Halloween Havoc!: THE DEVIL DOLL (MGM 1936)


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Producer/director Tod Browning’s THE DEVIL DOLL is a film reminiscent of his silent efforts with the great Lon Chaney Sr. This bizarre little movie doesn’t get the attention of Browning’s DRACULA or FREAKS ,  and the ending’s a bit on the sappy side, but on the plus side it features Lionel Barrymore dressed in drag for most of the time, some neat early special effects work, and a weird premise based on a novel by science fiction writer A. Merritt, adapted for the screen by Guy Endore, Garrett Ford,  and Erich von Stroheim (!!).

Barrymore stars as Devil’s Island escapee Paul Lavond, and he pretty much carries the picture. Lavond and fellow con Marcel (Henry B. Walthall ) make it to Marcel’s home, where wife Melita (a pop-eyed Rafaela Ottiano) has been keeping the faith on her hubby’s experimental work… turning animals miniature, to solve the coming food shortage…

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Horror Film Review: The Devil-Doll (dir by Tod Browning)


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Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore) was just your ordinary Parisian bank owner until he was wrongly convicted of robbery and murder.  Sentenced to Devil’s Island and estranged from his beloved daughter, Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan), Paul spends 16 years plotting how to clear his name and progressively growing more bitter and angry.

He also befriends a scientist named Marcel (Henry B. Walthall).  Marcel has figured out the formula for shrinking people.  He’s convinced that shrunken people will eat less, use less fossil fuels, and take up a lot less space on the planet.  They’ll probably also be less likely to wage war on each other.  That’s right — the secret to world peace is shrinking the population.

However, Paul has other plans for that shrinking formula!  What better way to clear his name and seek revenge than by using a shrunken army of henchmen?

Uhmmm — okay, it sounds a little bit overcomplicated to me but who am I to doubt the wisdom of Lionel Barrymore?

(Yes, I know he’s Paul Lavond but, honestly, Lionel Barrymore is Lionel Barrymore regardless of who he’s playing.)

Anyway, Paul and Marcel escape from Devil’s Island but Marcel dies shortly afterward.  Paul, however, forms a partnership with Marcel’s widow, Maleta (Rafaela Ottiano).  Disguising himself as an elderly woman, Paul returns to Paris.  Not only does he use his disguise to watch over his daughter (who doesn’t realize that the kindly old woman is actually her father) but he also starts to develop quite a reputation for selling incredibly realistic dolls…

The Devil-Doll is an odd little mix of comedy and melodrama and, to be honest, it’s a bit too uneven to really work.  That said, the film is definitely worth watching just for the sight of Lionel Barrymore playing an elderly woman.  (Classic film lovers will immediately notice that, when in disguise, Lionel greatly resembles his sister, Ethel.)  This Christmas, when I’m watching It’s A Wonderful Life for the 100th time and Mr. Potter is cackling and plotting to put the Bailey Building and Loan out of business, I’ll have a hard time not thinking about The Devil-Doll.

The Devil-Doll was one of the final films to be directed by the legendary horror specialist, Tod Browning.  I’ve read that Browning’s later films suffered because Browning plunged into depression after the death of Lon Chaney, Sr. and he never quite recovered.  And, really, The Devil-Doll feels like a film that would have been perfect for Chaney’s unique talent.

But, that said, Lionel Barrymore appears to be having a lot of fun as Paul and his performance is the main reason to watch the film today.

Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi in CHANDU THE MAGICIAN (Fox 1932)


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Thrills! Chills! Romance! Action! CHANDU THE MAGICIAN plays like a Saturday matinée serial aimed directly at the kiddie crowd. Based on a popular radio series, the film is pretty antiquated seen today, its saving graces being the special effects wizardry of co-director William Cameron Menzies and the deliciously evil Bela Lugosi as the megalomaniacal villain Roxor.

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The movie kicks off with the banging of a gong and an offscreen narrator ominously intoning “Chan-du the Magician”. A hand is used to wipe the screen credits, the first of Menzies’ many filmic tricks. We’re taken inside a temple where Frank Chandler, aka Chandu, has spent three years learning the ancient secrets of the mystic arts (move over, Dr. Strange!). He’s a yogi now, master of the hypnotic eye and astral projection, and demonstrates his prowess by performing the old Indian rope trick and walking through fire. His mentor bids him to “go…

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The First Annual Academy Awards: 1914


Hi there! The blogger known as Jedadiah Leland and I have launched a TSL side project. We are taking Oscar history, re-imagining it, and turning it into something much better, one year at a time! I, of course, will be handling the even years while he handles the odd years. (Why? Because Lisa doesn’t do odd numbers, that’s why!) Here’s our report on the First Annual Academy Awards, honoring the best of 1914.

(You read that right…)

Through the Shattered Lens Presents The Oscars

Mack Sennett, the 1st President of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Mack Sennett, the 1st President of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Ironically, considering its current prominence in American culture, the origins of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are shrouded in mystery.

Reportedly, in February of 1914, a meeting was held in New York City that led to the founding of the Academy.  While all exact records appear to be lost, it is generally agreed that the meeting was attended by Mack Sennett,Thomas H. Ince, William Randolph Hearst, Charles O. Baumann, John R. Freuler, Samuel S. Hutchinson, Jesse Lasky, William Fox, Adolph Zukor,D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, William Kennedy Dickson, Mary Pickford,J. Stuart Blackton, Albert E. Smith, Carl Laemmle, and L. Frank Baum.  By the end of the meeting, not only had the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences…

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Embracing the Melodrama, Part II: Wings (dir by William Wellman)


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As I mentioned in my previous review, Sunrise may have won the 1927 Oscar for Unique and Artistic Production but the official winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture was the silent World War I romantic melodrama, Wings.  Wings is one of those films that doesn’t seem to get much respect from contemporary critics, many of whom are quick to dismiss the film as being corny and clichéd.  It’s not unusual to see Wings cited as being the first example of the Academy honoring the wrong film.

Wings tells the story of David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) and Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers), who both live in the same small town and who are both in love with the pretty but self-centered Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston).  Sylvia, meanwhile, is in love with the wealthy David but, when Jack asks for a picture of her, she gives him one that she had been planning to eventually give to David.  Meanwhile, Mary (Clara Bow), who is literally the girl next door, pines for Jack.

When World War I breaks out, both Jack and David join the Air Force.  At first they’re rivals but, under the pressure of combat and the threat of constant death, they become friends.  When David flies, he has a tiny teddy bear to bring him luck.  Jack, meanwhile, has Sylvia’s picture.  Meanwhile, their tentmate — Cadet White (Gary Cooper) — insists that he doesn’t need any good luck charms and promptly suffers the consequences for upsetting God.

Meanwhile, Mary has joined the war effort and is driving an ambulance around Europe.  Will Mary ever be able to convince Jack that they belong together?  Will David ever catch the legendary German pilot, Kessler?  Perhaps most importantly, will this new bromance be able to survive both war and the charms of Clara Bow?  And finally, will anyone be surprised when all of this leads to a tragic conclusion with an ironic twist?

Wings has got such a bad reputation and is so frequently dismissed as being the first case of the Academy picking spectacle over quality that I was actually shocked when I watched it and discovered that Wings is actually a pretty good movie.  Yes, it is totally predictable.  Every possible war film cliche can be found in Wings.  (From the minute that handsome and confident Gary Cooper announced that he didn’t need any lucky charms, I knew he was doomed.)  And yes, the film does run long and it does feature a totally out-of-place subplot involving a character played by someone named El Brendel (who was apparently a popular comedian at the time).  This is all true but, still, Wings works when taken on its own terms.

Here’s the thing with Wings: the aerial footage is still impressive (all the more so for being filmed without the benefit of CGI) and both Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen are handsome and appealing in a 1927 silent film sort of way.  In fact, the entire film is appealing in a 1927 silent film sort of way.  This is a time capsule, one that shows what films were like in the 20s and, as a result of the combat scenes, also provides a hint of what lay in the future for the film industry.  Most importantly, Wings features Clara Bow, who has been my silent film girl crush ever since I first saw It.  Whether she’s attempting to flirt with the clueless Rogers or hiding underneath her ambulance and shouting curses at the Germans flying above her, Clara brings a lot of life to every scene in which she appears.

If you’re a film historian, Wings is one of those films that you simply have to see and, fortunately for you, it’s actually better than you may have been led to think.

It’s currently available on Netflix.

 

Shattered Politics #1: Abraham Lincoln (dir by D.W. Griffith)


Unlike just about everyone else that I know, I am about as apolitical as you can get.

Oh, don’t get me wrong.  I always vote.  I believe in …. stuff.  Occasionally, I get angry about the state of the world. Why I’ll have you know that when I first registered to vote, I was really, really excited and I even sat down and researched every single person who was running for President.  (And, of course, I decided I would support John Edwards because he had good hair.  But then I changed my mind and ended up voting for Charles Jay, the candidate of the Personal Choice Party.)  But, for whatever reason, current events have never become the obsession for me that they are for some people.  You’ll never catch me posting a political meme or sagely agreeing with an activist on Facebook.  It’s just not for me.

(On the plus side, this has allowed me to have friends with many diverse viewpoints and generally lead a happy life.)

At the same time, I’m also fascinated by history and history is often the story of politics and politicians.  As a result, I’m far more interested in past affairs than I am in current affairs.  I can spend hours talking about the election of 1876 but I could hardly care less who is elected in 2016.  I know my political history well enough not to worry about the political present.

Perhaps that explains why, despite my indifference to politics, I tend to enjoy political movies.  And that leads us to my latest review series here at the Shattered Lens.  Over the next two weeks, I will be reviewing, in chronological order, 94 films about politics and politicians.  It’s a little something I call Shattered Politics.

(For some previous examples of what I mean by review series, check out Lisa’s Homestate Reviews, Lisa Goes Back To College, Netflix Noir, 44 Days of Paranoia, Embracing the MelodramaBack To School, and, of course, Lisa’s Marie’s Favorite Grindhouse and Exploitation Film Trailers!)

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We start things off with a film from 1930.  One of only two sounds films to be directed by cinematic pioneer D.W. Griffith, Abraham Lincoln is — as you might guess from the title — a 90 minute biopic about the 16th President of the United States.  It tells the same basic story as Lincoln, just in a lot less time and with Walter Huston playing the title role.  The film opens in 1809 with his birth then speeds forward to detail his tragic love affair with Ann Rutledge (played by Una Merkel) and his subsequent marriage to Mary Todd (Kay Hammond).  We get a snippet of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and then, just as quickly, Abe is President, the country plunges into civil war, and an alcoholic actor named John Wilkes Booth (Ian Keith) is meeting with disreputable looking men in a shadowy bar and making shadowy plans.

Any honest review of this version of Lincoln’s life needs to deal with the obvious.  Abraham Lincoln was released 84 years ago, at a time when the film industry was still struggling to make the transition from silent to sound film.  In other words, the film is stiff, stagey, and full of actors who alternate between shouting their dialogue and delivering their lines through nervously clinched teeth.  This is essentially a silent film — complete with overdramatic title cards and heavy-handed symbolism — that just happens to feature some very awkwardly delivered dialogue.  Walter Huston is occasionally effective as Lincoln but, just as often, he’s not.

However, Abraham Lincoln is fascinating to watch from a historical point of view.  It helps if you know a little something about director D.W. Griffith.  Almost all of the narrative techniques that we now take for granted were originally introduced to cinema by D.W. Griffith and many of them were introduced in his controversial 1915 epic, The Birth of a Nation.  

Of course, Griffith’s legacy is problematic precisely because of The Birth of a Nation.  An epic look at the Civil War, Birth not only featured white actors in black face menacing Lillian Gish but also ended with the Ku Klux Klan heroically riding to the rescue.  That even viewers in 1915 were critical of the film’s racism and overly pro-Confederate sentiments should tell you something about just how extreme the film truly was.

(That said, one huge fan of the film was U.S. President and aspiring dictator Woodrow Wilson.)

By most accounts, Griffith was stunned by the negative reaction to The Birth of a Nation and several of his subsequent films (most famously, Intolerance) were meant to answer his critics.

That’s what makes the opening scenes of Abraham Lincoln all the more interesting.  The film opens in 1809 with a shot of a ship on the ocean.  We catch a glimpse of the Africans chained in the lower decks.  Two white slave traders are seen carrying a dead body to the side of the ship and tossing it overboard.

We cut to Virginia, where we see a group of slave owners complaining about how the North is harming them financially by trying to end the slave trade.  One of the men says that the only man who could have kept the north and south united is dead.  The camera pans up to a picture of George Washington.

Then, the scene cuts to Boston.  A group of northerners sit around a table and talk about how slavery is harming the north economically and therefore, it has to end.  One of the northerners says that the only man who could have kept north and south united is dead.  Again, the camera pans up to a picture of George Washington.

And, it’s a wonderfully effective sequence, one that not only reveals the economic reasons behind most wars but one which also reveals the cruelty, inhumanity, and pure evil of slavery.  (That said, when the film later shows us a glimpse of life in the Confederacy, Griffith does include a couple of slaves cheerfully dancing in the background.)

And, as awkward as the scenes involving dialogue are (the less said about the scenes between Walter Huston and Una Merkel, the better), Griffith does occasionally show the visual flair that was his trademark.  One excellent sequence involves soldier after soldier lining up, one after the other and each of them staring straight into the camera as they prepare to go to war.  When the film concentrates on scenes of men marching across the countryside, it actually works.

Then again, you may just want to see the film for the chance to hear one extra, when asked the identity of a man giving a fiery speech, awkwardly explain, “That’s the actor, John Wilkes Booth.  Not much of an actor but he’s got a way with the ladies!”

It’s really up to you.

Walter Huston as Abraham Lincoln

Walter Huston as Abraham Lincoln