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The LOST film has been FOUND!
29 June 2017
Warning: Spoilers
It's kind of hard to believe that in 2017, we can still find a few of the missing stragglers from the early days of Hollywood. This one always baffled me as to how it could be lost as it was made by Cooper and Schoedsack at RKO the same year they released their landmark, KING KONG. This monkey was dwarfed and it is very much a minor B-film. Unfortunately, too, this version of THE MONKEY'S PAW that exists is dubbed in French and is only 49 minutes long - it lists as originally being 58 minutes. I'll explain a bit of that in the end (AND YES, EVEN FOR A LOST FILM I'M GIVING YOU A SPOILER ALERT).

To not be able to hear C. Aubrey Smith's thick British droll is a big loss. He dominates the first half of the film and hearing him dubbed in French is tough to take. A similar feeling transpires when missing Bramwell Fletcher's excellent diction and Ivan Simpson's humble voice. The film is well-cast. Simpson is perfect for the somewhat pathetic John White. I had the fortune of an English language script to follow the dialogue. If you are familiar with the story, though, as I would think many horror fans are, then you can follow along for the most part without a script.

There is no musical score in the film. If there was one then it went away with the English dialogue. The sound effects are very good - lots of wind and creaking of wood that you would expect from this kind of horror tale. I was under the impression there would be shots of the paw moving (special effects), but in this copy of the film there is only one shot of the paw moving and it is very unimpressive. The direction is adequate. Most of all, the film does have a feeling of being uneven. The story goes that the portion of the film that focuses on the White family was shot by Wesley Ruggles and came in at just over a half hour in length. To compensate for this and pad the film's length, the prologue with C. Aubrey Smith's character, Tom, and how he came to own the paw was shot afterwards by Ernest Schoedsack. I have to say, I enjoyed very much the prologue which takes place in India. It adds to the viewers' belief that the paw is tragically cursed as we see what happens to a poor Indian woman who dies horribly for her wishes. Tom, then makes a similar poor judgment in his use of the paw which leads him to come back to London and tell this tale to the Whites.

The thing that will interest most people who are familiar with this film is the ending. The original version that was shown in the US in 1933 had a happy ending. It turned out that the whole story was a dream and Herbert White (John's son) and Rose get to live happily ever after. In this French version, the film ends with Mr. and Mrs. White having used their final wish to send their son back to his grave in peace. This, to readers of the short story, is the scene most people remember. It is not filmed well as the action takes place all in one long shot. As John wishes his son back to his grave, he is in the background of the shot while his wife frantically tries to open the door to let her dead son in. More cutting and closer shots would have benefited the film, but again, this clearly has the hallmarks of being a minor B picture.

There is very little storytelling flair in terms of camera-work and editing, but there are ample shadows and dark atmosphere. The suspense doesn't build up as you would hope, though. I'm confident that seeing it and hearing the English actors' voices would help, because it is hard to read a script and look up at the TV screen for 49 minutes. So, the filmmakers' original work is still in many ways, lost. After all, it is a privilege to see THE MONKEY'S PAW as it just as easily could have gone unseen forever. There is a rumor of an English language version being discovered and if this is true, I think this film would be much more enjoyable. It begs the question, though as to what the best ending could be - a dream or reality?
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Viewed at the Library of Congress
4 May 2016
Return of the Terror is one of those odd titles that classic horror fans have heard about for years and yet know little about. Upon release there was a great promotional poster of a fang-toothed villain, which promises twisted, evil horror. As the previous reviewer noted, he doesn't appear. There's also the promise that this is a sequel to the first sound horror film, THE TERROR (1928), based on a story by the always-reliable Edgar Wallace. This isn't a sequel, so that promise has been dashed as well.

So many classic horror films shamefully insinuate these kinds of promises that ultimately are never delivered that I find it all very forgivable. After all, there's really not even a moment in THE BLACK CAT (1934) that has anything to do with Poe. And THE RETURN OF DR. X (1939) seemed to insult that Lionel Atwill's DOCTOR X (1932) ever existed.

With that stripped out of the way, I found myself very much enjoying this movie. It's pure B-film escapism. It's more of a mystery than a horror film, but there are horror elements there. I think this film breaks some sort of record for most teeming rainfall of any 1930s film. The lightning storm lasts over 3 reels and creates a great chaotic environment. There's a very cool "fluor x- ray" machine that makes one's skin invisible so only the bones of the body are visible. The electrical machinery zaps just like in DOCTOR X, another Warner Brothers film. If you like skeleton imagery, this will be right up your alley. There's also plenty of suspects skulking around in black raincoats and large-brimmed hats and a knife-wielding crazy person. Most of all, the film has a nice steady pace. It's not a directorial masterpiece by any standards, but it moves.

The plot involves a doctor (John Halliday) who is tried for murder for assisting in the deaths of terminally ill patients who requested for his assistance. However, separate deaths via arsenic-poisoning are pinned on him thanks to a shady morgue aide (J. Carroll Naish). Dr. Redmayne's lawyer (Irving Pichel) arranges for him to plead insanity to avoid the death penalty and the doctor is put away in a sanitarium. When he finds out he will not be able to appeal, he escapes and is on the loose, returning to Morgan Rest Home where his colleague (Lyle Talbot) and fiancé (Mary Astor) are. However, with the storm, and several dubious mental patients (Robert Barrat, George E. Stone) arriving also, he remains on the run. When deaths of people he's associated with occur (with notes signed "The Terror" – his nickname for the Kevorkian-like assisted killings), everyone is out to find him, but is he the real killer?

The acting is solid throughout. Robert Barrat is a real chameleon. Hard to believe this is the same guy in SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM (1933) and BAD LANDS (1939). I love how his character always has to have a cigarette, even in the pouring rain. Frank McHugh finally gets more to do than just wisecrack. He joins in with the Inspector and helps solve the case. It's refreshing to not see him joke on every single line he has as he did in many similar films. John Halliday is terrific too. The scene when he is knocked over the head in the basement is a wonderful scene. The director, Howard Bretherton, wisely tracks the camera over to the flooding water coming in the window, giving the scene suspense and sorrow – the best moment in the film. There's nice simple tracking shots that show the story well, such as the opening outside the courthouse. In my opinion the film has a great surprise ending; certainly for a Warner B-movie. John Milne had written KENNEL MURDER CASE (1933) a year earlier.

Some interesting tidbits – Maude Eburne plays Mrs. Elvery, a character in Wallace's original play. Arthur L. Todd later shot the film THE SMILING GHOST (1941). In it the "ghost" looks incredibly similar to the sharp-toothed villain in the promotional poster. Did he recall his work on this film??? The film's opening title is also classically spooky, showing a similar silhouetted figure prominently hovering over some dead trees; his cape blowing in the howling wind. George E. Stone gets to be called "runt" near the end, which is a funny premonition of his Boston Blackie days.

This isn't a lost classic – it was never considered great when it came out. It's easily a cut above poverty row B-films and is at least as entertaining as the average mystery-horror from the time period.
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Fog (1933)
FOG delivers on its namesake
2 May 2016
This rarely-seen 1933 mystery film definitely toes the line on classifying as horror. If you think early 30s films such Double Door, The Ninth Guest, and Six Hours to Live fall into the category, you will agree this belongs. Tending to be liberal with the horror label, I would throw it in too.

As some readers may remember, TCM teased us by listing it on its schedule and abruptly removing it a few years back. I saw the print that was digitized at the Library of Congress. It runs 70 minutes and despite digital glitches in viewing it on their computer screen, it was a solid print.

The film has, as you would expect, excellent atmosphere. Only the final scene is devoid of fog. The art deco sets are wonderful (cabins of passengers seem to be tailored to the eccentricities of its guests). There's a brief, but gruesome shot of a victim hanging by a noose; a standard 30s séance; the constant blare of a foghorn; and of course, some nice low-key lighting. The film is devoid of a musical score, has lots of fade outs to end scenes and overall has a grim and somewhat distanced feel to the viewer. There's no one to really root for in this film.

For those of you who follow 20s, 30s and 40s mystery films, I often find what I call the "2 Real Suspect" films. You often see the many obvious recurring red-herrings such as ex-cons hiding behind aliases, jealous ex-husbands and ex-wives and suspicious-acting servants. This film has all of them and after discarding these stereotypical characters, there are really only two viable suspects and they are the two male leads in this one. As they both need to look suspicious, we really don't have that "go to" lead that this type of film does better with. The audience doesn't identify with either man.

As the leads are dry and distant and as there is no character development in these genre films, FOG suffers when compared to better contemporary films. That being said, there is still much to recommend. Samuel S. Hinds is terrific in an atypical servant role in which he summons some genuine pathos. The cinematography by long-time Hollywood veteran Benjamin Kline is excellent. There's terrific use of close-ups and medium close-ups throughout. The ship setting also lends itself to a nice claustrophobic feel complemented by all that engulfing fog.

The plot is straightforward. An old, rich, mid-western oil tycoon (Robert McWade) has a lot of bad relationships. His treats his two aides poorly, is hounded by a semi-phony mystic (nicely overplayed by Helen Freeman), and has an unknown long-lost son who may become the heir to his fortune. They are all on board a cross-Atlantic sea voyage. Naturally, the old man is the murder victim, and after his death, the ship's captain (the always fine, Edwin Maxwell) and Brown (Donald Cook) take over and begin investigating all the suspects. Madame Alva (Freeman) is called in to hold a séance (with the entirety of the ship's passengers attending!) and…..well, when the lights go out…..take a guess what happens next.

There's a rumor that there's a ghost in this film – there isn't. At the end, they try to summon the "ghost" of Holt (the murdered oil tycoon), but there is nothing supernatural about this moment. FOG has tons and tons of fog and this is an asset. Completists of 30s horror/mysteries will want to check it out.
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Lone Wolf: Part 6
26 July 2015
Warning: Spoilers
There had been many Lone Wolf movies with various actors playing the title character before 1939 and there would be several to follow after 1943, but Warren William without doubt was the definitive Michael Lanyard. This was his 6th film out of 9 and a very entertaining entry.

There are some nice directorial touches starting with the opening having William deliver an amusingly righteous speech in a tuxedo top, only to have the camera pull out to reveal he has only boxer shorts on and is rehearsing. Plenty of comedy such as this and the delightful presence of Eric Blore, who again delivers an hysterical performance as Jamison - the Lone Wolf's valet, keep the action moving along.

By the time the series hit the 5th episode it was clear that the plots got a little more ridiculous. This one is the first to get topical regarding the war as it was released just before the US entered WWII. The Napoleon jewels have been smuggled out of Europe just before the Nazis could get them. The owners want to sell them to raise money for the Allies. Inspector Crane is in charge of keeping the jewels safe and calls in Lanyard to consult on how to avoid jewel thieves. Of course, things do not go as planned for Crane and Lanyard is suspect #1 when real jewel thieves involve him by kidnapping Jamison believing he is the Lone Wolf.

Just like in the Boston Blackie series, you have to wonder how many times the inspector has to witness the former jewel thief save the day and still always instantly suspect and arrest him. By this time it naturally gets a little tired. What makes these films so entertaining though, are not the recycled plot lines as much as the great work by the actors. William as Lanyard is not just one step ahead, he's about 10 steps ahead of everyone else. Like Charlie Chan and Sherlock Holmes, you just have to sit back and enjoy his creative ability to get out of any jam. William always portrays a great air of confidence and charm no matter what the circumstances. And Blore's hysterical take on the impish Jamison is a constant joy to watch. The chemistry between the two was always excellent, evident here in the scenes when they have to reverse roles to keep up the act that Jamison is the Lone Wolf.

The Lone Wolf series was one of the best from the golden age of detective films of the 30s and 40s. Secrets of the Lone Wolf is another solid film in the series.
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Best of the Ordways
10 August 2014
This film is the tenth and last of the Crime Doctor films that I've tracked down. It's the hardest to see for reasons I don't know. The other films have screened on TCM over the past few years since TCM picked up the old Columbia catalog, but this one stubbornly refuses to show up.

Well, I'm glad to say Dr. Ordway saved the best for last for me. The film's generic-sounding title is a little off-putting. It has plenty of shadows and in fact, even has a little bit of a horror film feel in a few moments. That's helped out by the presence of George Zucco, most welcome here as a mysterious chemist. Warner Baxter is terrific in his role as the Crime Doctor. I used to not like him so much based on some of his early films that I had seen, but he has totally won me over as Dr. Ordway. His extremely calm and unassuming manner is always relaxing to see and in this one (the third out of ten) he clearly has his character down and is able to get away with a few rather rude moments (such as throwing the chemical bottle at Zucco's feet) with barely a rise out of the other characters due to his otherwise professional demeanor.

The plot is very exciting in this entry - a young woman comes to Ordway's home in the middle of a rain-stormy night to beg for his help with her sleepwalking nightmares. At her home, Ordway encounters a dead body after suffering a similar such sleepwalking nightmare. Yet, all of the characters, including the young woman (an excellent Nina Foch) think their friend died of natural causes. Ordway's persistence proves otherwise.

As usual with classic Hollywood detective films there are always some plot holes, but this film easily overcomes them by succeeding with terrific atmosphere, steady pacing and by simply being a fun whodunit. Cheers to Dr. Ordway!
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Lugosi vs. The Paying Daughter
5 February 2014
Warning: Spoilers
This film relates what seems to be two unrelated story lines. A young woman named Miss Smith wants to save her brother, Larry, from going to jail over $10k of money he illegally lost at his firm. The owner of that firm, Foster, has a son named Dick, who is head-over-heels in love with a Russian ballet dancer named Sonia. The father does not approve. The father then asks Sonia to give his son up, and she eventually agrees - if he will help Miss Smith.

As the story unfolds we find Sonia is involved with Russians who want to spread communism into the US government (a story idea about 20 years ahead of its time in Hollywood terms). The head bad guy is none other than Bela Lugosi, himself. Without spoiling too much, these two stories come together in a very preposterous way, but a way that is not dissimilar to many pulp stories from the 1920s. In other words, if you like spy melodramas from this era, this will not disappoint. And considering the film opens with a blatant lie that the town of North Hampton, New York is about 30 minutes from NYC (more like 3 1/2 hours on a good driving day), it doesn't stray too far from reality in the actual scenes. It's actually a pretty entertaining picture.

The print I saw was from George Eastman House. The final reel suffers very bad nitrate decomposition, but other than that and the 5th reel, the rest of the film looks beautiful. It was filmed in the winter and it's nice to see actual on-location snow for a feature. The acting is relatively good. Lugosi is fun as the villain. Fans will miss his voice, but love a scene when the girl cuts his lip with a rose thorn, leaving a trickle of blood going down his jaw - something we never actually got to see in either of his Dracula film performances. Needless to say, if you are reading this review, it is probably because you are a fan of his. He is, again, quite good in this and has a meaty role, so it is worth watching. The lead female, Marguerite De La Motte is also quite good and very striking. The role is a rather feminist part and she is the "daughter who pays"; in other words she does the dirty work while the men basically sit, watch and do nothing.
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In the words of Rodney Dangerfield, "The Great Gatsby" was...well...Great!
12 May 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Like many of Baz Luhrman's films, THE GREAT GATSBY has received extremely mixed reviews from the professional critics. Based on its' box office this opening weekend, though, thankfully audiences are going to decide for themselves.

It has all the cards to be a Hollywood flop, but I'm very glad it isn't that. First of all, this is a great and classic American story. The novel, which I haven't read for many years, still sticks in my brain as observant, detailed and tragic. It also was subtle, something that Luhrman can never be accused of. Combine that with the fact that no movies can ever truly transfer the artistic experience of a written book, and you have to go into this film expecting something truly cinematic.

This is a story of love and the inability to go back to happier times or any time for that matter. Some have complained that themes are beaten over the viewers' heads such as the green light at the Buchanan home, which is certainly true. Likewise there are themes that are naturally less explicit and pushed to the side that Luhrman retains, namely the class system in the United States. A poor man can never truly become a rich man. This is part of the mystique of America and really a false promise. It comes out in the end, when only his fellow mid-westerner, Carraway, honors Gatsby's memory. Carraway in a way gets to live vicariously through Gatsby, his equal, who built a name and money all in the name of love. Gatsby achieved the American dream, yet never was satisfied. I think this is part of the long-lasting power of the novel.

In terms of filmmaking, the film is completely successful. The music score by Jay-Z is often a counter-point to what is felt behind Gatsby. The camera moves constantly and restlessly as the roaring twenties. Luhrman goes over-the-top with set design and costumes to show the extravagance of the era. The 1920s could never really be that exciting, but again Luhrman as a director is a good choice with his style since the character of Nick Carraway is our subjective guide in this story and he is swept up and overwhelmed by the lifestyle of the mega-rich. And the parties are awesome! The parties are so lavish, and while not for the reasons they may seem there is an emotional force behind the emptiness on the surface.

The acting is quite good too. DiCaprio is the top winner in this category. It was nice to see him play a character who makes a bit of fool of himself and has some real anxiety as well. His character is well-groomed and seems to be acting in a way he believes the rich should act. None of the other characters have quite the depth, but they play their range well. Edgerton is rough, but still seems human. Mulligan is very good as Daisy Buchanan, the object of Gatsby's love. She seems a little forgotten at the very end, but she comes across as honorable and realistic in her love for Gatsby and her previous love for Tom Buchanan. Elizabeth Debicki is simply gorgeous as Jordan. She warms up her icy character as she gets to know Carraway, and does a great job of turning her back on him in her last shot - greatly symbolic of her turning her back on Carraway's sense of emotion and honor in favor of her rich lifestyle. Lastly, Tobey Maguire is solid as Nick Carraway. He doesn't have huge range as an actor, but is always identifiable for the audience and definitely seems like someone who would be curious, observing and loyal to Gatsby.

In summary, this is not the 1925 novel. Some have complained about changes from the book and the choices of what was included/not included. In 2013, 9 decades after the story takes place, Baz Luhrman gives this his unique new vision and makes it incredibly cinematic. If you want the subtle story of 1925, you certainly should read the justifiably legendary book. The films will always be subservient to the book, but Luhrman's film is incredibly bold and tragic. You can't go back and live in the past and love cannot be acquired through climbing up America's social ladder.
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Fugitive Road (1934)
Von Stroheim the Great Ghost-Director?!
29 April 2013
Warning: Spoilers
What an interesting independent feature from 1934 this is! It stars Erich Von Stroheim as an officer of the Austrian military who runs a transit post on the border of his country. The film is a classic example of the values and chivalry of Von Stroheim's films dealing with the WWI era.

The film centers around the different people who are detained at the Austrian outpost due to their passports not being accepted. One man is an American gangster played by Leslie Fenton. Another is a Hungarian (though actually Russian) young woman named Sonya played by Wera Engels. Other characters include an Italian man with his wife and 6 (soon to be 7) children, two con men trying to smuggle diamonds and Von Stroheim's hapless attendant. In terms of story, the film tries to be a sort of "Grand Hotel" in 65 minutes and with probably less than a tenth of the budget. Obviously, it wasn't going to reach an ambitious height. What makes this interesting is they had good actors and Von Stroheim's involvement.

Directed by Frank Strayer, who was always capable of getting a good basic story on camera, the film revolves around the interest that both Von Stroheim's Commandant and Fenton's gangster have in the beautiful young lady. The commandant doesn't accept her passport so at every chance he can attempt to forcibly charm her into staying with him. The gangster hears her sad story of trying to go to America and faces off against the commandant to save her from him. It comes down to a question of honor and there is some surprise in the resolution from "The man you love to hate".

It has been written that Von Stroheim ghost-directed this film and/or was also a technical adviser. In fact, his IMDb page states this as being the last "directorial" effort from this legend. There seems to be some proof of that in the finished product. There are plenty of his trademarks. In the opening we see great details of him breaking down troops in the ranks for poor uniforms. He has a personal attendant whom he always berates for his ineptness or ignorance to formality. His commandant is a high-ranking military man with a short Prussian haircut and wears a monocle. There is the story device of an ambulance (faked by the con men) trying to pass through and of course the Austrian border setting is very much in keeping with his style.

Also, there are some great character details that seem totally from Von Stroheim, such as in his character's introduction when his face is covered with a cheap pulp detective magazine as he is passed out on the couch. Hilariously his character turns on a dime to berate his servant for handing him a less decorated jacket before he first meets the young lady only to have his servant spray the underarms of the more formal coat with cologne to remove the odor - these details seem to be Von Stroheim admitting to the audience he is 'slumming' in this picture. The film is chocked full of great little moments such as these and little bits get revealed with each viewing.

Despite some of the nice details mentioned and some very good effort at set decor, Fugitive Road still looks very low budget. There are some story holes and most of all the current print available from Alpha has poor sound. This is tough because about a quarter of the film is not in English, and nearly every character has a foreign accent. However, again this is turned around into something interesting in that this film, made in Hollywood in 1934, would have so many scenes with foreign languages spoken and no translation. This is not a classic and perhaps boring on a light viewing, but beneath there is much to see and hear. Erich Von Stroheim didn't seem to have had involvement with the camera, but in terms of character, story details and decor he seems to have had much influence.
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Steel Dawn (1987)
Low rating not deserved
30 December 2012
Just caught up with it after 25 years and while this is not a classic, this is not a bad movie. I saw this when it first came on video and remember enjoying it and feeling it was a solid action flick for Patrick Swayze. I am very surprised all these years later after seeing it today on TV, that it still is, though I would only recommend it to people who like old movies and/or post-apocalyptic stories.

First of all, it was nice to see Patrick Swayze and his wife, Lisa Niemi paired together on screen. They had a tremendous relationship in real life; one of the only Hollywood couples to whom "till death do us part" really meant something. They clearly have an easy demeanor around one another that makes their scenes memorable. Most of all what's good about this movie and similar old flicks made on clearly-low-budgets is the lack of pretense. It's not trying to be flashy, it's not trying to be epic, nor is it trying to be something it's not. This is just a simple tale of a wanderer (Swayze) who comes upon a tiny village and learns to help the people in exchange for food, water and a bed and comes to defend them from marauders. Nothing more. His character, called "The Stranger" in the film, becomes a man of example, whose actions speak louder than words and who shows us how we can trust someone based on how they act and not what they say. Swayze has charisma and that's what makes it better than average for this type of old film. He was such a good dancer we forget he had some action chops as well. NEXT OF KIN, and ROAD HOUSE were made after this, along with POINT BREAK, and are better known. This is a quiet flick, a good one to watch on a lazy weekend afternoon.

The direction and music score are a little dated, as is Niemi's hairstyle (very popular in the '86-'87 years). The acting is okay overall, though Anthony Zerbe always makes a good villain. Mostly the excellent fight scenes keep the film moving forward. The choreography of the action is very good and Swayze truly has the grace of a dancer in his hand-to-hand combat. STEEL DAWN holds up as a nice reminder of simple, unpretentious 1980s storytelling.
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Lugosi Leads 4 Lives!!!!
15 July 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Many have said that this Monogram quickie has Lugosi leading a double life, but upon further review, it can be said he leads 4! When you combine that with a basement full of zombies he doesn't even know about, that's a lot of action for an hour and one minute.

Lugosi plays Professor Brenner, a respected college teacher who has a wife. What he doesn't tell anyone is that he is also Karl Wagner the benign owner of a soup kitchen on the bowery. However, beyond that, he is also the leader of an underground criminal organization. And beyond that, if one wants to take it seriously he is also Bela Lugosi – In a scene early in the film when two of the characters are in front of a movie theater you can very clearly see Lugosi on a poster for "The Corpse Vanishes", his previous Monogram film. So, there you have it – four lives, or one really busy one. Tom Neal's character says it best about Lugosi in an absolutely hysterical line, "I've never seen a guy with more angles."

Lugosi perhaps was never more ruthless than he is here. He literally throws unknowing people off buildings, orders his assistants in crime murdered and without a hesitation even murders his poor wife. If you like seeing Lugosi play bad, look no further. I had avoided this one for years as I'm not a big fan of his very low budget films (and from the title I thought the Bowery Boys were in it), but this may be the last film he did where he looks in his prime physical form. His hair has the classic slicked-back look; his performance is dedicated; and he even throws in some touching moments with his wife and during his bad dreams that you wonder if his character really wants to get away from this crazy life he leads.

Of course, the writing doesn't try to explain anything. Why bother leading all these lives? Does it get on his conscience? Why not quit being a professor and just be a crime leader and use the soup kitchen as a front? And how and why the hell are their zombies in this film? They don't even serve a purpose.

If you ask me that's the fun in watching a 1930s and 1940s B-movie. You're not supposed to think. You are supposed to suspend all belief and just be entertained. Tom Neal is great as Frankie Mills – you really believe he's a killer; Director Wallace Fox could not keep the pace quicker and with an overtone of harshness that suits the subject just fine. And in this film you are being entertained by the number one bad guy in these kinds of low budget films from that era. So if you are reading this review, seek this one out, sit back, don't think and enjoy and tip your hat to Lugosi when you're done.
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This version on its own merits
10 June 2012
After the prologue, the film begins with Lois jumping out the window to bait Clark into giving away his secret - while improbable, it's a bold way to start the film. It seems to be saying, "forget about the origin story; let's jump right into the action", however this isn't followed with enough of a storyline for the two of them. She and Reeve have just over 13 total minutes of screen time (I counted) by the time they are in bed together. We don't get to see their romance bloom at Niagra Falls. The blank bullets scene is the only other moment they really have. It's too quick to digest for the audience. They're our main characters and simply said, we need much more of 'em.

Marlon Brando has one of the films' two epic scenes when he gives up his "life" to restore his son's powers. It's a very moving scene and also a great character building moment for Superman. He learns his selfish needs denied him a life of giving and sharing his special gifts with the world. Some have complained that Reeve didn't act as well in this version - I disagree. The original intention of Superman's character in this film was to focus on his immaturity, selfishness and need for personal gratification. Reeve acts this way because in Part One he was initially trying to become a man. Here, he gives into his personal wants and needs. However, his decision is a mistake and he has to suffer losing his father as a result. This is powerful stuff and Reeve acts the character out in this story arc and is excellent.

Gene Hackman gets top billing and is interesting and humorous, but there isn't much weight to him as a villain and luckily General Zod, Ursa and Non are there to provide the muscle and madness that make Superman realize what a mistake he has made. If there is a weakness in the supervillains it's that they aren't given enough to do. The battle in Metropolis is the other epic scene and the lack of humor and the constant action make it the most exciting part of the movie.

However, the ending of Superman turning back time is an incomprehensible mistake by any standard. It begs the question, "Why didn't Superman just turn back time to get rid of Zod once Jor-El restored his powers?" The fact that this ending was used in part one only makes it worse. The idea that Superman can always turn back time is a poor one that makes the character too good to be true. He cannot have such unbelievable power; it takes away from the drama and conflict of him understanding a better way to use his power to save people.

Good moments - the villains destroying the Washington monument on their way to the White house. There's a nice, eerie moment when Superman is about to give up his powers when he flies in his civilian clothes for the only time. The Statue of Liberty getting crashed into during the Metropolis battle is a great iconic moment. A big film needs big icons like Lady Liberty in it. Ursa gets a great moment in the White House where she gets to enjoy her fatal kick of a White House guard, teasing him before she delivers the deed. It's another great icy moment for the "Queen of the Runway" as Perry White calls her. Zod also has some great lines such as an old-west type of line when he gets to the fortress, yelling, "Show yourself, coward!" And despite her lack of screen time, Margot Kidder gets a wonderful ending atop her penthouse when, in tears, she tells Superman, "Your secret's safe with me."

Some poor moments include Ms. Teshmacher flushing a toilet in the fortress of Solitude. This is simply ugly and stupid. The music score is a mess. There is no way John Williams would approve of his Superman: The Movie score being used in such a choppy and repetitive way. The score seems like what it is – about 20-30 minutes of original music being spread over 110 minutes. The color holographic image of Jor-El that Lex sees, should have been in black and white as it was in the first film. The initial use of a color image of Jor-El should have been saved for when he walks up and touches his son for the only time as this would have added to the dramatic impact of the re-powering scene. Superman should have gone to bed with Lois after de-powering. It seems like he gives up his powers for nothing. And there is an inexcusable audio blip when Superman tells Zod in an extremely high-pitched munchkin voice, "I'm not a coward Zod."

Overall at one hour fifty - ten minutes of which are flashbacks - this is just too short for the epic story this was supposed to be. It needs to be around a half hour longer to build character for Ursa, Zod, Lois and Superman. Lex, if anything, has too much screen time and too much repetitive humor. I know the film was made with restraints and was never intended to be perfect, so it gives us an idea of what a 1979 Richard Donner- directed Superman II would have looked like. I honestly think about 50% of what we see here would have been changed had he finished the film in '79 such as much more footage shot of the developing romance between Lois and Clark, more development and certainly more destruction from Zod and Ursa, and without a doubt – a completely different ending than we see here. We'll never know, but seeing Brando's and Reeve's work now that they are no longer with us is special and it's satisfying even if just for that emotional re-powering scene between them.
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Red Tails (2012)
Red Tails - A Defense to the cynical
24 January 2012
First, let me get out of the way, the unfortunate need to explain the "see it because it's good for you" thoughts I'm sure many people will get when hearing about "Red Tails" and its story. Is the film sentimental? Yes. Does it tell rather than show the tragic racial separation that existed in 1944? Yes. Is it optimistic and corny? Yes, again. So stop right here if you don't want any of this in a movie.

"Red Tails" is definitely old-fashioned Americana, but with the ironic twist that it is the people who were segregated at that time, who get the "1940s-styled Hollywood" treatment. Black soldiers who fought in WWII could go to a theater at that time and see John Wayne and other white actors tell the white WWII stories, but could not see their own sacrifices represented with that same pro-American bias. This is in some ways the 1940s film that they never got from Hollywood. (Ironically, they still haven't gotten it as Lucas, not Hollywood, bankrolled "Red Tails" independently).

Today's cynical audiences will not like this. Characters are basically who they seem they are. The same criticism was brought up against "Saving Private Ryan" when that came out. Like "Ryan", here we get the stereotypical group of different personalities among the soldiers. There is a character in this named 'Joker' as there seems to be in every war movie. There's also a guy called "Junior", etc. Spielberg used the sentimental trick of showing the old Ryan at the cemetery adjoined by the next shot of the young Hanks' character to play up the sadness you will feel for him in the end. (Let me add, "Ryan" is a certainly a better film than "Red Tails" mainly due to direction).

"Red Tails" weaknesses are some unimaginative editing/directing that results in some odd-feeling dissolves between scenes. I noticed this early in the film and it has a bit of a "tv movie" feel to it in that sense. Better planning by the director would have anticipated the camera's move and the direction of the forms within the image from one scene into the next. So, a more up-scale, Hollywood flashy directing is missing, but if you overcome that early on and accept it, the film is entirely consistent thereafter. The music score is very good, but a little over done in a few parts. There are a few private scenes early in the film where two characters talk in isolation that could have done without the heavy music.

Strengths include the fantastic direction and editing of the aerial sequences. You can really get a good sense of how their missions were and the close calls, quick moves and even the straightforward ordinary flying the pilots must have experienced. The actors are good and uniformly old-fashioned. But after all, we are talking about an America of 68 years ago. The lingo may seem corny, but I have never met a person who lived in that era who didn't sound corny to me. The actors definitely seem like they believe in something and that they are having fun playing these pilots. The pilots in real life were supposedly a very confident and cocky bunch. The care they have for one another is an asset. As you get to know them you get to care about them and root for them in battle and it gives more feeling to the entertaining battle sequences.

There are some excellent technical decisions such as not to subtitle the character of Sofia. This definitely lets the audience identify with Lightning in how he must overcome the communication barrier between the two. Both she and David Oyelowo as Lightning do an excellent job of expressing their feelings with their faces and bodies as they slowly fall in love. The film shows the narrow-minded thinking you must embrace to be in war. Germans, who are not really seen much, are obvious enemies saying only lines like "Show no Mercy!" In battle, though, do you really have time to be a conflicted person when you are about to fight to the death? And do people really need a conflicted Nazi in a Tuskegee airman story?

The heroes in this movie are just that – Heroes and not anti-heroes. This is an important distinction because we are not a society that looks at things like that anymore. Every hero must have his or her dark side. "Red Tails" shows character flaws, such as Easy's drinking and Lightning's show-boating, but it doesn't hearken on them or analyze them at all. It seems every single film today gives us "Look at me - I'm the anti-hero because I'm too scared to believe in anything, but I really do care - I'm just cynical" characters. I think we want people we can believe in. It's refreshing to see a good person be a good person for a change. And I don't have to be spoon fed unrealistic, over-hyper plot twists every five minutes to be impressed. This movie stands out from the crowd for those facts alone. Life isn't always a series of dark twists; sometimes it's exactly as it appears.

The Tuskegee airmen were heroes, plain and simple. Maybe, besides the color of their skin, the reason few have really heard of them till now is because they were simply doing their jobs and doing it very well. And the job they did in the air in WWII was very exciting. Final analysis - Does the film make you feel good and proud of these men? Yes. It's as simple as that.
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The underrated finale in the Chaney-Browning canon
1 December 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Tod Browning's final collaboration with Lon Chaney is an underrated gem. Chaney plays Tiger Haynes, father of Toyo, played by the ever-energetic Lupe Velez. She is in love with a young man, Bobby (Lloyd Hughes). She presents him to her father, who after initial reluctance accepts him as his daughter's fiancée. However, everything changes when Tiger and Bobby go on a river trip to deliver wild animals to Bobby's father and Bobby is seduced by Tiger's ex-wife who is also Toyo's mother, Madam de Sylva (Estelle Taylor).

There's a lot going on in this film. First of all, it's the first MGM Browning/Chaney film where the Chaney character is not the main force of change in the plot. This film is dominated by both women, particularly by Estelle Taylor as a sexually charged nymph who plays with men (and women) for her pleasure and who gets what she wants – and she wants Bobby. Despite his good nature, he is instantly taken by her flirtation. She also seems to be a lover to her female servant, whose only dialogue is to warn Tiger to take Bobby away from her clutches. She seems to be jealous when Mdm. De Sylva flirts with Bobby. And of course, she tries to seduce Tiger, but he is insistent on making sure his daughter is happy.

Chaney has a good role here; don't be fooled by those who say he doesn't. No, he doesn't wear old lady drag, tear off his arms or amputate his legs; he doesn't always need that. He keeps his make-up modest by his standards with some heavy scars on his face, presumably from the claws of wild animals. What he gets to play is an honorable father. I would disagree with some other reviewers saying there was an incestuous side to his relationship with his daughter. Near the end they have a very playful moment where Chaney shows his charm pretending he is an animal. This comes off as child-like and just because he is a guarding father, I don't really see any evidence of incest. With his character not being the plot-changer, he gets an opportunity to play more of a straight role and this is a welcome change. He has a wonderful moment when he tears up when consoling his daughter. Lupe Velez is so bubbly that she kisses and loves everything and everyone in her sight, so her repeatedly kissing her father is entirely in line with her persona.

The scenery is gorgeous and the long matte shots of the Buddha temple and other scenes of the villages on the waters are all terrific and atmospheric. There was an equally satisfying music score on the print TCM played that had mild sound effects too. As we know Chaney wasn't too keen on sound by this time and I imagine there was no intent to put anymore sound in this than exists. Tod Browning directed a tight picture and the script is excellent, except for the Dues ex Machina ending. The use of Chaney's gorilla is the only contrived part. Other than that, I can easily see this exact plot being remade today, especially with the rise of cougars in cinema and TV – and I'm not talking the type Chaney captures.
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As quick as they get
18 October 2010
Warning: Spoilers
'London Blackout Murders' is a 50 minute suspense B-picture from early 1943 about the then-current war in London. I'm always amazed at how Hollywood would make so many films in the early 40s about the war, whereas today it took them until 2006 to release anything on the Afghan and Iraq wars. This film definitely embodies the one-for-all and all-for-one spirit that films of this era did, but in this quick running time, there isn't much time for anything.

The story involves a man (John Abbott - an excellent actor) who is murdering select individuals during the German bombings of London. He uses a hypodermic needle that is embedded in his pipe. So, the film is not about who, but why. We follow a young lady (Mary McLeod) who, after her parents are killed in bombings, is boarding in his building. She sees the needle in the pipe and is suspicious of him as newspapers say the killer used such a needle. Upon his second murder, Abbott is witnessed by a police officer (Lloyd Corrigan) who looks into his character further.

This is somewhat reminiscent of what Hitchcock was doing around this time - 'Suspicion' and 'Foreign Correspondent'. It is interesting and neatly directed by the journeyman George Sherman. One only wishes it were longer. By the 40 minute mark we are in the final lap and are about to find out the why. I understand there seems to be a 59 minute version that originally came out, but I would think that would be hard to ever see again. Paramount owns these old Republic films and seem pretty stingy on releasing them. You can only find them through collectors.

That all being said, 'London Blackout Murders' is recommended to suspense fans (there are absolutely no horror moments despite what you may have read elsewhere), and fans of the WWII era.
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Sympathy for the Duck
10 April 2010
Having not seen this film for about 23 years, I feel a need to say something about this unfairly notorious film. All I remembered was how hot Lea Thompson and her trendy hair were at the time and the talking duck. Well, HOWARD THE DUCK is no classic but definitely worth the time for people who like unusual and original ideas. It's quirky, odd and a true amalgamation of ideas that equally work and don't work. And Lea Thompson still looks hot, though her hair in this film was truly a 1986 thing.

Having just viewed the DVD, I must say I have to hand it to the technical work on the film. For 1986, the animatronic duck looks as good as anything done up till that time. The actor inside the duck did a good job of hitting his marks and the bill and the eyes were skillfully done. It's just that there isn't a great appeal to this character to begin with. He's basically a middle class guy with an attitude on his duck planet and comes off just like that type of person from our planet. They could have either gone farther with his attitude and dirty talk or totally backed off and made it more child-friendly.

The same goes for the bizarre match of music. If film songs could tell you the exact style that was in for the mid-eighties, this film reeks of it. Unfortunately the songs are all mediocre and they are blended with a wonderful, but completely out-of-place John Barry score. Barry's scores on the James Bond films were great and he had a level of sophistication and adventure that few composers had then. His love theme in HOWARD THE DUCK is simply touching. Considering the subject manner, in retrospect Danny Elfman would have been a far better choice for the score (heck, his band Oingo Boingo could have done a few songs as well).

The Production Design also needs to be commended - this is really a 'B' film made with 'A' money. The special effects are mostly good. The scene where Jeffrey Jones is in the diner is perfect for the time period, but the creature version of the Dark Overlord at the end is lit incorrectly and doesn't match the rest of the real background. You can tell all of the actors worked hard. Lea Thompson did her own singing and always has a nice sensitive side. Jones is great in what amounts to two roles - the competent scientist and the Dark Overlord. And a young Tim Robbins really chews up the scenery and you can see how much talent this guy really has playing a geeky and silly character - a character we would no longer see from him in future films.

The most interesting thing to me looking back now is it really says a lot about the time it was made and yet it was rejected by the people in that time. I think the duck's condom and the "love" scenes definitely made people uncomfortable for a PG film. The idea of following a duck-man around for two hours in a sci-fi/noir also seems so contrived that it took a huge risk thinking millions of ticket buyers will latch onto it. The film seems to have basically ended the careers of Director/Writer Willard Hyuck and writer Gloria Katz that they have no other big credits after this. Lea Thompson, who was the star, was unable to rise higher despite having a still successful career. Jones, having come off AMADEUS and FERRIS BUELLER wasn't totally knocked down by it, and Tim Robbins actually was lucky he was unknown and a few years later got BULL DURHAM and carved a new path for himself.

HOWARD THE DUCK is a true time capsule of a film. It is entertaining, it has a heart and it isn't like any other movie you'll see from 1986. If you appreciate good, hard film-work and can forgive the weak story and the not-completely realized concept, it's quite a curious time period piece now. And, on a side note, I have to wonder what Tim Burton could have done with this at that time as it was between his wonderfully imaginative PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE and the visually stunning BEETLEJUICE.
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The Living Dead
28 March 2010
This film, as many did at the time, had a title change upon arriving on the US shores. It was re-tilted "The Living Dead". The original British title barely wins in a squeaker as the better one and neither is really apt. There is no mystery in this film. The criminal mastermind is revealed within the first ten minutes and it then operates as a suspense picture, and not a bad one.

Sir Gerald du Maurier in one of his few film appearances is the Commissioner and George Curzon is the criminal mastermind, using a job as a police doctor to get inside information on an insurance scam he is running. It is similar in ways to "Dark Eyes of London", the Edgar Wallace tale that followed to the screen five year later. Curzon's doctor has developed a serum that puts people in a death-like state. Once "dead", they can collect their life insurance money and he gets his share. There are plenty of plot holes that are left untied at the end, but it is an entertaining film with a few horror overtones to somewhat justify the horror-inspired title it had in the US.

Du Maurier is quite good in his role. It is said his performance of Captain Hook on the British stage is what inspired a very young Boris Karloff to become an actor. It is easy to see why. Du Maurier has a very reserved style and gives the best performance in the picture. Right behind him is Curzon as a very sinister villain who seems to be able to look at himself in the third person as he very elaborately tries to escape in the end. The pace and camera-work are good and this is entertaining for fans of this era's suspense films. If you're looking for horror you might be a bit disappointed - there are only two brief graveyard sequences.
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Mis-titled, but effective thriller
21 November 2009
Warning: Spoilers
With a title like "Almost Married", you'd think this was a screwball comedy or perhaps a drama. It's actually a thriller that even has some horror overtones. It also is a misnomer in that the lead female is not 'almost' married, but married twice which is what triggers the plot.

It is an extremely rare film which was made by Fox. The print I saw ran around 47 minutes and was missing the opening titles. What I saw picked up where Ralph Bellamy plays Deene Maxwell, who is in a train car with a woman on the run named Anita. They are in Russia and he is British, so he offers to marry her as he can get her out of the country safely. She agrees but later tells him that she is still married to an insanely violent composer named Louis Capristi whom she ran away from. Capristi was extremely jealous and would kill her if he found her. Naturally, he finds out about it in the insane asylum where he is and breaks out. He comes to their home and threatens to ruin their names by telling everyone she's a bigamist. But, what he really wants is revenge.

Ralph Bellamy and Alan Dinehart are the familiar actors here. Bellamy does not try a British accent, nor Dinehart as the Scotland Yard Inspector (with all of the British actors in Hollywood in 1932 you would think they could have hired two). Violet Heming plays Anita. I'm not familiar with this actress, but she must have been a stage actress as she has very few film credits. Alexander Kirkland, who also has few film credits, plays Capristi in a completely over-the-top performance. He almost seems to be trying to duplicate Dwight Frye in 'Dracula' or Bela Lugosi in 'Murders in the Rue Morgue'. It takes a little getting used to, but I found it an acceptable performance for this type of film.

What is most impressive are some of the early scenes in the asylum. They're very reminiscent of 'Cabinet of Dr. Caligari', though the effect comes from set construction and not painted flats. The lighting is creepy and Gustav Von Seyferritz gets a few minutes as the doctor of Mr. Capristi. The padded walls and the bars with lots of under-lighting and shadows are effective. So, too is the scene later in the film where Capristi encounters a poor French girl who recognizes him after he has escaped.

Sound is used effectively for a few nice touches. Bellamy has an obligatory line early on to Anita where he tells her "everything's going to be all right" which is immediately interrupted by a loud knock (which of course tells us things won't be all right). Also, when Capristi comes to their home, he re-introduces himself by playing the piano off-screen which Anita recognizes and disturbs her.

'Almost Married' is a nice little horror-thriller that is unfortunately a victim of time. William Cameron Menzies' direction is adequate, but definitely lacking camera movement that could have built suspense. He did a better job in 'Chandu' later that year. That being said, there may be a bit of footage missing. It definitely feels like a bare bones version of what it may have been. If you like 1930's styled horror you will enjoy it.
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The Mystic (1925)
Tod Browning IS The Mystic!
7 February 2009
Warning: Spoilers
...Well, not quite, but the main reason to see this film today is for Tod Browning completists. His fingerprints are all over The Mystic. He developed the scenario and Waldemar Young wrote the screenplay. These two worked together at MGM throughout the second half of the 1920s, and almost exclusively with Lon Chaney. I say almost because this is one of only two silent MGM films they made without Chaney. For that reason alone, it is interesting to see what Browning does without his ace actor.

The Mystic involves a trio of Hungarian gypsies who travel Europe with little more than a magic sideshow. Aileen Pringle plays the title character, named Zara, who claims to have mystical powers. A man named Michael Nash, played by Conway Tearle, approaches them with an idea to come to the United States to make even more money by holding séances with rich people and tricking them into believing they're seeing the ghosts of their loved ones. When they arrive, however, the quartet's plans get a monkey wrench thrown into it, when Nash feels sorry for one of their potential victims.

This is a very typical Browning story in that the crooks have to deal with their moral problems and how that affects others - Very similar to The Unholy Three in this fashion. The lead crook, who is often Chaney, has a heart and this is one of Browning's favorite tricks for getting audience sympathy. Also, Browning loves to show us behind-the-scenes looks of magicians and mystics and the technical ways they execute their "powers". However, there is no additional gimmick in this film. No one is deformed and there is no gorilla in the mix. In that sense it is rather refreshing and at the same time a bit boring if you are a fan of Browning's films. It seems he and Young tried to up the ante with every film they collaborated on by coming up with different and more extreme sideshow scenarios, and in The Mystic - their second film together, they seem early in their game. Browning's obsessions, of course, reached it's penultimate stage in 1932 with Freaks.

The print I saw of The Mystic had french subtitles below the English inter-titles. It seems to be the most rare of all of Browning's surviving films from his 1925-1939 MGM period. Most of his earliest films are all but impossible to see. There was no musical score or track, but it is obviously a privilege to view this. It is worth noting that Browning's last film with Chaney was also his last film with Young. Waldemar Young often gets left out of the discussion of the Chaney-Browning collaborations, but in my view he is an essential part of those teamings and deserves perhaps as much credit as them.
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Anna May Wong is heartbreaking
2 February 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Anna May Wong is a young woman named Lotus Flower, in China who helps rescue a white man lost at sea. She subsequently falls in love with him and they are married. However, after being reunited with his fellow Caucasians that man decides to go home to the United States and marries his old sweetheart. Lotus Flower never gives up the idea that her man will come back for her and tells her young son (the man's child) that his father will come for him. When he does, it is with his new wife and Lotus Flower is ashamed and devastated. She tells her son she is not his mother, but a Chinese nurse, and gives her son to the man and his new wife and commits suicide.

A story of such profound tragedy, this is the only film I have seen from this silent era that compares to the innocent tragedy of Murnau's Tabu. Anna May Wong gives incredible depth to this traditional woman who sacrifices her entire life for the happiness of her son and the man she loves. Her innocence is heartbreaking. Her loyalty unmatched. In today's world this can easily be viewed as rather racist towards Chinese – first because the white man chooses a "normal" life with a white woman, and second because her character behaves so inferiorly to him. This is likewise, anti-feminist. While these would seem troublesome today, it does not take away at all from the power that this story emotes.

The photography is simple and quite unique in its two-color (red and green) Technicolor. The shots of the flowers, the sea and of the beautiful Anna May Wong emote the simple charms of life in a simpler time. Her loyalty and love for him make him seem proportionately ungrateful and downright cruel. You spend every moment watching him wishing she'd lay a guilt-trip on him, but she never does. By the end of the film you pretty much want to kill this guy - one of the most obnoxious losers in cinema history. As a result, Lotus Flower's hope and sadness, mocked by local gossipers, gives her unequaled sympathy from the audience. Ultimately, this film succeeds because it offers no fluff to its story. The storytelling is classic and direct and lacks even a single gimmick. It has no unnecessary subplots to take away our focus and comes purely from the heart.

I cannot say enough about Wong's performance. She gets every note right about how a naive young girl clings to hope and lets herself be broken over love. She was really an exceptional actress and this performance makes it sadder that Hollywood was racist towards her in not giving her lead roles like this. I just saw her in a small supporting role in "Mr. Wu" in which Renee Adoree was given the Chinese female lead over Wong. Adoree wasn't a bad actress, but viewing it today, it screams for Anna May to be in the lead, despite its' racist plot line.

Regardless, Anna May Wong really was a ground-breaker for Asians and all non-whites in this early time period in Hollywood. Even today, few Asian woman are given such lead roles. She excelled in her opportunity. This 1922 film that runs just under an hour shows how basic, simple emotions need little screen time to evoke the same emotions from an audience.
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Mild ghost comedy
13 November 2008
I always hate seeing an IMDb page for a film without a review. Every films deserves some comments to show how it played, so readers can figure out if it may be worthwhile if available.

That being said, THE GHOST GOES WILD is a mild, standard old-fashioned comedy. It offends no one and goes down as easy as applesauce. For the same reasons, it is a rather bland film despite some excellent talents involved. Edward Everett Horton is always worth watching and the photography by John Alton is solid. James Ellison is pretty good in the lead and Anne Gwynne is good, but somewhat wasted. Ellison tries very hard, but he never had the personality like a Cary Grant, who would have added great flavor to this. Lloyd Corrigan adds some nice support as the only legitimate ghost in the film.

I got this to see the ghost angle and it was pleasantly done, if not inspired. The jokes are a bit repetitive, but the plot stays predictably amusing as Ellison pretends to be a ghost to avoid being sued by a wealthy dowager, who mistakenly believes he is dead. If you like these old-fashioned screwball-styled comedies then it should be enjoyable.
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Power (1920)
Ancient sci-fi
14 September 2008
ALGOL is a sci-fi morality tale from the Germans following WWI. It is much closer in style to CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI than to the impending works of Lang and Murnau. ALGOL has some interesting Expressionist tendencies, all aimed at the tragic life of the main character, Robert Werne, played by Emil Jannings.

The most interesting part of the film is its science fiction core. An alien from a far away star is beamed to earth and meets Robert Werne. It is very much in vein of the "selling your soul to the devil" films that were popular at this time - in fact the star, Algol, is called a 'devil star'. The alien promises Werne an energy source that can take him far beyond his drudging work of shoveling coal. From this incredible secret, Werne becomes the most powerful man in the world - providing the world with the energy current it needs. Sort of like the Bill Gates story substituting energy for computers. Unlike Gates, however, there is no happiness in the ends of these means.

Jannings is a few years away from THE LAST LAUGH and THE LAST COMMMAND. Maybe, too he need directors on the level of Von Sternberg and Murnau to push him for a large performance. His acting, while excellent, is not on the level of those later works. As a whole, this is very old-fashioned. Again, like CALIGARI, this is rather two-dimensional and lacks the sophisticated touch that would have made it a tour-de-force. The art direction makes up for this. The highly stylized main hall of Werne's home seems to be as long as its distant vanishing point. There are some nice artistic shots of the night skies, showing where the Algol star is located. The costumes are equally stylized, and if the print I viewed were better, I'd imagine some great detail would be evident.

Ultimately, this original alien premise settles into a morality tale and is about the abuse of power and how too much power can overcome a single person. In real life, Bill Gates was able to find that donating much of his huge wealth would become an extremely large project and very worthy of his time and consideration. ALGOL does not even try to ask the question of whether something good could be made of this power. It is too primitive in that way. However, it remains an impressive attempt at sci-fi and reflects well the time and place it was made.
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Corsair (1931)
Chester Morris in a Roland West film
4 August 2008
This film is available on Alpha Video in a decent print and is most noteworthy as the final film of Roland West's career. He made three sound films, all with Chester Morris in the lead. This is also the least popular and in some ways the least artistic of the three. An additional behind-the-scenes interest of this film, is that Thelma Todd is the female lead, billed as "Alison Loyd" in an obvious attempt to distinguish her as a dramatic actress. She is fine in the film, but has a rather skimpy part.

The plot involves a young man who has just graduated from college who begins to work on Wall Street after being teased by Todd's character and clashes with his boss, who is her father. To prove his point and to get revenge, he becomes a modern day pirate, stealing liquor from illegal shipments at sea. Chester Morris is excellent in the role of John Hawkes, the young man.

Some great sharp camera angles and one very dark, sinister scene involving "Fish Face" and a female, Sophie, do not entirely make up for the fact that this film does not advance the techniques of film-making as ALIBI and THE BAT WHISPERS did. West's combination of editing with sound effects and music in ALIBI were a revelation in early 1929. And with THE BAT WHISPERS, he took miniature work to a new level in sound films with his 'bat's eye' camera moves through the cities and towns. CORSAIR seems rather routine in comparison.

That is not to say this is not a good little gangster film. Fred Kohler is solid as the bootlegger, Big John, and Ned Sparks along with Mayo Methot are great in support. The editing is crisp and the overall film has the dark touches you would expect from Roland West. It still holds up as one of the more effective gangster films of the early 1930s.
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London After Midnight (2002 TV Movie)
Satisfied with the Reconstruction
3 August 2008
Warning: Spoilers
I must admit I am totally satisfied with the reconstructed version that aired on TCM on Halloween a few years back. Rick Schmidlin has really done a wonderful thing and given the people who care (the fans) a chance to see how the script looked and how the story moved for this famous lost film.

In all truth, judging by Browning's other silents of the period, Schmidlin probably improved upon the pacing of this film by giving us more "shock" close-ups of Chaney in that wonderful make-up. The use of stills also probably saved us from being distracted with some ham acting as well. Just like watching a letterbox film on television, after the first five minutes, my mind settled into the tempo and pacing and I really did enjoy the story. It had much more to do with vampire lore than I thought it would and was so perfect to air on Halloween night.

The film reconstruction was about 20 minutes shorter than the original cut. LAM truly was a Chaney picture from beginning to end. He is much more prominent than either Lionel Barrymore or Bela Lugosi in the 1935 Mark of the Vampire. I enjoyed the story more than the 1935 version too. Thank god they did not have that ridiculous "cupping the blood with a hot glass" solution. It is much more simple and clear to have it be a gun shot and they still had all of the great Gothic vampire atmosphere. Also, characters were missing, such as Lionel Atwill's character from the 1935 film. Chaney really carried the picture.

The music score was too excellent, highlighting Chaney's vampire and giving us some other recurring themes that we associate with silent horror classics. And the camera movements were excellent and after a slow opening they seemed to have more stills to work with and made good use of them too. All in all, an important, delightful work! 8/10
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Maybe the best film "One Shot" Beaudine ever made
24 December 2006
I'm not an expert on William "One Shot" Beaudine, but I would venture to say that with a nickname like "One Shot" that you probably weren't so highly regarded as a film artist. From the films I've seen of his, I tend to be unimpressed and not very entertained. However, after a deep sigh at seeing his name in the opening credits, I spent the rest of the movie being happily entertained.

Crime of the Century is for fans of the 1930s-styled whodunits. It has the classic elements of what you would expect from an old mystery - a murder taking place in the dark with many suspects; an ensemble cast; a reporter who is one step ahead of the detective; the prime suspect is of course, the most innocent; and, an unexpected twist in the end. This film seemed to be very conscious of its' genre. There is a wonderful old-fashioned moment near the end when a narrator comes on-screen and gives us a short intermission to let the audience of the film take time to guess the murderer. The filmmakers' reasoning is that when reading a mystery novel, you have time to put the book down and think before you finish the end and films never offer you that opportunity. This was a refreshing moment and a great example of how this movie tries to be as original as it can.

The cast is very good. Stuart Erwin comes off better here than he did in a very similar film and role a year earlier in Before Dawn. Jean Hersholt is heartfelt and convincing as the doctor who tries to prevent himself from making a grave mistake. Look for Samuel S. Hinds in an early role as the poor hypnotized victim. The film moves along at a brisk pace. There are enough camera moves to make the film visually interesting and the film was made at Paramount and the production values really help for this type of film. The plot is about a doctor who goes to police to prevent him from killing a man who stole money for him. However, when the man ends up being dead the doctor becomes the prime suspect and it's up to the reporter to find out who was behind it. Crime of the Century is an excellent forgotten whodunit and is a must for fans of these drawing room mysteries.
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Good until the last five minutes
31 October 2006
Warning: Spoilers
The Crosby Case has a lot of nice assets beginning with the great Frankenstein music over the opening credits. The actors are even billed as "Suspect No. 1" and "2", "The Detective" and so forth. It's a true ensemble piece. In fact, this film goes so far as to have no true main characters. The closest are the long lost lovers. Onslow Stevens is excellent and shows a side of him I hadn't seen before - this guy could have actually carried this picture as a male lead if given the chance. He was always an excellent character actor. Equally as good is the chameleon, John Wray. I had just watched Wray in "Doctor X" the day before and didn't even recognize him until halfway through. He was and is a truly underrated actor from the period. We forget that he was actually seriously considered to play Dracula in the 1931 classic.

Universal fans will also recognize the inimitable Edward Van Sloan as an old German man with poor eyesight. It was a nice surprise to see him evoke sympathy and for once he played a red herring. If Van Sloan wasn't playing a Van Helsing-type he was nearly always the "surprise" killer in these mystery films. He does a good job with the accent too.

The plot concerns a doctor who is shot and comes out a building and falls on the street as he is hit by a passing cab. The film moves along by studying little bits from many of these characters. The movie is almost less concerned with the mystery at times and spends a lot of time following a lot of small sub-stories involving these people. This is a refreshing turn. The only time this doesn't satisfy is in the the abrupt, and poor ending. Perhaps I viewed a print that was short - it was about 55 minutes - but, even so, there is not a good setup to reveal the killer. The motives in these films are usually pretty silly, but this one is just uninspired. There's no good rhyme or reason why the writers couldn't tie this one up better and the film is a bit confused at the the end as all of these characters whom we have just met, are equally being dealt abrupt conclusions. I won't get into more, but it simply does not work, nor does it serve the other 50 good minutes before it. The Crosby Case was right on track to get a 7 out of 10, until it veered completely off track and crashed into a gnarled wreck. Still, it's a good Universal B movie.
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