Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
Perhaps the Only Movie in Existence About Popcorn and Country Western Music
"Corn's-A-Poppin'" is the kind of film you shouldn't even attempt to watch on your own. If you were to pop this in in the privacy of your living room, you would probably be put to sleep -- it's bad, but not bad in the outrageously entertaining way that something like "Reefer Madness" is bad. But with an audience who are collectively gathered prepared to make fun of a notoriously bad film, it does provide a lot of fun. I saw it at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago with an audience of about 70 or so people, and there was quite a bit of howling going on.
The film has been preserved by the Chicago Film Society and is being shown publicly in an effort to stimulate interest in a DVD print. It's a curio from 1956 made in Kansas City, and Robert Altman is credited with writing the screenplay. According to the publicity materials, Altman wanted this film to be forgotten (obviously), but it's clear that it's only because of his association with it that anyone thinks it's worth preserving at all. It's not an "Altman" film, and anyone going in with the expectation that it will bear any hallmarks of his later work will be disappointed, although it does display the same fondness for country western music that would figure prominently in some of his later pictures. It's not really the kind of movie you can review as a movie -- it feels more like something a bunch of bored and maybe slightly drunk college buddies with an interest in filmmaking would make in the basement of their frat house. It's only 58 minutes long, and while it was entertaining enough to see with a lively audience, I'm glad it wasn't any longer, as I'm not sure even an audience would have made it worth sitting through if it was.
I do have to say thought that, bad as the movie is, it's not completely disposable. There are some musical moments, most of them involving a young actress billed as "Little Cora Rice," that are catchy and rather sweet, particularly a love song about Mars that occurs late in the film, even if the context in which the song is performed (with the character who's supposed to be her brother) seems a little weird and slightly pervy.
And am I the only person who thought that Keith Painton, who plays Thaddeus Pinwhistle, popcorn impresario, looked like E.G. Marshall?
The thing that keeps "Corn's-A-Poppin'" from being as spectacularly entertaining as other much more famous atrocious movies is the fact that it makes fun of itself. It's so much more fun to ridicule a movie that's in earnest.
The Snake Pit (1948)
To Hell and Back Again
I have no experience with mental institutions, not modern ones and certainly not those that existed in 1948. But I have enough experience with medical institutions and institutions in general to believe that "The Snake Pit," Anatole Litvak's harrowing film about one woman's journey through the hell of mental illness, gives a fairly accurate account. It's of course a bit histrionic and heavy handed in the way most films from that time period were (and many are still today), but that's just a product of age, not a flaw in the filmmaking. Olivia de Havilland gives a fierce performance as a woman struggling with an unnamed mental disorder that finds her in an agonizing cycle of progress that gives her hope of recovery coupled with setbacks that send her spiraling into black holes of despair. A kind doctor (Leo Genn) helps her to uncover and face the demons that caused her disorder in the first place. A lot of time is devoted to reconstructing scenes from her childhood, and her illness is blamed on an unloving mother and guilt over her father's death. But the cause of de Havilland's illness was less interesting to me than the politics and social structure of the mental institution itself. There is a class system in place in which the healthier patients are "superior" to those less healthy; they're essentially rewarded with nicer rooms, more space, better treatment from staff, while the worst of the patients are crammed together into what amount to brick and stone dungeons. And this class system is observed not only by the hospital staff, but by the patients themselves. What's most frightening about "The Snake Pit" is how little we've advanced in the perception and treatment of mental illness in the years since the movie was made.
Celeste Holm, fresh off an Oscar for "Gentleman's Agreement," has a teeny-tiny role as a fellow inmate, while Betsy Blair, also in a small role, nevertheless makes a tremendous impact in a few scenes late into the movie.
"The Snake Pit" garnered six Academy Award nominations in 1948, including Best Motion Picture (20th Century-Fox), Best Director (Anatole Litvak), Best Actress (Olivia de Havilland), Best Screenplay (Frank Partos and Millen Brand) and Best Dramatic/Comedy Score (Alfred Newman), but won only a single award, that for Best Sound Recording, no doubt recognizing the film's cacophony of interior and exterior ravings. De Havilland was neck and neck with Jane Wyman for the Best Actress Oscar, but Wyman prevailed for playing another woman with mental trauma in "Johnny Belinda."
The Tarnished Angels (1957)
Daredevils of the Sky
"Pylon" is one of the few William Faulkner novels I've not read, but I can't imagine that "The Tarnished Angels," Douglas Sirk's rather mediocre screen version of it, does it justice.
Missing from the film are many of the hallmarks that make other Sirk movies so compulsively watchable: the saturated colors, the absorbing melodrama, the keen social criticism that manages to target the very people who would have made up the audiences for his films. Instead, "The Tarnished Angels" is a black and white wide-screen yarn about a reporter (Rock Hudson) who becomes involved with a family of daredevil airshow performers and tries to step in and save the wife and mother (Dorothy Malone) when her husband (Robert Stack) is killed in an accident. I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that the book made some points about the effects of World War I on the men who came back from it and had to resume pedestrian lives. There are one or two references to the war in the film, and Robert Stack is depicted as a restless maverick with a death wish. But the movie doesn't have much of a point at all to make, and other than the considerable eye candy of Dorothy Malone, didn't have much of anything else to keep me interested.
L'inconnu du lac (2013)
Men Behaving Badly
What drives people to engage in self-destructive behavior? Why do people seek out things (people, actions) that are bad for them? These seem to be the questions at the center of "Stranger by the Lake," a quiet film that casts an unsettling spell.
Franck is a young gay man who makes daily visits to an idyllic lakefront beach that serves as a popular gay cruising spot. Men scope each other out and then with a nod of the head or wink of the eye agree to wander off into the bushes to engage in all sorts of sexual activities, safe or otherwise. Franck crushes on Michel, a studly guy who proudly struts around naked, and finally succeeds in securing a tryst with him. But then one night he witnesses Michel casually drown another man. In one of the film's most effective twists, the knowledge of Michel's murderous tendencies draws Franck closer to him, and we watch him fall more and more for this guy who we know he should be turning in.
The film is one sustained note of creeping dread. From the start we just feel like things are headed to a bad place, and we stare with morbid fascination to see just what that bad place will be. All sorts of unpleasant spectres flirt at the margins of these men's lives. There's something predatory about the act of cruising in the first place, and the loneliness of Franck's life -- never explicitly shown but always implied -- makes him that much easier a victim. And then there are the unspoken phantoms of disease and addiction that color the men's behavior. For Franck, sexually transmitted diseases are a risk worth taking for the thrill of the hookup, just as an addict sets the consideration of consequences aside until after the high has worn off. Franck is compulsively drawn to the lake again and again long past the point where better sense, not to mention an instinct for self preservation, should prevail, and he willingly puts himself in greater danger as the film progresses. It's tempting to read the Michel character as a sort of personification of the allure of self abuse -- the excitement of self-imposed danger turned into an enticing and literal bogeyman.
The ending to the film is ambiguous and supremely creepy. It's a movie that's hard to get out of your head after you've seen it.
You've Been Murdered
It was not uncommon for films noir to begin with narration by a dead or dying man; think of William Holden's voice over narration as we see him floating dead in a swimming pool at the start of "Sunset Boulevard," or Fred MacMurray's confession while nursing a bullet wound in "Double Indemnity." But "D.O.A" is the only noir I've seen about a dying man solving the mystery of his own murder.
That dying man is played by Edmond O'Brien in a marvelously sweaty performance. His character takes a break from the small legal services business he runs to spend a couple of days in San Francisco, enjoying some extra-curricular female activity out of sight of the girlfriend back home who's pressuring him to marry her. While in that most noirish of noir cities, he's poisoned one night in a jazz club, collateral damage in a tangled criminal plot that finds the plot's mastermind doing away with anyone who could serve as a witness. I spent some time trying to unravel the plot itself, but quickly gave up. As with most movies like this, the specifics don't much matter. All you need to know is that some really bad guys are up to no good, and O'Brien's character is caught up in their misdeeds through a dumb twist of fate -- he notarized some bills of sale that could link the criminal to his activities. You might think that the film would be about O'Brien racing the clock to find his killer, discovering in the last minutes that there's an antidote that can save him and give us a happy ending. But you'd be wrong. This is a dark, cynical noir -- O'Brien is dead from the moment he ingests the poison, and his actions for the rest of the movie are those of a drowning man frantically trying to save himself because he doesn't know what else to do with his final moments on Earth.
"D.O.A." looks like it was made for about five bucks, but it nevertheless managed to line up some formidable talent behind the screen. The director was five time Oscar nominated cinematographer Rudolph Mate, while the actual cinematography was provided by Ernest Laszlo, who would go on years later to win an Oscar himself. Dimitri Tiomkin provided the musical score, and while the music has been criticized for being at odds with the film's tone, I thought its at times jaunty incongruity added to the off-kilter mood of the film.
Paris, Texas (1984)
Literally Made My Heart Ache
Wim Wenders' "Paris, Texas" is heartache put on screen.
Harry Dean Stanton, in a quietly powerful performance, plays Travis, a man who emerges stunned from the Texas desert at the film's beginning and embarks on an odyssey that sees him reunited with his abandoned son and his estranged wife. The film plays out like a mystery -- we know that Travis's son has been living with Travis's brother and sister-in-law for the last four years, but we don't know why he was left behind by this mother and father. That mystery is eventually unraveled when Travis and his wife, Jane (played by Nastassja Kinski), meet again and we learn more about their sorrowful and bruising history.
"Paris, Texas" is largely about two people who are capable of extreme passion and emotion but who are unable to cope with what those passions and emotions bring out in them. Travis and Jane were overwhelmed by their responsibility to each other and their son -- a life voluntarily chosen became a grim trap from which one would literally kill the other to escape. This part of the story is only told to us, never shown. What we see are the regret, remorse and nostalgia felt by two people who will always have a strong connection -- both emotionally and literally through their boy -- but who know they can never again be together. At the end, Travis drives away into the night, and though his ultimate fate is ambiguous, we feel that he's leaving his wife and child for good. Whether to protect them, or himself (or maybe both) is for us to decide.
Canon City (1948)
Prison Break Docudrama from 1948
"Canon City" (spelled c-a-n-o-n but pronounced as "canyon") is an example of a type of film prominent in the late 1940s: the docudrama. Usually these films had a noirish sensibility and were almost always about gritty subject matter. They were part documentary and part fiction -- filmed on location in actual locales with objective third-party narration, stripped-down production values and a journalistic focus on presenting events matter-of-factly and without superfluous emotion.
"Canon City" tells the story of a famous prison break from a Colorado penitentiary. The first part of the film gives us a tour of the prison and introduces us to men who were the actual inmates at the time the movie was filmed; the chief warden of the prison likewise plays the warden in the movie. After this extended prologue, actors take over to portray the actual escape and the subsequent manhunt that put families living nearby at risk as the escaped cons used their homes as hideouts.
The film is very spare and terse, which is not a criticism from me. It's a refreshing break from the Hollywood melodrama that characterized glossier, studio-backed movies at the time. But the film is SO bare bones that it's difficult to feel strongly one way or the other about it. Its bargain-bin look is a nice compliment to the story it's telling, but one can't help but miss the style that artists who came with a higher price tag might have brought to the same material.
Hobson's Choice (1954)
Delightful, Quirky Film
A delight of a film, and a reminder that David Lean excelled as much at small, intimate stories as he did sweeping epics.
Charles Laughton plays a drunken widower who tries, without success, to dominate his three daughters. He's written off the oldest as a candidate for marriage, and takes for granted that she will assume the place of her mother in caring for him. But she has different plans, practically takes Laughton's wunderkind but timid employee (John Mills) hostage, tells him they're going to get married and sets up a shoe making business with him. Mills resists a little bit at first, but warms up to her and her plan and by the end has become the man she saw in him all along.
Laughton, I regret to say, grows pretty tiresome before the movie is over. His stumbling drunken antics and rages aren't as funny as he and Lean think they are, and I sort of sighed inwardly whenever the story reverted to him. But the film more than makes up for what Laughton's story and character are lacking in the story of his daughter (played wonderfully by Barbara de Banzie) and Mills. The way their relationship evolves is a marvel of writing, directing and acting, and it's tremendously sweet. De Banzie somehow makes us love her battle axe of a character, and the character itself is a wonderful creation -- a woman who's strong in ways that matter and deeply kind, able to care for everyone in her life and draw out the best in them while the whole time making it look like she just wants to have her own way.
A real treat.
The House on 56th Street (1933)
One Humdinger of a Pre-Code Melodrama
I would probably never have come across this movie on my own and was persuaded to watch it by Robert Osborne on TCM when he included it in his hand-selected lineup one night. It's really a ridiculous melodrama about a woman who's wrongfully accused of murdering a man whose love she rejects, spends 20 years in prison, gets a job at a gambling house when she's released and then manages to help her long-lost daughter (who doesn't know she's her mother) escape prosecution for murdering her mother's new lover.
Eesh, what a load of malarkey, but damned if it doesn't make for a pretty entertaining movie. And at only 69 minutes it doesn't require much of a time investment. Kay Francis plays the mother with the amount of noble suffering required, and there's a sort of noirish theme about people being trapped by their pasts. Because the movie is pre-Code, it has that gritty, sleazy quality common to other films from the same era, and is notable for the fact that it addresses gambling addiction and lets a major character get away scot free with murder.
Thank you once again Robert Osborne for adding to my movie knowledge.
Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
So Quiet and Simple You May Not Realize How Brilliant It Is Until You've Had Time to Think About It
"Make Way for Tomorrow," Leo McCarey's quiet tragedy about an elderly couple who are left with few choices when their adult children are reluctant to take care of them, is one of those films that grows in stature the more you think about it.
On one hand, it's a bit heavy handed and simplistic in the way 1930s films frequently were and which makes them seem dated now -- the parents are a bit too saintly, the children a bit too awful. As a study of characters, the film would have been more interesting if it had provided some insight into why the children turned out the way they did and what role the parents played in shaping them into the selfish adults they become. The children would have been more interesting if they had been portrayed more humanely; Thomas Mitchell, as the oldest son, is the only one who comes across as something other than a selfish horror.
But the film is more interested in examining a social topic than it is in exploring characters, and in that way it feels ahead of its time, even if its sophistication doesn't fully sink in until after you've had some time to think about the movie. For a 1937 film, it's extremely unsentimental when it might have been downright maudlin. The parents move about with a resigned air, and the film doesn't pander for sympathy. As one of the extra features on the DVD points out, audiences aren't interested in movies about old people even now, let alone then. And we haven't gotten much better at the way we view and treat the elderly in the 70+ years since "Make Way for Tomorrow" debuted. One of the things I liked best about the movie -- and that makes it still incredibly relevant -- is that it shows how dismissive younger generations are about older people, and how children seem to think their parents don't have lives outside of them. As portrayed brilliantly by Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore in the film, these two doddery folk have a rich history together; they had a life before children and they have a life after; they have things to teach, wisdom to impart, and they're very sharp and astute about what's going on around them. One of the biggest tragedies in the film is something that goes almost unspoken, and that's the disappointment they feel in their children but won't let their children see.
The final sequence of the movie is downright magical, when Bondi and Moore blow off their children to revisit the haunts of their honeymoon. It's funny, sad and almost unbearably poignant without being schmaltzy, thanks partly to the low-key direction of Leo McCarey but mostly to the wonderful performances of the two actors.
A lovely film.