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The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Definitely Watchable Griffith Despite Bizarre Last Half
A spectacular, elaborate production covering the Civil War era of American history, with an unfortunate last half drawn from Thomas Dixon's fictional novel "The Clansman." Made in 1915, the film makes a sincere and documented attempt to recreate several signal events of the period including Lincoln's call for volunteers, battle scenes, Lincoln's assassination, and the signing of the end of the war by Grant and Lee.
Unfortunately, it's hard to believe that the last half of the film is in any way historically accurate with blacks shown taking over government, dispensing justice, and running amok all over the South. It was, in fact, their disenfranchisement and segregation that defines the real legacy of the Civil War.
With intertitles calling the Ku Klux Klan "the organization that saved the South from anarchy," from "towns given over to crazed negroes," the last fifteen minutes play like the cavalry charge to save the pioneers from the Indians. Very excitingly done, with Wagner's "Ride of the Valkeries" in the 1930 version soundtrack, with quick and exciting cross cutting. Griffith, of course had done this before, most notably in "The Battle of Elderbush Gulch" (1913), also with Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh. This type of final chase scene being done hundreds of times from then on, thanks to DWG!
Also of note, many of the 'lead' black characters were really white actors in black face. Mae Marsh was still doing her frenetic jumping jack shtick, apparently these gestures were meant to convey "youthful full of life innocence" since she carried this into "Intolerance" (1916). Lillian Gish, also given to some quick hand flaying gestures, did them her own way, and showed us how expressive she could be with just her face, later perfected in her magnificent performance in "Broken Blossoms" (1919).
The last half tends to drag; it plays like a 1920s western, so I'll give the film an 8,
Baby Face (1933)
Now We Have the Great Uncensored "Pre-Release" Version!
Now we have the great 'pre-release' version (1933), before the New York Censors dictated changes in script, editing and even the ending of this landmark film. Only made available since 2006, and in a fine, sharp new print, this is not the film that audiences saw in 1933 and after, even though the theme (and many of the innuendos) could not be totally changed or removed.
The film introduces its theme quickly and moves along at a rapid pace.It is the story of Lily Powers, a hardened teenager in Eire, Pennsylvania, who is used as a prostitute by her father (ever since she was 14) to protect his speakeasy from being closed by politicians and police. A German cobbler quotes and reads to her from Nietzsche's "Will to Power" that she must use her power over men to exploit them and get what she wants in life (but both endings of the film directly reject Nietzche's philosophy -- a slap at Hitler?) His speech to her is totally changed in the theatrical version to moralistic preaching: "There's a right way and a wrong way. Choose the right way."
But there's no hiding the movie's story-- even the trailer proclaims it-- a woman with no conscience using sex to get what she wants, no matter the cost (scandal, suicide, murder, embezzlement) to the men she uses.
After she watches her father die in a fire, cold and emotionless, she takes her maid in a box car (on a train to New York) where she seduces the train guard, the first of the seven men she will use in her rise to wealth and riches. Next is the personnel director ("Why don't we talk this over?") who gives her a job in the Gotham Bank. Then we see her rise from department to department (literally, since the camera is focused on the exterior of the skyscraper's windows), until by the end of the movie she lives in the penthouse at the top with the new bank president (George Brent) as her husband.
In other reviews you can read all the details of how she makes her climb. Some other pre-code films (from Warner Brothers, R.K.O. and Paramount) touched on such 'hot' topics as using sex for personal gain, or practicing free love, but this film is loaded to the max with innuendos and condenses a two hour epic into 76 minutes!
Oh those wonderful pre-code movies with strong, gritty, tough as nails heroines, many of whom were prostitutes. See, for example, Joan Crawford in "Rain" (1932), and Evelyn Brent in "The Silver Hoard" (1930). I'm now on track to watch many more of these 'forbidden' films.
Barbara Stanwyck does a great job being cold, calculating, tough, mean and lying. At first viewing, her transition to being capable of love at the end doesn't seem sufficiently set up, but on repeated viewings of the film (I've watched it three times, and the censored release version once for comparison)it works. I liked George Brent better when he was a young thin action hero as in "The Lightning Warrior" (1931) a Rin-Tin-Tin western serial.
The movie's pace slows down once Brent enters the film near the end, but I'll give it a 7 anyway for the strong acting by Barbara Stanwyck, the nasty, nasty script and all those innuendos!
Another one for the "Must See" list.
Bingo Crosbyana (1936)
A Spider and Fly Cartoon With a Warner Brothers Spin
This is mostly like those typical 1930s cartoons in which the featured 'characters' consisted of ensembles of (usually dancing) flies, bugs or other insects, with the villain being an over-sized, black, and evil-cackling basso profundo spider.
The title tells you that this is clearly intented to be about Bing Crosby, although the character doesn't have Bing's face, as you would see in later Warner Brothers cartoons. The high point is the comic song "Bingo Crosbyana" that pokes fun at Bing's effect on women as a crooner.
Bing sued Warner Brothers over his portrayal in the cartoon as a coward. As others have noted, without his actual face being shown, Bing didn't have a case against them, despite his character singing a couple of bubba ba boos.
What makes the cartoon interesting is the comic spin that the 'hero' turns out to be a coward, and that the other male flies, emasculated by the crooner fly, become the heroes that defeat the spider. Contrast this with the countless other insect or spider and fly cartoons such as "The Cobweb Hotel" (1936) by Max Fleisher.
I'd give it a 5 for the song and the spin. Note: You can find this cartoon on the DVD of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film "Swing Time" (1936).
Drum Taps (1933)
Ken Sure Can Ride a Horse!
For those of us here in the future far removed from 1933, Ken Maynard as a Western hero is primarily of interest because of the way he interacts with horses. He had been a trick rider before making movies, and his natural ease around horses, and his skill in mounting, riding and seemingly merging his body with that of a horse, set him far apart from the whole class of 'actors-on-a-horse' movie characters.
That's about it for the value of this movie. The story is wafer thin-- basically the capture and rescue of 'the prairie flower,' the cattleman's daughter, Eileen Carey (played by Dorothy Dix, with immense eye make up left over from epics of the teen years). Slow pace; poor direction by J.P. McGowan (veteran director of over 242 films) and an extreme low budget (a single room does triple duty set-wise as the homes of the cattleman, the villain and of 'Indian Joe'). What a sad come down after Ken's previous film, "Tombstone Canyon" (1932) with its exciting literal cliff hanging ending.
The other high points of the film include seeing 17-year-old Frank Coughlin, Jr. as Ken's nephew and a young Boy Scout. He has a few lines of dialogue; you can hear his unmistakable intonation, so much a part of his starring role (at 25) as Billy Batson in the wonderful serial "The Adventures of Captain Marvel" (1941). Kermit Maynard (Ken's real brother) plays Frank's father, the Scout leader, and Ken's brother. We get to see Boy Scout life of 1932, some interesting camera shots from the floor during two of Ken's fights, and one shot through a fence, but that's about it.
Ken is also noted for how much actors, directors and crew hated Ken off screen. You can check his IMDb bios for all the details, but there was nothing in evidence during this film of his obnoxious nature.
Just great horsemanship! For that, the movie gets a 3.
The Body Snatcher (1945)
Boris Karloff's Richest and Fullest Leading Role!
This a great movie, but it's also Boris Karloff's richest and fullest performance in a leading role. He plays Cabman John Grey in 1830s Edinburgh, who works nights as a graverobber (and later murderer) to supply cadavers to the anatomist Dr. Wolfe 'Toddy' MacFarlane (played by Henry Daniell in his greatest leading role) who runs a medical school.
For those interested in the film career of Boris Karloff, this is a must see; it's his biggest and best role as an actor, and will clear your mind and put in perspective the klunky mad doctors, lumbering stiffs and horror parts that seem to cloud his resume. In his first scene, as we see Boris helping a handicapped girl out of his coach, he displays the love and charm that the real Karloff was well known for. (Of course, his portrayal of the Frankenstein monster was full of sympathy and pathos.) Then almost immediately, we begin to get a glimpse of his evil side, the richly complex character who goes on to form the core of the film in his moral and personal conflict with Dr. MacFarlane.
The amazing 'natural born story teller' Val Lewton was the producer of the great RKO horror films of the 1940s, now all collected in the Val Lewton DVD boxed set. Although listed as producer, he wrote all their final shooting scripts either credited (as 'Carlos Keith') or uncredited and was the visionary behind their creation. Here we have his carefully crafted, well written and intelligent script that allows both Karloff and Daniell to showcase the full range of their abilities, separately and in several dynamite scenes together (what chemistry!). The film begins at what turns out to be the end of Grey's and MacFarlane's mysterious friendship, careers and lives. The backstory is not told chronologically, but is revealed gradually in bits and pieces over the course of the movie.
This is an outstanding film and story telling device, because it requires the viewer (reader) to become actively engaged in following and putting together the historical puzzle, as well as heightening interest in watching each scene unfold. The film is actually based on the true story of the graverobbers Burke and Hare who supplied a Dr. Knox with fresh cadavers. When they couldn't be taken from graves, the pair started killing women, to keep their income flowing. All three are mentioned several times in the film, as we discover that Grey and MacFarlane were carousing friends in youth who were involved in grave robbing, having connections with Dr. Knox, and that the doctor's housekeeper is actually his wife, who was 'introduced' to him by Grey (who may have been her pimp).
Henry Daniell, famous for a life time of playing suave villains, has the lead as the 'noir' hero -- a highly principled physician / teacher who must compromise and self-justify his values to obtain cadavers to advance medical research. Part of the film has him perform an operation that saves a young child's life, after having first practiced on a freshly murdered corpse obtained by his assistant and Grey. His scenes with Grey are all fantastic, and he does an excellent job in his biggest, and probably only, leading role.
What a great film. Budgeted as a 'B' picture, it's totally A quality! Directed by Oscar winner Robert Wise (who went on to his own strong career) who had already been nominated for Best Editing for his work on 'Citizen Kane' (1941). We get fantastic atmospheric and well composed photography -- we even get the 'inside the fireplace looking out' shot first used by Gregg Toland / Orson Welles; tight pacing; slow fades; and how can you forget the masterful scene where Grey kills the blind street singer (you check it out).
This is top of the line film making. I'll give it an 8.
Side notes: Burke and Hare's story is told in the film 'The Flesh and the Fiends' (1960) which is also making the rounds as 'The Fiendish Ghouls' and 'Mania.' It stars Peter Cushing as Dr. Knox, and features Donald Pleasance. It's probably not in the same league as this fine RKO feature.
Boris scores again for Val Lewton in 'Isle of the Dead' (1945) and 'Bedlam' (1946). Also noteworthy in his 40s work is 'Black Friday' (1940).
For contrast, catch Henry Daniell's wonderful villainy on display in three Basil / Nigel films: 'Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror' (1942), 'Sherlock Holmes in Washington' (1943) and as Moriarity in 'The Woman in Green' (1945). He also appears in five episodes of TV's 'Thriller' (1960-1961).
Robert Wise also directed 'The Day The Earth Stood Still' (1951), got great performances out of Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte in 'Odds Against Tomorrow' (1959) and did 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' (1979), in addition to his multiple Oscar winning musicals. His star on the Walk of Fame is at 6338 Hollywood Boulevard.
Bela Lugosi's minor role is best sadly ignored. His major works are what he should be remembered for (as Dracula and Ygor). In addition there are 'White Zombie' (1932) -- ooh! those eyes and hands! -- the serial 'The Return of Chandu' (1934) (in which he is the hero and kisses the girl at the end), 'The Black Cat' (the 1934 version only), 'The Invisible Ghost' (1941), 'The Corpse Vanishes' (1941), 'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein' (1948) and Ed Wood's masterpiece, 'Glen or Glenda' (1953).
The Old Dark House (1932)
William K. Everson Was Right
In one of his final books, William K. Everson, the film historian, wrote that you'd be disappointed watching this film for the first time, but that it would get better with every viewing. Yes. It's the first of many 'stranded strangers staying overnight in an old dark house on a rainy night' movies. But it's not a horror film, it's not even a comedy, and nothing 'scary' ever really goes on. The fourth time was when I began to enjoy it--after watching the original and then the two audio commentaries; maybe having had a few beers helped.
For whatever reason, now I could finally focus on the sheer artistry of auteur director James Whale's film: the sets, the lighting and amazing photography, the atmosphere, the direction and the great ensemble cast, with shining moments from Charles Laughton, Brember Wills and Melvyn Douglas, Eva Mann and scene stealer Ernest Thesiger. Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart and Boris Karloff add to the colorful cast that keeps the film moving right along.
If you don't believe me, try watching Melvyn Douglas's next film 'The Vampire Bat' (1933) and then this one and then you'll see how 'The Old Dark House' is an Oscar winner by comparison; its superior crafting raises it up as a quality film even though it lacks horrific, science fictional or supernatural content.
I'll give it a 7.
NOTE: Gloria Stuart, who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 'Titanic' (1997). Raymond Massey had a full career of famous roles, but noteworthy for us genre fans are his roles in 'Things to Come' (1936), his Karloff imitation in 'Arsenic and Old Lace' (1944), his role as James Dean's father in 'East of Eden' (1955) and the rifle shooting Colonel in 'Night Gallery' (1971).
Charles Laughton was Dr. Moreau in the first 'Island of Lost Souls' (1932), and was amazing as Quasimodo in 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1939). Ernest "Have a po-tay-to" Thesiger was Karloff's butler in 'The Ghoul' (1933), in addition to his immortal Dr. Pretorius in 'The Bride of Frankenstein' (1935). We all know Boris's films, but 'The Mask of Fu Manchu' (1932), 'The Body Snatcher' (1945) and 'Targets' (1967) need to be seen.
Blood Feast (1963)
This Exploitation 'First' Can Never Be More Than a 1
Hershell Gordon Lewis and David Friedman made this tedious first exploitation flick to feature gore as 'something new,' since the nudie flicks were starting to lose money. The trailer for 'Blood Feast' shows every gore sequence in the film as a blatant promotional attempt to hook an audience.
I was one. In 1963, I watched the trailer play in my hometown theater, the State Theater in Petaluma, California. That year it definitely was shocking !! to see this type of stuff on the screen; it fact, it was revolting. I had no wish to see the film, and it was never shown in conservative Petaluma.
In 1967, however, it was part of what we called "The Ghouly Trilogy" which also included 'Two Thousand Maniacs' (1964) and 'Color Me Blood Red' (1965) playing on downtown Market Street in San Francisco at a $1.00 theater. These I went to see with other refugees from the Haight Ashbury. 'Blood Feast' as a film was entirely tedious, and the moments of gore did little to make the film more enjoyable. It was too totally killed by the feeble acting, slow and dreary editing, dull scenes and camera work, poor script, well, you can read the other reviews. Everything about it as a film was just terrible.
After the overnight success of 'Blood Feast' in Philadelphia (where ECW also spent its gory glory years), Lewis said to Friedman, "What if we tried to make a good movie?" The result was '2000 Maniacs,' a much better film, which also became the subject of one of my hit songs, 'Pleasant Valley,' that I can send you over the internet.
'Blood Feast' is not Ed Wood movie making. Ed Wood was an auteur compared to this type of exploitation film which was cobbled together to make some fast money. Wood's masterpiece, 'Glen or Glenda' (1953) and 'Plan 9 From Outer Space' (1959) were artistic statements from an enthusiastic director / writer whose reach sadly exceeded his grasp. Hence the wonderful homage by Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, 'Ed Wood' (1994).
As for 'Blood Feast' as the first gore flick, let it lie next to other historical cinematic firsts -- the first porno loop, the first animated scene, the first western, the first... well, all of those are more interesting than this non film. It deserves the worst possible treatment by Mystery Science Theater 3000.
But, if you think about it, the first slasher flick was 'Psycho' (1960). Just compare its genius shower scene (worth a 10 all by itself) with the motel killing of the girl, or anything else in 'Blood Feast' and this clunker's rating has to go down to a minus 10.
It can never get, or be, more than a one.
The Vampire Bat (1933)
Dreary and Disappointing
It's the nature of businesses to try to capitalize on others' success. Here we have a movie taking elements from the earlier 'Dracula' (1931) and 'Frankenstein' (1931) -- in a Germanic town the village leaders believe that vampires (in the shape of bats) have been the cause of recent deaths of bloodless victims. Even though shot at Universal (and at the Bronson caves!) it's a Poverty Row feature; it's not fair to compare it with those earlier, more expensively made and superior films.
From the familiar and exciting, chilling music of the main titles (which must have been by Mischa Bakalienikoff), through the talky but well done opening sequence, we anticipate the arrival of Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray and Dwight Frye to give us a good 30s mystery film. Unfortunately, it doesn't happen. That's the disappointment.
We get little more than the formulaic elements of such films but with slow pacing, low budget, not enough of Dwight Frye, the overdone presence of Maude Eburne (Aunt Gussie), and the premise for Lionel Atwill (Dr. von Niemann) to require human blood or how he exhibits mind control over his servant Emil (Robert Frazier) never made very clear.
Do not watch the technicolor 'Dr. X' (1932) -- which also stars Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray but as father and daughter -- before watching this the way I did; it's an Oscar winner by comparison. So watch this one first. Structurally, 'The Vampire Bat' still isn't that good. It plods along with too much talking or unnecessary comic relief, without focusing strongly on the vampiric villainy.
Besides 'Dr. X' and 'Mystery of the Wax Museum' (both 1932 and co starring Fay Wray), Lionel Atwill's most famous appearances are as the one armed gendarme in 'Son of Frankenstein' (1939) and as Moriarity in 'Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon' (1943). Dwight Frye steals all his manic scenes in 'Dracula' (1931). As the 'young lovers,' Melvin Douglas and Fay Wray have a nice kissing scene, but that's about it. He can be seen in 'The Old Dark House' (1932), and Fay gets dragged around by Joel McCrea in 'The Most Dangerous Game' (1930). Then there's her 1933 classic 'screamer.' Too bad more time, money and rewrites weren't available for this film to better showcase the talents and chemistry of Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray and Dwight Frye. Sadly, then, this drearily disappointing film only gets a 4.
Nanook of the North (1922)
A Well Photographed Message of Playing the Cards You're Dealt
Movies are illusions. You never know how much of a documentary, whether about peoples or animal life, is really spontaneous, actual or authentically true-to-life, because in most cases, a stationary camera has already been set up (with an accompanying bank of bright lights) to film what takes place in front of it; in addition, careful editing and juxtapositioning of scenes may falsify a real time progression of events. Finally, what is shown is dictated by the purposes of the film makers and hence may be very subjective in terms of what is being displayed and what is omitted, leaving potential questions about whether it is a balanced or full view of what is presented.
Here we have one of the first full length documentaries, which is about the lives of Eskimos living in the frozen wastes of the Hudson Bay region of Canada in the early 1920s. The film has the dual reputation of being both amazing in its photography and depiction of typical Eskimo life, and also of its having been totally staged. I come down on the side of it being a great film whether staged or not.
To some, certain elements of fakery may be unforgivable: the fact that Nanook used only 'primitive' weapons (knife, harpoon and spear) to catch fish, seals and walrus, when he in fact had knowledge of (or may have used) rifles; or the fact that the person presented as his 'wife' is played by someone not his wife, while his real wife (recognizeable as a woman only due to the baring of her breasts) is present in the film but identified simply as the person 'Cunayou.' A real precedent for Disney's 'True Life' Adventure films of the 50s!
None of this matters. All movies are staged anyway in varying degrees. The important parts of any film are its construction and its delivery of content. This film is exceedingly well edited and photographed, such as the vista shots and those of the wind sweeping over the snow after the seal kill. As for the content, let's say Flaherty's purpose was to tell a detailed story of how Eskimos traditonally lived. This is very clearly an excellent document of that.
We get great details of how more than one person can fit in a kayak, how to use the force of the tide to reel in a captured walrus, how to build an igloo with an ice window, how Eskimos protect puppies from being eaten by sled dogs, how salmon and seal under the ice can be caught, how Eskimos dress, how they eat raw flesh and cooked meat, how fathers start teaching their young sons from the time they first can stand to learn the art of hunting... well the list goes on and on.
Thank for having documented these things, Mr. Flaherty! I watched my rented copy four times. Watching the entire film at one viewing you clearly get the message -- where ever you have born, where ever you are in life, whatever gifts you've been given from your moment of birth, make the most of your environment and what you have --play the hand you've been dealt the best way you can. See the Eskimos ply their skills and make the most of their environment? Can we do no less?
I'll give it a 10.
Note: On what is another amazing 'Criterion Collection' DVD, there is the super bonus of a full gallery of Flaherty's photographs (these aren't faked!). It has also a great new score (1998) by Timothy Brock and the Olympia Chamber Orchestra which includes appropriately 'chilly wind' type eerie violins during the wind swept overland travel sequence.
The Proposal (2009)
The Audience Laughed All Through the Movie!
When I saw this at the local multi-plex with my wife of 27 years, the audience was continually laughing throughout the entire film. This tells you that here is a romantic comedy without any dead spots. And for good reason.
First, the cast. Sandra Bullock plays a tougher than nails book editor, Margaret Tate, who is forcing her secretary, Andrew Paxton (effectively played by Ryan Reynolds) into a quickie marriage-divorce so that she can avoid being deported back to Canada. That she is actually 12 years older than Reynolds only adds to the chemistry between them, as they try to fool his entire family in Alaska. Much of the humor derives from Margaret refusing to display (or to awkwardly show or painfully fake) real human emotion, making her enjoyable to watch throughout the film. This helped Sandra the actress avoid the cloying, saccharine sentimentality she displayed in 'While You Were Sleeping' (1995). Good move, producer Sandra!
The characters are fleshed out, the film is well written and directed. For me, the only low point was the scene in the woods where Margaret joins Grandma Annie (Betty White) in a silly chant and dance to 'give praise to the universe,' culminating in Margaret's uninhibited hip shaking frenzy. Though other reviewers didn't like it either, in the theater this was where the audience went wild with laughter, clapping and applauding! I'm sure everyone felt that finally she was relaxing, letting her human side come out, and was going to really fall in love with Andrew. But no. Since it's a romantic comedy, we expect this to happen sometime during the film, but when Andrew sees her, she puts the wall back up, and to the film's credit, keeps it there until the final moments of the movie, when showing her feelings she frankly admits, "I'm scared."
Great bonus casting of Mary Steenbergen and Craig T. Nelson as Andrew's parents, and for the wonderful presence of the highly skilled TV veteran performer Betty White, whom I first started watching in 'Life With Elizabeth' (1952)-- that's right, 59 years ago!-- and for the comic punctuations of Oscar Nunez doing a deliberately absurd and silly male stripper dance, as well as playing four other 'roles' in the film.
Although not totally a screw ball comedy, the somewhat thin premise is well played for laughs, and the movie is carried along by the fine efforts of its skilled actors.
I'll give it a 7.
Note: I'll also watch these Sandra Bullock films anytime: the amazing 'Demolition Man' (1993), 'Speed' (1994) and the ultra-jeopardy film 'The Net' (1995).