A Movie A Day #126: Baby Face Nelson (1957, directed by Don Siegel)


The place is Chicago.  The time is the era of Prohibition.  The head of the Chicago Outfit, Rocca (Ted de Corsia), has arranged for a career criminal named Lester Gillis (Mickey Rooney) to be released from prison.  A crack shot and all-around tough customer, Gillis has only two insecurities: his diminutive height and his youthful appearance.  Rocca wants to use Gillis as a hit man but Gillis prefers to rob banks.  When Rocca attempts to frame Gillis for a murder, Gillis first guns down his former benefactor and then goes on the run with his girlfriend, Sue Nelson (Carolyn Jones).  Because they are both patients of the same underworld doctor (played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke), Gillis eventually meets public enemy number one, John Dillinger (Leo Gordon).  Joining Dillinger’s gang, Gillis becomes a famous bank robber and is saddled with a nickname that he hates: Baby Face Nelson.

While it is true that Lester “Baby Face Nelson” Gillis was an associate of John Dillinger’s and supposedly hated his nickname, the rest of this biopic is highly fictionalized.  The real Baby Face Nelson was a family man who, when he went on the run, took his wife and two children with him.  While he did get his start running with a Chicago street gang, there is also no evidence that Nelson was ever affiliated with the Chicago Outfit.  (The film’s Rocca is an obvious stand-in for Al Capone.)  In real life, it was Dillinger, having just recently escaped from jail, who hooked up with Nelson’s gang.  The film Nelson is jealous of Dillinger and wants to take over the gang but, in reality, the gang had no leader.  Because Nelson killed three FBI agents (more than any other criminal), he has developed a reputation for being one of the most dangerous of the Depression-era outlaws but, actually, he was no more violent than the typical 1930s bank robber.  Among the era’s outlaws, Dillinger was more unique for only having committed one murder over the course of his career.  In this film (and practically every other film that has featured Baby Face Nelson as a character), Nelson is a full on psychopath, one who even aims his gun at children.

Baby Face Nelson may be terrible history but it is still an excellent B-movie.  Don Siegel directs in his usual no-nonsense style and Mickey Rooney does a great job, playing Baby Face Nelson as a ruthless but insecure criminal with a perpetual chip on his shoulder.  As his fictional girlfriend, Carolyn Jones is both tough and sexy, a moll that any gangster would be lucky to have waiting for him back at the safe house.  B-movie veterans like Thayer David, Jack Elam, Elisha Cook Jr., and John Hoyt all have colorful supporting roles but the most unexpected name in the cast is that of Cedric Hardwicke, playing an alcoholic surgeon with broken down dignity.

Don’t watch Baby Face Nelson for a history lesson.  Watch it for an entertaining B-masterpiece.

 

Horror Film Review: The Ghost of Frankenstein (dir by Erle C. Kenton)


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In 1942, three years after Son of Frankenstein, Universal Pictures continued the story of the Frankenstein family with The Ghost of Frankenstein!

However, The Ghost of Frankenstein was a far different film from the three that came before it.  The budget was lower.  The story was less complicated.  The running time was much shorter.  Whereas the previous films in the franchise clearly took place in Germany, the setting for The Ghost of Frankenstein is less easily defined.  (Considering that the film was made during World War II, this isn’t surprising.)  The biggest change is that, in The Ghost of Frankenstein, the monster is not played by Boris Karloff.  Instead, the role is taken by Lon Chaney, Jr.  Chaney’s hulking frame was perfect for the monster but his face is never as expressive as Karloff’s.  Whereas Karloff turned the monster into as much of a victim as a victimizer, Chaney plays the monster like a … well, a monster.

Returning from Son of Frankenstein, Bela Lugosi is back as Ygor.  At the start of the film, we learn that Ygor actually wasn’t killed at the end of Son of Frankenstein.  Instead, he was just wounded.  He’s spent the last few years hiding out in the old castle, trying to once again revive the monster.  When the villagers attempts to blow up the castle, he and the monster flee.

It turns out that there’s one other Frankenstein son.  His name is Ludwig and he’s played by a very dignified Sir Cedric Hardwicke.  Ludwig, who has been hiding his identity and denying the family legacy, has a successful medical practice in another village.  Working with his assistants, Dr. Kettering (Barton Yarbrough) and the bitterly jealous Dr. Bohmer (Lionel Atwill, who played a far different role in Son of Frankenstein), Ludwig has developed a procedure in which a damaged brain can be removed from the skull, repaired, and then stuck back inside the skull…

Uhmmm … wow, I have no idea what to say about that.  That’s quite a medical breakthrough, though…

When Ygor and the monster show up in the village, searching for Ludwig, the monster ends up getting arrested.  The local prosecutor (played by Ralph Bellamy, Cary Grant’s romantic rival in both The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday) asks Ludwig to examine the prisoner.  Ludwig is shocked to discover that the prisoner is his father’s creation!

Ygor wants Ludwig to perform a brain transplant on the Monster.  At first, Ludwig is hesitant but then he’s visited by Henry Frankenstein’s ghost.  (Since Colin Clive died 5 years before Ghost of Frankenstein went into production, Hardwicke plays both Ludwig and Henry.)  The ghost asks Ludwig to perfect the monster.

Ludwig finally relents and agrees to give the monster a new brain.  Ludwig wants to use the brain of kindly colleague but Ygor has different plans…

The Ghost of Frankenstein is only 67 minutes long but, oddly, it still feels just a little bit draggy.  Director Erle C. Kenton does a workmanlike job but, at no point, does Ghost feature the wit that distinguished James Whale’s films or Rowland V. Lee’s work on Son of Frankenstein.  Chaney is not a particularly interesting monster but Bela Lugosi is a lot of fun as Ygor.  With Chaney showing even less emotion than he usually did and Hardwicke appearing to be occasionally embarrassed by the whole film, it falls to Lugosi to keep the audience awake and he manages to do just that.  Lugosi’s performance may be overly theatrical but that’s exactly what The Ghost of Frankenstein needed.

The Ghost of Frankenstein is occasionally entertaining but ultimately forgettable.  It’ll best be enjoyed by Universal horror completists.

Horror Film Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray (dir by Albert Lewin)


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Hello and welcome to the start of TSL’s annual October horrorthon!  All through the month of October, our focus will be on horror.  We will be sharing reviews and thoughts on some of the best (and worst) horror films ever made!  I have to admit that this is my favorite time of the year.  I love horror … like all good people!

I want to start things off by taking a look at a film from 1945.  The Picture of Dorian Gray is based on the famous novel by Oscar Wilde (a novel that some people think was inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders).  Dorian Gray (played by Hurd Hatfield) is a young and handsome aristocrat who lives in 19th century London.  When we first meet him, Dorian is intelligent, kind and virtuous.  He’s also more than a little boring.  He is the bland face of the establishment, a man destined to be celebrated for his position in society and largely forgotten after his death.

Dorian is posing for a painting that’s being done by his friend, an artist named Basil Hallward (Lowell Gilmore).  One day, Lord Henry Wotton (George Sanders) stops by the studio while Basil is painting Dorian.  Lord Henry is everything that Dorian Gray is not.  He’s a worldly and cynical man and he is very proud to live a life devoted to complete and total hedonistic pleasure.  He immediately sets out to corrupt Dorian and it turns out to be a lot easier than he was expecting.  Henry convinces Dorian that he can have everything that he wants as long as he’s young and handsome.  Dorian announces that he wishes the painting could age instead of him…

Now, here’s where the film takes a huge departure from Wilde’s novel.  In the novel, the painting ages while Dorian stay young.  No specific reason is given.  Instead, it’s just something that happens.  In the film, it turns out that Basil owns an ancient Egyptian statue and that the statue has mystical powers.  Dorian makes his wish in front of the statue and that’s why the painting starts to age.  Personally, I think the bit with the Egyptian statue is unnecessary and a little bit silly.  To me, the story is a lot more effective if the painting starts to age without an explanation.  The filmmakers obviously disagreed.

But no matter!  In the end, the Egyptian statue isn’t that important.  What is important that, freed from getting old or physically suffering for his actions, Dorian transforms into a different person.  Soon, he’s even more hedonistic than Lord Henry.  When he breaks the heart of a tragic singer named Sybil Vane (Angela Lansbury, in a poignant and Oscar-nominated performance), Dorian sees that the painting is now cruelly smirking while his own face remains innocent and untouched.  When Dorian eventually commits a murder to keep his secret from getting out, the blood appears on the painting’s hands while his own remain clean.

And the years pass.  Dorian finds himself both being hunted by Sybil’s brother (Richard Fraser) and falling in love with the niece (Donna Reed) of a man that he earlier murdered.  Dorian never ages but his portrait becomes more and more twisted.  What’s particularly interesting is that we see little of Dorian’s evil actions.  Instead, we watch and listen as other characters whisper about the horrific things that he’s done.  Physically, Dorian remains an innocent and young aristocrat.  But all we have to do is look at the picture and we can see what a monster Dorian has become…

The Picture of Dorian Gray is an absolutely gorgeous film, one that is full of elaborate sets that are often cast in shadow.  (It’s interesting to note that the more corrupt Dorian becomes, the darker and more shadowy his estate becomes.)  The film is in black-and-white, with the exception of three scenes in which the portrait is revealed in all of its Technicolor glory.  If that sounds like a gimmick … well, it is.  But it’s an amazingly effective gimmick.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a classic exercise in psychological horror.  See it the next chance you get!

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The Fabulous Forties #27: Sundown (dir by Henry Hathaway)


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You may remember how, back in April, I started on a mission to review all 50 of the films included in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set.  I actually got off to a pretty good start and, by the end of the month, I was about halfway through.  Yay me!

However, then the month of May began.  And May turned out to be a very, very busy month.  As I sit here writing this, it’s been 27 days since I last posted a Fabulous Forties review.  That review was …. well, I can’t even remember what it was.  After I post this, I’ll click on this link to find out.

However, things have calmed down a bit and now I can go ahead and finish up the Fabulous Forties box set.  And that’s a good thing because, between me and you, I am more than ready to move on to the Nifty Fifties box set!

Anyway, without further ado, let’s consider the 27th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties, 1941’s Sundown!

Poster_of_the_movie_Sundown

Sundown was released by United Artists in 1941.  It’s a propaganda film, telling the story of British soldiers in North Africa and their attempts to both maintain the peace among the natives and to keep the Axis powers from arming the local rebels.  Bruce Cabot is the experienced soldier who knows how things work in Africa.  George Sanders is the new commander who is a bit more by-the-book.  At first, you think that the film is going to be dominated by the rivalry between Sanders and Cabot but actually it’s not much of a rivalry.  For the most part, they get along just fine and I guess that’s to be expected considering that the film was made at a time when the emphasis was on everyone remaining unified against the Nazis.

Speaking of the Axis powers, they’re always in hovering in the shadows of the film but it’s rare that we actually see any enemy soldiers.  Perhaps this is because the film was made at a time when the United States was technically neutral.  Joseph Calleia plays a prisoner of war who has rejected fascism and instead just wants to sing opera and cook for Sanders and Cabot.  Calleia’s character is specifically identified as being an Italian.  If not for that (and the fact that the film was made in 1941), it would be just as easy to assume that Sanders and Cabot were fighting the French or maybe the Russians.

There’s an enemy agent in one of the tribes and it’s up to Sanders and Cabot to figure out who.  Helping them out is the local big game hunter, played by Harry Carey.  And, on top of that, there’s also a mysterious native woman played by Gene Tierney.  Gene Tierney is totally miscast but that adds to this film’s odd charm.

And, for modern viewers, it definitely is an odd charm.  I watched Sundown twice and I’m still not sure exactly what happened in the film.  Sundown is one of those films that doesn’t so much have a plot as it just has a lot of scenes that kind of tell a story, assuming that you have the patience and concentration to figure out how they all link together.  Between Cabot’s roguish smile, Sanders’s stiff upper lip performance, Calleia’s enjoyable overacting, and Gene Tierney’s otherworldly beauty, Sundown is unexpectedly dream-like.  The film even features a sudden sermon in which a clergyman (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) exhorts everyone to fight.  The clergyman is never seen again.

Sundown was a strange movie, one that I often found myself struggling to follow.  It was also apparently a box office bomb, though it did receive 3 Oscar nominations.  One of those nominations was for Charles Lang’s cinematography and it was definitely deserved.  Even the version I saw (which suffered from a typically poor Mill Creek transfer) was still impressive to look at.

Cleaning Out The DVR #5: Around The World In 80 Days (dir by Michael Anderson)


Last night, as a part of my effort to clean out my DVR by watching and reviewing 38 movies in 10 days, I watched the 1956 Best Picture winner, Around The World In 80 Days.

Based on a novel by Jules Verne, Around The World In 80 Days announces, from the start, that it’s going to be a spectacle.  Before it even begins telling its story, it gives us a lengthy prologue in which Edward R. Murrow discusses the importance of the movies and Jules Verne.  He also shows and narrates footage from Georges Méliès’s A Trip To The Moon.  Seen today, the most interesting thing about the prologue (outside of A Trip To The Moon) is the fact that Edward R. Murrow comes across as being such a pompous windbag.  Take that, Goodnight and Good Luck.

Once we finally get done with Murrow assuring us that we’re about to see something incredibly important, we get down to the actual film.  In 1872, an English gentleman named Phileas Fogg (played by David Niven) goes to London’s Reform Club and announces that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days.  Four other members of the club bet him 20,000 pounds that he cannot.  Fogg takes them up on their wager and soon, he and his valet, Passepartout (Cantinflas) are racing across the world.

Around The World in 80 Days is basically a travelogue, following Fogg and Passepartout as they stop in various countries and have various Technicolor adventures.  If you’re looking for a serious examination of different cultures, this is not the film to watch.  Despite the pompousness of Murrow’s introduction, this is a pure adventure film and not meant to be taken as much more than pure entertainment.  When Fogg and Passepartout land in Spain, it means flamenco dancing and bullfighting.  When they travel to the U.S., it means cowboys and Indians.  When they stop off in India, it means that they have to rescue Princess Aouda (Shirley MacClaine!!!) from being sacrificed.  Aouda ends up joining them for the rest of their journey.

Also following them is Insepctor Fix (Robert Newton), who is convinced that Fogg is a bank robber.  Fix follows them across the world, just waiting for his chance to arrest Fogg and disrupt his race across the globe.

But it’s not just Inspector Fix who is on the look out for the world travelers.  Around The World In 80 Days is full of cameos, with every valet, sailor, policeman, and innocent bystander played by a celebrity.  (If the movie were made today, Kim Kardashian and Chelsea Handler would show up at the bullfight.)  I watch a lot of old movies so I recognized some of the star cameos.  For instance, it was impossible not to notice Marlene Dietrich hanging out in the old west saloon, Frank Sinatra playing piano or Peter Lorre wandering around the cruise ship.  But I have to admit that I missed quite a few of the cameos, much as how a viewer 60 years in the future probably wouldn’t recognize Kim K or Chelsea Handler in our hypothetical 2016 remake.  However, I could tell whenever someone famous showed up on screen because the camera would often linger on them and the celeb would often look straight at the audience with a “It’s me!” look on their face.

Around The World in 80 Days is usually dismissed as one of the lesser best picture winners and it’s true that it is an extremely long movie, one which doesn’t necessarily add up to much beyond David Niven, Cantinflas, and the celeb cameos.  But, while it may not be Oscar worthy, it is a likable movie.  David Niven is always fun to watch and he and Cantinflas have a nice rapport.  Shirley MacClaine is not exactly believable as an Indian princess but it’s still interesting to see her when she was young and just starting her film career.

Add to that, Around The World In 80 Days features Jose Greco in this scene:

Around The World In 80 Days may not rank with the greatest films ever made but it’s still an entertaining artifact of its time.  Whenever you sit through one of today’s multi-billion dollar cinematic spectacles, remember that you’re watching one of the descendants of Around The World In 80 Days.

Insomnia File #1: The Story of Mankind (dir by Irwin Allen)


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What’s an Insomnia File?  You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable?  This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

If, last night, you were suffering from insomnia at 3 in the morning, you could have turned on TCM and watched the 1957 faux epic, The Story of Mankind.

I call The Story of Mankind a faux epic because it’s an outwardly big film that turns out to be remarkably small on closer inspection.  First off, it claims to the tell the story of Mankind but it only has a running time of 100 minutes so, as you can imagine, a lot of the story gets left out.  (I was annoyed that neither my favorite social reformer, Victoria C. Woodhull, nor my favorite president, Rutherford B. Hayes, made an appearance.)  It’s a film that follow Vincent Price and Ronald Colman as they stroll through history but it turns out that “history” is largely made up of stock footage taken from other movies.  The film’s cast is full of actors who will be familiar to lovers of classic cinema and yet, few of them really have more than a few minutes of screen time.  In fact, it only takes a little bit of research on the imdb to discover that most of the film’s cast was made up of performers who were on the verge of ending their careers.

The Story of Mankind opens with two angels noticing that mankind has apparently invented the “Super H-Bomb,” ten years ahead of schedule.  It appears that mankind is on the verge of destroying itself and soon, both Heaven and Hell will be full of new arrivals.  One of the angels exclaims that there’s already a housing shortage!

A celestial court, overseen by a stern judge (Cedric Hardwicke) is convened in outer space.  The court must decide whether to intervene and prevent mankind from destroying itself.  Speaking on behalf on humanity is the Spirit of Man.  The Spirit of Man is played by Ronald Colman.  This was Colman’s final film.  In his heyday, he was such a popular star that he was Margaret Mitchell’s first choice to play Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind.  However, in The Story of Mankind, Colman comes across as being a bit bored with it all and you start to get worried that he might not be the best attorney that mankind could have hired.

Even more worrisome, as  far as the future of mankind is concerned, is that the prosecutor, Mr. Scratch, is being played by Vincent Price.  Making his case with his trademark theatrics and delivering every snaky line with a self-satisfied yet likable smirk on his face, Vincent Price is so much fun to watch that it was impossible not to agree with him.  Destroy mankind, Mr. Scratch?  Sure, why not?  Mankind had a good run, after all…

In order to make their cases, Mr. Scratch and the Spirit of Man take a tour through history.  Mr. Scratch reminds us of villains like the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu (John Carradine) and the Roman Emperor Nero (Peter Lorre, of course).  He shows how Joan of Arc (Hedy Lamarr) was burned at the stake.  The Spirit of Man argues that, despite all of that, man is still capable of doing good things, like inventing the printing press.

And really, the whole point of the film is to see who is playing which historical figure.  The film features a huge cast of classic film actors.  If you watch TCM on a semi-regular basis, you’ll recognize a good deal of the cast.  The fun comes from seeing who tried to give a memorable performance and who just showed up to collect a paycheck.  For instance, a very young Dennis Hopper gives a bizarre method interpretation of Napoleon and it’s one of those things that simply has to be seen.

And then the Marx Brothers show up!

They don’t share any scenes together, unfortunately.  But three of them are present!  (No, Zeppo does not make an appearance but I imagine that’s just because Jim Ameche was already cast in the role of Alexander Graham Bell.)  Chico is a monk who tells Christopher Columbus not to waste his time looking for a quicker way to reach India.  Harpo Marx is Sir Isaac Newton, who plays a harp and discovers gravity when a hundred apples smash down on his head.  And Groucho Marx plays Peter Miniut, tricking a Native American chief into selling Manhattan Island while leering at the chief’s daughter.

And the good thing about the Marx Brothers is that their presence makes a strong argument that humanity deserves another chance.  A world that produced the Marx Brothers can’t be all bad, right?

Anyway, Story of Mankind is one of those films that seems like it would be a good cure for insomnia but then you start watching it and it’s just such a weird movie that you simply have to watch it all the way to the end.  It’s not a good movie but it is flamboyantly bad and, as a result, everyone should see it at least once.

 

 

 

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #14: Suspicion (dir by Alfred Hitchcock)


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First off, a warning.  The following review of the 1941 best picture nominee Suspicion will include spoilers.  So, if you haven’t seen the film and you’re obsessive about avoiding major spoilers, then don’t read the review.  Simple, no?

Two years ago, I was having lunch with some of my fellow administrative assistants.  One of them was talking about how she had watched an “old movie” the previous night.  From listening to the vague details that she offered up, I was able to figure out that she had apparently stumbled across TCM for the first time in her life.  From listening to her talk, I would not be surprised if she was literally describing the first time she had ever actually seen a black-and-white movie.  Needless to say, my first instinct was to correct everything she was saying but I resisted.  (For some reason, at that time, I was feeling self-conscious about being perceived as being a know-it-all.)  But, as she kept talking, I found it harder and harder to keep quiet.  Listening to her talk about old movies was like attending an art history lecture given by someone who had flunked out of a finger painting class.  Finally, when the conversation had moved on to someone who we all knew was sleeping with her much older boss, our self-proclaimed old film expert announced that age didn’t matter.  “I’d go out with Cary Grant,” she said, “and he’s old.”

Before I could stop myself, I added, “He’s also dead.”

Oh my God, the look of shock on her face!  I actually felt really guilty because I could tell that she had apparently taken a lot of happiness from the idea that suave, witty, and handsome Cary Grant was still out there.  And can you blame her?  In a career that spanned three decades and included several classic dramas and comedies, Cary Grant epitomized charm.  Some of his movies may seem dated now but Grant was such a charismatic and natural actor that it’s impossible not to get swept up in his performances.

(Who would be the contemporary Cary Grant?  I’ve heard some people compare George Clooney to Grant.  And it’s true that Clooney has Grant’s charm but, whereas Grant always came across as very natural, you’re always very aware that George Clooney is giving a performance.)

It was Grant’s charm that made him the perfect choice for the male lead in Suspicion but it was that same charm that made the film so controversial.  In Suspicion, Grant plays Johnnie.  Johnnie meets, charms, and — after the proverbial whirlwind courtship — marries Lina (Joan Fontaine), a sheltered heiress.  It’s only after Lina marries Johnnie that she discovers that he’s broke, unemployed, and addicted to gambling.  With everyone from her family to her friends telling her that Johnnie is only interested in her money, Lina starts to worry that Johnnie is plotting to kill her.  Lina starts to view all of Johnnie’s actions with suspicion, wondering if there’s an innocent explanation for his occasionally odd behavior or if it’s all more evidence that he’s planning to kill her.  When he brings her a glass of milk, Lina has to decide whether or not to risk drinking it…

Suspicion was based on a novel in which Johnnie was a murderer and which ended with Lina voluntarily drinking that poisoned milk.  In the film, however, Johnnie is not a murderer.  Apparently, it was felt that Grant was so charming and so likable that audiences would never accept him as a murderer.  Instead, he’s an embezzler and all of his strange behavior is due to him being ashamed of his past and feeling that he’s not worthy of Lina.  Once Lina realizes that Johnnie isn’t trying to kill her, she promises him that she’ll stay with him.

And a lot of people (including director Alfred Hitchcock, who claimed it was forced on him by the film’s producers) have criticized that ending but you know what?

It works.  If I had to choose between Joan Fontaine essentially committing suicide or Joan Fontaine promising to love Cary Grant even if Grant goes to prison, I’m going to go with the second choice.  Ultimately, Suspicion works because you can imagine being swept off your feet by Grant’s character.  But what makes Suspicion enjoyable, to me, is that Johnnie ultimately turns out to be exactly who we were hoping he would be.

Needless to say, Suspicion works as a great double feature with Rebecca.  Watch one after the other and have a great night of menace and romance.