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Metropolis (1927)
10/10
My favourite film, my last review.
24 June 2010
'Metropolis' is my all-time favourite movie, so I've saved this for the last review that I plan to write for this wonderful website IMDb. I've enjoyed sharing my experiences of the movies I've seen, but now I'm moving on to other passions.

Although written by Fritz Lang's wife Thea von Harbou, 'Metropolis' was originally Lang's idea: he was inspired by the sight of New York's skyscrapers when he sailed to America in 1925. During his American trip, he visited the set of 'The Phantom of the Opera' and met Lon Chaney! Too bad the encounter wasn't filmed.

Despite its epic power, 'Metropolis' makes very little sense. The two major male characters are a father and son named Freder and Fredersen, so why is the one named Freder*sen* the father (not son) of the one cried Freder? Why does the master of Metropolis deliberately connive to destroy the city that he built? Why is Rotwang's crude little cottage the only pre-Fredersen building that wasn't demolished during the construction of this city? (Von Harbou's very long and unwieldy novelisation of her script establishes this fact but never explains it.) How and why did Rotwang's high-tech laboratory manage to get constructed BENEATH that cottage without disturbing it?

For modern viewers, some of the plot's incoherence can be blamed on missing footage, particularly in American prints. The distributors for this film's original Stateside release commissioned playwright Channing Pollock to translate the German titles. A major subplot of the backstory features a deceased woman named Hel, who was married to Rotwang but left him to marry Fredersen and give birth to Freder. This unseen woman's name could not easily be changed for the American version, due to a couple of shots of her memorial, engraved with the Teutonic name HEL. Apparently, Pollock feared that American viewers would be offended by this word's similarity to 'Hell', so he simply excised the entire subplot from this long movie.

The real-life drama on the set of 'Metropolis' must've been quite interesting in itself. Mad scientist Rotwang (alias Doctor Strangeglove) is played by actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who had been married to scenarist von Harbou before she left him to marry Fritz Lang, the mastermind of this film. In 'Metropolis', Rotwang's wife left him to marry the master of Metropolis. I'd love to know how Klein-Rogge felt about the fact that his real-life marital (and sexual) situation was the inspiration for key plot elements of this movie ... and I wonder how Klein-Rogge felt about knowing that the entire cast and crew knew this as well.

Most astonishing about this gargantuan production is the fact that nearly all of 'Metropolis' was actually built to scale, with just a couple of miniatures.

Trivia tidbit: actress Brigitte Helm was cast in the dual female role largely because she was flat-chested, and therefore she could easily fit inside the mechanical suit for the Robotrix. A more busty actress would have suffered constant discomfort inside those galvanised bosoms of the metal costume. I learnt this more than 20 years ago from an eldery Austrian stagehand who worked on the film.

For all its flaws, 'Metropolis' will always be my favourite movie. I've enjoyed writing all these reviews for IMDb. The joy of posting my reviews on this site has brought me many friendships and a few enemies. Well, you can't win 'em all.

Nitrate film stock doesn't last forever, and all good things come to a happy ending. This is my last review here. I'll keep watching movies, but other passions are important to me as well. Thank you, IMDb, and thank you to everyone who has read my reviews. I will happily rate 'Metropolis' a full 10 out of 10.
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8/10
Here's why the French like Jerry Lewis.
24 June 2010
I saw 'Paris in Five Days' in October 2008 at the Cinema Muto festival in Pordenone. They screened a print from Cinematheque Francaise with the original French intertitles. I'm glad that I saw this movie in its original language. The two main characters are Americans who only barely parley-voo, and there are some very amusing Miles Kington-style dialogue titles written in mangled Franglais. This intentionally inept dialogue would likely be less funny in any other language.

Interestingly, the print screened at Pordenone is a silent version of a 1930 sound reissue, apparently with some scenes missing.

Harry Mascaret (is that meant to be an American name?) is a Chicago accountant who's always wanted to see Paris, although his knowledge of that city largely consists of the Three Musketeers. He takes his girlfriend Dolly on a whirlwind tour of Paree, intending to propose to her in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. (I guess the Eiffel Tower wasn't mentioned in any of those Dumas novels he's been reading.)

American hero Mascaret is played by Russian actor Nicolas Rimsky, who also co-directed from a Russian scenarist's script. American heroine Dolly is played by an actress cried Dolly Davis who appears to have been French despite her name.

This is an episodic film, with the Yank couple incurring mayhem at first one Parisian locale, then another. They cross paths with a suave Italian count who, being a suave Italian count, tries to seduce Dolly.

Rimsky overacts dreadfully throughout this movie, and his overacting is made even worse because his portrayal of this gormless American seems to be based on a French (or Franco-Russian) stereotype of what Americans are supposed to be like. Did you ever wonder why Jerry Lewis is so popular in France? It's because the French have got their minds made up about what Americans are like, and Jerry Lewis embodies that stereotype. This fellow Rimsky seems to be doing a bad imitation of Jerry Lewis!

Despite an uneven pace and some dull patches, this is a funny movie with some fascinating views of 1920s Paris. But it would've been a much better comedy with a different actor in the lead role. I'm in a good mood, though, so I'll rate this movie 8 out of 10.
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4/10
Looks pretty, but utterly implausible.
24 June 2010
Warning: Spoilers
This turgid romantic drama 'Into Her Kingdom' (oughtn't it to be 'Queendom'?) seems to have been inspired by the rumour that Russian princess Anastasia somehow survived the slaughter at Ekaterinburg. There have been several excellent movies and plays based on the Anastasia legend, but this is none of them. There's some impressive production design here, in the sets and costumes for the early sequences before the peasants get revolting (ha ha), and in the final scene, but this movie's merits are far thinner than its flaws.

SPOILERS THROUGHOUT. Corinne Griffith is regally pretty as Grand Duchess Tatiana. (If somebody knows the difference between a grand duchess and a mere garden-variety duchess, please let me know.) Early on, we see her as a child along with Stepan, a peasant boy slightly older. For some reason, the princess and the pauper are both pupils of the same tutor (Claude Gillingwater, looking elderly even in the 1920s). Was it the custom among Russian bluebloods for a female aristocrat to be educated alongside a peasant boy? I could only just barely accept that premise here.

Eight years later, along comes the Bolshevik uprising. All the Russian royals know their goose is cooked. The lowly Stepan, at the tender age of 22, has somehow become the commissar who personally gives the order to execute the royal family ... including Tatiana, age 20.

Tatiana's maid Sonia (good performance by Marcelle Corday) is so utterly loyal to royalty that she willingly trades clothes with Tatiana, allowing herself to be executed (disguised as the duchess) while Tatiana pretends to be Sonia the maid. I had no problem believing that a loyal servant would do this ... except for the fact that, in real life, the Russian aristocracy's servants were executed alongside them, partly because the servants themselves also came from highborn families. Anyway, the swap gets the maid killed, but then Stepan discovers that Tatiana is alive after all. So he decides to marry her(!) to break her haughty spirit. Hoo-boyovich.

Well, of course Stepan falls in love with Tatiana. But when the miscellaneous Bolshies discover she's still alive, her goose is cooked again. Now, what do you do if you're a grand duchess and things get too hot for you in Russia? You head for New Jersey!

Oh, and somehow Tatiana manages to bring her royal raiments to New Jersey too. Now, if I were a grand duchess fleeing the Russian revolution, I wouldn't pack any fancy finery in my tuckerbag on my way out of town. This whole movie is full of faulty logic.

Some time passes. In New Jersey, Tatiana and Stepan settle down as a married couple and try to forget the pesky revolution. They have a baby girl, who in theory is now the heir to the grand duchy.

But Tatiana is a typical housewife, until one day she overhears some local kids playing fairy princess, and she decides to show them what a real princess looks like. She takes her fancy clothes out of mothballs, puts them on for the first time in years, and displays herself to the admiring children. When Stepan sees his wife all swanked up, he suddenly regrets that she's been cheated out of her noble birthright. He takes her and their daughter to Europe, hoping that the surviving royalty will recognise Tatiana as nobility, and reinstate her 'into her kingdom' ... as a title card says in the last reel, finally explaining this film's title.

But Tatiana chooses to greet her peers (and peeresses) in a housewife's dress, clutching her child and indicating her husband while she announces that *this* is her kingdom. Fade out.

That closing scene seems to imply that motherhood and marriage are the only true role for all women, not merely Tatiana. The actor playing Czar Nicholas resembles him slightly, whilst the actress playing Czarina Alexandra doesn't resemble that lady at all. Einar Hanson is excellent in a badly-written role, but the subordinate Bolsheviks in this movie are a bunch of stock characters.

The best performance is by Claude Gillingwater as the tutor. In the 1930s, Gillingwater consistently played sourpuss misers (sometimes with a good heart underneath, sometimes not), and he was already typecast in such roles during his silent-film career. As the tutor in this film, Gillingwater is more sympathetic than usual, and after his last scene this boring movie becomes much more boring. For a couple of performances and some impressive sets and costumes (dressing up a ridiculous script), I'll rate this one 4 out of 10.
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8/10
At the old brawl game
24 June 2010
Warning: Spoilers
This comedy was shot on the Roach lot in California, and I could've sworn that the Orioles are the baseball team in Baltimore, but for some reason the title cards establish that these Orioles play in New York City.

IMDb reviewer FrankFob2 has already provided a synopsis, so I'll just fill in some details that he skipped. For some reason, all the players on the Oriole ball club live together in a dormitory clubhouse, which surely has never been the case for real baseball players. There are some gags establishing the various injuries and ailments that the Orioles have. The team are in a long slump, and getting slumpier.

Glenn Tryon is goodish but not great as Tommy Tucker, a small-town barber whose father was an Oriole until he moulted. I enjoyed some good physical comedy in a scene with Tommy's customer Cappy in the barber's chair. Small-town boy Tommy has a small-town girlfriend, Hope: played by Blanche Mehaffey, who's slightly pretty but a bit too pouty for my tastes. Hope goes off to visit her uncle Sid, who runs a nightclub in New York City.

For old time's sake, the Orioles decide to break their slump by hiring Tommy as their mascot and pep leader. Since this means moving to New York, he has a hope to see Hope.

Of course, well-meaning Tommy is woefully inept as the team's mascot and all-purpose dogsbody, and the players dislike him. Meanwhile, Hope's uncle Sid is the head of a criminal gang. Sid is played by Noah Young, long-time supporting comedian in Hal Roach's films and for Harold Lloyd. Noah Young nearly always played either dimwits or bullies, but here he displays his range by playing an outright villain rather than a crude heavy.

SPOILERS COMING. It takes a while, but eventually Tommy makes good with the team, and they accept him as a true Oriole. When Tommy learns that Hope is being held prisoner by her uncle's gang, he rallies the Orioles (with baseball bats in hand) to rescue her. There's a rousing climax in which the baseball club wrecks the nightclub.

Producer Hal Roach was a shrewd businessman, and one of his clever strategies was his habit of giving his contract players cameo roles in other Roach films. 'The Battling Orioles' features guest appearances by several kids from the 'Our Gang' troupe. (They were only called the Little Rascals on television.) Fat kid Joe Cobb, lug-eared Mickey Daniels and the talented 'Sunshine Sammy' (later the only African-American member of the Dead End Kids) are on the scene only briefly in this movie. Fortunately, there's enough slapstick and action to keep things moving. I'll rate this one 8 out of 10, with at least one star just for Noah Young's performance.
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Taxi! Taxi! (1927)
5/10
Horton has a touching romantic scene, chased but chaste.
24 June 2010
Warning: Spoilers
"Taxi! Taxi!" (why the double title?) is a weak comedy: its only real merits are a performance by Edward Everett Horton in a rare (for him) romantic-comedy lead role, and good supporting performances by Burr McIntosh and the under-rated Lucien Littlefield.

Horton's character here is Peter, an architect ... which sounds impressive, except that he's merely one lowly draughtsman in Burr McIntosh's architectural firm. Also on the premises is McIntosh's niece Rose, played by Marian Nixon; an actress who was pretty and talented but not a huge amount of either.

There's a touching scene in which Peter sketches out for Rose the blueprints for their dream home. Horton is quite impressive here as the guy who gets the gal. For some reason, after 'The Terror' (in which he played a dithering nitwit who turned out to be a resourceful hero), Horton got side-tracked into fusspot and 'nelly' roles.

Rose's uncle is entertaining his big client Parmalee, and he wants Rose to come along ... implying that he wants Rose to date this man. She pulls a sickie, claiming to be ill. Then she goes out for the evening with Peter, who takes her to a nightclub cried Sweeny's.

SPOILERS COMING. At Sweeny's, of course, Peter and Rose run into her uncle and Parmalee. The two lovers try to flee ... but it's raining, so they can't hail a cab. In desperation, Peter actually *buys* a cab from a lout named Jersey who purports to be its owner. I had difficulty believing that Horton's benighted protagonist had enough money to buy a taxi, but this movie isn't very plausible anyway.

The cab is in fact the getaway vehicle from a jewel heist, and Jersey's criminal partner (Littlefield) left a valuable necklace in the cab. So, now the crooks high-tail it after the cab containing Peter, Rose and the hot rocks.

'Taxi! Taxi!' is much too slow — poorly paced and badly edited — in its early scenes, and takes too long to set up the eventual chase. Once the chase is finally afoot (or awheel), it simply isn't either funny enough or thrilling enough. Harold Lloyd could have made something brilliant with this script and a different director, except that the results would've been too similar to his film 'Speedy'.

As it is, 'Taxi! Taxi!' never shifts out of first gear, and this taxi is so slow and stodgy that it needs a Taxi!-dermist. I'll rate this would-be romantic-thrill comedy just 5 out of 10, mostly for the pleasure of seeing Edward Everett Horton play a role outside of his later typecasting.
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The episode that spawned the untrue rumour.
21 June 2010
THIS, folks, is the "Gomer Pyle" episode which spawned that notorious rumour.

You've all heard the stupid (and untrue) urban legend. Supposedly, the closeted gay actor Rock Hudson was secretly married to a male actor in the cast of the sitcom "Gomer Pyle". This rumour was obvious nonsense, since same-sex marriage wasn't legal during Rock Hudson's lifetime. When someone asked Hudson to confirm the rumour, Hudson denied it and then he guessed that the rumour had started as a sophomoric joke: "If Rock Hudson married Gomer Pyle, he'd be Rock Pyle."

No, folks. Here's the real truth about the fake rumour.

Episode #87 of "Gomer Pyle" is titled "Lost: The Colonel's Daughter". In this episode, Colonel Gray's innocent teen daughter Janice is visiting the sleepy town that houses the local Marine base. The colonel delegates Gomer to chaperone Janice and show her an age-appropriate good time. But little Janice turns out to be a swinging party girl in her late teens. She's a Joey Heatherton type, though regrettably not played by Joey Heatherton. After some dumb laugh-track jokes, Janice ditches Gomer and she heads for a disco full of "groovy" hippies played by guys like Rob Reiner.

Now, here's how the urban legend got started. When Gomer first meets Janice at the depot, he eagerly suggests several ways that the two of them can have fun together: all very innocent stuff, such as a hot fudge sundae. Party-girl Janice rejects all of these notions, and she asks Gomer if there's anything else in this hick town. He offers to take her to the local picture-show ... and then, to sweeten the deal, he tells her: "There's a Rochelle Hudson film festival."

Rochelle Hudson (1916-1972) was an old-time movie actress, pretty but dull, who played bland good-girl roles. The (bad) joke here is that a Rochelle Hudson film festival would be pretty boring.

But not everyone got the joke ... and when this "Gomer Pyle" episode aired in 1967, lots of people had never heard of Rochelle Hudson. Some gay men, for whatever reason, like to give each other female names. At least one viewer of this "Gomer Pyle" episode had his mind in the wrong place, and he mistakenly thought that the name "Rochelle Hudson" was a gay shout-out from Gomer to a certain closeted gay actor. The rumour spread, and some people chose to believe it without any evidence.

Now you finally know. Please give the credit for this scoop to me, your faithful IMDb reporter F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre.
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Ask Harriet (1998– )
4/10
Barely passable
19 June 2010
I saw "Ask Harriet" during its brief run and I actually liked it, though I might've changed my mind if this sitcom had run a bit longer.

One thing that irritates me about most of these cross-dressing movies and sitcoms is that these guys never need to put any effort into acquiring female disguises: they just *happen* to have a handy supply of women's clothes, wigs, make-up and extra-large female shoes. In 'Some Like It Hot', the two male musicians leave the booking agency with no money and nowhere to live ... then they suddenly show up at the train station wearing complete women's outfits (which fit them!), plus luggage: how'd they get all that stuff, and where did they change clothes? At least in 'Mrs Doubtfire', Robin Williams needed some time to develop his female identity.

"Ask Harriet" was slightly atypical for a cross-dressed comedy, because male actor Anthony Tyler Quinn (what a bizarre name!) was actually somewhat passable as a faux female, although unusually tall and even taller in high-heeled boots. As "Harriet" in a long brunette wig, Quinn wore short skirts and knee-high boots that would've been quite sexy on a genuine woman. But where did tall Jack find pantyhose that fits him? I know petite women who can't find pantyhose that fits them.

There are some clichés here: macho sport columnist Jack Cody gets fired, but he becomes a better man by becoming a woman when he stops chasing skirts and starts wearing them to become agony-aunt advice columnist Harriet. Of course, the audience need to be assured that cross-dressing Jack isn't ... um, you know ... one of THOSE guys, so he continues to leer at the attractive women in the newsroom from behind his falsies, while they (the women, not the falsies) open up to 'Harriet' with some girl talk.

Most of the characters and dialogue were awful. In one episode, Ed Asner played a successful newspaperman who's also an idiot. Huh? Asner's usually convincing, but he wasn't believable here as an idiot.

The only person aware of Jack's double identity is his geeky little co-worker Ronnie, who clearly enjoyed controlling situations in which he's able to manipulate Jack into becoming Harriet. There was an annoying subplot (which never got very far) in which Ronnie and a very sexy woman (a real one) who works with him in the newsroom are attracted to each other but neither can work up the nerve to tell the other. Ronnie seemed to get more arousal from using Jack as his personal dress-up doll.

Female impersonation as comedy will usually get a quick laugh but is more difficult to sustain in a longer narrative. 'Some Like It Hot' worked because the cross-dressers were in a dangerous situation: they had to become live women to avoid becoming dead men. In 'Ask Harriet', Jack wasn't in danger of anything except losing his wig: I was never convinced that this elaborate sexual masquerade was the best career option for a male character who kept claiming to dislike dressing up as a woman. That was another cliché: we get the usual line about how it sure feels good to get back into men's clothes. Right, we get it, fella: you hate wearing women's clothes but you wear them anyway. Straighten your wig.

Rating: 4 out of 10. If you want to see a man dressed as a woman, either for comedy or for kink, there are better options elsewhere.
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Four Thirteen (1914)
6/10
Diamonds in a biro, scripted by a tyro.
19 June 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Here's a quickie programmer with plenty of action and thrills but not much logic: it has the feel of a cliffhanger serial, with thrills for their own sake and at the expense of a plausible script.

Raymond Davis is a handsome agent for some outfit called the Secret Police. (Do they really exist? I guess it's a secret.) His subchief (deadpan actor Paul Scardon) assigns Davis to meet an arriving ocean liner and to intercept its passenger Baron Barcellos. Anybody who calls himself Baron Barcellos might as well be carrying a flashing red neon sign that says "VILLAIN": sure enough, Barcellos is a diamonds smuggler.

Aboard the ship, Barcellos befriends a jeweller named Hall and his beautiful daughter Elaine. Barcellos hides his sparklies in a fountain pen (so that he can stay OUT of the pen) and asks Hall to hold it for him. Barcellos submits to a search by Davis but comes up clean (I guess the pen didn't leak) and he retrieves the diamonds that Hall kept on ice. Then Barcellos goes off to sell his hot ice to a mysterious crimelord.

SPOILERS NOW. The crimelord turns out to be Hall, a fact which Barcellos didn't know when he asked Hall to hold the diamonds! D'you see what I mean about logic? Meanwhile, the Plot-O-Matic keeps on churning. Davis and Elaine fall in love. Barcellos's vampy accomplice Tina tries to frame Davis for a crime. Everyone chases everyone else. (Well, Paul Scardon cools his heels at headquarters.)

There are some thrilling sequences here, including an automobile chase, a fistfight, and some stunts aboard a moving train. Can I get off here, driver? Thrills and spills but no plausibility. The whole affair is nicely photographed, briskly paced and edited, and there are some impressive moving shots during the chases. Oh, and the title refers to room 413. This movie feels episodic, as if everyone involved just wants to get to the next thrill. When my head stops spinning, I'll rate this one 6 out of 10.
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Maytime (1923)
7/10
Watch out for that tree!
18 June 2010
Warning: Spoilers
In 2009, U.S. film preservationist Brian Meacham (good man!), with archivists at the New Zealand Film Archive in Wellington, identified 75 'lost' U.S. silent films which had been stored in New Zealand all along. The discovery was announced in June 2010, after the archivists had learnt precisely which films were in the trove. 'Maytime' will be released on DVD, due to the presence (in a supporting role) of Clara Bow.

I've stated elsewhere that 'lost' films tend to surface at the terminus of an exhibition circuit -- New Zealand, Australia, the Yukon -- and that (as this case indicates) 'lost' films often turn up when someone actively seeks them. 'Maytime' was in the New Zealand archive for decades, but Paramount didn't bother to ask for it and the archivists were busy with other tasks.

Because the highly unstable nitrate film stock can't wait, the U.N. have granted permission for these dangerously combustible films to be shipped from New Zealand for conversion and image transfer at several Stateside locations. Since I can't wait either, I've been able to audit the restoration process of some of these, including 'Maytime'.

The final sequence on this print's last reel was in colour tint, and my source in the restoration tells me that this particular footage is especially challenging for the image transfer and preservation.

'Maytime' was originally a 1917 Sigmund Romberg operetta with no hit songs. The 1937 'Maytime', officially MGM's remake of this 1923 Paramount silent, actually has an almost entirely new plot; MGM's screenwriters despised the original.

IMDb's contributor Kieran Kenney has already posted a synopsis for this movie, but his synopsis more accurately describes the 1917 stage operetta rather than this 1923 film. You'll be able to see for yourself when the restored version is publicly available, but here's a preview:

SPOILERS NOW: Romantic leads Harrison Ford (no relation) and Ethel Shannon play the frustrated 19th-century lovers, and also play their respective grandchildren in the modern story. (We briefly see the second pair *as* children, en route to the final reels.) But (despite Mr Kenney's synopsis) the modern lovers don't recapitulate the original romance. The first Richard Wayne is an ardent suitor who loves the original Ottilie utterly, but his namesake grandson is a scapegrace whom we see eagerly attending an orgy. (Quite mild by modern standards, this sequence.) Ostensibly the modern Richard loves the modern Ottilie, but he feels entitled to control her and possess her. When he catches up with Ottilie inside a married man's mansion, in a compromising situation that's actually quite innocent, Richard refuses to accept her explanation.

There are some intriguing visual devices in this movie. A tree is significant during the climactic storm sequence, and this multi-generation romance uses trees as a motif to convey the passage of time. Karl Struss's splendid photography is warm and lush in the romantic sequences, sharp-edged when the romances go off the rails.

Modern viewers will be interested in this film because of Clara Bow: she actually plays a smallish supporting role, but she's as vivacious as usual and she's briefly given real emphasis in a few shots.

Silent-film actor Harrison Ford gives the most impressive performances (plural) here: the two Richard Waynes have two very different personalities, and Ford clearly makes them two very different people despite the physical similarity. Ethel Shannon, in the two female leads, overacts the bathos at several points. Her dual role gets more emphasis than Ford's, but he easily steals the film as the humble gardener's son who becomes a generous millionaire, and as his bad-boy grandson (more a scapegrace than an outright villain). Ethel Shannon's looks, alas, are not likely to impress modern viewers. She did impress me in this movie's middle sequences, as the heiress humbled when her fortune fails.

While a 'new' Clara Bow movie is welcome, this is really Harrison Ford's film, even though his two roles are meant to be subordinate to Shannon's. Silent-film star Ford was utterly forgotten by 1935; the modern actor with the same name hadn't even heard of him until he saw the original Ford's star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I'd be delighted if the interest in this lost film's reappearance leads to new awareness of the original Harrison Ford, a talented actor whose voice was unsuited for talkies ... although he actually made a few sound movies, unlike this film's star actress Ethel Shannon.

I didn't audit the entire restoration of this long-lost film, but what I saw impressed me. This 'Maytime' is definitely superior to the talkie 'remake'. My rating, from only a partial viewing: 7 out of 10.
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Upstream (1927)
9/10
John Ford's most Murnau-esquire film
18 June 2010
Warning: Spoilers
This 'lost' film will officially re-premiere in L.A. in September 2010. As I write this, 12 other people have already rated 'Upstream' for IMDb, so clearly I'm not the only person who's been given access to the restoration at 20th Century-Fox.

In 2009, U.S. film preservationist Brian Meacham (good man!), with archivists at the New Zealand Film Archive in Wellington, identified a nitrate print of 'Upstream' among 75 'lost' U.S. silent films which had been stored in Wellington all along.

I've stated elsewhere that 'lost' films tend to surface at the terminus of an exhibition circuit -- New Zealand, Australia, the Yukon -- and that (as this case indicates) 'lost' films are often merely mislaid due to lack of communication: the Wellington archive had this print for decades, but nobody told 20th Century-Fox, and nobody at Fox bothered to ask.

The original negatives of 'Upstream' and many other silents of the Fox studio were destroyed (not merely 'lost') in a warehouse fire in New Jersey, and many early Fox films are, indeed, gone forever.

Because the highly unstable nitrate film stock can't wait, the U.N. granted permission for these dangerously combustible films to be shipped overseas for conversion and image transfer. 'Upstream' will likely be on DVD soon, so you'll be able to see it yourself; since I can't wait either, I've been able to audit this movie's restoration process (after those 12 other IMDb'ers, apparently).

'Upstream' depicts the disparate lives of the performers in Hattie Breckenridge's theatrical boarding-house. Jack La Velle is a vaudeville knife-thrower, in love with his pretty target Gertie ... but she loves egotistical ham actor Eric, an ostensible Shakespearean tragedian who's being coached by mouldy ham Mandare. (As the latter, a wonderful performance by Emile Chautard, conveying both the dignity and the decrepitude of this role.)

When I saw the cast list -- billing two actors as Callahan and Callahan, one of them being Sammy Cohen -- I guessed that the Callahans must be cross-talk comedians. I guessed wrong: they're a dance act. Good job I saw this film before I reviewed it! (Actually they're hoofers; not quite the same as dancers.)

SLIGHT SPOILER: Ham actor Eric can't succeed in America, so he goes to England and becomes a hit. Does England need to import bad Shakespearean actors?

'Upstream' (the film's title refers to uphill struggle) is hardly typical material for John Ford. He made this ensemble drama at Fox under the tutelage of the great F.W. Murnau, and 'Upstream' shows Murnau's clear influence in the back-lighting and frame compositions. A wedding reception sequence (which Eric mistakes for a homecoming party in his honour), with all these diverse vaudevillains, reminded me of the wedding feast in 'Freaks'.

If I'd seen 'Upstream' without knowing who directed it, I almost certainly would've guessed either Murnau or King Vidor: some of Murnau's directorial touches which Ford borrows here were later integrated into Ford's own, somewhat less disciplined technique. But other Murnau traits which Ford uses well here -- such as the pacing, and the contrast between foreground and background action in the same shot -- he eventually abandoned as he found his own two-fisted style. Several camera set-ups in 'Upstream' favour actresses in a way quite typical for Murnau but unusual for Ford.

Yet John Ford is firmly in charge, and some of his own distinctive traits -- his deep affection for actors, his distinctive comic relief in dramatic sequences -- is on evidence in 'Upstream'.

Female lead Nancy Nash is quite pretty here, but not much of an actress. (A Hollywood old-timer told me that the late Ms. Nash was briefly producer William Fox's mistress, well before his auto accident.) She ended up a mere chorus girl for Sam Goldwyn. Grant Withers and Earle Foxe (playing a BAD actor) are good actors here, and comedian Raymond Hitchcock is effective. Welcome home, 'Upstream'! I'll rate you 9 out of 10, and my respect for John Ford is now even higher than before.
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7/10
Using Keaton's plot twist before Keaton used it.
17 June 2010
This film, with an Italian cast and credits, was apparently filmed in Italy, yet the characters and the story locations would appear to be British, or possibly Anglo-American. In the silent-film era, the nationalities of a movie's characters often changed when the film was distributed in different markets with different intertitles. This review is based on an Italian print I've viewed; there might be dissimilar prints elsewhere.

Jack Daingerfield (actor Gustavo Serena) is a playboy who has squandered his fortune, and he can't pay his debts. His creditors connive to marry him to young heiress Mary Delmar (Maria Jacobini) so that they can seize her assets to satisfy Jack's debts. Her father approves of handsome Jack as a son-in-law, apparently unaware that Jack's skint. But Mary has another suitor: the top- hatted Lord Lytton (played by Luigi Mele, from the Snidely Whiplash School of Dramatics).

Lytton frames Jack for a crime, so of course Jack has no alternative but to run away and get a job as a movie stuntman. His first assignment is to do a scene in the jungle with some lions.

Lord Lytton and Jack's primary creditor show up on the set. They shoot Jack and leave him for dead in the jungle. Little do they notice that Bill Tuttle, the movie company's trusty cameraman, is cranking away in a nearby tree, and he caught the attack on celluloid. (Coincidentally, five decades later, there would be a prominent make-up man at MGM named William Tuttle.)

This low-budget movie impressed me for several reasons. Most prominently, "The Film Detective" features a key plot element that also shows up in Buster Keaton's "The Cameraman", but this movie used it first: the hero is able to exonerate himself when a movie camera records what actually happened, and a movie projector reveals it.

The sequences featuring lions on an outdoor film set are done very well; actor Gustavo Serena seems genuinely to be interacting directly with some very active lions, without the aid of a stunt double nor any other trickery.

The photography, lighting and exterior sequences in this movie are all quite impressive, although the "jungle" depicted here looks more like Umbria than Uganda. What I didn't like in this movie were the actors' performances, which are overly emotional and involve lots of Italian gesticulation: I simply couldn't accept these characters as anything other than Italian.

I enjoyed 'The Film Detective' despite its ludicrous story and cardboard characters, and I'll rate this movie 7 out of 10.
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33.333 (1924)
7/10
That's the ticket, for Swedish "Le Million".
12 June 2010
Warning: Spoilers
I viewed an incomplete and damaged print of this Swedish film. A private collector gave me temporary access to his collection, and this movie's numeric title piqued my curiosity. This print had Danish intertitles replacing the original Swedish titles.

This movie's premise is quite similar to that of Rene Clair's film "Le Million", made in France a few years later. But that was a breezy comedy, whilst "33.333" is more earnestly realistic.

Since this is a silent movie, and I never heard the dialogue spoken, I can't say how this movie's title should be pronounced. The collector referred to this movie in my presence once as "Tre tre tre" ("3.3.3") and once as "Fem tre" (Five threes). Here goes:

The film takes place in Stockholm, apparently before the Great War (circa 1911). Three men, with little money between them, pool their funds to buy a lottery ticket. These men are shoemaker Lukas Ferm (Fritz Strandberg), a nightclub employee named Slinken (Fredrik Hedlund) and handsome young poet Tore Kramer (Einar Hanson). The lottery ticket which they purchase is number 33.333. (Now you know.) Slinken and Kramer decide to entrust Ferm with the ticket's safe-keeping. Ferm is a hard-working family man with a domineering wife; he knows she'll get angry if she learns that he wasted money on a lottery ticket. So, to keep the ticket safe and keep his wife from finding it, he hides the ticket in one of the many shoes in his cordwainer's shop.

Nobody ever made a movie about a *losing* lottery ticket, so there are no prizes for guessing that this ticket wins the grand prize of 300,000 kronar: even if split three ways, this is a fortune in the pre-war economy: certainly a windfall for an impoverished shoemaker.

And speaking of impoverished shoemakers: shortly before the lottery drawing, into Ferm's shop comes rival shoemaker Pettersohn (Nils Lundell), who needs some shoe leather ... and so he decides to borrow it from Ferm without Ferm's permission. Hmmm...

When the winning number is drawn, Ferm can't find the ticket. Of course he panics twice over: because the ticket is gone, and because he knows that Slinken and Kramer will suspect that he's keeping the ticket (and the winnings) all for himself.

The last reel of this film was missing from the print I viewed, but apparently all ends happily. I was annoyed that this movie's script and direction seem to cultivate more audience sympathy for handsome young Kramer than for his two partners, older working-class men. SLIGHT SPOILER NOW: And anyway, it turns out that Kramer's father (Nils Arehn) is a prosperous businessman, so Tore Kramer doesn't need the money as badly as the other men do.

Most of the actors here give realistic performances. I found the sets in this film absolutely fascinating: not merely the very realistic interiors for Lukas Ferm's shop and his humble family residence, but also the much more flashy settings in the nightclub where Slinken is employed, the Golden Flute. (Its name refers to champagne flutes, not flautists.) Some of the frame compositions are very impressive.

Einar Hanson, this film's handsome leading man, gives a portrayal here that's excellent by the standards of silent-film technique. After appearing in Mauritz Stiller's film "The Joyless Street", which featured Asta Nielsen and Greta Garbo, handsome Hanson was brought to Hollywood in the late silent era. His promising career ended with his death in a road accident, a few months before "The Jazz Singer" premiered. I can't help wondering if Hanson, a photogenic and talented young actor with a strong Swedish accent, would have weathered the transition into Hollywood talkies. More likely, he would've had a career curve similar to that of his slightly older compatriot Lars Hanson (probably no relation), another handsome talented Swede who found stardom in silent-era Hollywood but whose voice was unsuitable for American audiences.

I'm reluctant to rate "33.333" since I viewed an incomplete print, but what I saw impressed me sufficiently to rate this movie a cautious 7 out of 10.
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5/10
Good sets, good costumes, brilliant montage. BUT!...
10 June 2010
Warning: Spoilers
I was impressed by this film's production design, the photography and editing, a fine supporting cast and a superb montage sequence. But the merits of 'The Passionate Quest' are outweighed by bad acting by the lead performers, an implausible plot and dodgy character motivations. This is one more movie featuring a sensitive poet who disdains honest employment, and we're meant to approve because he's handsome.

The main characters are Rosina, Philip and Matthew, all of whom drudge away in rural England, in the glass factory owned by Rosina's uncle (Benjamin Stone by name, and stone-hearted by nature). Rosina wants to be an actress, Philip is that would-be poet I warned you about, and Matthew hopes for a career in high finance. All three go off to London in "the passionate quest" for their respective hearts' desires. So far, so good.

Philip proves himself a complete idiot by trying to sell his poems to newspaper editors ... but we're clearly supposed to like him, because he's played by a handsome thin actor.

Rosina gets a job in the chorus of a West End musical, for which the financial backer is wealthy Lord Towers. I was expecting him to try to seduce pretty Rosina. I was mistaken. Purely out of the goodness of his heart, he arranges for chorus girl Rosina to get a bit role. But on opening night she gets stage fright and a fit of stammering: she muffs her one line of dialogue, and gets fired.

Meanwhile, Matthew actually achieves modest success as a Lombard Street financier. I found this admirable, but Matthew is played by a short overweight actor, so he's got to be either the comedy relief or the villain, or both. Matthew proposes to Rosina, but she'll take vanilla. So he marries a wealthy widow (Mrs Flint by name, and flinty by nature), and then he uses her wealth to build a financial empire. So far, I found Matthew quite sympathetic.

But now that he's rich enough to get any woman he wants, he's so obsessed with seducing Rosina that he cooks up an incredibly contrived plan to bed her. He pays Madame Mathilde, a modiste, to hire Rosina as a mannequin so that she can be lured to an hotel suite in Paris where Matthew intends to have his way with her.

SPOILERS COMING. So, along comes heroic poet Philip in a flurry of sonnets, with Lord Towers and his faithful man Erwen bringing up the rear, hell-bent on defending Rosina's honour. All ends happily, though implausibly.

The sets and costumes in this film are excellent, and I was impressed that several scenes featured large crowds of extras, intelligently directed. In the lead role, May McAvoy is pretty, with various hairstyles, including a short dark bob evoking Louise Brooks. But McAvoy is nothing sensational here, and I had great difficulty believing that Matthew (who has the self-discipline to become a millionaire) would jeopardise his wealth and reputation in his obsessive pursuit of her. This movie is made worse by relying on several title cards that describe the characters' personalities, telling us what ought to be shown.

There are good performances in supporting roles by Frank Butler, Holmes Herbert, DeWitt Jennings and Louise Fazenda. But a fatal flaw in this movie is the casting of Gardner James as the dreamy poet Philip. Gardner James is extremely handsome (he resembles Peter Lind Hayes, only better-looking) and he's slightly callow, although that's appropriate to this role. His problem is that he shows absolutely no acting ability whatever, in a role that's badly written.

The brilliant montage occurs when Rosina is about to make her stage debut, and she's overcome by stage fright. Close-ups of May McAvoy, tongue-tied and terrified, are intercut with shots of the audience's eyes, the stage manager's mouth (prompting her) and the orchestra leader's baton. Rosina's panic is brilliantly conveyed ... though less by McAvoy's acting ability than by the photography and taut editing. Someone here's been watching German UFA films.

This brilliant sequence is cruelly ironic: the beautiful McAvoy was a film star in the late silent era, but talkies revealed her speech impediment and her very limited acting ability ... and she quickly became a mere extra in crowd scenes. Watching May McAvoy portray an aspiring actress whose career is ruined because she can't speak dialogue, I was utterly fascinated by how this sequence cruelly predicted her real-life downfall. I wish that this entire movie was as good as that montage sequence. Overall, though, I'll rate 'The Passionate Quest' just 5 out of 10, and its script is mostly laughable.
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8/10
Jockey Jackie; jokey horseplay
8 June 2010
Warning: Spoilers
"Johnny Get Your Hair Cut" (what, no comma?) was originally an Appalachian folk tune, popular with fiddle players. Child actor Jackie Coogan had achieved film stardom wearing a mixing-bowl haircut that seemed cute when he was a toddler. By 1927, Coogan was approaching his teens, and the hairstyle was no longer attractive on him. At one point in this movie, a great deal of fuss is made when Coogan's character gets his locks shorn, with several other characters as spectators ... but the haircut is irrelevant to this movie's plot, and is clearly a publicity stunt bolstered by this movie's irrelevant title. (I hope Coogan saved some of that hair they cut off him in this movie: he would need it a few decades later when he played Uncle Fester.)

Throughout this movie, there are entirely too many close-ups of young star Coogan, as if the director expects to impress us with all of Coogan's emotional responses. More likely the producer ordered those close-ups to please Coogan's fans. Apart from these close-ups, under-rated director Archie Mayo shows a sure hand with this cast and the script.

Once all the hair is swept away, and Jackie emerges with a short back and sides, this is actually a good movie ... and Coogan gives an excellent performance. He portrays Johnny O'Day, a spunky orphan (is there any other kind?), who shows up looking for work at a stable where Jiggs Bradley trains horses for wealthy breeder Ryan. Bradley won't hire Johnny, and sends him packing ... but on his way out, Johnny saves Ryan's little daughter from drowning. (The daughter is played by a child actress with much less talent and presence than Coogan's.) Ryan offers Johnny some money for un-drowning his daughter, but honest orphan Johnny turns it down: he just wants a job.

What is it with movies featuring racehorse owners who are the fathers of kids who get drowned? We had one in 'Seabiscuit', and one here too, except this time the kid gets rescued.

Johnny ends up working as water-boy for Pop Slocum, a much more downmarket trainer whose horse is cried Daybreak. The latter is owned by Ryan, but Daybreak is trained by Slocum rather than the more prestigious trainer Bradley because he has a bad tendon. (The horse, not the trainer.) Slocum, Johnny and rider Bobby train Daybreak until he's a genuine contender for an upcoming race against Whip Evans, a nasty rival jockey who hates to lose. (Probably because he's played by an actor too large to be a jockey.) Just before the race, Johnny overhears Slocum ordering Bobby to pull his mount so that Evans will win. The race is fixed!

Johnny pleads with Ryan to let him replace Bobby as Daybreak's jockey. At this point, I expected a very obvious plot twist: namely, that Ryan is in on the fix too, and he wants Daybreak to lose. I was sure of it when Ryan ignores Johnny's pleas. But it turns out I was wrong: solely in gratitude for saving his daughter, Ryan ultimately relents, and he tells Johnny to put on the silks and saddle up.

SPOILERS COMING. There's an exciting climactic race, although the excitement is diluted by technical flaws: it's obvious that some of the horseracing sequences are stock footage, and Jackie Coogan is unconvincingly stunt-doubled by a larger rider. In the home stretch, Whip Evans assaults Johnny with his riding crop, injuring him. Johnny spurs his mount, and rides Daybreak across the finish line in first place ... but then he falls off. When this happened to Liz Taylor in 'National Velvet', she lost the race on a technicality during the steward's inquiry. I expected something similar to happen here to Jackie Coogan too. I was wrong again. He won!

Any movie that plausibly derails my plot expectations *twice* deserves my respect. 'Johnny Get Your Hair Cut' has an excellent script, good acting and (mostly) excellent photography and editing. But the mood is seriously undercut by some jokey title cards that aren't as funny as they think they are, and which attempt to inject comedy when it isn't needed. For instance, the character Pop Slocum is introduced with a card explaining that he knows 'just how many miles a horse should get on a gallon of oats'. Ha bloody ha. Despite those awful titles and some tech flaws in this movie, I'll rate 'Johnny Get Your Hair Cut' a solid 8 out of 10.
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The Gown Shop (1923)
3/10
Three little wiggies; or Hell toupee
8 June 2010
Warning: Spoilers
The most perceptive comment about silent-film comedian Larry Semon was made by Buster Keaton, as follows: Semon packed his movies with gags even if they weren't relevant to the plot or characters; consequently, audiences tended to laugh more during a Semon comedy than during other comedians' films, but afterwards the audience couldn't recall what they'd laughed at.

Here we have 'The Gown Shop', very much in Semon's usual style but with fewer laughs than usual. Semon plays his default character, a grotesque hard-working incompetent. (I'm going to be using the word 'grotesque' a lot in this particular review.) This time round, he blunders into a boutique. After causing some damage he can't pay for, Larry is put to work as a general dogsbody. Mayhem ensues.

Semon remains of interest for modern film fans less for his own merits than because both Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (separately, never together) did significant stints playing supporting roles in Semon's films before teaming for Hal Roach. Here we have Hardy as the gruff manager of the boutique. He barely resembles his famous "Ollie" character. In 'The Gown Shop', he's brawny rather than fat. He appears to be wearing some sort of hairpiece with slight sideburns. He also has heavy eyebrows and a moustache that's almost large enough to be a handlebar.

As the villain of this piece, Hardy romances the boutique's head saleslady, played by Kathleen Myers. She's supposed to be pretty, but Myers is seen here with a grotesque hairstyle that makes her look like Little Orphan Annie. If that's her real hair, Myers should have sued someone. I'm hoping it's a wig, though it looks far less natural than the hairpiece Hardy is wearing.

Talking of wigs: the boutique needs a (female) model for the fashion show, so Larry is pressed into service. Semon is one comedian who should NEVER have attempted female impersonation. He had a very peculiar face that was comical but also distressing. When he wore exaggerated (male) outfits, he often looked quite funny. Here, disguised as a woman, Semon isn't remotely convincing but he isn't funny either. In this same film, a genuine female role is portrayed by male actor Frank Hayes, better known from Keystone comedies. Hayes is a far more convincing woman than Semon, and that's not saying much.

For his female fling, Semon dons a hairpiece that's meant to be a lady's wig, but it looks like the petrified haircut worn by Paul Wegener as the Golem. In his Golem wig and a long frock, Semon flounces about as a fashion model. I laughed very slightly when he caught his frock in a mangle.

I stopped laughing when black actor Spencer Bell did his minstrel-show turn here as the shufflin' dusky porter. Although Semon gave steady employment to black actors, he invariably cast them in demeaning stereotypical roles that were ridiculous even by 1920s standards.

SPOILER NOW: Eventually, Meyers spurns Hardy and goes off with Semon, though it's hard to know what she sees in him. Perhaps she was blinded by that Orphan Annie wig. This is a very wiggy movie, what with Semon as a transvestite Golem, Meyers as Orphan Annie, and Oliver Hardy wearing by far the most realistic hairpiece (and giving the best performance) in this movie. I usually get a couple of good laughs out of a Larry Semon film, but not this time. My rating: 3 out of 10, almost entirely for Hardy's splendid portrayal of the villain.
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Triplepatte (1922)
7/10
Frenetic French farce resembles 'Seven Chances'
5 June 2010
I viewed this frenetic French comedy in October 2008 at the Cinema Muto festival in Pordenone, Italy; they screened a print from the Cinémathèque Français with the original French intertitles.

This is a very French movie: even its title doesn't easily translate. In France, a horse that baulks at fences was (still is?) said to be "treble-kneed" (triplepatte). The hero of this movie is nicknamed Triplepatte because he chronically hesitates whenever facing a decision.

What makes 'Triplepatte' very much an exotic offering for modern viewers is the Old World behaviour of its characters, and their very Old World traditions. This is a comedy about hereditary titles and arranged marriages: subject matter which Americans (and most other people today) will find baffling if not outright alienating. Some of the characters have names that are funny in French but don't translate amusingly into English ... such as Mademoiselle de Crèvecoeur ('Breakheart').

Henri Debain, with just a bit too much nose, portrays the young high-born hero Robert de Houdan, whose name unfortunately suggests (to me, at least) the famous French magician Robert-Houdin. Robert's father is the Viscount de Houdan, and Robert is the heir to this title and its estate. Accordingly, Robert is pursued by various women who want to marry him, and by matchmakers who want to marry him TO someone. There's even a pre-teen girl (very amusingly played by Suzy Boldes) who's touted as one of the future viscount's possible wives ... but no worries here; it would be an arranged marriage, to be left unconsummated until young Suzy comes of age. (You see why this movie might alienate modern viewers.)

Of course there are financial problems concerning the estate, rendering Robert a discount Viscount. (Pardon my eye rhyme.) Pierre Palau is very funny as a usurer who tries to stage-manage Robert's matrimony for his own profit.

The story takes a while to set up its premise, but once the plot is in place this movie never looks back. Like Buster Keaton in 'Seven Chances', Debain is pursued by more brides than any man needs. Debain is an excellent actor in this silent film, underplaying most of his emotional reactions to great effect. In the movie's opening scene, he even demonstrates some talent as a quick-sketch artist.

After some clumsy exposition, this film is splendidly paced, with a climactic scene in an elevator. I was intrigued to learn that 'Triplepatte' was based on a novel that was dramatised (and Anglicised) by the American playwright Clyde Fitch. With the title 'Toddles', it was a smash hit in London for the actor Cyril Maude, and a quick flop on Broadway for John Barrymore. If the stage play resembles this French film, then Barrymore was miscast.

Just as its title doesn't easily translate, 'Triplepatte' deals with themes and concerns that modern viewers (even in France) will have difficulty relating to. While watching this movie, I was reminded of Lubitsch's Hollywood films of the 1930s. The Parisians in this 1922 comedy have very little resemblance to actual Parisians of 1922, just as Lubitsch's characters are likewise alien to their own time and place.

This film's pacing and editing are impressive, and there are some nice set designs. If you can relate to this comedy's exotic setting while recognising that it's not a very accurate depiction of Parisian life, then I recommend 'Triplepatte'. I'll rate it 7 out of 10.
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7/10
Deserves to be on DVD, instead of kept on ice.
19 May 2010
I attended the same New York City screening of 'Hans Brinker' as IMDb reviewer "tentender", which in fact was at the Paley Center for Media (they haven't called it the Museum of Broadcasting for several years now). The screening was attended by two of the original cast members, singer Peggy King and skater Ellie Sommers (still impressively beautiful a half century later!), and they kindly offered their memories of the production. 'Hans Brinker' was filmed live in a Brooklyn studio filled with 50,000 pounds of ice! It melted quickly under the hot lights necessary for colour filming.

Tentender's review of 'Hans Brinker' is mostly accurate. The camera work, colour photography and production values are remarkable. Hallmark clearly spent a lot of money on this ice-skating musical. (No cheap skates, they.) I was disappointed that cast members Basil Rathbone and John Fiedler were given so little to do. In the post-screening discussion, Peggy King recalled that the entire production was done quickly, with almost no rehearsal time ... and, since she had no prior skating experience, this was especially unsettling for her.

I've never taken Tab Hunter seriously, but in the title role here he skates very impressively. In the discussion afterwards, Ellie Sommers revealed that Hunter had been California regional skating champion during his high-school years.

I wish that I could praise this musical's score. The songs by Hugh Martin are lacklustre. Martin wrote some excellent songs elsewhere in collaboration with Ralph Blane, but as a solo songwriter he doesn't cut any ice (sorry!). Peggy King recalled for us that Martin had prepared for this project by taking a research trip to Holland. I'm no expert on Netherlands music, but Martin's score sounds like some Hollywood tunesmith's version of Dutch folksongs. Which I wouldn't mind if his songs were catchier. Peggy King's songs were written and arranged in operetta-style, which I feel was a poor decision.

The Paley Center's staffer Rebecca Paller told us that 'Hans Brinker' had 60 million viewers for its original 1958 transmission, and that this was the biggest audience for a 'Hallmark Hall of Fame' special for the next 14 years. So then why has this programme been locked away for half a century? 'Hans Brinker' could've done with a bit less glitz and a better score. Despite my quibbles, the cast is excellent and the skating is certainly impressive by any standard. I hope that this recording becomes available for home viewing. Too bad that the sexy ice-skater Belita wasn't in the cast ... or even Sonja Henie. My rating for this one is 7 out of 10.
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Kadetten (1939)
7/10
Russians, Prussians, war galore!
7 May 2010
"Cadets" is a German film made during World War Two, so of course it advances the propaganda of the Reich. But this is actually a well-made and entertaining movie, in spite of its political agenda. The Nazis devoted a substantial amount of resources (often including slave labour) to well-made, elaborate movies, often in historical settings (most notably the epic "Kolberg") ... leaving me to wonder if history might have taken a different course if Germany had devoted all those resources to winning Hitler's war.

"Cadets" takes place during the Seven Years' War of 1756-1763, a conflict which I consider the first true world war. (American history books identify this conflict as the French and Indian War, often omitting to mention that much of the fighting took place in Europe, and nearly every European nation was involved.) The Seven Years' War and World War Two had a major factor in common: in both cases, Russia changed sides during the war.

The heroes of "Cadets" are a group of plucky Prussian boys, ages nine through twelve, who are attached to a battle regiment. (Did the Prussian army actually muster boys this young? And were those boys ever in the line of fire? I confess that I don't know. I'll describe the movie accurately, but I don't know if the movie is historically accurate.) The boys are captured by Russian troops. Of course they escape. After many adventures and hardships, they heroically rejoin their unit.

This film being Nazi agitprop, naturally all the Prussian boys (surrogate Germans) are a bunch of little Tintins, brave and resourceful and good-looking. The Russians are coarse, filthy vulgarians with no sense of honour nor valour. Most nations have resorted to similar stereotypes in their wartime films.

"Cadets" seems to be aimed at both adult and youth audiences in Germany and Austria. On several levels, this is an entertaining "Boys' Own"-style adventure film, about as realistic as "Emil and the Detectives". In hindsight, though, we know that the Nazi war effort was preparing boys of the Hitler Youth to go into combat, and that many boys as young as the cadets in this film were eventually in the front lines of the Wehrmacht and the Volkssturm, blindly and patriotically dying for their nation while adult Nazis were frantically rushing westward, hoping to surrender to American or British forces before the Red Army arrived. Those brave boys were decoys so that cowardly men could survive the war.

For those who can look past its political agenda, "Cadets" is an enjoyable film with plenty of action. The period detail is, as usual for German movies before and during the Reich, impeccable. The production values are more than adequate, and the exterior locations are impressive. The boy cadets sing a rousing song, "I Like a Fight with the Enemy in the Field", and Lydia Li is attractive as a Russian singer. Fully aware of its political context, I'll rate "Cadets" 7 out of 10.
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Okay America! (1932)
6/10
"Okay", but could've been better.
3 May 2010
A previous IMDb reviewer complained about a poor print of this film. I was able to view a pristine print of "Okay, America!" from the personal collection of film historian William K Everson; that print is now in the New York University archives.

Lew Ayres stars as a brash newspaper columnist and radio broadcaster who's clearly based on Walter Winchell. Ayres starts his radio broadcasts with the catchphrase "Okay, America!" whereas Winchell started his broadcasts with (fake) Morse code and the greeting "Good evening, Mr and Mrs North and South America".

I had to laugh at one unintentionally funny scene in this movie. Ayres, as the surrogate Winchell, visits a nightclub featuring African-American performers, and he chats affectionately with a shapely black dancer whose skimpy costume is obviously inspired by the scanty outfit worn onstage by legendary black performer Josephine Baker. About twenty years after this movie was made, the real Winchell and Baker became bitter enemies -- Winchell famously calling her "Josephoney Baker" in his column -- so I was amused to see their fictional counterparts here on good terms.

The film's plot involves the abduction of a young woman whose father is the President's best friend and a member of his Cabinet. The powerful Production Code of 1930s Hollywood dictated that movies could not depict kidnappers succeeding in their crime, lest some audience member get ideas. A 1930s movie villain might get away with murder, rape and armed robbery, but never kidnapping (at least not in Hollywood).

This is one of those movies in which the virtuous hero is so deeply respected by underworld figures that they'll let him walk out of a deadly situation simply because his word is his bond, even though the crooks have plenty of incentive to kill him.

As the chief villains, Louis Calhern and Edward Arnold are in fine form despite some implausible dialogue. Calhern speaks his lines in his usual cultured accent and impeccable diction, yet his character uses poor grammar ("Larry don't talk"). Arnold's gentleman crimelord reads "Oliver Twist" but seems to consider Fagin the only objectionable character in this novel, suggesting that his lines were written by some scriptwriter who hadn't actually read "Oliver Twist". (That book has a couple of characters even worse than Fagin.)

As the loyal secretary who's secretly in love with her boss Ayres, Maureen O'Sullivan is excellent except for one odd lapse: I don't know whether to blame her, the director or the script. When Ayres and O'Sullivan visit a spooky location, O'Sullivan drops her clutch purse to register shocked emotions, but then she leaves without retrieving it ... thus reminding us that she's an actress handling a wardrobe accessory, instead of a real person with keys and money and I.D. in that purse.

Charles Dow Clark is good in a role that's irrelevant to the story, and Rollo Lloyd acquits himself well in a deeply implausible role. We never do learn how Lloyd's drunken ex-reporter manages to get that big scoop.

The taxicab that recurs throughout this Universal movie (Yellow Cab #79) also shows up in Columbia's film "Washington Merry-Go-Round".

The unnamed President in this movie is apparently meant to be the actual President in office in 1932, Herbert Hoover; a line of dialogue implies that he's Republican. Ayres's scene in the President's office shows the Chief Executive only in silhouette (implausibly standing up while addressing visitors, rather than sitting), intoning his lines in a stentorian voice totally unlike the real Hoover's.

Margaret Lindsay is effective in a tiny role as the kidnap victim who triggers all the fuss. One of my favourite character actors, Alan Dinehart, is here as Ayres's boss, earning a punch on the jaw for his efforts. Dinehart usually played shifty chancers or outright crooks; he's less plausible than usual here as an honest journalist. Russian actor Akim Tamiroff, in his first film role, is apparently already typecast as a Mexican (his character here is cried Pedro).

Too many Hollywood movies feature unbreakable heroes: the leading man gets beaten up in one scene, and in the next reel he's as good as new. That trend stayed in place until 'Chinatown', with Jack Nicholson sporting a bandaged nose for half the movie. I was impressed by a minor detail in "Okay, America!": about halfway through this movie, Ayres gets roughed up, and for the rest of the film he has a cut on his upper lip that's visible only in close-ups. (Or maybe Ayres cut himself in real life while this film was in production.)

There are a lot of good things in 'Okay, America!', but the film's main flaw is the casting of Lew Ayres in the lead role. Ayres was a bland actor: he's decent enough here, but there were several other Hollywood actors of this period (James Cagney, Lee Tracy, Pat O'Brien, James Dunn, Wallace Ford) who could have been brilliant in this role. To achieve such an influential position as a crusading broadcaster and columnist, this movie's hero would have needed to be a human dynamo, yet Ayres's performance never really catches that spark. O'Sullivan is better in a subtler role. Mostly because of Ayres's lacklustre effort, I'll rate this one only 6 out of 10.
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8/10
Better than most in this genre
3 May 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Sometimes a movie gets its own credits wrong, and I'm delighted that IMDb got this one right. The opening and closing credits of 'The Final Edition' list Robert Emmett O'Connor as a character named Conroy, and the movie's dialogue swiftly establishes Conroy as the police commissioner. O'Connor spent most of his movie career portraying police detectives, so I was intrigued that he'd finally earned a promotion. But in fact, Commissioner Conroy is played by Wallis Clark, with O'Connor (as usual) in a smaller role, pounding a beat as a plainclothesman again.

This film is excellent, a good notch above most of the crusading-reporter movies of the 1930s. Director Howard Higgin shows real talent; had he not died young, he might have become a major Hollywood director.

Pat O'Brien — young, thin and virile — is in top form here as the brash city editor who walks right into a deadly situation. Mae Clarke is even more impressive as the reporter who gets the big scoop. Clarke was not especially pretty, but here she shows a shapely figure when she briefly wears a bathing cozzy. There are also splendid performances here by obscure actors Morgan Wallace, Bradley Page and Mary Doran. James Donlan does excellent work in a badly-written role, as a photographer (not a reporter; IMDb got that one wrong) who's completely incompetent at all times except when he conveniently needs to be highly efficient.

There are several implausibilities here. Clarke's reporter, working undercover, checks into an hotel under her real name. (Apparently they don't ask for I.D., since the man she's pursuing registers at the same hotel under an alias.) Clarke and her quarry are both able to obtain each other's room keys from the front desk with laughable ease. (Remind me not to check into that hotel.) And a railway station's left-luggage counter will relinquish checked items to anyone who can describe the item's contents without possessing a luggage ticket.

The film's dialogue pulls no punches, at one point explicitly mentioning heroin. Although I enjoy clever-movie dialogue when it's done well, I tend to be annoyed at movies in which every single character dispenses sparkling repartee. This movie isn't guilty of that crime: the dialogue here is effective without showing off. I was impressed by a sequence in which slimy villain Bradley Page tries to seduce Clarke with some very unsubtle double-entendres, and she pretends to return his interest.

'The Final Edition' (good title!) deserves to be better known. It's firmly in the "Get me Rewrite" genre of 1930s newspaper movies, but it's better than most of that breed. It's a shame that Pat O'Brien is the only actor in this talented cast who went on to a major career: even Mae Clarke's stardom was very brief indeed. I'll rate this corker 8 out of 10.
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Sob Sister (1931)
9/10
The ultimate candlestick-telephone movie
3 May 2010
Warning: Spoilers
I enjoyed this film very much. Among its delights is an impressive performance by Linda Watkins (who?) as the heroine. Watkins is attractive, energetic and a good actress. For some reason, after making a handful of films in the early 1930s, she dropped out of sight for twenty years, then reappeared in bit roles on television. 'Sob Sister' shows that she could have had a major Hollywood career.

We start out splendidly, with impressive opening credits (more elaborate than usual for the Fox Film Corporation) resembling a newspaper's display ad. Then we're firmly in 1930s newspaper-movie territory, as men wearing snap-brim trilbies indoors are shouting into black Bakelite candlestick telephones. The candlestick phone is the emblematic symbol of all those newspaper movies, so I was delighted by one scene in this film in which a newspaper editor (Charles Middleton, oddly cast but effective) talks into a phone while an enormous shadow of a candlestick telephone looms behind him. Ironically, Middleton is using a cradle telephone.

The movie starts out with rival reporters covering the murder of a young woman, and invading her family's privacy to get a scoop. This sequence made me uneasy for purely personal reasons: in 1975, as a Fleet Street stringer, I covered the murder of heiress Lesley Whittle, and this movie brought back some unpleasant memories for me. But soon enough the plot moves in another direction, involving a kidnapped child.

SLIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD. Watkins and James Dunn (excellent, as usual) are the rival reporters. This is one of those movies in which a woman, competing against several men, beats them at their own game by playing dirtier. Several competing reporters get a big story in a remote location; there's only one telephone line in a 17-mile radius. Watkins gets to the phone first, so the reporters from all the other papers patiently wait their turn as she phones her editor. But once she's finished, she cuts the phone line so that nobody else can use it. Speaking of limited telephone access, Ward Bond plays a motorcycle cop who has to contact headquarters by cadging a nickel so he can use a coin phone. Times have changed!

There are some extremely impressive sets in this movie (including a multi-storey courtyard), and some very impressive camera movement through those sets. I was also impressed by a rooftop set (filmed on a soundstage, masquerading as outdoors) with forced-perspective models of the distant skyscrapers. Some of the sets in this movie are TOO impressive: Watkins is a newspaper reporter, presumably with the tiny salary to match, yet somehow she lives in an enormous elaborate apartment with a fireplace. Her bathroom has a washbasin and a radiator, but no discernible toilet. (Ah, 1930s Hollywood!)

Practically every actor in this cast gives an excellent performance, notably Edward Dillon (who?) in a comedy-relief role that turns out relevant to the plot, and George E. Stone. Stone usually played ineffectual weaklings; here, he's very impressive as a criminal behind bars who still exudes menace. (In real life, Stone had a few gangster friends.) Maurice Black is good as a thug who's nicknamed Gimp even though he has only a very slight limp. More positively, there's a scene in which Watkins is bound and gagged, and (for once) a character in a movie has been gagged properly. Watkins's arms are tied behind her back; she frees herself by burning the ropes, and the sequence is filmed brilliantly, showing that a genuine flame is burning dangerously close to the actress (not a stunt double).

One thing that I DON'T like about old Hollywood movies is the visual device of a front-page headline to convey information which is important only to the characters in the movie, not to the public in general. 'Sob Sister' ends with Dunn and Watkins — two lowly newspaper reporters — getting married, and somehow this minor event rates the entire front page of a newspaper. I couldn't buy that bit, and earlier in the film I couldn't believe that the romance of these two obscure journos would rate a mention in the column of (fictional) Broadway journalist Winch Markel, an obvious amalgam of real showbiz columnists Walter Winchell and Mark Hellinger.

Despite a few implausibilities, almost everything here is a non-stop delight. Why isn't 'Sob Sister' better known? I'll rate this movie 9 out of 10. Get me Rewrite!
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8/10
Flawed, but this 'Lemon' is still sweet
27 April 2010
Warning: Spoilers
This 1934 film version of Damon Runyon's story 'The Lemon Drop Kid' has been legally suppressed, due to Paramount's remake starring Bob Hope. The remake has its merits, but this '34 version is closer to Runyon's original plot. Hope played the remake for broad comedy: this version starts out going for broad laughs, then moves into drama and finally pathos.

I have a high regard for Runyon's work but I don't actually enjoy reading it. His characters speak in deeply contrived slang and implausible grammar. This script lumbers Tracy with a steady stream of dialogue that's both too slangy and not believable enough. When a major catastrophe befalls him, instead of yelling some simple interjection, he actually says "This is my unlucky day, or I don't know a mare from a gelding." For most of the movie, he talks like that.

I was also intrigued, but not entirely impressed, that Tracy's character here kept speaking in rhyming slang, such as saying "willows" when he means "pillows". Rhyming slang is used by racetrack touts in Britain and Australia, but I've never heard anyone in the States use it. Also, Tracy keeps defining his slang terms for the benefit of the other characters (and the audience), when the whole point of rhyming slang is to baffle outsiders.

There's a splendid performance by William Frawley as a tout nicknamed 'the Professor'. Frawley gets to warble a song at one point, and he does it very well ... though he accompanies his vocals with those incredibly bad hand gestures that some movie actors use when they pretend to be playing piano. There's also a fine performance by Minna Gombell in what could've been a stereotypical "seen it all, dearie" role. Splendid work by director "Mickey" Neilan.

There's a too-brief performance by vaudeville banjoist Eddie Peabody, and I was amused to see Kitty Kelly playing with a Sam Loyd puzzle. Black actor Sam McDaniel shows up as Robert McWade's bathchair attendant, and I was delighted that McDaniel was permitted to play a realistic black man with nary a "Yassuh". Speaking of which: why do the fictional characters in this movie (and so many other 1930s Hollywood movies) persist in using mispronunciations such as 'deef' for 'deaf' and 'raddio' for 'radio'? I've never heard an actual American use either of those mispronunciations.

SPOILERS AHEAD: One key event, an armed robbery, takes place offscreen ... possibly to help maintain sympathy for Tracy's character. He's cried the Lemon Drop Kid because he keeps eating lemon-flavoured acid drops, yet (even when he has no money) Tracy seems to have an infinite supply of these in his pocket, as if he's Harpo Marx. I disliked a scene in which the Lemon Drop Kid, a widower, gets arrested in the presence of his infant son. He's understandably concerned for himself, yet neither he nor the arresting officers seem to think about who will take care of the infant: Baby LeRoy is just left there while the Lemon Drop Kid gets hauled off to chokey. Earlier, Helen Mack gives a deeply touching performance as Tracy's wife, who gives birth to their child but knows she's going to die from the complications.

There are a couple of awkward time-jumps in this movie, which takes place over the course of about three years. The transition from frothy comedy to deep pathos is a bit disorienting, but Tracy (an under-rated actor) handles it splendidly. My rating for this one is 8 out of 10.
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8/10
Better than 'Beau James' and just as inaccurate.
27 April 2010
Warning: Spoilers
This comedy deserves a lot of credit for its many pleasures, but it doesn't deserve credit for its clever title. At least one New York City gossip columnist had already applied the nickname 'the Night Mayor' to Jimmy Walker, New York City's nightclubbing mayor of the late Prohibition years. This movie blatantly rips off many details of Walker's meteoric career, and 'The Night Mayor' was released less than two weeks before Walker resigned as the result of a scandal.

Lee Tracy is note-perfect here as Mayor Bobby Kingston, who's clearly Walker in all but name, and who even has many of the real Walker's biographic traits. At one point here, Tracy claims to be a lyricist: the real Walker wrote the lyrics to the hit song 'Will You Love Me in December As You Do in May?'.

I was intrigued by this film's story credit for Sam Marx. He later held sway as long-time head of the scripts department at MGM (while his cousins the Marx Brothers were under contract there), but Sam Marx's writing credits are few.

One of my favourite character actors, Warren Hymer, is in fine form here. Hymer almost always played dimwitted thugs: here, he's a butler(!) who does some thugging on the side. Eugene Palllette gives one of his best performances, and has one great line: 'I eat publicity!'. The sight of Vince Barnett in plus-fours is worth the price of admission.

I disliked the leading lady here, Evelyn Knapp. She's a goodish actress but her face, voice, hairstyle and make-up in this role are unattractive. She's also anorectically thin. Knapp is cast here as a chorus girl in a Ziegfeld-style revue, but in 1932 the showgoers preferred chorines with some meat on their bones.

There's lots of bright sparkling dialogue, although Tracy mispronounces 'repartee'. I disliked one noisy scene with lots of telephones all ringing simultaneously. Tracy's brassy mayor is meant to be sympathetic, but I disliked him. He's always on hand for a mayor's ceremonial duties, but when there's actual work to be done he's off to the nearest party featuring Prohibition hooch.

Due to this film's premise, there are LOTS of stock-footage shots featuring huge thronging crowds; some of the footage is obviously quite old, as the crowds are wearing clothes from circa 1915. More pleasantly, there are also lots of expensive optical wipes, and one very impressive travelling shot through a large hotel lobby. Tracy briefly does a hoofing routine with Knapp, dancing expertly. In a key role, Don Dillaway is a non-entity.

SLIGHT SPOILERS. As mayor, Tracy is embroiled in an investigation that threatens to scupper his career, but the film simply drops this at the fade-out with no resolution. I spotted a continuity error: we see a message that Knapp's character wrote in lipstick on a wall, and later we see a handwritten letter that she also wrote: but the handwritings don't match. And I think there's another error too: I know that the mayor of New York City is empowered to perform marriages, but we see Tracy doing this in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Can New York City's mayor perform marriages in a completely different state?

Despite my quibbles, 'The Night Mayor' (yes, there's a 'The' in the title) is a delightful comedy with clever dialogue and several excellent performances. This movie's a lot more fun than 'Beau James', an ostensibly accurate biopic of Walker that isn't much more accurate than 'The Night Mayor'. My rating for this one: 8 out of 10. IMDb, please fix your spell-check so I can spell Eugene Palllette's name correctly.
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9/10
Tasties and pasties
23 April 2010
I enjoyed almost everything about this delightful documentary except its title: I've never encountered an actual human being who mispronounces the word 'burlesque' as 'Burly Q' or 'burleycue', and I don't know why fictional characters (such as Will Parker in the musical 'Oklahoma!') keep using this mispronunciation.

Despite that titular development, 'Behind the Burly Q' offers some rare and titillating footage from the days of old-time burlesque: Stateside only, though. I wish there had been at least a mention of London's legendary Windmill Theatre.

An impressive number of veteran strippers are interviewed here, offering their memories. Also on hand are Lou Costello's daughter, and Alan Alda. He's introduced here as "son of Robert Alda", and only later is it established that the senior Alda was a small-time burlesque comedian and singer. I wish that this documentary had mentioned that Robert Alda later had a more prestigious career in Hollywood films and Broadway musicals. Alan Alda offers some candid memories of his childhood as the son of a burlesque performer, including a nice anecdote about his sibling rivalry with a pig.

I was fascinated by much of the material here, including descriptions of how the strippers had to vary their striptease to satisfy local ordinances. For instance, in Green Bay, Wisconsin it was unlawful to remove clothing onstage, so the strippers had to duck into the wings to remove each garment, then come back onstage without it. Allegedly, audiences in Indianapolis were especially notorious for their obsession with the strippers' mammary endowments. (Surely this was the case in every other venue as well?)

Some legendary strippers who have made their exit and gone to that great Gazeeka Box in the sky are recalled here, including Lili St Cyr, Ann Corio and Gypsy Rose Lee. Sadly, nobody here has a kind word for Gypsy.

One stripper recounts the tragic story of the death of Lou Costello's infant son, but she implies that Costello was performing with her in burlesque at the time. In fact, he and Bud Abbott were starring in a radio series, and Costello made his scheduled radio broadcast that night despite his loss. This documentary includes a clip from a cross-talk comedy routine between Costello and the unjustly forgotten comedian Sidney Fields. I was disappointed that the clip shown here builds to the routine's punchline but then omits the punchline. American comedian Sidney Fields (no relation to English comedian Sid Field) spent much of his career writing comedy material for other performers, including Jackie Gleason. Also seen here, far too briefly, is burlesque comedian Pinky Lee in a minuscule clip from his 1950s kiddy show.

There's a brief mention of Costello's friend and fellow burlesque comic Rags Ragland. I wish that this documentary had told the hilarious true story about the occasion when an angry gun-toting stripper chased Ragland across the stage during Costello's "Crazy House" routine, and the audience thought it was part of the act!

I was very pleased that this documentary gives tribute to Bud Abbott's splendid timing as Costello's straight man, and I wish that more footage of Abbott had been included.

This documentary very briefly touches upon two lesser-known aspects of burlesque: the female impersonators and the strippers who were Negro or Oriental. I wish that a bit more information had been given here.

One stripper mentions that she dated John F Kennedy, while another recalls working in Jack Ruby's strip joint at the time of Kennedy's assassination.

These strippers certainly earned their money; they were worked hard, many of them came from abusive backgrounds and several were in abusive relationships while performing. At least they made more money taking off their clothes than they would have made in more conventional professions.

'Behind the Burly Q' is a delight: a documentary that's entertaining while also being informative. I was pleased that this movie verified something I've been asserting for years: namely, that early burlesque was family entertainment, with an absolute embargo on 'blue' material, and that the form only gradually moved raunchwards.

I'll rate 'Behind the Burly Q' 9 out of 10. Run all the way to Floogle Street to see it, and bring the top banana. Better yet: meet me round the corner in a half an hour!
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10/10
Powerful, positive, tasteful and deeply erotic.
18 April 2010
Warning: Spoilers
THIS REVIEW DEALS WITH SUBJECTS THAT SOME PEOPLE WILL FIND DISTURBING.

This wonderful documentary is powerful, erotic and fascinating. The UK press kit renders its title as "NoBody's Perfect", with that capital B supplying a double meaning.

SLIGHT SPOILERS. Between 1957 and 1961, the tranquiliser thalidomide was marketed without adequate tests. When taken by a pregnant woman, the drug sometimes aborted the child, or more frequently deformed the arms (and sometimes legs) of the developing foetus. The drug harms the foetus but not the genome: people born with this deformity do not pass it to their own children.

Film-maker Niko von Glasow has normal legs, but his malformed arms are so small that they're concealed inside his T-shirt's sleeves. We first see him with his young daughter Mandel, confessing that he's afraid to go swimming bare-chested because people might laugh at his short arms.

Apparently inspired by the Rylstone Women's Institue and 'Calendar Girls', von Glasow conceives a project: 12 thalidomide-afflicted people — six women and six men, including himself — will pose nude for a calendar and art installation, celebrating their distinctive bodies. He contacts eleven others, who have transcended their affliction to attain an impressive range of social roles: they include an astrophysicist, a lawyer, a politician, a visual artist, an equestrienne, a gardener, some home-makers, a receptionist and a professional actor. Some must use motorised wheelchairs, due to their malformed legs. All were born circa 1960, before thalidomide's problem was known. None are shy about exposing their abnormal limbs or (normal) genitals, but a couple of them are wary of revealing fiftyish waistlines.

We meet each individual, some more malformed than others. Simple tasks that other people take for granted are major undertakings: Mat Fraser wants a "thalidomide toilet" that would deal with the difficulties of wiping afterward. One of the men, asked if he would wish for a normal body, decides instead he would wish to be famous and to give up smoking. (Several of these people smoke, despite the difficulty of handling lighters and lit cigarettes with their malformed hands.) One individual declares from his wheelchair that he accepts his body but wishes he could change his personality. Despite their phocomelic arms, several of the women wear attractive make-up: I'd like to have seen how they apply it.

Doris Pakendorf has normal legs but no arms except one finger growing directly from her shoulder. In a cafe, she orders a beer in a stemmed glass so that she can grip it between her toes. I'm a sometime horseman, so I was riveted by the sequences showing Bianca Vogel astride her horse Roquefort. Using long reins to control the mount with her teeth and her extremely short arms, Vogel is a competitive equestrienne and show-jumper. She proudly shows us the ribbons she's won.

All of their lives are impressively normal. Kim Morton crawls on four stumped limbs to clean her house, but it's spotless. We meet her mother and husband, and she proudly shows a photo of her serviceman son.

We see home movies of three of these people as children, smiling and playing as they contend with stunted limbs, sometimes alongside normal siblings and affectionate parents. (Full disclosure: This sequence profoundly affected me for personal reasons. I was born — before thalidomide was marketed — with very slight malformities of my hands and one foot; not remotely as extreme as the deformities depicted in this film, yet my family stigmatised me as a 'disgrace' for this.) All the people here were raised by supportive families.

All twelve are candid about their sex lives, to varying degrees. One woman is openly lesbian. Two men drop hints that they're gay. I found all six of the thalidomide-affected women here extremely attractive and arousing; make of that what you will.

All twelve visit Niko's studio, submitting to professional hairstyling and make-up before stripping off and posing: gardener Theo holds flowers, Bianca caresses her horse. Petra wants to be photographed while a silk kerchief floats overhead, but asks that someone other than Niko (i.e., someone with normal arms) toss it into the frame: prejudice, or practicality?

The only photo that I disliked is Niko's. He poses nude alongside his clothed daughter Mandel (a minor), and she grins as she points to his penis. I wish she hadn't done this; it makes the portrait explicitly sexual rather than celebrating Niko's entire body. The 12 nude photos are then displayed in a public mall, and we see a very young boy grinning as he poses for his parents beside a life-size blow-up of this photo. Guess which part of the photo the boy is pointing at.

After the photo session, all 12 sitters (clothed again) enjoy a dinner together. Some eat with their toes, while others have their faces barely an inch from the dishes due to their very short arms. I'll confess that I was reminded of the wedding feast in Tod Browning's movie 'Freaks'. But that sequence was intentionally grotesque and horrific: these twelve people are laughing and socialising in a normal situation; their bodies require a new definition of 'normal', and they handle it wonderfully.

There's an unpleasant but honest sequence in which Niko visits the glutcorp that marketed thalidomide with inadequate testing, and which has never compensated the victims. This sequence is shot from floor level, so the corporate spokespeople's faces are not shown.

The film ends triumphantly. We see Niko on the beach, wearing only bathing trunks, his tiny phocomelic limbs bare to the sunshine. His daughter Mandel joins him. They step into the sea, holding hands. I was delighted that Niko overcame his phobia, but I worried that his small arms might have trouble with the current.

This is a powerful, impressive film. Deeply erotic, it celebrates the human body in all its strange shapes, and the triumph of the mind. Absolutely, I rate 'NoBody's Perfect' 10 out of 10.
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