Horror Film Review: The Walking Dead (dir by Michael Curtiz)


In this 1936 film (which has absolutely no relation to the AMC zombie show), Boris Karloff plays John Ellman.  John Ellman is perhaps one of the unluckiest guys ever.  Seriously check this out:

John Ellman was once an acclaimed concert pianist.  However, he was wrongly convicted of killing his wife and spent ten years in prison.  Now that he’s finally been paroled, he can’t get anyone to hire him.  Meanwhile, the judge who originally sent him to prison is in the news for having defied the mob and sentenced a well-known gangster to prison.  The mob is out for revenge but, rather than take the fall themselves, they’d rather frame a patsy.  And who could be a better patsy than a man who everyone already knows has a grudge against the judge?

Nolan (Ricardo Cortez), a crooked lawyer, arranges for Ellman to be given a job.  Ellman is told that he simply has to spy on the judge for a few nights to determine whether the judge is having an extramarital affair.  Ellman agrees and soon finds himself being set up.  The gangsters kill the judge and plant the body in Ellman’s car.  Ellman is arrested and sentenced to die.  It doesn’t matter that there are witnesses who know that Ellman’s innocent.  No one is willing to cross the mafia.

Ellman is convicted and promptly executed but his story isn’t over.  A scientist named Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn, who later played the man who might be Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street) knows that Ellman is innocent.  He takes Ellman’s body and, through an artificial heart and a bunch of other science-y things, he manages to revive Ellman.  John Ellman lives again!  Of course, he’s a bit of a zombie now and he doesn’t have any memory of his former life.  And yet, he instinctively knows who set him up to be executed and he sets out for revenge.

What’s interesting is that Ellman doesn’t kill anyone.  Even after he’s revived and presumably has no concept of right and wrong, John Ellman remains a rather passive zombie.  For the most part, the racketeers die because of how they react to the sight of the previously dead Ellman coming towards them.  For that matter, Beaumont isn’t the typical mad scientist that you might expect to turn up in a film like this.  He’s a benevolent man who was simply doing what he thought was the right thing.  Though the film ends with a warning about playing God, one can’t hep but get the feeling that, unlike Frankenstein, the film is overall very supportive of the idea of reviving the dead.

Directed by Michael Curtiz (who also did Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and countless other classic films), The Walking Dead is a combination horror/gangster film.  The film’s plot is a bit too convoluted for its own good but, overall, The Walking Dead works because of Boris Karloff’s performance.  He’s poignantly pathetic as the living John Ellman and then rather chilling as the vengeance-driven, recently revived Ellman.  The film’s most effective scenes are the ones where he just stares at his enemies, fixing them with a gaze that takes no prisoners and offers no hope.  It’s a great performance that elevates an otherwise uneven film.

A Movie A Day #57: Here Comes The Navy (1934, directed by Lloyd Bacon)


here_comes_the_navy_posterLisa asked me to review an old best picture nominee for today’s movie a day so I picked Here Comes The Navy, because hardly anyone has ever heard of it and I usually like old service comedies.

Chesty O’Connor (James Cagney) is a construction worker who thinks that he is tougher than anyone in the Navy.  When Chesty gets into a fight with Chief Petty Officer Biff Martin (Pat O’Brien), Chesty enlists in the Navy just to get on his nerves.  Chesty brings his friend Droopy (Frank McHugh) with him.  With Biff determined to force him out of the service, Chesty bristles against the rules of the Navy.  But then Chesty meets and falls in love with Dorothy (Gloria Stuart), Biff’s sister.  Chesty loses his bad attitude, proves that his shipmates can depend on him, saves Biff’s life when an airship landing goes wrong, and even gets to marry Biff’s sister.

Here Comes The Navy is a typical 1930s service comedy, distinguished mostly by the wiseguy presence of James Cagney.  It is the type of movie where men have names like Chesty, Biff, and Droopy.  Warner Bros. made a hundred versions of this story and Here Comes The Navy was certainly one of them.

Here Comes The Navy was produced with the full cooperation of the U.S. Navy, so it’s not surprising that it feels like a recruiting film.  The sailors are all happy to do their bit to protect the American way of life and the commanding officers are all tough but fair.  The majority of the movie was filmed on the USS Arizona, which would be sunk seven years later during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Here Comes The Navy also features some scenes shot on the USS Macon, an airship that would crash a year later.

It’s hard to guess how Here Comes The Navy came to be nominated for best picture.  It’s okay but, for the most part, it’s for James Cagney completists only.

 

Cleaning Out The DVR: Yankee Doodle Dandy (dir by Michael Curtiz)


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So, today, I got off work so that I could vote in Texas’s Super Tuesday primary.  After I cast my vote (and don’t ask me who I voted for because it’s a secret ballot for a reason!), I came home and I turned on the TV and I discovered that, as a result of spending February recording countless films off of Lifetime and TCM, I only had 9 hours of space left on my DVR.  As a result, the DVR was threatening to erase my recordings of Bend It Like Beckham, Jesus Christ Superstar, American Anthem, an episode of The Bachelor from 2011, and the entire series of Saved By The Bell: The College Years.

“Acgk!” I exclaimed in terror.

So, I immediately sat down and started the process of cleaning out the DVR.  I started things out by watching Yankee Doodle Dandy, a film from 1942.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is a biopic of a songwriter, signer, and dancer named George M. Cohan.  I have to admit, that when the film started, I had absolutely no idea who George M. Cohan was.  Imagine my surprise as I watched the film and I discovered that Cohan had written all of the old-fashioned patriotic songs that are played by the Richardson Symphony Orchestra whenever I go to see the 4th of July fireworks show at Breckenridge Park.  He wrote You’re A Grand Old Flag, The Yankee Doodle Boy, and Over There.  Though I may not have heard of him, Cohan was an American institution during the first half of the 20th Century.  Even if I hadn’t read that on Wikipedia, I would have been able to guess from watching Yankee Doodle Dandy, which, at times, seems to be making a case for sainthood.

And that’s not meant to be a complaint!  74 years after it was originally released, Yankee Doodle Dandy is still a terrifically entertaining film.  It opens with George (played by James Cagney) accepting a Congressional Gold Medal from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  (We only see Roosevelt from behind and needless to say, the President did not play himself.  Instead, Captain Jack Young sat in a chair while FDR’s voice was provided by impressionist Art Gilmore.)  Cohan proceeds to tell Roosevelt his life story, starting with his birth on the 4th of July.  Cohan tells how he was born into a showbiz family and a major theme of the film is how Cohan took care of his family even after becoming famous.

The other major theme is patriotism.  As portrayed in this biopic, Cohan is perhaps the most patriotic man who ever lived.  That may sound corny but Cagney pulls it off.  When we see him sitting at the piano and coming up with the lyrics for another song extolling the greatness of America, we never doubt his sincerity.  In fact, he’s so sincere that he makes us believe as well.  Watching Yankee Doodle Dandy, I found myself regretting that I have to live in such an overwhelmingly cynical time.  If George M. Cohan was alive today, he’d punch out anyone who called this country “Murica.”

Yankee Doodle Dandy is an amazingly positive film.  There are a few scenes where Cohan has to deal with a few Broadway types who are jealous of his talent and his confidence but, otherwise, it’s pretty much one triumph after another for Cohan.  Normally, of course, there’s nothing more annoying than listening to someone talk about how great his life is but fortunately, Cohan is played by James Cagney and Cagney gives one of the best performance of all time in the role.

Cagney, of course, is best remembered for playing gangsters but he got his start as a dancer.  In Yankee Doodle Dandy, Cagney is so energetic and so happy and such a complete and totally showman that you can’t help but get caught up in his story.  When he says that, as a result of his success, things have never been better, you don’t resent him for it.  Instead, you’re happy for him because he’s amazingly talented and deserve the best!

Seriously, watch him below:

James Cagney won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance here.  Yankee Doodle Dandy was also nominated for best picture but lost to Mrs. Miniver.

I’m really glad that I watched Yankee Doodle Dandy today.  In this time of overwhelming negativity, it was just what I needed!

Shattered Politics #2: They Won’t Forget (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


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The title of the 1937 film They Won’t Forget works on many levels.

It describes the reaction of a small Southern town, following the brutal murder of teenager Mary Clay (played, in her film debut, by Lana Turner).  The town won’t forget Mary and they won’t forget the terror caused by her murder.  They also won’t forget that local teacher Robert Hale (Edward Norris) was accused of the crime.

The district attorney, Andrew Griffin (Claude Rains), hopes that the people of his state won’t forget his efforts to see Griffin convicted of that crime.  Griffin wants to be elected to the U.S. Senate and he knows that the high profile case could be just what his career needs.

The Governor (Paul Everton) knows that, if he steps into the case and acts on his suspicion that Hale is innocent, the voters of his state will never forget.  And they certainly won’t be willing to forgive.

And, on a larger level, the title lets us know that the South and the North will never forget the Civil War and the conflict between the two regions.  The film opens with three elderly veterans of the Confederate Army, preparing to march in the town’s annual Confederate Memorial Day parade and admitting to each other that, after all these years, it’s difficult to remember much about the war other than the fact that they’re proud that they fought in it.

It’s while the rest of the town is busy watching Griffin and the governor ride in the parade that Mary Clay is murdered.  It’s easy to assume that Hale was the murderer because Hale was one of the few townspeople not to go to the parade.  You see, Hale is originally from New York City.  When he’s accused of murder, it’s equally easy for Griffin and tabloid reporter William A. Brock (Allyn Joslyn) to convince the town people to blame this Northern intruder for both the murder of Mary Clay and, symbolically, for all of the post-Civil War struggles of the South itself.

Meanwhile, up North, Hale is seen as a victim of the South’s intolerance.  A high-profile lawyer (Otto Kruger) is sent down to defend Hale but, as quickly becomes clear, everyone involved in the case is more interested in refighting the Civil War than determining the guilt or innocence of Andrew Hale.

They Won’t Forget is a hard-hitting and fascinating look at politics, justice, and paranoia.  It’s all the more interesting because it’s based on a true story.  In 1913, a 13 year-old girl named Mary Phagan was murdered in Atlanta.  Leo Frank was accused and convicted of the murder.  (In Frank’s case, he was born in Texas but was also Jewish and had previously lived in New York before moving to Atlanta, all of which made him suspicious in the eyes of many.)  On the word of a night watchmen, who many believe was the actual murderer of Mary Phagan, Leo Frank was convicted and sentence to death.  After spending days reviewing all of the evidence and growing convinced that Frank had been wrongly convicted, Georgia’s governor committed an act of political suicide by commuting Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment.  Leo Frank was subsequently lynched and the man who had prosecuted the case against him was subsequently elected governor.

Well-acted and intelligently directed, They Won’t Forget is probably one of the best films of which few people have heard.  Fortunately, it shows up fairly regularly on TCM and, the next time that it does, be sure to watch.  It’s a great film that you won’t easily forget.