The Main Event: Kirk Douglas in CHAMPION (United Artists 1949)


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Kirk Douglas  slugged his way to superstardom in director Mark Robson’s CHAMPION, one of two boxing noirs made in 1949. The other was THE SET-UP , helmed by Robson’s former RKO/Val Lewton stablemate Robert Wise. While that film told of an aging boxer (Robert Ryan) on the way down, CHAMPION is the story of a hungry young fighter who lets nothing stand in his way to the top of the food chain. The movie not only put Douglas on the map, it was a breakthrough for its young independent producer Stanley Kramer .

Douglas is all muscle and sinew as middleweight Midge Kelly, and a thoroughly rotten heel. He’s a magnetic character, a classic narcissist with sociopathic tendencies drawing the people around him into his web with his charm. Midge has no empathy for others, not even his loyal, game-legged brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy in a solid performance), after…

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A Movie A Day #168: The Harder They Fall (1956, directed by Mark Robson)


In his final film role, Humphrey Bogart exposes the seamy side of boxing.

Bogart plays Eddie Willis, a washed-up former sportswriter who, because he desperately needs the money, accepts a job offer from crooked boxing promoter, Nick Benko (Rod Steiger).  Eddie is working as a publicist for a South American boxer named Toro (Mike Lane).  Toro is big, strong, and not very bright.  He is not a great boxer but he does not realize that because the Mob has been fixing all of his fights.  After a punch drunk former boxer dies in the ring while fighting Toro, Toro wants to quit and return home to Argentina.  Eddie, who has grown sympathetic to Toro, convinces Toro to fight one last time, against the world champion, Buddy Brannen (Max Baer).  Eddie tells Toro that he does not have a chance of winning but at least he will be able to return home with money for his parents.  However, Benko has other plans for Toro’s money.

Bogart was visibly dying of cancer when he made this tough and uncompromising expose of the racket behind the fight game.  This was his final performance but it is also one of his best.  Even sick and more weary than usual, Bogart could still summon up righteous fury at the type of men that would exploit a fighter like Toro.  His scenes with Rod Steiger are charged with intensity, with Bogart’s film star charisma colliding with Steiger’s stylized method acting.  Both on-screen and 0ff, Humphrey Bogart was an actor who always stood up for the little guy.  Though the film itself may be predictable and Toro is sometimes too saintly to be believed, The Harder They Fall is still a proper finale to an important and distinguished career.

Halloween Havoc!: GHOST SHIP (RKO 1943)


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Val Lewton produced some of the most memorable horror films of the 1940’s, moody, atmospheric set pieces noted for their intelligent scripts, chiaroscuro lighting, and eerie use of sound. CAT PEOPLE, THE BODY SNATCHER,  and THE SEVENTH VICTIM  are just three that spring to mind when I think of Lewton movies. GHOST SHIP is one of his lesser known films, a psychological thriller about a sea captain obsessed with authority who goes off the deep end, and while it’s not supernatural as the title implies, it’s a good film worth rediscovering.

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A blind street singer on a fog-shrouded corner gives an ominous warning to 3rd Officer Tom Merriam, about to embark on his first voyage aboard the S.S. Altair, captained by veteran sailor Will Stone. Stone is stern but friendly, eager to teach Tom the ways of the sea, and implement his view’s of the captain’s authority. A crewman dies just…

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Master of Horror: Boris Karloff in BEDLAM (RKO 1946)


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(This post is part of the TCM SUMMER UNDER THE STARS blogathon hosted by Kristen at JOURNEYS IN CLASSIC FILM! )

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Boris Karloff made a trio of films for producer Val Lewton in the mid-40’s: THE BODY SNATCHER , ISLE OF THE DEAD, and BEDLAM. The Old Master of Terror was given the opportunity to show off his acting prowess in these dark, psychological horrors. Freed from the restraint of playing yet another mad scientist or creature, Karloff excels in the roles of murderous Cabman Grey, plague-ridden General Pherides, and here as the cruel martinet of Bedlam, Master George Sims.

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Lewton cowrote the script with director Mark Robson  , “suggested by” William Hogarth’s 8th painting in the series “A Rake’s Progress”. There are a lot of sly references to Hogarth in BEDLAM, and the artist even gets a screenwriting credit. It’s 1761 London, and the class struggle between rich and poor rages…

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sound + vision: THE SEVENTH VICTIM (RKO 1943)


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Producer Val Lewton revitalized the horror film during his tenure at RKO Studios in the 1940s. Working with a miniscule budget, Lewton used the power of suggestion rather than monsters to create a body of work that’s still influential on filmmakers today. Studio execs came up with the sensationalistic titles (CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) and gave the producer free rein to tell the stories. Using shadows, light, and sound, Lewton’s quiet, intelligent approach to terror was miles ahead of the juvenile (but fun) stuff cranked out at Universal and Monogram.

THE SEVENTH VICTIM could be considered lesser Lewton. It’s  not seen as often some of his other classics, and that’s a pity, because it’s superior to many of the better known horror movies of the era. This quiet psychological thriller with its civilized satanic cult was a rarity for its time. Only Edgar G Ulmer’s 1934 THE BLACK CAT dared to tackle this kind of material…

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Embracing The Melodrama #13: Peyton Place (dir by Mark Robson)


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“Just remember: men can see much better than they can think. Believe me, a low-cut neckline does more for a girl’s future than the entire Britannica encyclopedia.” — Betty (Terry Moore), speaking the truth in Peyton Place (1957)

Sex!  Sin!  Secrets!  Scandal!  It’s just another day in the life of Peyton Place, the most sordid little town this side of Kings Row!  It’s also the setting of the 1957 best picture nominee, Peyton Place.

Peyton Place is a seemingly idyllic little village in New England.  The town is divided by railroad tracks and how your fellow townspeople views you literally depends on which side of the tracks you live on.  As the film itself shows us, the right side of tracks features pretty houses and primly dressed starlets.  The wrong side of the tracks features shacks and a bunch of people who look like the ancestors of the cast of Winter’s Bone.  The difference in appearance is not particularly subtle (but then again, the same thing could be said for the entire film) but, regardless of which side of the tracks live on, chances are that you’re keeping a few secrets from the rest of the town.

On the right side of the tracks, you can find Constance McKenzie (played by Lana Turner, who is just about as convincing as a New England matron as you would expect a glamorous Hollywood star to be), a dress shop owner who is so prim and proper that she literally flies into a rage when she comes across her daughter kissing a boy.  Could it be the Constance’s repression is the result of her once having been a rich man’s mistress?  And will the new high school principal, the progressive and rather dull Mr. Rossi (Lee Phillips), still love her despite her sordid past?

Constance’s daughter is Allison (Diane Varsi) and poor Allison just can not understand why her mother is so overprotective.  Will Allison ever find true love with the painfully shy Norman Page (Russ Tamblyn) or will she be forced to settle for someone like the rich and irresponsible Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe)?

Rodney, for his part, is in love with Betty (Terry Moore), a girl from the wrong sides of the tracks.  Rodney’s father (Leon Ames) is the richest man in town and makes it clear that he will not allow his son to marry someone with a “reputation.”  Will Rodney get a chance to redeem himself by going off to fight in World War II?

And what will happen when Rodney and Betty go skinny dipping and are spotted by a local town gossip who promptly mistakes them for Norman and Allison?  Reputations are at stake here!

Meanwhile, over on the bad side of the tracks, Lucas Cross (Arthur Kennedy) sits in his shack and drinks and thinks about how the world has failed him.  His long-suffering wife (Betty Field) works as housekeeper for the McKenzie family.  Meanwhile, his abused daughter Selena (Hope Lange, giving the film’s best performance) is Allison’s best friend.  When Lucas’s attempt to rape Selena leads to a violent death, the sins and hypocrisy of Peyton Place are revealed to everyone.

Peyton Place is a big, long  movie, full of overdramatic characters, overheated dialogue, and over-the-top plotting and, for that reason, I absolutely love it!  Apparently, the film was quite controversial in its day and the scenes where Arthur Kennedy attacks Hope Lange still have the power to disturb.  However, the main reason why I enjoy Petyon Place is because anything that could happen in Peyton Place does happen in Peyton Place.

Seriously, how can you not love a film this sordid and melodramatic?

Film Review: Valley of the Dolls (dir. by Mark Robson)


(Photograph by Erin Nicole Bowman)

(Warning: This review contains spoilers.  A lot of them.)

Last week, I posted a poll and I asked you, the Shattered Lens readers, which film I should watch on March 20th and then subsequently review.  You voted and the winner was the classic 1967 trashfest, Valley of the Dolls.

Based on a best-selling (and trend-setting) novel by Jacqueline Susann, Valley of the Dolls starts out with a disclaimer that informs us that the story we’re about to see is totally fictional and purely imaginative.  That disclaimer is probably the funniest part of the entire film as Valley of the Dolls is notorious for being one of the first films dedicated to showing middle America just how miserable and screwed up those famous show business types truly are.  As such, the main reason for watching a movie like this is so you can sit there and compare the cinematic troubles of a character like Neely O’Hara to the true-life troubles of an actress like Lindsay Lohan.  Valley of the Dolls tells the story of three aspiring stars who, as they find fame, also find themselves dealing with heartbreak, insanity, and dolls.  No, not the type of dolls that my mom used to collect.  These “dolls” are a bunch of red pills that do everything from keeping you thin to keeping you awake and focused.  (Though the pills are never actually called anything other than “dolls,” they appear to be the same pills that I take for my ADD.)   

The least interesting of our three heroines is Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins).  Unfortunately, Anne is also pretty much the center of the rather draggy first hour of the film.  Anne is a walking cliché, a naive girl from a small town in New England who moves to New York, gets a room at the Martha Washington Hotel for Women, and a job at a local theatrical agency.  “I want to have a marriage like mom and dad…but not yet!”  Anne breathlessly tells us.  Anne eventually ends up as the mistress of Lyon Burke (played by Paul Burke), a writer-turned-theatrical-agent who you know has to be a cad because his name is Lyon Burke and he takes Anne’s virginity but then refuses to marry her afterward.  Anne eventually becomes a model and finds fame as the face of Gilligan Hairspray but she soon finds herself forced to watch as her two best friends travel down a path of self-destruction.

Anne is the film’s token “good girl” and, as such, she’s rather bland and boring.  However, her character is interesting when considered as a symbol for the confused sexual politics of the time.  Valley of the Dolls was made in 1967, at a time when Hollywood was still trying to figure out how to deal with the emerging counter-culture.  The end result? A lot of rather old-fashioned films that were full of jarringly out-of-place counter-culture moments.  By the time Valley of the Dolls came out, it was allowable to acknowledge that a single girl might actually have sex but she still had to, at the very least, feel an unbelievable amount of angst about it.  That certainly is the case with Anne.  Watching the film today, it’s hard to understand just what exactly Anne’s feeling guilty about.  Lyon isn’t married.  Anne finds success even as she pursues her relationship with him.  Up until the final half of the film (at which point the morality of the time demands that both Anne and Lyon suddenly start acting totally out-of-character), Lyon treats her with about as much respect as you could probably expect to get from a man in the 1960s.  And yet, Anne can’t feel complete simply because Lyon is hesitant about marrying her.  When she and Lyon finally do make love, they do it with the lights off so the only thing the viewer sees are two shadowy figures holding each other.  Following the film’s logic, if the lights had been left on, the character of Anne would have had to have been punished later in the film for allowing the audience to see too much of her.

When Anne first comes to New York, she befriends two actresses.  The more tragic of the two is Jennifer North (played by Sharon Tate, who would be tragically murdered two years after this film came out), an insecure blonde who is valued more for her body than her talent.  Jennifer spends her spare time doing bust exercises (“To hell with them!” she declares at one point as she glares down at her chest, “Let ’em droop!”) and dealing with phone calls from her mother, demanding that Jennifer send her money.  Jennifer eventually ends up marrying a singer named Tony (played by Tony Scotti).  Tony is a well-meaning if simple-minded guy who is married to a creepily overprotective sister (played by Lee Grant).  Eventually, it turns out that Tony has a neurological disease and he’s eventually checked into a sanitorium.  Penniless, Jennifer goes France and makes “art films.”  (In one of Valley of the Dolls’ better moments, we’re shown a clip of this “art film” and it turns out to be a pitch perfect satire of every single pretentious soft-core film to ever come out of Europe.)  Upon returning to America, Jennifer discovers that she has breast cancer and, declaring “All I’ve got is my body,” she commits suicide.

Though Sharon Tate gets considerably less screen time than her co-stars, she probably gives the strongest performance in this film.  Certainly, her story is the most emotionally effective (even if it’s hard not to feel that, as is typical of the films of both the 60s and today, Jennifer is being punished for taking off her clothes on camera).  Tate perfectly captures the insecurity that comes from being continually told that you have nothing more to offer beyond how you look.  In her first appearance, she’s wearing an outrageously large headdress.  “I feel a little top-heavy,” she says.  “You are a little top-heavy,” some guy replies while leering at her breasts.  If you doubt that Sharon Tate was a good actress, just watch her reaction.  She perfectly captures a pain that I personally know far too well.  Her subsequent suicide scene, which has the potential to be the most tasteless part of this film, is actually the most powerful and again, it’s because Tate plays the role perfectly.

(It’s been nearly four years since I lost my mom to breast cancer and I have to admit, I had a hard time watching the scenes where Jennifer discusses her diagnosis.  Tate gave a great performance here and it’s a shame that she’s been permanently linked in the public imagination with Charles Manson and the later accusations against her husband, Roman Polanski.  She had real talent.)

As poignant of Sharon Tate was in her role, the film’s fame (and infamy) ultimately rests with our third heroine, Neely O’Hara (played by Patty Duke in a performance that suggests that she was literally possessed during the filming).  Neely is a scrappy, aspiring singer who is fired from a broadway show when her singing threatens to upstage aging star Helen Lawson (played by Susan Hayward, who was brought in to replace Judy Garland).  Neely, however, refuses to let anything keep her  down and soon, she’s singing at a Cystic Fibrosis telethon and becoming a big star.  She marries her boyfriend Mel (played by Martin Milner, who grits his teeth and spits out every line) and moves to California where she soon becomes a big star and then finds herself hooked on “booze and dolls.”  (“I need a doll!” she insists on several occasions.) 

One reason the film’s 2nd hour is so much more fun than the first is because the film’s focus shifts from boring Anne to out-of-control Neely.  Increasingly temperamental and unstable, Neely soon starts to spend all of her time with dress designer Ted Casablanca (a great name, if nothing else.)  “You’re spending more time than necessary with that fag Ted Casablanca,” Mel tells her to which Neely replies, “Ted Casablanca’s no fag and I’m the dame who can prove it.”  This, of course, leads to a divorce and soon Neely is living with Mr. Casablanca who informs her, after he gets caught cheating, “You made me feel as if I was queer…that little whore makes me feel 9 feet tall.”

When Lyon and Anne attempt to force Neely to enter a sanitorium, she responds to running off to San Francisco where she enters a bar and shouts, “I’M NEELY O’HARA!” before then wandering down a sleazy street and ranting, “Boobies, boobies!  Nothing but boobies!  Who needs them!?”  Needless to say, this leads to her eventually overdosing and ending up in that sanitorium where she has a huge freak-out before singing a duet with Tony and resolving to get her life back in order.  This, naturally, leads to her getting released, having an affair with Lyon, and then returning to Broadway where, in the film’s most deliriously odd moment, she steals Helen Lawson’s wig and flushes it down a toilet.

Valley of the Dolls is, admittedly, a terrible film but it’s also a lot of fun and that’s largely because of Patty Duke’s berserk performance as Neely O’Hara.  Earlier, I said that Duke’s performance appears to suggest that she may have been possessed but, honestly, that barely begins to describe it.  Whereas Tate managed to find some truth in the film’s melodrama and Parkins gives a performance that suggests that the script put her in a coma, Duke attacks every inch of melodramatic dialogue, barking out her dialogue with all the ferocity of a yapping little chiuaua.  Duke gives a performance that is so completely and totally over-the-top that it’s hard not to respect her commitment to capturing every overheated, melodramatic moment.

I have to admit that one reason why I love this film is because I’m hoping that someday some enterprising director will remake it and cast me as Neely O’Hara.  Everytime I watch this film, I find myself thinking about how much it would be to respond to every petty annoyance by screeching out, “I’m NEELY O’HARA!”  Seriously, just think about it.  As a character, Neely is a talented, ambitious, emotional, unstable, immature, demanding, bratty, spoiled, and determined.  Sound like anyone whose film reviews you might have been reading recently?  From my previous experience as a community theater ingenue, I can assure you that I can deliver melodramatic dialogue with the best of them and, unlike Patty Duke in this film, I can actually dance.  Unfortunately, I can’t carry a tune to save my life but I’m thinking maybe they could bring in Kelly Clarkson to serve as my singing voice.  (Or maybe Jessica Simpson.  Did I ever mention that we both went to the same high school?  Though not at the same time, of course.) After all, if Patty Duke could be obviously dubbed, why not me?  I can just see myself now, wandering down some sleazy city street, singing to myself and declaring at the top of my lungs, “Ted Casablanca’s no fag and I’m the dame who can prove it!”  I know that Lindsay Lohan will probably insist that this is the role she was born to play, but seriously, who needs Linsday when you’ve got a Lisa?

Beyond the so-bad-that-its-good appeal of the film, Valley of the Dolls is a fascinating cultural artifact for the reasons that I previously hinted at while talking about the character of Anne Welles.  Valley of the Dolls was made in 1967 and, as such, it’s a perfect exhibit of an unstable time when Hollywood was unsure about whether it should embrace the “new morality” or if it should continue to recycle the same sort of old-fashioned filmmaking that had nearly bankrupted the big studios.  The result was several films that felt oddly schizophrenic in their approach and that is certainly the case with Mark Robson’s direction of Valley of the Dolls.  Whether it’s the way the film continually hints at nudity and sex while carefully not revealing too much or the way that random psychedelic sequences seem to suddenly appear on-screen, this is a movie that perfectly captures an uncertain film industry trying to figure out where it stands in a scary new world.

As always, I enjoyed watching this undeniably bad but just as undeniably compelling film.  Our readers chose well!  Thank you to everyone who voted and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this review almost as much I enjoyed writing it.

(Photograph by Erin Nicole Bowman)