: Lucy standing with the man in the beaver hat and the bat-woman. She doesn't run, she doesn't flee; she is in their wicked power! She must be saved before it's too late!

Hibbs leaps through the window, falling at the feet of Lucy and the two fiends in a shower of glass. Before he can move or clear his fevered brain, creatures of unimaginable strength have pounced upon him, overwhelmed him, bound him, borne him off. Is this the end? Has he failed to save Lucy? Is he doomed to be a vampire himself?

Chapter 21 - Help from Scotland Yard

At Scotland Yard, the summons to Hamlin House has been received and a squad of constables is ready to set out. The assistant commissioner knows now that Inspector Burke's preparations -- carefully set in motion by the work of an undercover agent -- are about to bear fruit.

The constables pile into a car and swiftly depart for their destination, an estate outside London. They are told that when the car is sighted there will be a signal -- a siren; they are to reply with a howl, just like the other night.

As the car speeds along, they hear the siren -- a long, piercing shriek like a woman's scream. The car replies with its own special signal, a blaring electric horn like the howl of a dog. Peering into the darkness, the constables see the outline of Hamlin House straight ahead.

Chapter 22 - A Strange Conference

At Hamlin House, Colonel Yates hears the howl of a dog, just like the one the night of his and Sir James's visit to the Balfour crypt. Looking out the window, he sees a car approaching. It must be Scotland Yard, he tells Sir James, and not a minute too soon.

As Yates and Sir James go downstairs, the butler is admitting the police, who have arrived in response to Sir James Hamlin's request. Sir James introduces the policemen to Colonel Yates, saying he will explain the situation to them; Sir James himself is too distraught.

The colonel surveys the police detail with a military eye, apparently deciding that they will do. Quickly he summarizes the weird train of events that have led to their presence here. Now, he says, they have reason to believe that Miss Lucy Balfour is in dire peril in her former home. The police should proceed at once to Balfour House and be prepared for "instant action."

Yates turns to Sir James; does he have his revolver ready? Sir James does. Let me see it, says the colonel. Examining the gun, he notes that it has not been fired in a long time and may not be reliable. Turning to one of the officers, he asks for a spare pistol that Sir James can carry in case the need for it arises.

Sir James, seated at his desk, tries to insist that his own revolver will do, but something in Colonel Yates's eyes stops him. Sir James, in his highly nervous state, seems suddenly transfixed. Colonel Yates moves his hands before the man's face but gets no response.

Satisfied, the colonel takes Sir James's desk clock and sets the hands to eight o'clock. He places the clock before Sir James. At twenty-five minutes past eight, he tells Sir James, come to the verandah door at Balfour House.

Colonel Yates leaves with the police. Sir James, he says, will be joining them later.

Chapter 23 - From Out of the Past

Lucy is upset at what is happening to Hibbs -- those men seizing him, binding him, carrying him away, saying he must be drunk. Jerry is never drunk! The bat-woman tries to calm her. Please, dear, she says, didn't he tell you to remember your part and do it, no matter what? Yes, Lucy says, but he said he'd take care of Jerry, see that he comes to no harm. And so he will, the woman says, we all will. She turns to the man in the beaver hat. What was wrong with him? Too much excitement, the man says; he'll be taken care of and kept out of harm's way. But now we have to work fast.

Lucy pulls herself together. You'd better see the man in the next room, the bat-woman says to Lucy, prepare yourself. It might be a shock and you should get it over with.

Lucy parts a frayed curtain and looks into the next room at the man sitting at her father's desk. It is a shock. The resemblance is uncanny, eerie. For a moment she feels like a little girl again, the little girl who came into this very room and found her father dead, sitting where that man is now. Lucy looks down at herself and sees that she is not that little girl at all anymore. This man can't be her father -- but he looks so like him.

Lucy prays for the strength to do what she must. She goes up to the man, who rises to greet her. They talk briefly. She answers his questions about the night she last saw her father alive. He tells her he can only imagine how difficult this is for her. He has three daughters of his own, and he hopes any one of them would feel just as Lucy does. But he also hopes that they would find the strength to do what must be done. It's so important. "Play the role," he says, "and make it a success."

Chapter 24 - Metamorphosis


Lucy returns to the waiting bat-woman. The woman dresses her in a girlish white frock identical to one she had as a young girl. The woman tells her it is the same dress, that Smithson has retrieved it for Lucy to wear tonight. Again, as so often this night, Lucy is surprised; she thought she was being so clever in stealing away from Hamlin House, and Smithson knew all the time!

Colonel Yates strides into the hall with several men. One of them Lucy recognizes as one of the men who subdued Hibbs; in a flash she realizes that the other man who grappled with her sweetheart was the man who so resembles her father. Who are all these people? And who is Colonel Yates?

The man in the beaver hat removes his cloak and hands it to the colonel. Is everything ready? Yates asks. The man says yes, handing his hat to the colonel, then removing his wig and handing that over as well. In the hat, wig and cloak, stooped over and contorting his face, Colonel Yates looks exactly like the other man -- except for the absence of those spiky teeth, which he conceals by raising the collar of the cloak. 

And now Smithson is there, telling Lucy how sweet she looks. I followed you to the edge of Hamlin grounds, she says, to make sure you were safe. 

Colonel Yates also compliments Lucy on her appearance -- just what he wanted. As he takes her by the hand and leads her toward the other room, questions swim in Lucy's head. What is this all about? Why isn't Sir James here? Who are these people? Who is Smithson, really? And who is Colonel Yates?

Chapter 25 - Sinister Preparations

A steady stream of commands, directions and questions comes from Colonel Yates. Where is the notary? The stenographer? He questions Lucy about the arrangement of the furnishings in the room, making adjustments as she points them out. He orders everyone to their positions. He turns to Lucy and asks if she is ready. Yes, she says, but how can going through that night again bring a guilty person to justice? All will be clear in good time, he assures her. And he reminds her, after she has said good night, not to linger but to go directly to the room where the bat-woman waits for her. 

The colonel disappears behind a screen, but Lucy can just see his eyes watching through the slits between the panels. How she wishes this were all over and done. But now the house is silent, waiting. Someone is approaching along the verandah. 

Chapter 26 - Sir James Pays a Call

When the desk clock reads 8:25 Sir James rises and leaves the house, pausing briefly to tell Billings, the butler, that he is going to call at Balfour House. Billings says nothing, as he was directed by Colonel Yates, merely watches Sir James go. Billings reflects on the mystifying events of the last few days, most mystifying of all being the note left by Anna Smithson, thanking him for his many kindnesses and saying, regretfully, that it is necessary for her to leave Hamlin House immediately; a baggageman will call for her luggage in the morning. 

Sir James proceeds steadily to Balfour House, pausing to look around as he enters the grounds. What a fine estate he will have, he reflects, when these grounds are combined with his own. 

As Sir James enters the house, the butler, Mooney, announces him. His friend Roger rises to greet him. And there is dear Lucy, that lovely little girl of Roger's. Sir James observes with envy the affection between father and daughter as she kisses Roger good night. Lucy smiles at Sir James and extends her hand, wishing him a good night. Aren't you going to kiss me too? Sir James asks. 

Lucy's smile vanishes. She tells Sir James she doesn't like him when he talks like that. Then she is gone; Sir James and Roger Balfour are alone.

Chapter 27 - In Hypnosis

In Sir James's mind, it is five years ago, the night he last saw Roger Balfour alive; the man with him is Roger Balfour; and they are alone. But the man he takes for Roger -- whose real name is Drake -- knows that none of those things are true. They are certainly not alone; every move they make is being watched, every word heard and taken down for the record. Now that Lucy is out of the room, there is only one person who knows how the conversation went between the two men that last night. Sir James is reliving his half of that scene; Drake must now play a very delicate game. He must deduce from Sir James's behavior what he, as Roger Balfour, should do or say next. The slightest misstep can shatter Sir James's hypnotic trance. 

Sir James, unable to quite conceal his annoyance, tells "Roger" that he has come here tonight in a spirit of friendship to help his friend with his financial difficulties. I know about your troubles, he says, more than you realize. 

Drake plays a hunch. He tells Sir James that he knows exactly the extent of his knowledge -- he sees that his hunch has hit home, and continues -- knows that Sir James has been stealing from him right and left, made him penniless. Now that you have me in your power, he says, what do you want?

I want Lucy, says Sir James. I have loved her since she was a baby, and I want her for my wife. You have always distrusted me, suspected me. You have called me a drug user and a sensualist, but you could never prove it. 

Now Drake, with the revulsion of a father with daughters of his own, knows what Roger Balfour must have said, the only thing that could have caused events to turn out as they did. I can prove it, he says, now.

Sir James's eyes blaze with hate as he draws his revolver. He demands these "proofs." The other man refuses, and Sir James fires. Drake crumples to the floor, a bloody wound in his temple. 

Sir James searches the desk. Those proofs, whatever Roger had, must be here, he is certain. He goes through every drawer quickly but carefully, finding nothing. The fool was bluffing. Well, now he's dead, and good riddance. Sir James takes out his handkerchief, wipes his pistol clean, and lays it on the floor near the dead man's lifeless fingers. Now he must escape before he is found here. He backs toward the door. 

As he reaches for the doorknob his arm is seized in a powerful grip, then his other arm. Sir James struggles in a desperate frenzy, unable to break free. He hears a voice: Don't let him get away! He's still under hypnosis! I'm coming!

Chapter 28 - A Dramatic Awakening

 As Sir James struggles, the man in the beaver hat emerges from behind a screen. Under the man's penetrating gaze, Sir James ceases to struggle. He looks around. Balfour House! How did he get here? He sees Roger Balfour dead on the floor, exactly where he left him. But that was five years ago! Or was it? Has it all been a dream, these five years, all his patient plotting and planning to possess Lucy? All a dream during the few seconds as he made his way to the door? 

It must have been! Roger had been too clever, had his men in hiding. But not clever enough; they've prevented my escape, but they're too late to save his life. Sir James looks at the man in the beaver hat. Have I been asleep?

No, says the man, and neither have I. He reaches out and rips the sleeve from Sir James's jacket. Sir James recoils from the searing pain. There! says the man. I knew I clipped you when I shot at you tonight. You thought you'd finish Hibbs with your poison needle, but I was there instead waiting for you. 

Chapter 29 - Surprising Revelations

Drake rises from the floor, wiping the stage blood from his face, grateful that Sir James had been handed a doctored revolver back at Hamlin House. The man with Sir James removes his beaver hat, cloak and wig, revealing --

Yates! cries Sir James. I thought the years had changed you, but now I see you're an impostor. You've set this trap to blackmail me! You'll get nothing from me! Sir James shrieks with indignation.

"Colonel Yates" takes off his glasses, removes the subtle disguise from his face, rearranges his hair, and shows Sir James his badge: Inspector Burke of Scotland Yard. I have what I want from you, he says. I've spent the last three days carefully breaking down your defenses, creating a mental strain that would make you susceptible to hypnotic influence. My theory that a criminal in hypnosis, faced with the circumstances of his crime, will repeat that crime exactly -- my theory has been proven correct.

Cornered, broken, trapped, Sir James crumbles and confesses all. He murdered Roger Balfour just as Burke and his crew have seen him reenact the crime tonight. He murdered Harry Balfour with a poison injection to the throat for fear that Harry would discover the proof of his wicked life that he could not find before -- and worse, would take Lucy away from him. He tried to do the same to Hibbs to get him out of Lucy's life, before Yates/Burke's intervention sent him fleeing for his life. 

The stenographer has it all. Inspector Burke orders the statement typed up. He tells Sir James that the law will see to it that every last farthing he stole from Roger Balfour will be restored to Lucy as the last survivor of her murdered family. And finally, he orders his men to examine Roger Balfour's desk closely for evidence of a secret drawer; those proofs must be in there somewhere.

Chapter 30 - Recapitulation

Burke tells Sir James that he suspected him from the start; if only he could have acted sooner, he might have saved Harry Balfour's life. Burke's investigation had uncovered evidence of Sir James's embezzlement from Roger Balfour. A former policewoman, Anna Smithson, was planted in Sir James's household, where she uncovered evidence of Sir James's drug use and degenerate activities. She had also overheard conversations between Sir James and Harry -- no one ever notices the servants -- and knew that Harry intended to remove his sister from Sir James's influence. She had even found the vial of poison with which Sir James murdered Harry (and intended to murder Hibbs) and replaced it with a harmless liquid. The real poison is now in police hands, to be used as evidence.

Chapter 31 - Professional Pride

Inspector Burke goes upstairs to where Lucy is sitting by the bedside of Hibbs, now all but recovered from his derangement. Burke tells Lucy and Hibbs his true identity, and that he has the murderer of Lucy's father and brother in custody. He spares her any details for the moment. She must know all in time, of course, but later, when she's stronger. 

Burke apologizes for keeping Hibbs in the dark, but it was necessary to the operation; Hibbs is not dissembler enough to have been able to play a role. Hibbs sheepishly admits that he now wishes he'd taken "Colonel Yates's" advice and gone to bed. It would have saved everyone a lot of trouble -- especially himself. 

Smithson comes in to say goodbye; she will miss Miss Lucy and Mr. Jerry. She playfully scolds Burke for that "terrible tarradiddle" he made her tell about the green mist through the keyhole. 

Finally come the man in the beaver hat and the bat-woman; their part in Burke's elaborate charade is done, and now it's back to the music halls for them. Come see us, the woman says, Mooney and Luney -- Jimmy Mooney and Lunette the bat: "I fly by night an' I sleep by day, the looniest kind of a bat!"


Afterword

So there you have it, friends: London After Midnight -- a Halloween treat with a trick. If you've seen 1935's Mark of the Vampire, the twist came as no surprise to you; for that matter, even in 1927 the New York Times commented that whether the ending surprised anyone would be "a matter of opinion."

There are major discrepancies between the Philip J. Riley and Turner Classic Movies reconstructions of London After Midnight and the story told by Marie Coolidge-Rask. In both reconstructions, Hibbs is identified as Arthur, not Jeremiah (Jerry), and he's Sir James's nephew, not his secretary. (Variety's Mori says Hibbs is Roger Balfour's nephew, but that doesn't make sense and is probably a mistake on Mori's part.) Riley's version describes the search for and discovery of Harry Balfour's body, but the TCM version doesn't, nor do the reviews -- they don't even mention Harry's existence. Anyhow, the illustration in the novel (see Chapter 2, "Another Mystery") suggests Harry must have been in there somewhere. (Oddly enough, in the caption Jules Cowles, who played Gallagher the chauffeur, is identified by his own name rather than his character's.)

Most important of all, the idea of Inspector Burke operating incognito as Colonel Yates seems to have been entirely Ms. Coolidge-Rask's invention; in the reconstructions and reviews Burke is openly himself throughout. He is even shown investigating the "mysterious" death of Roger Balfour and deciding it was suicide, then coming back five years later to prove it was murder -- the Times reviewer pinpointed the howling illogic of that ("...Burke of Scotland Yard, the genius who wills to solve a murder mystery five years after he has declared it to be a case of suicide.").

All things considered -- and with no true copy of London After Midnight, having only Variety's detailed recounting, the New York Times's musings, and the two reconstructions to go on -- I have to say it's pretty clear that Marie Coolidge-Rask, despite her cumbersome way with words, made a considerable improvement on Tod Browning's story, which appears not to have been given much clear thought by Browning, his co-scenarist Waldemar Young, or anybody else at MGM. Once you accept the basic premise -- an elaborate police sting to hypnotize a murderer into reenacting his crime -- her story has its own logic and builds a good amount of suspense. There are many nicely creepy moments -- not least the eye-opening whiff of pedophilia in Sir James's character, which in the novel surely goes beyond what the Hays Office would have tolerated in 1927. Much of the plot as it reads must have been the novelist's creation; there seems far too much to fit into a picture that Variety says ran only 65 minutes (TCM's reconstruction runs 46). And the book has a good sense of pace, becoming quite breakneck as the climax approaches -- just about the time Hibbs goes crazy we begin to feel as if we have, too; as Lucy's world is turned topsy-turvy, so is ours.

I hope you've enjoyed Marie Coolidge-Rask's spooky little Halloween campfire story. Have a safe and happily creepy Halloween, everyone!
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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Fog of Lost London, Part 3 (Republished)

NOTE: The Spooky Season is upon us once again, so it's time for my annual re-post of my four-part tribute to the legendary lost Tod Browning-Lon Chaney collaboration London After Midnight. Here's Part 3. Whether you remember it from years past or are coming to it new, I hope it brings you a creepy moment or two. Be sure to read the four parts in order -- you don't want to get ahead of the story!

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Continuing with London After Midnight by Marie Coolidge-Rask:

Chapter 10 - A Question of Vampires

The howling of the dog, coming from the direction of Balfour House, continues as Sir James and Yates make their way home from the crypt. They recount their experience to Hibbs, and the three discuss aspects of vampire lore as written in Colonel Yates's book. Since murdered men and suicides are supposedly liable to become vampires, and since Roger Balfour's coffin was still undisturbed at the time of Harry's interment, it is cautiously suggested that the son's unsolved murder may have had some supernatural effect on Roger Balfour's restless soul. Sir James is clearly rattled by the night's experience; Hibbs and Yates realize that there is some unknown factor at work over in Balfour House, and the mystery seems to deepen with every new event. It is near dawn when Sir James and Colonel Yates go to bed. Hibbs steals back downstairs to the library for further study of Colonel Yates's book.

Chapter 11 - Harrowing Tales

All three men rise late the next day, leaving Lucy feeling quite lonely in the house, oppressed in the heat that has been intensified, rather than dispelled, by the early-morning electrical storm. At dinner that evening, conversation is kept trivial; by tacit agreement among the three men, Lucy is given no hint of what happened the night before.

Later that night, after Lucy has gone to her room, the three men resume their discussion of the night before. Suddenly they hear a piercing scream from upstairs, in the direction of Lucy's room. Rushing upstairs, they find Lucy's door locked. They try to break down the door, but before they have to, the door opens. In the room they find Smithson, the maid, trembling and sobbing, her eyes wide with fear, two small wounds at her throat, similar to the ones seen on the body of Harry Balfour. Sobbing, she tells the men that Lucy is locked in her dressing room, and they release the confused and frightened young lady from her confinement.

Finally, Smithson pulls herself together and tells
the men what happened. As Miss Lucy was
getting ready for bed, she says, she left her
to fetch some towels from the linen closet.
In the hallway she saw the man in the beaver
hat, the one she saw on the steps of Balfour
House as she was passing the night before.
The man was stooped over and creeping
toward her, his skeletal hand outstretched,
his spiky teeth gleaming. Smithson was too
frightened even to scream.

Thinking of Miss Lucy, Smithson says, she
rushed back to the young lady's room,
shoved Lucy into the dressing room and
locked her in. Then she locked the door to
the outer room and thought they were safe.
But before her horrified eyes, a green mist
streamed through the keyhole and formed
itself into the man in the beaver hat. The
man came to her; she was unable to speak
or scream, or even move. She felt him
bending over her, felt his teeth on his throat.
That must have been when she screamed,
she says, but she doesn't remember it.
She knew nothing more until she heard
Sir James, Colonel Yates and Hibbs
pounding at the still-locked door.

Lucy, greatly excited, calls their attention
to the window, where all of them see
the man in the beaver hat skulking
across the grounds in the direction
of Balfour House. Colonel Yates tells
Hibbs to remain with Lucy and see
that she is not left alone; he and
Sir James will investigate the matter
further.

Chapter 12 - Panic

Left alone with Lucy and Hibbs, Smithson realizes that the two young people (whose feelings for each other have not escaped her notice) wish to be alone, so she tells them she is going down to the kitchen; after her experience she could use a nice cup of hot tea. Downstairs she finds the servants -- butler, housekeeper, cook, maids and footmen -- cowering in the kitchen, wondering about all the commotion earlier but afraid to go and see what it was. They mill around her, clamoring for news. Deciding she could use something a little stronger than tea, Smithson asks Billings, the butler, for "a little drop of spirits." Thus fortified, she proceeds to regale the servants with another recounting of her experience in Lucy's room, this one much embellished for dramatic effect as Smithson relishes the attentions of her rapt and horrified audience. At this inopportune moment, a cat knocks over a tin pan from the sink onto the floor; the sudden clatter sends the servants into an uproar. Upstairs, Lucy and Hibbs hear the melee downstairs and wonder what can possibly happen next.

Chapter 13 - The Woman on the Ceiling

Colonel Yates and Sir James make their way to Balfour House, proceeding slowly by a roundabout route, pausing frequently to watch and listen for prowlers or anything untoward. Once again Sir James's heart is racing, and once again he depends entirely on the resoluteness of Colonel Yates to keep him going.

It is well after midnight when they approach Balfour House. The house is dark, but they can see a faint light glimmering from one of the upper windows -- in fact from the "secret chamber" that has been unoccupied for centuries, the one in which a woman's ghost is said to roam. Slowly forcing their way through the tangled grass and foliage of the overgrown grounds, they find a large tree from which they should be able to see into the lighted chamber. Taking the lead as usual, Yates climbs into the tree. At that moment they hear, low but clearly audible, the insistent sobbing of a woman in despair.

Through the high windows of the secret room they can see only the ceiling and the upper walls inside. There they behold a sight that confounds them. By the dim light inside, they see a mysterious shape in the secret room -- now sharp and clear, now blurry and indistinct, now rising to the ceiling, now swooping below the level of the windows, now contracting, now expanding as if carried by huge bat-like wings. At one point the apparition turns its head to the light, and the two men clearly see the profile of a woman -- a woman hovering and swooping high in the secret room on the wings of a bat!

From their perch in the tree they are able to step gingerly and noiselessly onto a narrow balcony by one of the windows, from which they have a wider view of the room. They see three men, all with a ghastly pallor to their faces, absorbed in watching the movements of the bat-woman over their heads. One of them is the man in the beaver hat. Another is unidentifiable, but the third man, as Sir James confirms in a trembling whisper, is Roger Balfour.

The bat-woman, where she hovers near the ceiling, turns her face toward the window, her eyes intent, as if to pierce the darkness beyond. Yates and Sir James take an involuntary step back into the shadows. The figure of Roger Balfour also turns to the window, his eyes keenly searching, his face ghostly pale, a small open wound crusted and discolored at his temple. Sir James shudders.

Colonel Yates whispers that they have seen enough for one night, and Sir James readily agrees. They stealthily return to the tree and cautiously climb back down to the ground. Sir James is highly agitated. In a distraught whisper he urges that they return at once to Hamlin House; God only knows what has happened to Lucy in their absence. In a sudden flash of insight, Colonel Yates realizes that Sir James's feelings for Lucy are not merely those of a guardian for his ward. 

From a rise a little distance from Balfour House they look back. In the dim light of the upper window they see a shape standing at the window, and they hear a voice, low and plaintive, calling: "Lucy -- Lucy -- Lucy -- "

Chapter 14 - By the Light of Day

Sir James spends a sleepless night, his mind going over and over the weird events of the night and the uncanny things he and Colonel Yates have seen. The next day at noon, Lucy, alarmed at his tired and ill appearance, asks him what happened while he and the colonel were out. Feeling it best to keep her unaware, he says that they were unsuccessful in their attempt to follow the man in the beaver hat; he had eluded them, and their long walk was for nothing. 

Sir James and Colonel Yates decide to return to Balfour House by daylight; they tell Hibbs that if they are not back in an hour he should send a party in search of them. Under the hot summer sun on a cloudless day, Balfour House looks impressive and looming, but empty and unthreatening. Sir James wonders, was what they saw the night before merely a figment of their imaginations? No, says Yates; they saw what they saw, but what it can mean is impossible to say. Sir James is not reassured.

They knock at the door, but there is no answer. Entering cautiously, they see no signs of occupancy, no disturbance in the dust on the tables, chairs and floor. The door to the secret room is still locked and bolted, the lock rusted and untouched. As they creep from room to room, searching, Sir James again has the unsettling feeling he had on the night they visited the Balfour crypt, that some unseen presence is following them, watchful. 

As they enter the library, the room in which Roger Balfour died five years ago, a strange sight greets them: High in a corner of the ceiling are a group of five bats, hanging in silent slumber. 

Chapter 15 - Two Suitors

Back at Hamlin House, Lucy waits for Colonel Yates in the rose garden; she has promised to give him a tour of the garden and a description of the blooms cultivated there. Hibbs scolds her for being alone, even in the daytime. She laughs, saying she wishes she had seen the man in the beaver hat herself; she'd have captured him! Hibbs, realizing she has been kept in the dark as to the extent of her danger, restrains himself from telling more than he should. 

Sir James and Colonel Yates come into the garden. As they discuss what to do about the previous night's events, Yates notices the flash of suspicion on Sir James's face at the apparent intimacy between Hibbs and Lucy. Yates urges Sir James to ask Scotland Yard to investigate Balfour House; involving the local police, he says, could lead to unwanted and harmful gossip, but the Yard is renowned for its discretion. Have Hibbs write Scotland Yard, he says, asking them to send several good, able-bodied men -- "men who are not afraid of man, ghost or devil" -- under cover of darkness. 

Sir James and Hibbs go into the house to draft the letter, leaving Yates and Lucy to their tour of the garden. As they chat, Lucy confides something she has never told anyone, not even her brother Harry: When she was a little girl, she was strangely afraid of Sir James, although she never knew exactly why; he was always so good to her. And since her father's death, he has been kindness itself; she feels she could never repay him for all he has done for her and Harry. 

Colonel Yates assures her that he understands. He tells her that he wants to have "a serious talk" with her, on a matter that concerns her closely. 

From the house, Hibbs watches Lucy and the colonel in the garden. He sees Lucy throw her arms around Colonel Yates and kiss his cheek, then begin weeping on his shoulder. His jealousy flares, and it is with difficulty that Sir James recalls him to the task of writing Scotland Yard. 

Later, Hibbs confronts Lucy and demands an explanation. She cannot say anything, she says, and begs him not to ask. But she mollifies him by assuring him that she intends to break the news to Sir James of her and Hibbs's feelings for one another. 

Lucy finds Sir James in the music room, as eager to speak with her as she is with him. Sir James wonders: Has Lucy been annoyed by the unwanted attentions of his secretary? No, not at all, she assures him. Before she can go on, he tells her he is glad to hear it. Hibbs could never support Lucy in a way to which she is entitled. On the other hand, he -- Sir James himself -- has long looked forward to making Lucy his wife. 

Surprised and alarmed, Lucy runs sobbing from the room. 

Chapter 16 - Exorcisms

Sir James and Colonel Yates find a passage in Yates's book: "A wreath of tube roses at the window, a sword across the door, will make it impossible for the Vampyr to enter a sleeping room at night." It may sound absurd, but after the past two nights nothing should be discounted; at least it can do no harm. 

Hibbs is tense and upset as they place a wreath of tube roses from the garden and a sword that had hung on the wall, according to the directions in the book; lack of sleep, concern for Lucy, and mistrust of Yates are taking their toll. Reading from the book, he speaks the prescribed incantation: "They shall not pass this threshold."

As everyone retires for the night, Yates draws Hibbs into the upstairs study, saying he has something to tell him. Ignoring the smoldering anger in Hibbs's eyes, Yates guides him to a chair and gently forces him to sit. He tells him that Lucy's love for Hibbs speaks well of him, that Yates can see through her eyes what a fine fellow Hibbs is. 

All thought of Yates as a rival is suddenly gone from Hibbs's mind. In the colonel's steady gaze he sees the eyes of a friend and feels an urge to confide in him. Too bad about Lucy's brother, Yates says; did he and Hibbs get along? Ruefully, Hibbs says no, Harry objected to Hibbs's love for Lucy and was resolved to separate them for good. 

As they talk, Hibbs is overcome with drowsiness. He sleeps. 

Chapter 17 - An Assassin Foiled

Midnight. The house is still. A crouching, shadowy figure moves stealthily to the door of one of the sleeping rooms. Slowly, silently, the figure turns the knob, opens the door and slips inside. The figure approaches the sleeper in the bed, in its hand a long thin object, gleaming in the dim moonlight from the window. 

As the figure is poised to strike, the sleeper lunges bolt upright, startling the attacker to flight -- out the door, down the hall, with the intended victim -- none other than Colonel Yates -- in pursuit. Yates fires his revolver at the fleeing figure, rousing the house. Lucy calls from inside her room, asking that someone remove the sword and let her out.

Sir James comes from his room, his hands shaking as he ties the belt of his robe. What was that? Nothing, says Yates; I must have had a nightmare. Sir James and Lucy are reassured, and the house settles down.

Alone again in the hall, Yates reflects that Hibbs did not appear after the gunshot. He kneels and searches the carpet. Finally he finds what he seeks: a spot of blood. His assailant did not escape untouched after all.

Yates makes sure that Lucy's room is still secured with the sword and tube roses, then goes to Hibbs's room. The door is open, the bedclothes rumpled, but the room is empty. Yates deftly makes up the bed, then goes into the study, where he finds Hibbs, still sound asleep in the chair where he dozed off while they talked. 

Chapter 18 - The Fallen Sword

Upon being awakened, Hibbs apologizes for his rudeness in dropping off. Don't mention it, says Yates; on the contrary, I apologize for keeping you up so late. Yates leaves Hibbs in the study, telling him they both should be in bed.

Hibbs looks at his watch. Two-thirty! Have they really been talking so long? He hardly remembers a word they said. Before retiring, he decides to check on Lucy's room. He is horrified to find the protecting sword missing. He pounds on the door, calling her name. 

Sir James appears, alarmed at Hibbs's display -- and outraged that he addresses Lucy by her first name. Colonel Yates joins them and they break in the door to Lucy's room. It's empty. She's gone.

Finally the strain of the past few days has its way, and something in Hibbs snaps. He becomes hysterical, babbling that "vampyrs" have taken Lucy, that they must all be destroyed. Colonel Yates tries to calm him, to no avail. As Hibbs runs off, delirious, there comes from the direction of Balfour House the wild, piercing scream of a woman in distress. Could that have been Lucy?

No, says Gallagher, Sir James's Irish chauffeur. That wasn't Miss Lucy; 'twas the wail of "the banshee o' Balfour House," foretelling tragedy to come.

To be concluded...
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