Alley next to Pike Street Public Market, Seattle, WA

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Blow Out (1981)

If you're a fan or critic of Director Brian De Palma, you know that De Palma has spent a large part of his career making films that borrow, pay homage, or rip off some of Alfred Hitchcock's best works. For the record, I'm a Brian De Palma fan. De Palma's OBSESSION (1976) is his ode to Hitchcock's classic VERTIGO (1958). Both SISTERS (1973) and DRESSED TO KILL (1980) from De Palma have slasher plots inspired by Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960). De Palma also likes to use swirling cameras and high angle shots in many of his films that would make the Master of Suspense blush with pride.

So it may come as a shock that De Palma's best film BLOW OUT (1981) which he both wrote and directed has little to do with Hitchcock and instead seems influenced by European Director Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film BLOW UP. Starring David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave, BLOW UP is about a British fashion photographer who may have accidentally photographed a murder. In De Palma's BLOW OUT, a movie soundman played by John Travolta stumbles onto a political assassination when he records what he thinks may be a gunshot that causes a presidential candidate to crash his automobile into a lake, killing the governor but not the pretty escort accompanying him.

BLOW OUT is not only inspired by Antonioni's BLOW UP (photography) but Francis Coppola's 1974 THE CONVERSATION (sound and wiretapping) and the paranoia political thrillers of the 70s like Alan J. Pakula's THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974). But De Palma also borrows from real life events including John F. Kennedy's assassination, the Zapruder home movie film that captured Kennedy's shocking death, and the Chappaquiddick incident in 1969 when presidential hopeful and younger brother of John F. Kennedy, Ted Kennedy drove his car off a one lane bridge and into a tidal channel killing a young female companion riding with him on Nantucket Island. The tragic accident may have cost the married Kennedy his shot at the presidency.

BLOW OUT is the culmination of a good run of films De Palma made in the late 70's and early 80s like CARRIE (1976), THE FURY (1978), and DRESSED TO KILL. BLOW OUT also has a group of actors that De Palma had worked with in the past who had become his own cinematic troupe including John Travolta (CARRIE), Nancy Allen (CARRIE and DRESSED TO KILL), John Lithgow (OBSESSION) and Dennis Franz (DRESSED TO KILL).

Jack Terry (John Travolta) is a sound editor for Independence Pictures, a Philadelphia film company specializing in cheap horror films like Blood Bath and Blood Bath 2 and his latest project Coed Frenzy. Unhappy with some of the sound effects (including a coed's scream that will have dark overtones later), Jack goes out to a local park that night to record wind and other background effects. While recording, Jack hears tires squeal, a tire blow out, and then sees a sedan crash into a creek within the park. Jack dives into the water. He's able to save the passenger in the car, a woman named Sally Bedina (Nancy Allen) but not the driver. At the hospital, Jack learns that the dead driver was presidential hopeful and current Governor George McRyan (John Hoffmeister). McRyan's Chief of Staff Lawrence Henry (John McMartin) asks Jack to forget there was a young woman in the car with the Governor out of respect for his family and wife. Jack locates a drugged up Sally and they both sneak out the back door of the hospital.

But Jack won't let the accident go. He listens to his sound tape and distinctly hears what sounds like a gunshot before the tire blows. He smells a conspiracy and a cover up. A sleazy photographer Manny Karp (Dennis Franz) suddenly emerges with photos of the accident. Jack cuts out the photos from a magazine and puts them together with his sound revealing the car crash wasn't an accident. Jack discovers Manny and Sally were running a blackmail scam, hired by opponents of Governor McRyan. But McRyan wasn't supposed to be killed. Now Burke (John Lithgow), the hatchet man for the opposition, has gone rogue, trying to clean up the loose ends, erasing Jack's tapes and plotting Sally's murder to keep her quiet.

Jack stops Sally from leaving Philadelphia, convincing her to help him. Haunted by his past working with a police commission to catch crooked cops in which an informant he wired ended up murdered, Jack wants to absolve his sins and catch the people who murdered McRyan. Jack sends Sally to grab Manny's original photos of the accident. Sally manages to get the originals after knocking an amorous Manny out. Jack agrees to show his little film to Frank Donahue (Curt May), a TV news reporter. But Burke sabotages Jack's plan, blocking his phone calls and impersonating Donahue on the phone to have Sally bring the incriminating film and sound to him at Penn Station.

Sally tells the plan to Jack who suspects some thing's amiss. Jack wires Sally, confident this time he can catch the killer and keep Sally safe. But Burke whisks Sally away from the train station. Jack attempts to follow him but the Liberty Day parade blocks his route. Jack crashes his jeep trying to follow her. Fireworks explode in the night sky as Liberty Day concludes, Burke destroys the evidence and prepares to murder Sally. Jack regains consciousness, fleeing from an ambulance, following Sally's screams with his headphones as he races to save her from Burke. But will he find her in time?

If you didn't know from watching BLOW OUT, De Palma is a technical film geek. He's not afraid to experiment and try unconventional things in his films. A favorite De Palma technique is to use split screens so he can show two different actions going on in the same frame or different angles of the same action. It's his way to provide the audience more information. He will also use split screen with one object (like an owl or Travolta) close up on one side of the frame and something smaller but important on the other side of the frame. It looks like it's one shot but it's not. Both objects are in focus which normally wouldn't be possible in a foreground/background shot. BLOW OUT is full of split screens.

Travolta's Jack Terry in BLOW OUT is director De Palma's alter ego. Jack tells Sally he like gadgets and won science fairs in high school. De Palma competed and won science fairs in high school. Travolta's character Jack similar to Keith Gordon's teenage character Peter Miller in DRESSED TO KILL uses technology like sound and film to catch a killer. In DRESSED TO KILL, Peter concocts a time lapse camera to find who murdered his mother. With BLOW OUT, Jack rotoscopes photographs of the accident (animators use rotoscoping) and syncs it up with his sound, creating a mini-film of the assassination.

De Palma and his cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, THE DEER HUNTER, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND) introduce us to a sound editor's tools of the trade -- microphone, recorder, head phones, editing machine, and reel to reel tapes. By educating us, we are partners with Jack as he tries to solve this mystery. In one powerful sequence, De Palma and Zsigmond have the camera spin 360 degrees continuously in Jack's editing room as Jack runs around playing all his tapes, now erased by Burke, trying to find the one with the gun shot and blow out, the camera spinning like so many blank reel to reel tapes. It is dizzying and phenomenal.

BLOW OUT reveals De Palma's humorous dark side. The film opens with a killer spying on nubile college coeds, a film within our film. POV shots of the killer peeping on the girls in their rooms and shower, cheesy sound effects. It's Jack's latest project Coed Frenzy. Slasher films were the rage in the later 70s/early 80s. But then BLOW OUT becomes part-slasher film as Burke begins murdering women who look like Sally, trying to set up a fake Liberty Day strangler angle as he cleans up the governor's murder. The film's finale is De Palma's ultimate laugh as Jack unintentionally records the perfect scream, a macabre ending to this nightmarish thriller.

De Palma sets the film in Philadelphia known as the City of Brotherly Love. A fictional Liberty Day celebration looms for the city. Murals of Benjamin Franklin and other patriotic heroes are shown. But there's no brotherly love in De Palma's Philadelphia. A presidential candidate is murdered. A killer begins murdering innocent women to cover up his mistake. The killer Burke wears a red, white, and blue tie and a button with I LOVE LIBERTY on his lapel. Toward the end of the film, Jack crashes his jeep into a store front window with Liberty or Death etched on it, smashing mannequins dressed as revolutionary heroes including Patrick Henry with a noose around his neck, hanged as a spy by the British. The noose (or in Jack's case wire) is getting tighter and tighter as Jack runs out of time, rushing to save Sally from Burke.

BLOW OUT is probably Travolta's finest performance until over a decade later when Quentin Tarantino would rescue the SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER star from obscurity and cast him as hitman Vincent Vega in PULP FICTION (1994). In BLOW OUT, Travolta's Jack Terry is a haunted man, reduced to working on B horror films after his wire tapping work with the police led to an informant's death. Jack has a righteous side, a chip on his shoulder against corruption and deception. He smells conspiracy with McRyan's death. He wants to right his wrong and catch the bad guys. But in doing so, he jeopardizes the one good thing in his present life Sally. He saved her once but can he save her again?

Nancy Allen plays Sally as a free spirited ingénue (with a Brooklyn accent). She's not dumb but she's not the smartest woman either. Men try to take control of Sally's life and exploit her, first Manny Karp, later Jack Terry. But she's charming and we care about her. Nancy Allen was married to Brian De Palma for five years and they made four films together. Not to be confused with Karen Allen (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, STARMAN), Nancy Allen had a good career going in the mid 70s and 80s with roles in STRANGE INVADERS (1983) and ROBO COP (1987).  But like many actresses as they reach their 40s, the roles began to drop off for Allen. The last thing I saw Nancy Allen in was a bizarre cameo in Steven Soderbergh's OUT OF SIGHT (1998). Like a few times in De Palma's films, Allen was half-naked, this time as the wife of a criminal played by Albert Brooks. But Allen's best work was her partnership with De Palma in CARRIE, DRESSED TO KILL, and BLOW OUT.

I'd like to think De Palma discovered John Lithgow who he first cast in OBSESSION, only Lithgow's third credit but his first feature film. Lithgow would also appear in BLOW OUT and RAISING CAIN (1992) for De Palma. With his tall frame and long face, Lithgow is creepy as the heavy Burke, the assassin/cleaner in BLOW OUT. He's one step ahead of Jack, destroying evidence like the blown tire or Jack's tapes. Burke's so confident he will clean up his insane mess that we are as surprised as Burke when Jack finds him and redirects the knife meant for Sally into  Burke's chest. Lithgow's career has flourished, appearing in films as diverse as the comedy HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS (1987) to action films like CLIFFHANGER (1993) to his performance as Winston Churchill in the TV series THE CROWN (2016).

Yes BLOW OUT is a political conspiracy thriller with overtones to the Kennedy assassination and Chappaquiddick but De Palma can't completely separate from his infatuation with Hitchcock. BLOW OUT alludes to PSYCHO with the psychotic Burke killing women. Jack's frantic attempt to save the woman he loves and has endangered hearkens back to the finale of VERTIGO as Jimmy Stewart pursues his resurrected love Kim Novak.  Fireworks n the French Rivera play a part in Hitchcock's TO CATCH A THIEF (1955), a metaphor for the sparks flying between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly as they make love.  But for BLOW OUT, the Liberty  Day fireworks have a much more somber, darker denotation. The pyrotechnics are Jack's soul exploding, his guilt and frustration erupting like so many colored rockets in his attempt to save Sally from Burke.

The opening credits for BLOW OUT seem like something that Hitchcock collaborator Saul  Bass (VERTIGO, PSYCHO) might have created, alerting us that we're about to go on a thrilling ride with the title credits speeding like McRyan's out of control car.  The music for BLOW OUT is not Hitchcock like. De Palma uses his favorite Italian composer Pino Donaggio who also did the music for De Palma's CARRIE, DRESSED TO KILL, and BODY DOUBLE (1984). Some of Donaggio's score in BLOW OUT sounds similar to another score he did for one of my favorite horror films, Joe Dante's THE HOWLING (also 1981).

With the success of small story driven films like BLOW OUT and DRESSED TO KILL, De Palma would move up to the world of big budget studio films , directing SCARFACE (1983), THE UNTOUCHBLES (1987), and the first MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE (1996). As with any repeated viewing of a film, I've started to notice bits of implausibility in BLOW OUT but it doesn't matter. BLOW OUT touches a nerve and reels us in with its bravura technical work by De Palma and crew and a story that could have been ripped from today's headlines.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

America fighting for its independence. The splitting of the atom. Henry Ford's invention of the modern automobile. Of all the historical events that have occurred in the United States relatively short history, Hollywood has been obsessed with one relatively minor gunfight involving a well known lawman and his tuberculosis ridden dentist friend against a ruthless band of outlaws. John Ford's MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946), John Sturges's HOUR OF THE GUN (1967), George Cosmatos's TOMBSTONE (1993), and Lawrence Kasdan's WYATT EARP (1994) all tell similar stories about the lives of lawman Wyatt Earp and his gunslinger friend Doc Holliday in the Wild West culminating in their infamous 30 second gun battle with outlaws (the Cowboys) including Ike and Billy Clanton at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona on October 26, 1881.

The two Wild West icons have been played by Henry Fonda and Victor Mature in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE; James Garner and Jason Robards in HOUR OF THE GUN; Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer in TOMBSTONE; and Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid in WYATT EARP. But I left out Hollywood's definitive production of the skirmish, shot in Technicolor and VistaVision, John Sturges' GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL (1957) with two of its biggest stars at the time in Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as John "Doc" Holliday. I like GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL for a lot of reasons although it's not my favorite film about Wyatt and Doc. John Ford's MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (shot in black and white) is my favorite, a more mythical and idealized version of their story.

My favorite Wyatt Earp is Henry Fonda in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE followed closely by Lancaster's portrayal. Kurt Russell's moustache is too distracting in TOMBSTONE. And James Garner who played Earp in John Sturges second telling of the tale HOUR OF THE GUN is miscast. Garner is better as an extrovert but Earp is more of an introvert. My favorite Doc Holliday is Val Kilmer's roguish turn in TOMBSTONE ("I'll be your huckleberry") followed by Kirk Douglas's interpretation. Kilmer looks thin and sick like the real Doc. Victor Mature's Doc in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE seems neither from the South nor sickly. The older films show us Wyatt and Doc leading up to the gunfight. The newer films TOMBSTONE and WYATT EARP have the O.K. Corral incident as one part of their story but go on to show us what happened to the men after the O.K. Corral. I have not seen Kasdan's WYATT EARP with Kevin Costner as Marshal Earp but nothing I have heard or read leads me to believe it's better than MY DARLING CLEMENTINE or GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL.

GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL provides the dream team of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.  Wyatt and Doc may be the most famous legends of the Wild West since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The allure with them might be that Wyatt was good and Doc a bit shady but they were friends to the end. With a screenplay by Leon Uris (who would later write the novels Exodus and Trinity) suggested by an article by George Scullin, GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL has big vistas (courtesy of veteran western cinematographer Charles Lang, Jr), the great Frankie Laine singing and whistling the title song Gunfight at the O.K Corral, and plenty of young actors as sidekicks, deputies, or villains we would become more familiar with in years to come.

It's 1879 in Fort Griffin, Texas. Ed Bailey (Lee Van Cleef) rides into town with two other cowboys looking to kill gambler and former dental student Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas), the man who killed his brother. Doc is holed up in a nearby hotel with his sometime girlfriend Kate Fisher (Jo Van Fleet). Marshal Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) also rides into town from Dodge City, Kansas. Earp is pursuing killers Ike Clanton (Lyle Bettger) and Johnny Ringo (John Ireland) but local sheriff Cotton Wilson (Frank Faylen) has let them pass through. Doc ends up facing Ed Bailey and kills him in self defense. Wyatt and Kate help Doc escape a lynch mob. The team of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday begins.

Wyatt warns Doc to stay away from his town of Dodge City but Doc shows up anyway (no one wants Doc in their town either). Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), a beautiful red headed gambler rolls into Dodge City too. Wyatt and Doc vie for her affections but Wyatt wins out. A jealous Kate bolts town, later to hook up with Johnny Ringo. With many of Wyatt's deputies out of town on a cattle drive, Wyatt asks Doc to help him catch some bank robbers. Doc agrees, feeling he owes Wyatt a debt for saving his life earlier. The cattle drive arrives in Dodge City along with Shanghai Pierce (Ted DeCorsia), Johnny Ringo, and a host of Cowboys, causing mayhem. They even wound Wyatt's only remainng deputy Charlie Bassett (Earl Holliman). Wyatt returns to town from a ride with Laura just in time to stop Shanghai with Doc and the townsfolk assistance.

Wyatt and Laura prepare to head out to California and get married when a telegram changes Earp's life. His brother Virgil Earp (John Hudson) needs Wyatt's help cleaning up the town of Tombstone, Arizona where Virgil is sheriff. Wyatt can't say no.  But Laura can. She ends their relationship. As Wyatt rides out of town, he's joined by Doc who's luck has run out in Dodge City. Doc hopes the warm climate will appeal to his health. The two men arrive in Tombstone to learn Ike Clanton is rustling stolen cattle out of Mexico along with Johnny Ringo and young Billy Clanton (a young Dennis Hopper). He needs to move it through Tombstone. Wyatt and Virgil along with brothers Morgan (DeForest Kelley) and James Earp (Martin Milner) create a law prohibiting guns in Tombstone. The Clanton's test the law but are kicked out of town. Ike wants Wyatt dead and plans an ambush the next night but his men kill brother James Earp instead of Wyatt.

Ike sends brother Billy to set up the final showdown between the two clans at the O.K. Corral the next morning. Kate shows up in Tombstone after hanging out with Ringo. Doc is seriously ill. The odds look hopeless.  It's just the three Earp brothers versus Ike, Finn, and Billy Clanton; Johnny Ringo, the McLowery brothers, and Cotton Wilson. As the Earp's head into town, the ailing Doc Holliday joins them and the most famous gunfight in the West commences as good squares off against evil.

GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL is like a Howard Hawks or Sam Peckinpah western with men following a code of honor even if they're not exactly cut from the same cloth. Wyatt is from the North, a Union man who follows the rules and upholds the law. Doc Holliday is a Southerner who gambles and whores and has killed many men not always in self-defense. Doc lives on the fringe of the law. But circumstances bring these two polar opposites together as they owe each other a debt and repay that debt. They become a team and eventually friends. Even though Doc owes no alliance to Wyatt or his brothers, he's with them to face the Clanton's at the O.K. Corral. Doc becomes like another brother to Wyatt.

Just as interesting as the relationship between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL are the relationships between Doc with girlfriend Kate Fisher and Wyatt with gambler Laura Denbow. Doc and Kate have an abusive love/hate relationship. They're like drug addicts. They try to leave each, disparage one another but they can't break the habit of their relationship. They're co-dependent on one another. Kate (in real life known as Big Nose Kate) is an alcoholic, prone to violent men like Johnny Ringo and Doc Holliday. But she's tough too. She helps  Doc escape Fort Griffin and later, keeps Doc awake so he can participate in the legendary gunfight.

Laura Denbow is the opposite of Kate.  Refined, sophisticated, and a good gambler to boot, Laura doesn't expect any special favors from her male gambling competitors except for good manners and taking their money. When Wyatt Earp throws her in jail for no good reason (except he likes her), she takes it all in stride, not asking for any special favors as she enters the small cell because she's a lady. Where Doc and Kate have weaknesses, Wyatt and Laura are strong and confident.  Laura's so confident, when Wyatt receives the telegram that his brother Virgil needs his help, Laura breaks off their engagement.  She will not be dragged around from town to town like somebody else's wife.  Kate and Laura are strong female characters in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL although not in the same way. Kudos to costume designer Edith Head for her colorful green and crimson dresses that actresses Fleming and Van Fleet wear like exotic birds of paradise.

Hollywood of course takes liberties with the facts surrounding the battle in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL and its two heroes Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. For instance, the actual gunfight was not at the O.K. Corral but in an empty lot behind the O.K. Corral (in the films, the filmmakers make sure to have plenty of signs with O.K. CORRAL visible so we know where the men are). The actual gunfight lasted 30 seconds but in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, it goes on for about five minutes.

GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL is always portrayed as a battle of good versus evil but according to Wyatt Earp biographer Andrew C. Isenberg, Earp and his brothers actually were working together with the Clanton's and McLowery's until a disagreement led to the infamous confrontation. It was more "police officers versus informants" Isenberg states. Doc Holliday studied to be a dentist (in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE he's a surgeon). Most interesting, Wyatt Earp is shown in movies as an honest, law abiding marshal but truth is often stranger than fiction. Biographer Isenberg says Wyatt Earp was a self promoting opportunist, constantly reinventing himself. Earp was actually a professional gambler who worked as an amateur law officer for less than five years including the O.K. Corral incident.  The real Wyatt Earp would later try to rewrite his legend with various writers before he died in 1929.

John Sturges' GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL influence shows up in future Westerns. Frankie Laine's title song Gunfight at the O.K. Corral with his whistling and composer Dimitri Tiomkin's horse hooves beat may have influenced Ennio Morricone's (director Sergio Leone's favorite composer) stylish score in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964) and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966). Leone would choose two actors from GUNFIGHT for his films, making an international star out of Lee Van Cleef in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965) and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. Jack Elam would have a memorable cameo in the opening sequence of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1969).  The climactic scene in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL where  Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil Earp walk down a deserted street toward the O.K. Corral joined by Doc Holliday hearkens to Sam Peckinpah's bloody finale in THE WILD BUNCH (1969) as the Wild Bunch strides four across down a dusty Mexican street to battle a small army.

Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas would act in seven films together besides GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL including John Frankenheimer's SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964) and their last teaming in Jeff Kanew's TOUGH GUYS (1986). Their Wyatt and Doc are the best combination of the men, a friendship that seems genuine and earned. Lancaster gives the only Wyatt performance so far without a moustache. His Wyatt is masculine, confident, yet restless. Wyatt yearns for a piece of land and a wife to share it with but he's constantly pulled back into fighting the lawlessness of the time. Kirk Douglas seems too fit and strong to play the wheezing Doc Holliday but Douglas wins you over with his charisma. His Doc plays loose with life, willing to gunfight anyone who challenges him because Doc's life is a gamble. He never knows how long he has to live with his tuberculosis.

Rhonda Fleming gets top billing as Lady Luck gambler Laura Denbow but Jo Van Fleet as Doc's on again off again girlfriend Kate Fisher has the showier role. Kate is Doc's nurse, confidant, whore, girlfriend, and fellow alcoholic. Their love is toxic. Van Fleet would also co-star in Elia Kazan's EAST OF EDEN (1955) and COOL HAND LUKE (1967) as Paul Newman's dying mother. Rhonda Fleming as Wyatt's love interest Laura Denbow is a beautiful redhead in the Rita Hayworth tradition although she never became quite as famous as Hayworth.  Fleming's Laura is just one of the guys, using her sex appeal and looks to get a seat at any saloon card table. She's not weak which makes her interesting to both Wyatt and Doc.  Fleming co-starred with Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum in the film noir OUT OF THE PAST (1947) and also appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND (1945).

I give director John Sturges a great deal of credit for his knack of finding young interesting actors for his films.  Sturges followed his gut and cast a young Steve McQueen in two of his more well known films THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) and THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963). In GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, Sturges gives us Lee Van Cleef (FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE) as the vengeful Ed Bailey, Earl Holliman (TVs POLICE WOMAN) as Wyatt's loyal deputy Charlie Bassett, Martin Milner (TVs ADAM-12) as Wyatt's doomed younger brother Jimmy, DeForest Kelly (best known as Dr. McCoy on TVs STAR TREK) as brother Morgan, and perennial western bad guy Jack Elam (THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF) as Tom McLowery.

In an interesting bit of cinematic trivia, John Ireland who plays sneering gunslinger Johnny Ringo in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL appeared in the first film about Wyatt Earp as Billy Clanton in John Ford's 1946 MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. Ireland would have a prolific career but often starred in Westerns including Howard Hawks RED RIVER (1948) and Sam Fuller's I SHOT JESSE JAMES (1949) although he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Robert Rossen's ALL THE KING'S MEN (1949), a political film. So who plays Billy Clanton in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL? None other than a young actor named Dennis Hopper. Hopper's Billy Clanton is a conflicted kid. He's not sure he wants to be a gunfighter but Ike and Finn are his brothers so he owes his allegiance to them. Hopper bounced around in supporting roles at the beginning of his career like REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), COOL HAND LUKE (1967), and TRUE GRIT (1969) but then disappeared a bit in the 70s before making a comeback in Francis Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW (1979). Hopper's revival would take off after that with amazing performances in David Lynch's BLUE VELVET (1986) and David Anspaugh's HOOSIERS (also 1986) to name but a few.

The story of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday fighting the Clanton and McLowery's at O.K. Corral is a classic American moment that resonates in our historical lifeblood. The way Hollywood tells it, it's good versus bad with good coming out on top. The truth is a little grayer but for the most part Hollywood gets the story right.  We don't want the Clanton's to win.  We want to root for the underdog. We like that two unlikely men with different backgrounds and morals would unite for a common good.  GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL gives us that story with the dynamite combination of Lancaster and Douglas as Western heroes Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

To Be Or Not To Be (1942)

Not many people of my generation probably remember comedian Jack Benny. I knew of Jack Benny through my father who liked to do an imitation of Benny, tilting his right cheek against his open palm (like Benny) and exhale exasperatingly,"Well!" Benny was a staple on Bob Hope Specials and Johnny Carson's the Tonight Show, often playing a violin as a prop for comic effect when I was growing up in the 1970s. But little did I know that before I saw the comedian Benny on television, he was acting in movies in the 30s and 40s including the great Ernst Lubitsch's WWII comedy TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942).

Modern filmgoers might remember Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft starring in a remake of TO BE OR NOT TO BE in 1983 directed by Alan Johnson but a WWII comedy in the 1980s didn't have the same impact as 1942 when the war was actually going on. Besides a young Jack Benny, TO BE OR NOT TO BE was the last film starring the gorgeous platinum blonde actress Carole Lombard (MY MAN GODFREY). Tragically, Lombard would die in a plane crash in Nevada after filming and did not live to see the release of TO BE OR NOT TO BE.

When we think of great comedy directors of the 30s and 40s, Frank Capra and Preston Sturges usually rise to the top. But Ernst Lubitsch, born in Berlin, Germany, is beloved by many as a top comedic director (Lubitsch was Billy Wilder's favorite director) although his resume isn't as lengthy as Capra or Sturges. TO BE OR NOT TO BE is clever farce, mixing comedy and suspense and some nice jabs at Der Fuhrer.  TO BE OR NOT TO BE was written by Edwin Justus Mayer based on an original story by Melchior Lengyel. Screenwriter Mayer seemed to be good at writing comedies taking place abroad as his resume includes THEY MET IN BOMBAY (1941), A ROYAL SCANDAL (1945) set in Russia and MASQUERADE IN MEXICO (1945).

TO BE OR NOT TO BE begins in Warsaw, Poland in the summer of 1939. A Polish theater group is rehearsing a new play called Gestapo. The troupe consists of married actors Maria Tura (Carole Lombard) and Joseph Tura (Jack Benny), veteran ham performer Rawitch (Lionel Atwill), Greenberg (Felix Bressart) who longs to play an important role like Shylock instead of holding spears as a bit player, and Bronski (Tom Dugan) who plays Hitler in the stage production and tries to add a funny line (without success). Much to the dismay of the theater's producer Dobosh (Charles Halton), the Polish government has reservations about the play, concerned it will anger the real Hitler. They cancel the premiere. The troupe returns to performing Shakespeare's Hamlet. As Joseph begins the famous soliloquy 'To Be or Not to Be' a young man exits the performance, irking Joseph. The young man is Lieutenant Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), a Polish pilot who's in infatuated with Joseph's wife Maria. Maria is flattered but not interested. Then, Germany invades Poland and everything changes.

Warsaw is bombed. The city is in ruins. Sobinski along with many other pilots flee to England where they join the RAF (Royal Air Force) to fight the Germans. A fellow Pole who has befriended the pilots Professor Alexander Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) tells the men he's headed to Warsaw on a secret mission. The pilots ask Siletsky to pass on their regards to friends and family and give him a list of names. Sobinski asks Siletsky to give his regards to the great Polish actress Maria Tura. But Siletsky doesn't know the name. Sobinski suspects the Professor might be a double agent bent on destroying the Polish underground. With British approval, Sobinski secretly flies back to Poland, parachuting at night, chased by the Germans, to stop Siletsky from passing the names to the local Nazi commander Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman).

Sobinski hides out in Maria's apartment where Joseph discovers him. Sobinski explains the dire situation. Joseph concocts a plan with the rest of the theater group. Using the Nazi army wardrobe from Gestapo and turning their Polish theater into a mock Gestapo headquarters, Joseph will pose as Colonel Ehrhardt, trying to detain Professor Siletsky while Maria tries to grab the dossier of names from Siletsky's room at the Hotel Europa. But Siletsky becomes suspicious. As Siletsky tries to escape the theater, he's shot and killed. With the spy dead, Joseph now has to impersonate Siletsky to stall Ehrhardt.

Joseph's ruse as Professor Siletsky works until the Germans discover the real Siletsky is dead. Ehrhardt tries to set up Joseph, placing him in the same room as the dead Siletsky. But Joseph manages to turn the tables and convince the Germans he's the real Siletsky. Ehrhardt announces that the real Hitler is coming to Warsaw for a reception.  The Polish acting troupe once again comes together to pull off one final charade, every player from Joseph to Rawitch and Greenberg playing their roles perfectly to rescue Maria, keep the Polish underground names from the Germans, and escape to Scotland.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE surprisingly walks a fine tightrope between comedy and suspense. As much as I laughed watching this terrific comedy, the suspense side of the film gnawed at my insides. I found myself always a little nervous that Benny, Lombard, and the rest of the theater group were going to be discovered by the Nazis and hung. Benny as Tura with his ego keeps overplaying the real life situation. As the Producer Dobosh laments, "I hate to leave the fate of my country in the hands of a ham." In fact, the spy Professor Siletsky figures out that Tura is a fake and not Ehrhardt (only to be killed before he can tell Ehrhardt). Then, the real Ehrhardt discovers the real Siletsky's body and once again Tura (now posing as Siletsky) seems destined for the gallows. But the filmmakers cleverly figure out a way for Tura (courtesy of a fake goatee) to turn the tables and make Siletsky still appear to be the imposter.

Director Lubitsch obviously condemns the Germans invading Poland but TO BE OR NOT TO BE spends as much time poking fun at actors and their insecurities then Hitler and the Nazis (although he still gets in his shots at the terrible regime). Lubitsch shows actors in every form: egotistical (Joseph Tura), scene stealing hacks (Rawitch), unappreciated bit players (Greenberg and Bronski), and diva leading ladies (Maria Tura). Benny's Tura is always looking for praise from his peers, the audience, or the Nazis but humorously never quite finds that recognition. But while his Hamlet is mediocre, Tura pulls off two of his greatest performances when he impersonates both Colonel Ehrhardt and Professor Siletsky. And the use of Shakespeare's greatest play Hamlet in the story as well as borrowing the title TO BE OR NOT TO BE from Hamlet's best known soliloquy is a fond wink to the old Bard and theater in general.

Even though they're married, Maria and Joseph compete as actors whether upstaging one another on stage or trying to get top billing on the poster. Maria welcomes secret admirers like the handsome pilot Sobinski to the chagrin of her husband. Sobinski lavishes her with flowers and adulation but proves to be overly enthusiastic. Maria's frustrated with Joseph but not unfaithful. The invasion of Poland by the Germans and acting to stay alive proves to be the cure for the Tura's marital spats.  Joseph risks his life to win his wife back, event though she's never really left him.

This is the only Carole Lombard film I've seen so far and she's breathtaking. Beautiful, funny, and statuesque, Lombard is a tour de force who was taken from us way too early at the age of 33. Lombard was married to actor Clark Gable prior to her death. TO BE OR NOT TO BE was filmed just as the United States entered World War II. Ironically, Lombard was returning from her hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana from a war bond rally when the plane she and her mother and twenty other people were on crashed near Las Vegas. Lombard worked with some great directors in her brief career besides Lubitsch including Howard Hawks in TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934) and Alfred  Hitchcock in one of his few comedies MR. AND MRS. SMITH (1941). She was nominated for an Oscar for MY MAN GODFREY (1936) but her turn as Maria Tura in TO BE OR NOT TO BE may be her finest role.

Watching Jack Benny in TO BE OR NOT TO BE you would think he played dozens of comedic roles in the 30s and 40s. Although he also starred in the film version of the popular play CHARLEY'S AUNT (1941), Benny never really appeared in another hit comedy although he often played himself in films like LOVE THY NEIGHBOR (1940) or IT'S IN THE BAG (1945) alongside comedy partner Fred Allen.  Television is where Benny's fame would grow and endure. His own TV show THE JACK BENNY PROGRAM ran from 1950 to 1965. But Benny's performance as Joseph Tura is one of the best comic performances I have ever seen. Benny's deadpan reaction as Sobinski walks out of his 'To Be or Not To Be' soliloquy not once but twice is priceless.

Some of my favorite supporting actors appear in TO BE OR NOT TO BE. Call it typecasting but Lionel Atwill, more familiar to horror fans from MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) and MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935), is perfect as the overly dramatic thespian Rawitch. Catch Atwill in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) where he gives an incredible over the top performance as Inspector Krogh, matched only by Basil Rathbone's equally excitable Baron Wolf von Frankenstein. German born and Lubitsch favorite Sig Ruman often played Nazis like the pompous Colonel Ehrhardt in TO BE OR NOT TO BE or the seemingly sympathetic German guard Schulz in Billy Wilder's STALAG 17 (1953). Ruman has great comic timing and facial expressions in TO BE. But Ruman could play more than just commanders and guards such as part bartender, part Air Mail Express owner Dutchy in Howard Hawks ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939).

A young Robert Stack plays Polish pilot Stanislav Sobinski in one of his early film roles. Stack is handsome and charming in TO BE OR NOT TO BE in a role that's typically fluff. Stack would later become famous as Eliot Ness in the TV show THE UNTOUCHABLES (1959-1963). Later in his career, Stack would unexpectedly find a second career as a comedy actor in the Zucker Brothers spoof of airplane disaster movies AIRPLANE! (1980). And the duo of Felix Bressart (another Lubitsch regular) as Greenberg and Tom Dugan as Bronski are perfect as bit players, under appreciated until they're needed to play the roles of not only a lifetime but for their survival.

Count me as a new fan of director Ernst Lubitsch. I can't wait to check out his two other classic comedies NINOTCHKA (1939) co-written by Billy Wilder and starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas and THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940) starring Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart which was remade (like TO BE OR NOT TO BE) as YOU'VE GOT MAIL (1998) starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan and directed by Nora Ephron. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Besides TO BE OR NOT TO BE having been remade in the 1980's, the influence of Lubitsch's comedy can even be seen in Quentin Tarantino's INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (2009) which has a sequence involving a German actress (Diane Kruger) working undercover with a British intelligence officer (Michael Fassbender) and American soldiers, disguised as Nazis, to try to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Lubitsch would be pleased to know how beloved his little comedy has withstood time and remains a classic, poking fun at his theater roots while condemning a mad dictator and his murderous regime as the Great War began.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

South Pacific (1958)

It was my high school performing a musical during my sophomore year that made me realize that even in a small theater with uncomfortable seats one could be transported to Oklahoma or Siam or Paris for a couple of hours. My best friend Pete brought me to watch the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic South Pacific (Pete would perform in the musical The Music Man our junior year). I came away with a better appreciation for the live performance of a musical. Coincidentally, the song Bali Ha'i from South Pacific helped explain the name of the spring formal at my high school where the girls asked the boys to the dance. Bali Ha'i in South Pacific is a mythical island, mysterious and exotic. I can never get the song out of mind.  "Bali Haiiiii.   You will finddddd...."

South Pacific the musical premiered in 1949 but it took nine years for the film version of SOUTH PACIFIC to hit the big screen in 1958. Joshua Logan, who co-wrote the musical with Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers, directs SOUTH PACIFIC the film from a screenplay by Paul Osborn based on the musical which is based on the novel Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener. Although SOUTH PACIFIC is (obviously) set in the South Pacific, Kauai, Hawaii doubles for the fictional Polynesian islands where the story takes place.

Lt. Joseph Cable (John Kerr) with the Marine Corps arrives on a PBY (sea plane) to a South Pacific island on a secret mission. While wandering on the beach looking for Captain Brackett (Russ Brown) with the U.S. Navy, Cable runs into a bunch of Seabees led by Luther Billis (Ray Walston). Billis is in a dispute with Bloody Mary (Juanita Hall), a local woman who's overpaying the Polynesian people to sell trinkets so the French plantation owners don't exploit them. When Bloody Mary sees the handsome Cable, she tries to cast a spell on Cable to lure him to her nearby island Bali Ha'i, supposedly inhabited by numerous beautiful women.

Cable finds Brackett and Commander Harbison (Floyd Simmons) and explains his mission. He wants to monitor Japanese ship movement surreptitiously from a couple of deserted islands called Maria Louie, reporting back intelligence to his commanders. Cable is looking for another man, someone familiar with the area to accompany him. He's interested in local French plantation owner Emile De Becque (Rossano Brazzi).  But De Becque's not interested. He's busy wooing Navy nurse Ensign Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor). De Becque has a mysterious past. Years earlier, De Becque murdered a bully in France and fled. De Becque also has two young children, his island wife deceased.

With De Becque turning down Cable's offer, Cable takes up Luther's invitation to go visit Bali Ha'i.  On the island, Cable falls in love with a young local woman Liat (France Nguyen) who turns out to be Bloody Mary's daughter. But Cable's prejudices get in their way of their relationship. Meanwhile, De Becque tells Nellie about his past and his young mixed race children which scares her away from committing to him.

De Becque reconsiders Cable's offer to take on the dangerous mission. Billis sneaks on board the PBY and inadvertently causes a diversion with the Japanese that allows Cable and De Becque to sneak onto the rocky island.  The two men spy on a Japanese convoy and provide other good intelligence for the U.S. to push the Japanese out of the area. But as the enemy pull out, they attack the small island. As the Navy activates Operation Alligator to rescue Cable and De Becque, only one of the men will return from the suicide mission to be reunited with his love.

Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals always surprise me with their serious themes disguised behind beautiful songs. CAROUSEL has domestic abuse and suicide. THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965) touches on the fanaticism of Nazism. With SOUTH PACIFIC, it's prejudice. Nellie Forbush, raised in Arkansas, has issues with marrying a man who's been married before and has mixed race children. Cable loves Liat but faces his prejudices that she's a Polynesian woman and not white. These kind of topics would pave the way for future musicals with tough subjects like Les Miserables and Rent.

SOUTH PACIFIC might be my second favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musical next to THE SOUND OF MUSIC in regards to its songs. 'Bali Ha'i, 'I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair' and 'Some Enchanted Evening' are all fantastic, memorable songs. Except for Mitzi Gaynor and Ray Walston, none of the actors in SOUTH PACIFIC sing with their own voices, not unusual for film versions of musicals. Actor Ken Clark who plays Stew Pot has his singing parts dubbed by Thurl Ravenscroft whose deep voice people will recognize as Tony the Tiger from Frosted Flakes commercials and who sang 'You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch' in the TV Christmas special THE GRINCH WHO STOLE CHRISTMAS (1966).

I have to admit the only parts of the play I remember from high school were the scenes with the Seabees and nurses singing to each other.  If there was a suicide mission subplot or themes about racism, it went over my head as I was too enthralled with the romantic aspects of SOUTH PACIFIC. One scene not in the musical version of SOUTH PACIFIC is an unbelievably corny sequence involving Luther Billis stowing away on the PBY taking Cable and De Becque to the rocky island Maria Louie. Billis is caught and accidentally falls out of the plane (with parachute). He then proceeds to draw the attention of the entire Japanese Navy it seems. It is too far fetched and out of place for the story.

Director Logan also fusses with colored filters in SOUTH PACIFIC to illicit moods and emotions from the audience based on different songs.  Purples, oranges, greens, and yellows fill the entire screen.  It's an interesting idea that never quite pans out. Logan would later admit he made a mistake using the filters. But I did find Logan's staging of some of the songs and dancing very naturalistic and un-Broadway like. And he uses the lush tropical location to its utmost potential.

Mitzi Gaynor is perfect as the All-American girl Nellie Forbush. I wish the perky, effervescent Gaynor was in the film more to be honest. Rossano Brazzi is handsome as the older Frenchman De Becque even though Brazzi is actually Italian. Brazzi would star with Katherine Hepburn in David Lean's romantic film SUMMERTIME (1955) and even appear in OMEN III: THE FINAL CONFLICT (1981). John Kerr as Lt. Cable is the epitome of the supporting male actor in the 1950s. Good looking, a decent actor but stiff, following in the footsteps of other 1950s actors like Jeffrey Hunter, John Agar, and Farley Granger.  All were fine actors but cut from the same mold and never broke out as big stars.

I got to know actor Ray Walston a little bit when I worked with him on OF MICE AND MEN (1991). I only knew Walston from the TV show MY FAVORITE MARTIAN or as Mr. Hand in FAST TIME AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982) but Walston's career took off in the1950s and 60s in films like SOUTH PACIFIC, DAMN YANKEES! (also1958), and Billy Wilder's THE APARTMENT (1960). In a small but enjoyable role, Tom Laughlin plays Lt. Buzz Adams, devil may care pilot of the PBY called The Bouncing Belch. Never heard of Tom Laughlin? Laughlin would later make a career as Billy Jack, an half Indian, ex-Green Beret hakido expert fighting motorcycle gangs and Washington D.C. in films like BORN LOSERS (1967), BILLY JACK (1971), and BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON (1977). Juanita Hall who plays Bloody Mary is the only cast member in the film who performed the same part in the original Broadway production (although her voice is dubbed for the singing parts in the film).

When I compared the musical film LES MISERABLES (2012) to the non-musical 1935 version a few years ago, I liked the non-musical, literary LES MISERABLES version better.  With SOUTH PACIFIC, I think I enjoyed the high school performance better than the big budget Technicolor version which shocks me. I thought the exotic live locations would win me over.  But it didn't. Television would remake SOUTH PACIFC in 2001 with Glenn Close as Nellie Forbush and Harry Connick, Jr as Cable but that version didn't win over many fans.  SOUTH PACIFIC the film isn't terrible but if you want to really enjoy the musical, my suggestion is to catch it on the stage where the songs and characters and their dramas can be enjoyed more intimately.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

I never had a Christmas in Connecticut but I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of Christmas's in New England specifically Cambridge, Massachusetts. One of those Christmas's was the only time I spent the holiday with just my wife and three month old son, no other family (who all lived on the West Coast). Another fond New England winter memory was going to a New Hampshire bed and breakfast that had a frozen pond for ice skating and horse drawn sleigh rides.

But those are just nostalgic memories. The CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (1945) that I want to talk about is a delightful holiday screwball comedy released as WWII was ending. I can't think of a better film for moviegoers to see after several years of death and gloom from the great war. Comedies by Preston Sturges or Frank Capra around this time had social commentary to go with the humor but CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT directed by Peter Godfrey (who came previously from the theater) is just flat out fast paced and funny with some delicious doses of sexual innuendo. CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT would make a great high school play, its humor universal. But it's an original screenplay by Lionel Houser and Adele Commandini from a story by Aileen Hamilton.

This comedy begins like a war drama as a U.S. Navy ship is sunk by a German U-boat during WWII. Quartermaster Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) and Seaman Sinkewicz (Frank Jenks) manage to survive, adrift for eighteen days in a life raft before they're rescued. The two men convalesce in a Naval hospital. While recuperating, Jones pretends to be in love with his nurse Mary Lee (Joyce Compton) so he can get better meals. But because Jones starved longer than Sinkewicz, he can't eat solid foods. So, Jones and Mary Lee read Smart Housekeeping to pass the time. In particular, they enjoy the stories and recipes by food writer Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck). Nurse Lee decides to write to the magazine to see if Elizabeth might cook a big meal for war hero Jefferson Jones on her Connecticut farm.

The letter arrives to Smart Housekeeping publisher Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) who loves the idea and potential publicity. Yardley meets with the magazine's editor Dudley Beecham (Robert Shayne) to ask him to secure Elizabeth's permission. But Dudley is besides himself. The truth is Elizabeth Lane doesn't cook or live on a farm in Connecticut or have a child or husband. She writes her stories from an apartment in New York. The recipes are courtesy of her friend and restaurant owner Felix Bassenak (S.Z. Sakall). Elizabeth and Dudley will be both be fired if Yardley learns the truth.

But a plan formulates in Elizabeth's head when her friend John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner) proposes marriage to her. At first, she turns him down before realizing Sloan owns a farmhouse in the town of Stanfield, Connecticut. Elizabeth agrees to marry Sloan if he agrees to host war hero Jefferson Jones for Christmas and save her job. And so begins a holiday deception of epic proportions as Elizabeth juggles not only Navy hero Jones but her boss Alexander Yardley (who has invited himself for Christmas as well) from discovering she has no cooking ability. Sloan manages to provide a "baby" for Elizabeth as his housekeeper Norah (Una O'Connor) watches a neighbor's child while she works in a factory. Sloan keeps trying to sneak in a quick marriage ceremony with Elizabeth presided by the local judge Crowthers (Dick Elliott) but Elizabeth soon finds herself falling for Jones, complicating the charade even further.

Inevitably, Elizabeth's ruse begins to unravel. A different neighbor leaves a different baby (different sex and hair color) the next day further complicating the situation. Elizabeth manages to flip a pancake for Yardley (after practicing with Felix earlier). When Sloan attempts another quick marriage service, a representative from the town invites Jefferson and everyone to a dance in his honor, delaying Elizabeth and Sloan's marriage again. At the dance, Jefferson and Elizabeth sneak away, followed by a suspicious Yardley. Jefferson and Yardley get arrested for accidentally stealing a sleigh. When they return to the farmhouse after a night in jail (with apologies from the local authorities), Elizabeth's ruse is exposed by Yardley who fires Elizabeth briefly before having a change of heart allowing Elizabeth to keep her job (and double her salary) as well as make sweet music with Jefferson Jones instead of Sloan. Proposals are broken, weddings cancelled, people fired, egos hurt but it all works out in the end.

CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT is a Christmas film without Santa Claus or reindeer or elves. What it does have is our romanticized image of Christmas on a New England farm house covered in snow, a beautiful Christmas tree covered in tinsel, and a family gathering for the holidays.  Only there really isn't a family, just a bunch of adult orphans. War hero Jefferson Jones calls himself a "rolling stone." Publisher Yardley's wife and kids are out of town so he invites himself. Elizabeth is by herself, wooed by Sloan who also seems to be a bachelor with no family. Felix's family is his restaurant and cooking. These "orphans" all come together through a series of comedic lies and deceptions for a holiday gathering.

Many films from the 1940's were based on plays like ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944) or THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1942). Director Godfrey himself started in the theater before moving to directing films. CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT feels like it should be based on a play yet it's an original screenplay. The film moves so easily with effortless transitions from scene to scene. There's never a clunky moment to be had.

Barbara Stanwyck floated between dramas and comedy with ease. She enjoyed doing a comedy after working on a drama which could be draining.  In 1944, she had played the murderous femme fatale in Billy Wilder's classic film noir DOUBLE INDEMNITY but Elizabeth Lane in CONNECTICUT is a far cry from that viper. And her comedic roles were varied. Catch her in BALL OF FIRE (1941) as a showgirl and then watch her as a fake Martha Stewart in CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT and you'll marvel at her versatility.  Stanwyck and director Godfrey would also work together on the film noir THE TWO MRS. CARROLS (1947) with Humphrey Bogart and the thriller CRY WOLF (1947) with Erroll Flynn. And check out Stanwyck's big shouldered fur coats courtesy of costume designer Edith Head.

CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT is a reunion for two colorful supporting actors from 1942's CASABLANCA (also a Warner Bros film like CONNECTICUT) in Sydney Greenstreet and S.Z. Sakall. In CASABLANCA, Greenstreet played the shifty fez wearing Signor Ferrari and Sakall was Rick's maitre'd Carl.  Both are scene stealers but in CONNECTICUT they have bigger parts. Greenstreet always brought some gallows humor to his dark characters in THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) or CASABLANCA but Alexander Yardley is a pure comic performance from the weighty actor. The lovable Sakall worked with Stanwyck on BALL OF FIRE and they make a fine team again in CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT as Sakall's Felix rescues Elizabeth time and time again from her duplicitous plan.

Rounding out the cast are Dennis Morgan as war hero and love interest Jefferson Jones. Morgan is an affable actor, good looking and versatile. Morgan along with another actor I like Jack Carson would make a series of buddy films in the late 40s like TWO GUYS FROM MILWAUKEE (1946) and TWO GUYS FROM TEXAS (1948). Morgan would semi-retire in the 1950s. Reginald Gardiner as Elizabeth's suitor John Sloan is hilarious. Gardiner, with his trademark pencil thin moustache, appeared in many comedies including Charlie Chaplin's THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) and THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER. Robert Shayne gives a droll performance as Elizabeth's duplicitous editor Dudley Beecham. And Irish actress Una O'Connor who made a career playing hysterical housekeepers and servants in horror films like THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) plays (what a surprise) John Sloan's housekeeper in CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT.

Hollywood has a love affair with a good Christmas tale set on the East Coast and often New England.  Before CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT, the Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire holiday musical HOLIDAY INN (1942) was also set in Connecticut.  Frank Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) takes place in fictional Bedford Falls which feel like upstate New York to me. Another New York Christmas film MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET was set in Manhattan. WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) which owes some of its plot to HOLIDAY INN moved the locale from Connecticut to Vermont. Colorado, Utah, and Montana all get as much or more snow than the East Coast (except maybe Buffalo) but filmmakers and movie fans adore the Norman Rockwell setting of Christmas at an inn or farm house or snow covered small town in the New England region.

To no great surprise, CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT was remade in 1992 but as a TV movie.  What may surprise fans of the original is the TV remake had a remarkably impressive cast with Dyan Cannon, Kris Kristofferson, Tony Curtis, and Richard Roundtree. The real shocker is Arnold Schwarzenegger directed this version in his only full length directorial credit.

So find yourself a rocking chair (you'll get the joke when you watch the film), flip some flap jacks, wait for a snowy day, and sit down to watch one of the funniest warmest Christmas movies that was ever made in CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The World of Henry Orient (1964)

Growing up, TV Guide was my weekly encyclopedia to films that were going to be on television. The hand sized guide told what time and channel the movie would be showing with a short synopsis of the plot. It was that description that imprinted on me whether the movie sounded interesting enough to watch or not. I partly blame TV Guide for turning me into a film snob for the first half of my film watching life. If the plot wasn't captivating enough, I didn't want to watch the film. Ever.

One such film that I remember always popping up in TV Guide was George Roy Hill's THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT (1964) starring the irrepressible Peter Sellers. Now, I love Peter Sellers. I grew up idolizing Sellers as Inspector Clouseau in the PINK PANTHER films as well as his performance as three different characters in Stanley Kubrick's DR. STRANGELOVE (also 1964). But TV Guide's synopsis for THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT about a world famous pianist stalked by two teenage girls never caught my fancy.

But adhering to my opening blog mission statement, CrazyFilmGuy is not going to keep avoiding THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT. I'm curious to see how funny Sellers will be in a non-Clouseau role. Also, it's only the third film by director George Roy Hill who would later give us BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969), THE STING (1974), and SLAP SHOT (1977). HENRY ORIENT was written by the father and daughter team of Nunnally Johnson and Nora Johnson based on Nora Johnson's novel. Nunnally Johnson wrote screenplays for classics like THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940) and HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE (1953). The wistful score is by Elmer Bernstein.

Surprisingly, THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT is more about the coming of age of two teenage girls then kooky Casanova pianist Henry Orient (Peter Sellers). 14 year old Marian "Gil"Gilbert (Merrie Spaeth) meets fellow student Valarie "Val" Boyd (Tippy Walker) at Norton, one of the finest All Girls private schools in New York City. Gil lives with her divorced mother Avis Gilbert (Phyllis Thaxter) and her mother's best friend Erica "Boothy" Booth (Bibi Osterwald). Val is the daughter of Isabel and Frank Boyd (Angela Lansbury and Tom Bosley), an affluent but unhappily married couple who live all over the world but have sent Val to school in New York. The free-spirited girls hit it off immediately, goofing around in Manhattan. While hanging out in Central Park, the two girls stumble across avant garde Van Cliburn like pianist Henry Orient (Peter Sellers) kissing the married Stella Dunnworthy (Paula Prentiss) during an afternoon liaison.

Gil and Val have another accidental encounter on a New York sidewalk with Orient. Later, when they attend a concert together at Carnegie Hall with Gil's mother and Boothy, they discover Henry Orient is the guest performer (in a weirdly funny sequence by Sellers). Orient sees the teenage girls in the audience, sitting directly behind Mrs. Dunnworthy. He begins to suspect the girls are on to his affair. Gil and Val embark on a fantasy infatuation with Orient, even making a blood pact to love and adore only Henry Orient. Val makes a scrapbook all about Orient. They don bamboo rice hats and dress in oriental style. The girls discover where he lives and begin to stake out his apartment.

But Gil and Val's world will turn upside down when Val's parents Frank and Isabel Boyd come to stay in New York City for the holidays. Mrs. Boyd doesn't approve of her daughter's friend Gil, causing a rift between the two girls. Val moves in with her parents and resumes her fancier style of living. Mrs. Boyd discovers the girls scrapbook and forbids Val from chasing Orient causing Val to run away from home.

Mrs. Boyd arranges to meet with Orient to confront him over her daughter's crush. Instead, Orient seduces Mrs. Boyd. Val hides out at Gil's house from her parents. Mr. Boyd, with the assistance of a Missing Bureau detective, figure out that Val is staying with Gil, unbeknownst to Mrs. Gilbert. The girls sneak out when Mr. Boyd comes a calling. Val and Gil go to Orient's apartment where they catch Mrs. Boyd coming out of his apartment, shattering their illusionary love affair with the musician. Later, Mr. Boyd catches Mrs. Boyd in a lie about her whereabouts. But Mrs. Boyd's affair with Orient and subsequent divorce to Mr. Boyd leads to a reconciliation between Val and her father. When Val and Mr. Boyd return from living in Rome, Italy, they visit Gil.  Both girls are more grown up, interested in real boys and not the self-absorbed Henry Orient who fled New York, fearful of an imagined jealous Mr. Boyd.

If you think THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT is a star vehicle for Peter Sellers, you will be sadly mistaken. The real focal point of the story is on the two teenage girls Gil and Val.  Sellers' Henry Orient is really a supporting role, a comic character for the actor to have a few funny scenes with his uncontrollable hair, New York accent, and phallic looking phone. But besides being amusing, Henry Orient serves as an imaginary father figure to the two teenage girls. Gil rarely sees her divorced father and Val's father Mr. Boyd travels so much she never sees him. So they create an imaginary love interest/father figure in the Lothario Henry Orient. It may sound creepy but Orient never pursues the girls. The girls are the stalkers. He thinks they're spying on his infidelities, possibly connected to the husband of one of his lovers.

THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT is in the same vein as some of those Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedies in the late 50's and early 60's like PILLOW TALK (1959) or LOVER COME BACK (1961). But it's also a mature look at two teenage girls and their flight from reality following Orient as they deal with loneliness, divorce, and broken families as well as discovering their own awakening sexuality. But mixed in between all that is Sellers hilarious antics. To be honest, Sellers doesn't belong in this movie yet I don't think anyone would watch it if he wasn't in it. HENRY ORIENT is two different movies. It's a coming of age story about two urban teenagers. And it's a comedy about an eccentric, conceited, paranoid pianist whose trysts keep getting interrupted by Val and Gil. Occasionally, Sellers mannerisms hearken to Clouseau but Henry Orient is another original comedic performance.

ORIENT was only director George Roy Hill's third film.  Early in the film, he seems influenced by the French New Wave filmmakers like Truffault and Godard. The montage of Gil and Val exploring New York City includes shots in slow motion, speeded up, jump cuts, and turning the camera on its side and even upside down. This was not a style used much in American films in 1964.  When I think of George Roy Hill, I think of red-blooded male movies with Paul Newman and Robert Redford who both worked with him in films together like THE STING but on solo films as like Redford in THE GREAT WALDO PEPPER (1975) or Newman in SLAP SHOT.

But Hill seemed to have a soft spot for films about young people. Besides THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT with its two teenage protagonists, Hill would direct 1979's A LITTLE ROMANCE about a French boy and an American girl (a very young Diane Lane) who have a courtship in Paris. Laurence Olivier also stars. Hill would also direct another film that starts with THE WORLD in its title only this time it was THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP (1982) starring Robin Williams based on John Irving's novel.

Angela Lansbury would play several types of mothers in her career including a mother with an unhealthy love for her son in John Frankenheimer's ALL FALL DOWN (1962) and a controlling mother in Frankenheimer's THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962). In THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT, Lansbury's mother Isabel Boyd is an unfaithful wife, pursuing musicians like Joe Daniels (Peter Duchin) at a holiday party and later Henry Orient, barely hiding the fact in front of her husband Frank. It's a different role for Lansbury who I remember from the pleasant Disney fantasy BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS (1971) and most TV fans remember her from MURDER SHE WROTE (1984-96).

Neither teenage actresses would go on to much of a film/TV career after THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT. Tippy Walker who plays the brown haired Val would appear in the TV series PEYTON PLACE (1968-69) but stopped acting after 1971. Walker's Val is a typical teenager, trying to find her place in the world. She also plays the piano which connects her with Orient. Merrie Spaeth who plays the blonde haired Gil appeared in only two TV shows after ORIENT and stopped acting after 1965.  Spaeth now runs a consulting firm. But both teenage actresses are believable in this honest and realistic look at teenagers in 1964.

Three familiar supporting actors, two who would star in beloved TV shows appear in THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT. Tom Bosley, best known as Richie Cunningham's father Howard Cunningham in HAPPY DAYS (1974-84) displays his fatherly charm and compassion ten years earlier as Val's absent father and cuckolded husband Frank Boyd. Bosley appeared in hundreds of television shows but made a few features including THE SECRET WAR OF HARRY FRIGG (1968) and YOURS, MINE, AND OURS (also 1968). Al Lewis, best known as Granpa Munster in the TV show THE MUNSTERS (1964-66) has a brief role as a Store Owner the girls play a prank on. And character actor John Fiedler with the high pitched voice and accountant like appearance plays Orient's manager Sidney. Fielder appeared in every TV show imaginable including STAR TREK and a reoccurring role on THE BOB NEWHART SHOW but did you know he was also the voice of Piglet in many WINNIE THE POOH features and television shows?

I wouldn't have understood THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT when I was younger. The film has more depth than its TV Guide synopsis would let on. It's a unique comedy that tries to balance the real angst of two teenage girls wishing for happier family lives with their fantasy pursuit of ladies man Henry Orient. I'm not sure I can recommend THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT unless you want to see another hilarious character from Peter Sellers or an early directorial effort from George Roy Hill.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and House of Wax (1953)

I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I have never been to a wax museum. The thought of viewing wax reproductions of celebrities like Michael Jackson or Humphrey Bogart or historical figures like Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill has never excited me. Just because I never saw them in person doesn't mean I'm excited to look at them recreated in wax. Having said that, I would love to visit a wax museum that contains wax reproductions of Jack the Ripper or Rasputin or Dracula or Donald Trump. I'm much more fascinated by nightmares than real life people.

Setting a horror film in a wax museum is absolute genius. People are creeped out by wax mannequins that look life like. Throw in a disfigured stalker cloaked in black, stealing bodies from the morgue to turn into wax replicas of Napoleon or Marie Antoinette or Voltaire, those are the hallmarks of a great horror film. Warner Bros. did just that with MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) and then remade it twenty years later with HOUSE OF WAX (1953). Interestingly, both films used color in groundbreaking ways. MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM was made during the beginning of talkie films. 99% of films were black and white but MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM was shot in two strip Technicolor giving it a lurid nightmarish quality. HOUSE OF WAX was made in 1953 when color was becoming the norm but it was an early color film shot in 3-D.

One of my favorite directors Michael Curtiz directed MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM from a screenplay by Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson based on a three act play by Charles Belden. Curtiz is best known for THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) and CASABLANCA (1942) but he cut his teeth early with horror films like 1932's DOCTOR X (which also has a scary deformed murderer known as the Moon Killer) and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM. Andre De Toth directed HOUSE OF WAX, a remake of MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM with a screenplay by Crane Wilbur based on the original film. De Toth and Wilbur deviate at times from the original but keep the basic story and characters intact. Interestingly, both directors Curtiz and De Toth were born in Hungary. What that has to do with a movie about murders at a Wax Museum I have no idea.

In classic horror film style, MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM opens on a stormy night in London in 1921. Sculptor Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) puts the finishing touches on his wax subjects when he's visited by Dr. Rasmussen (Holmes Herbert) and Mr. Gallatin (Claude King). Gallatin is so impressed with Igor's craftsmanship that he pledges to submit Igor's work to the Royal Academy. But Igor's next visitor, his wax museum partner Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell), is unhappy with Igor. The wax museum is losing money. Worth wants to burn down the museum and Igor's dreams and collect the insurance money. Igor and Worth tussle. Worth starts a fire, burning and melting Igor's waxworks. Worth makes it out alive but does Igor?

We jump ahead twelve years to New Year's Eve 1933 in New York. The police arrive at a hotel where socialite Joan Gale (Monica Bannister) has apparently committed suicide. Watching from one of the hotel room windows is a white haired Ivan Igor, very much alive after the earlier horrific fire. Gale's boyfriend George Winton (Gavin Gordon) is arrested for Gale's murder. Spunky Express reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell) is pressured by her editor Jim (Frank McHugh) to break a sensational story. The police hint to Florence that Gale may have been murdered. When Gale's body is stolen from the morgue by a mangled stalker dressed in black, Florence dives headfirst to solve the mystery.

Sculptor Igor has relocated to New York to open yet another London Wax Museum and to extract revenge on his ex-partner Worth (now a bootlegger) living in New York. We learn that Igor survived the terrible fire in London but he's now wheelchair bound with deformed hands, damaged by the fire. His assistants Professor Darcy (Arthur Edmond Carewe), the mute Hugo (Matthew Betz), and young, naïve Ralph Burton (Allen Vincent) perform his sculpting. But Florence's investigation reveals that Darcy and Hugo along with the disfigured man in black are stealing corpses from the morgue (like Joan Gale's body) to dip in wax and reproduce as wax figures of Joan of Arc (Gale's body) and Voltaire (a murdered judge who resembled the philosopher) among others.

Igor meets Ralph's pretty girlfriend Charlotte Duncan (KING KONG's Fay Wray) during the new museum's opening. Charlotte reminds Igor of his favorite wax figure Marie Antoinette. When Charlotte returns another day to see Ralph, Igor tricks her into looking for Ralph down in the work basement (complete with boiling cauldron of wax). When Charlotte can't find Ralph, Igor appears, revealing he can walk. He plans on murdering Charlotte and dipping her in wax so she can be his second Marie Antoinette figure. Charlotte claws at Igor's face, exposing it's a wax mask. Igor is the damaged monster stealing bodies from the morgue. Florence, Ralph, and the police arrive. They discover Worth's body in a crate. Igor and the police fight on a catwalk where Igor is shot and falls into the pool of hot wax.

Director Curtiz makes MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM one part horror film, one part screwball comedy, and one part mystery. The wisecracking banter between reporter Florence and her editor Jim is right out of THE FRONT PAGE (1931). When Florence asks Jim, "Have you ever heard of such a thing as a death mask?" Jim sarcastically replies, "I used to be married to one." The identity of the crippled body snatcher in black is kept secret much better in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM than HOUSE OF WAX. The use of color, even two strip Technicolor is perfect for a film full of colorful wax mannequins and shots of bubbling wax in the finale. WAX MUSEUM was made before the Production Code (created to cut down on unsavory story elements) was enforced which is why Igor's assistant Darcy was allowed to be a drug junkie in the original. In HOUSE OF WAX, the same character now known as Leon is changed to an alcoholic.

Curtiz pulls out the Grand Guignol giving us classic horror set pieces like a mysterious scarred killer stealing corpses from the morgue or a lady in distress walking through a cavalcade of creepy wax figures, one with a pair of human eyes following her every step. The photography and set design are influenced by German Expressionism films like THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920). Curtiz's attempt to film some of the actors as the wax figures (like Fay Wray as Marie Antoinette) doesn't work (she moves ever so slightly). I thought Curtiz might be trying to imply that from Igor's perspective, his wax creations are alive. In reality, the film lights were so hot, the real wax figures would melt so the filmmakers had to use real actors for some of the close ups of wax figures.

Lionel Atwill's performance as Igor may be one of the best of his career. He transitions from a compassionate artist at the top of his craft to a crippled madman bent on revenge. We feel his pain when his unscrupulous partner Joe Worth torches his life work, forever altering his world. Atwill's Igor plays God in his wax museum.  He's the creator of all the waxworks, creating not in the image of himself but from people he has murdered. He promises Charlotte immortality once he's turned her into a wax siren. Atwill would appear in other horror films including THE VAMPIRE BAT (also 1933) and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) but MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM is his chance to shine as an actor.

Horror scream queen Fay Wray, forever famous as King Kong's heartthrob in KING KONG (also 1933), is fetching as Charlotte Duncan, the living embodiment of Igor's vision of Marie Antoinette. No actress could scream better than Fay Wray. Wray had an incredible streak in the early 1930's starring in several hits including DOCTOR X (1932) also directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Lionel Atwill, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932), and KING KONG.  Rounding out the cast are Glenda Farrell as spunky reporter Florence Dempsey. Farrell would make a career playing fast talking reporters including the adventurous blonde Torchy Blane in a series of Warner Bros films. And Frank McHugh as Dempsey's newspaper editor Jim was another Warner Bros contract player who appeared in over 90 films during his first dozen years with the studio.

Which brings us to Andre De Toth's HOUSE OF WAX twenty years after the original MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM was released. De Toth and screenwriter Wilbur place the remake in New York in at turn of the century 1900 and dispense with the wisecracking newspaper characters, focusing entirely on sculptor Dr. Henry Jarrod and his fall from artist to deranged madman. Once again, Jarrod is visited by wealthy admirers including art critic Sidney Wallace (Paul Cavanagh) who marvel at his wax museum. But Jarrod's partner Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts) is unhappy with the profits from the wax museum. He torches the museum for the insurance money, turning on the gas as well. Burke and Jarrod scuffle as flaming timbers fall all around in glorious 3D. Burke escapes but Jarrod is presumed dead as the museum explodes.

Worth collects the $25,000 insurance money, taking his blonde girlfriend Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones) out to dinner. When Worth returns to his apartment, he's attacked by a disfigured man in black who hangs him by throwing Worth down the elevator, a rope tied around his neck. Later, the man in black murders Cathy and then steals her body from the morgue. Cathy's roommate Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) finds the killer in her room but scares him away. She reports the incident to Lieutenant Tom Brennan (Frank Lovejoy) and Sgt. Jim Shane (Dabs Greer) who begin to investigate these macabre incidents.

Jarrod resurfaces, seemingly back from the dead, reaching out to Wallace to invest in his second wax museum, this time a House of Horrors. Wallace agrees. Wheelchair bound and unable to sculpt, Jarrod enlists the help of assistants Leon Averill (Nedrick Young) and the muscular but mute Igor (a young Charles Bronson using his real last name Buchinsky). This time, Jarrod exhibits themes of violence, guillotines and the electric chair among the attractions. He opens up his second wax museum calling it House of Wax.

Wallace visits on opening night and introduces a young protégé Scott Andews (Paul Picerni) to Jarrod. Jarrod offers Scott some work but he's more interested in Scott's friend Sue Allen who looks incredibly like his original Marie Antoinette figure. Sue is intrigued by the Joan of Arc wax figure who eerily resembles her murdered friend Cathy. Brennan and Shane begin to also look closely at Jarrod's wax exhibits, suspecting other stolen corpses may be part of Jarrod's exhibition. When Scott tells Jarrod that Sue is coming by to see him, Jarrod sends Scott on an errand. Sue enters the empty wax museum, confirming the Joan of Arc figure is her dead friend Cathy. Jarrod appears, confessing that some of the wax mannequins are his dead enemies. He wants to turn Sue into Marie Antoinette. Sue tries to fight off Jarrod, tearing his wax mask apart to reveal Jarrod is the hideous maniac. Brennan, Shane, and Scott arrive to arrest Jarrod. Igor almost decapitates Scott at the guillotine exhibition. Jarrod scuffles with Brennan and perishes into the vat of hot wax.

HOUSE OF WAX runs eleven minutes longer than MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM. HOUSE OF WAX maintains much of the plot and characters from the original but changes up the storyline too. The opening fight scene is longer and more dramatic between Jarrod and his crooked partner Worth. HOUSE OF WAX drops the newspaper reporter storyline and sets the entire film in New York in the late 19th century (utilizing Warner Bros New York street sets). MYSTERY was set in the 20th Century. I felt HOUSE OF WAX explains better which stolen corpses are transformed into which historical waxworks. MYSTERY'S wax museum was mostly French themed. Jarrod's first wax museum in HOUSE OF WAX has more historical events like Lincoln's assassination or Antony and Cleopatra's romance. But Jarrod's second wax museum House of Wax is the archetypal wax museum we expect for a horror film with a House of Horrors and more violent recreations. Both films incorporate creepy close ups of the heads of the wax figures, observing the horror and intrigue from their stationary positions.

HOUSE OF WAX struggles at times on whether it wants to be a good old fashioned horror film in glorious color or a gimmicky 3D film. Certain shots and scenes are played at the camera for intentional purposes such as Can-Can girls kicking their legs at the camera or an annoying barker (Reggie Rymal) hitting a paddle ball at the screen and breaking the fourth wall by talking to the audience.  I've not seen HOUSE OF WAX in 3D but I can imagine the burning wax museum with its flames or the foggy atmospheric New York streets or the House of Horror with all its wax exhibits must have looked fantastic in 3D.

Whereas Lionel Atwill's sculptor Igor played God with his wax creations in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM,  Vincent Price's Professor Jarrod comes off more like Pinocchio's father Geppetto. Jarrod talks to his creations as if they're alive, scolding and chiding them like a parent to his young children. Both Igor and Jarrod remind me of another tormented artist Erique Claudin aka the Phantom of the Opera. Like Igor and Jarrod, Erique (played by Claude Rains in 1943's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA) starts out as a sympathetic artist (a violinist) who is wronged by a music publisher, driving him to murder. He's also disfigured when the publisher's maid throws acid on his face. Erique returns as the Opera Phantom, scaring the Opera house into showcasing his young singing protégé. Even Vincent Price's makeup in HOUSE OF WAX as the scarred killer resembles some versions of the Phantom both on stage and screen with clumps of hair springing from his ghastly burnt bald head. Like Atwill, Professor Jarrod is one of Price's finest performances, playing pathos and horror with equal aplomb.

Vincent Price as I remember him was always the epitome of the horror film actor but HOUSE OF WAX is really the film that kicked off Price's horror film career. He had played bad guys and cads in films like LAURA (1944) and THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1948) but his only previous appearance in horror was in 1939's THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (if you can consider that an appearance since he's invisible through a good portion of the film). After HOUSE, Price would be a horror regular in films like THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959) and a series of Edgar Allen Poe films with American Pictures International including THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961).

HOUSE OF WAX is filled with some familiar supporting actors. My new dearest friend Paul Cavanagh (I just came across Mr. Cavanagh in 1934's TARZAN AND HIS MATE recently) with his distinctive voice  plays a good guy this time as Jarrod's benefactor Sidney Wallace. Phyllis Kirk as the damsel in distress  Sue Allen won't make anyone forget Fay Wray. Fans of THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) and DEATH WISH (1974) will recognize a young Charles Bronson (using his real last name Buchinsky for this film) as Jarrod's muscular mute henchman Igor. Frank Lovejoy who plays Lt. Brennan would play many cops in other films but I recently saw him in the desert film noir THE HITCH HIKER (also 1953). Carolyn Jones as the ditsy blonde Cathy Gray (later to become the wax Joan of Arc) would make her name later as Morticia Addams in TV's THE ADDAMS FAMILY (1964-66). And fans of LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE will recognize Dabbs Greer who plays Detective Shane in HOUSE OF WAX. Greer would play Reverend Alden on LITTLE HOUSE from 1974 to 1983.

Some final trivia on MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM and HOUSE OF WAX. The two strip Technicolor print of MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM was thought to be lost forever until it was discovered in Warner Bros President Jack Warner's private collection in the late 60s, giving movie fans another chance to see this classic horror film in color (supposedly there's a black and white version of the 1933 film too). Warner Bros would make another HOUSE OF WAX in 2006. But, except for the same title, this new version bears no resemblance to either MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM or the 1953 HOUSE OF WAX. The filmmakers go with the now standard group of lost horny college students who stumble upon a House of Wax museum in an abandoned town where they're pursued by a creepy killer. The only gimmick in this modern version doesn't involve color or 3D. The gimmick is casting Paris Hilton (the original Kim Kardashian) as one of the terrorized students.

The film historian William K. Everson in his book Classics of the Horror Film which I bought in my youth sums up perfectly my perspective between MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM and HOUSE OF WAX.  "The original film had seemed far subtler in its contrasting of the Old and New. It created an unreal nightmare world of wax amid modern New York, so that merely stepping from Broadway through the doors of the Museum was like stepping into a whole new world of unseen terrors...Furthermore, the original's retrained and limited use of the Monster made it less apparent that he and the sculptor (Lionel Atwill in the original, Vincent Price in the remake) were one and the same, and thus the final classic unmasking had surprise, as well as shock, in the first version. Somehow it was all handled much too abruptly and casually in the remake." Everson does express it better than I ever could.

HOUSE OF WAX has its merits and scares but it reminds us what a novel and thrilling film MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM was and is when it first came out in 1933. MYSTERY goes for the jugular, having fun with the mayhem. HOUSE OF WAX has a breakout performance by Vincent Price and some nice atmospheric horror scenes. The disfigured killer in WAX MUSEUM and HOUSE OF WAX would be the predecessor to the modern horror stalker Freddie Krueger who would first appear in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET in 1984 and subsequent sequels. Ultimately, MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM and its remake HOUSE OF WAX give us two great horror staples: a horrifying monster and an equally scary setting.