Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Barretts of Wimpole Street (dir by Sidney Franklin)


The 1934 best picture nominee, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, takes place largely in one room.

That room is a bedroom located in a mansion that sits on Wimpole Street in London.  The room is occupied by Elizabeth (Norma Shearer), a sickly woman who has spent years in bed and who is barely able to walk.  She is the eldest of 11 siblings and all of them live in the house together, under the watchful eye of their tyrannical father, Edward (Charles Laughton).  Edward has forbidden any of his children from ever leaving home.  None of them are to get married.  In fact, none of them are to have even a relationship.  Even when he hears that a trip to Italy could actually improve Elizabeth’s health, he sternly forbids her from leaving.  Edward is obsessed with sin.  As he explains it, he was once a sinner himself.  In fact, he was such a sinner that he sometimes lost control of himself.  Now that he’s a father and a widower, Edward deals with his less savory impulses through constant prayer and he’s determined to never allow his children to fall into sin as well.

Despite her father’s attempts to keep her isolated from the outisde world, Elizabeth has managed to find an escape.  She’s a poet and her words have won her admirers from around world.  One of those admirers is another poet, a young man named Robert (Fredric March), who frequently writes her letters about his love of her work.  One day, in the middle of a snowfall, Robert shows up at the house on Wimpole Street and requests to see Elizabeth.  Robert tells her that her poetry has not only inspired him but it has also caused him to fall in love with her.  When Elizabeth explains that she is dying and cannot leave the bedroom, Robert says that she’s going to live forever.  After Robert leaves, Elizabeth manages to stand and, for the first time in years, walks over to the window to watch as he departs.

Sounds like a perfect love story, right?  Well, there’s a problem.  Edward has absolutely no intention of allowing Elizabeth to leave the house, regardless of how much her health improves after her initial meeting with Robert.  He is determined to keep her in that bedroom and, this being a pre-code film, it becomes obvious that there’s more to Edward’s behavior than just being an overprotective father.  Though the dialogue may be euphemistic, Edward’s incestuous desires are plain to see.  It’s there every time that he leers as his daughters while also saying that he’ll be sure to pray for their souls.  It’s there in the film’s final moments, when Edward makes a request that’s so dark and cruel that it will take even a modern audience by surprise.  Charles Laughton played a lot of villains over the course of his long career but Edward is perhaps the most monstrous.

As a film, The Barretts of Wimpole Street is undeniably stagy and it’s a bit overlong as well.  Charles Laughton so dominates the film with menace that he threatens to overshadow not just March and Shearer but also Maureen O’Sullivan, who plays one of Elizabeth’s sisters.  But no matter!  I absolutely love The Barretts of Wimpole Street.  The house is gorgeous, the plot is wonderfully melodramatic, and Shearer and March both have a wonderful chemistry.  You can debate whether or not March and Shearer are credible as poets but, ultimately, what matters more is that they are totally believable as soul mates.  From the minute they first meet, you simply buy them as a couple that is meant to be.  Robert’s earnestness is perfectly matched with Elizabeth’s growing strength and it’s impossible not to cheer at least a little when Elizabeth first manages to walk down a staircase without collapsing.

Of course, as any student of literature should be aware, Robert is Robert Browning and Elizabeth is Elizabeth Barrett.  In real life, Robert Browning did arrange a meeting with Elizabeth after having read her poetry and, as well, it’s been said that Elizabeth’s father did not approve of her relationship with Robert.  It’s also apparently true that Edward actually did disinherit any of his children who married.  As for the other details of Edward’s depiction in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, it’s unknown how close to the truth Laughton’s performance may have been.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street is a wonderful historical romance.  It was Oscar-nominated for best picture, though it lost to a far different romance, It Happened One Night.

Halloween Havoc!: ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (Paramount 1932)


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Universal Pictures kicked off the horror trend of the early 30’s with DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN , and soon every studio in Hollywood, both major and minor, jumped on the terror train. Paramount was the first to hop on board with an adaptation of Stevenson’s DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE , earning Fredric March an Oscar for his dual role. Soon there was DR. X (Warners), THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (RKO), FREAKS and THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (both MGM), and THE MONSTER WALKS and WHITE ZOMBIE from the indies. Paramount released ISLAND OF LOST SOULS at the end of 1932, a film so shocking and perverse it was banned in Britain for over a quarter century, and still manages to frighten even the most jaded of horror fans today.

Based on the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells, the film begins with shipwrecked Edward Parker being rescued…

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Happy Birthday Boris Karloff: THE OLD DARK HOUSE (Universal 1932)


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William Henry Pratt was born on November 23, 1887, but horror movie icon Boris Karloff was “born” when he teamed with director James Whale for 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN. The scary saga of a man and his monster became a big hit, and Universal Studios boss Carl Laemmle Jr. struck while the horror trend was hot, quickly teaming the pair in an adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s 1927 novel THE OLD DARK HOUSE. This film was considered lost for many years until filmmaker and Whale friend Curtis Harrington discovered a print in the Universal vaults. Recently, a 4K restoration has been released courtesy of the Cohen Film Collection, and a showing aired on TCM this past Halloween. I of course, having never seen the film, hit the DVR button for a later viewing.

THE OLD DARK HOUSE has not only been restored to its former glory, but is a delightful black comedy showcasing…

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Happy 100th Birthday Robert Mitchum!: THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (United Artists 1955)


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Regular readers know I’m a big fan of Big Bob Mitchum, having covered nine of his classic films. The self-effacing Mitchum always downplayed his talents in interviews, but his easy-going, naturalistic style and uncanny ear for dialect made him one of the screen’s most watchable stars. Whether a stoic film noir anti-hero, a rugged soldier fighting WWII, a romantic lead, or a malevolent villain, Mitchum always delivered the goods. Last night I watched THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER for the first time, and his performance as the murderous ‘Reverend’ Harry Powell just zoomed to the top of my list of marvelous Mitchum performances.

Mitchum’s Powell is totally amoral and totally crazy, a sociopathic killer who talks to God about killing women, those “perfume smelling things, lacy things, things with curly hair” that The Lord hates, according to Harry. He’s sexually repressed to the point he must murder in the name of God to…

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Horror Film Review: Island of Lost Souls (dir by Erle C. Kenton)


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In the 1932 film Island of Lost Souls, Ruth Thomas (Leila Hyams) has reason to be concerned.  She’s on the island of Samoa, awaiting the arrival of her fiancée, Edward Parker (Richard Arlen).  When Parker’s boat doesn’t show up, it can only mean one thing.  He’s been shipwrecked!  Did he survive or was he lost at sea?

Well, Ruth need not worry.  Parker did survive being shipwrecked.  He was picked up by a freighter carrying a wide selection of animals to an isolated island.  Unfortunately, when Parker complained about the way that Parker was abusing some of his admittedly odd-looking passengers, the captain responded by dumping Parker on that island as well.

On the island, Parker becomes the guest of Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) and his assistant, Montgomery (Arthur Hohl).  Parker also meets and finds himself becoming attractive to the seemingly naive Lota (Kathleen Burke).  Though Moreau seems to be a good host, Parker grows suspicious of him.  It turns out that there’s a room in Moreau’s compound, a room that Lota calls “the house of pain.”  At night, Parker can hear horrifying screams coming from the room.

Initially believing the Moreau is torturing the island’s natives, Parker soon discovers an even more disturbing truth.  Moreau has been experimenting with trying to transform animals into humans.  Lota, it turns out, was once a panther and the woods surrounding the compound are full of other Moreau creations.  Though Moreau claims that his intentions are benevolent, he rules his island like a dictator.  The animal-men are kept in line by the Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi) and any transgressions are punished in the House of Pain…

The Island of Lost Souls was the first cinematic adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau.  (Perhaps the most famous adaptation came out in 1996 and is the subject of Lost Souls, a fascinating documentary that, I believe, can still be found on Netflix.)  I watched it last night on TCM and I have to admit that I had a mixed reaction to it.  On the one hand, the film’s atmosphere of mystery and danger is palpable and Charles Laughton’s performance definitely set a standard for all misguided scientists to follow.  The human-animals are fantastic creations and  the film’s ending still has some power.  Bela Lugosi’s performance of the Sayer of the Law was superior to his work as Dracula.  (As shown by both this film and Ninotchka, Lugosi was an outstanding character actor.)  Kathleen Burke also does a great job as Lota, which makes it all the more interesting that she was apparently cast as a result of winning a contest that was sponsored by Paramount Pictures.

(On a personal note, I always find it amusing that pre-code films always feature at least one scene of an actress removing her stockings, even if the scene itself has next to nothing to do with the rest of the film.  In this case, the legs belong to Leila Hyams.)

On the negative side, Richard Arlen is not a particularly interesting hero and, from a contemporary point of view, Island of Lost Souls is a rather slow-moving film.  Watching it today requires modern audiences to make a bit of an adjustment to their expectations.

With all that in mind, I still recommend Island of Lost Souls.  Watch it for Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi.  Watch it as a valuable piece of cinematic history.

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 9: Film Noir Festival Redux


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Welcome back to the decadently dark world of film noir, where crime, corruption, lust, and murder await. Let’s step out of the light and deep into the shadows with these five fateful tales:

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PITFALL (United Artists 1948, D: Andre DeToth) Dick Powell is an insurance man who feels he’s stuck in a rut, living in safe suburbia with his wife and kid (Jane Wyatt, Jimmy Hunt). Then he meets hot model Lizabeth Scott on a case and falls into a web of lies, deceit, and ultimately murder. Raymond Burr  costars as a creepy PI who has designs on Scott himself. A good cast in a good (not great) drama with a disappointing ending. Fun Fact: The part of Scott’s embezzler boyfriend is played by one Byron Barr, who is not the Byron Barr that later changed his name to Gig Young.  

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THE BRIBE (MGM 1949, D:Robert Z. Leonard) Despite an…

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Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: Ruggles of Red Gap (dir by Leo McCarey)


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After watching Barry Lyndon, I decided to continue to explore my DVR by watching another film that was shown as a part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar.

First released way back in 1935, Ruggles of Red Gap was nominated for best picture but it lost to Mutiny of the Bounty.  Interestingly enough, both Ruggles and Bounty featured the great Charles Laughton.  In Bounty, Laughton played a tyrannical villain, Capt. Bligh.  In Ruggles, however, Laughton is the film’s hero, a gentle and comedic butler named Marmaduke Ruggles who, after having his contract gambled away in a poker game, finds himself living in the frontier town of Red Gap, Washington.

It’s also interesting to note that Ruggles of Red Gap is one of the few best picture nominees to receive absolutely no other nominations.  To a certain extent, it’s understandable.  Ruggles of Red Gap was made at a time when the Academy had less categories but still nominated ten films for best picture.  As a film, Ruggles mostly serves as a showcase for Charles Laughton but, that year, he received his best actor nomination for his work in Mutiny.  (At that time, there were no supporting categories.  Had there been, it’s likely that Laughton could have received a lead actor nomination for Ruggles and a supporting nomination for Bounty.)  The next time that someone complains that Selma only received two nominations, you remind them that’s one more than Ruggles of Red Gap received.

As for the film itself … well, for a modern audience, the film’s deliberate pace takes some getting used to.  The film’s best moments occur at the start.  Ruggles wakes up one morning to discover that his boss (Roland Young) lost him in a poker game.  Ruggles spends the day meeting and attempting to get used to his new employer, a nouveau riche cowboy named Egbert Floud (Charlie Ruggles).  The joke here, of course, is that Ruggles is stereotypically reserved and British while Egbert is loud, brash, and American.  Ruggles lives his life by the rules of the class system.  Egbert comes from a world where there is no class and everyone is equal.  Ruggles refuses to call Egbert by his first name.  Egbert gets Ruggles drunk.  The scenes of Egbert and Ruggles in Europe are a lot of fun, largely because the two actors were obviously having a lot of fun playing off each other and Laughton clearly relished getting to play comedy as opposed to villainy.

The second half of the film features Ruggles settling into life in Red Gap, Washington.  The citizens of Red Gap are, of course, all honest and hard-working folks who don’t have the slightest hint of pretension.  (Red Gap may have been in Washington but it was obviously nowhere close to Seattle.)  They welcome Ruggles into the community but they also mistake him for being a colonel and soon, everyone is under the impression that Ruggles himself is a war hero.  It’s an odd subplot, one that doesn’t seem to really be necessary to make the film’s point.

And that point, by the way, is that America is a land where everyone is equal and where butlers have the same rights as their employers.  Ruggles goes from being somewhat horrified by his new surrounding to being a proud American, an entrepreneur who is now capable of being his own man.  And it may sound corny and I’m sure all of my cynical friends are rolling their eyes but you know what?  Charles Laughton pulled it off.  As uneven as the film may sometimes be, Laughton’s sincere performance holds it all together.  He’s the main reason to watch Ruggles of Red Gap.

How proud of an American does Ruggles become?  He’s enough of an American that he can even recite the Gettysburg address!  Watch below!