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 #155: Out of the Fog (1941, directed by Anatole Litvak)


When two aging fishermen (Thomas Mitchell and John Qualen) attempt to buy a new boat, they run into a problem with local mobster, Harold Goff (John Garfield).  As Goff explains, if they do not pay him $5.00 a week, something bad could happen to their boat.  When one of the fisherman’s daughter (Ida Lupino) falls in love with Goff, she makes the mistake of letting him know that her father is planning on giving her $190 so that she can take a trip to Cuba.  When Goff demands the money for himself, the fishermen attempt to go to the police, just to be told that there is nothing that the authorities can do.  Goff tricked them into signing an “insurance” contract that allows him to demand whatever he wants.  The two fishermen are forced to consider taking drastic measures on their own.  Out of the Fog is an effective, early film noir, distinguished mostly be John Garfield’s sinister performance as Harold Goff.

Out of the Fog is also memorable as an example of how Hollywood dealt with adapting work with political content during the production code era.  Out of the Fog was based on The Gentle People, a play by Irwin Shaw.  In the play, which was staged by The Group Theater in 1939, Harold Goff was obviously meant to be a symbol of both European fascism and American capitalism.  In the play, the two fisherman had Jewish names and were meant to symbolize those being persecuted by the Third Reich and its allies.  In the transition for stage to film, Jonah Goodman became Jonah Goodwin and he was played by the very talented but definitely not Jewish Thomas Mitchell.   The play ended with Harold triumphant and apparently unstoppable.  Under the production code, all criminals had to be punished, which meant the ending had to be changed.  Out of the Fog is an effective 1940s crime thriller but, without any political subtext, it lacks the play’s bight.

One final note: while Out of the Fog had a good cast, with up and comer John Garfield squaring against old vets Thomas Mitchell and John Qualen, the original Broadway play’s cast was also distinguished.  Along with contemporary film stars Sylvia Sidney and Franchot Tone, the play’s cast was a who’s who of actors and directors who would go on to be prominent in the 1950 and 60s: Lee J. Cobb, Sam Jaffe, Karl Malden, Martin Ritt, and Elia Kazan all had roles.

 

Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: Father of the Bride (dir by Vincente Minnelli)


FatheroftheBride1950

After I watched King Solomon’s Mines, I watched yet another 1950 best picture nominee, Father of the Bride.

In Father of the Bride, Spencer Tracy plays a lawyer named Stanley Banks.  As you might expect of any character played by Spencer Tracy, Stanley Banks is a no-nonsense type of guy.  He’s set in his ways and not particularly enthusiastic about the idea of change.  Stanley has worked hard to get a good job and a nice house in the suburbs.  He loves his wife, Ellie (Joan Bennett) and is a firm but good father to his two boys, Tommy (Russ Tamblyn) and Ben (Tom Irish).  If Stanley does have a soft spot, it’s for his daughter, Kay (17 year-old Elizabeth Taylor).  Stanley admits that he’s always given Kay everything that she’s ever wanted and that she is his favorite of all his children.

However, Kay has been acting strangely as of late.  She just seems to be so happy!  Stanley can tell that she’s in love, though he has no idea with whom.  (He is, however, happy that it’s probably not the bespectacled political radical who Kay apparently dated at some point in the past.)  Finally, during an otherwise typical family dinner, Kay announces that not only is she in love but she’s also engaged to be married!

His name is Buckley (Don Taylor, who would later direct Escape From The Planet of the Apes and Damien: Omen II) and, at first, Kay refuses to even introduce him to her parents.  Eventually, however, Stanley does meet Buckley and he’s happy to discover that not only does Buckley come from a wealthy family but he also owns a small business of his own.

However, just because Buckley is the perfect 1950 man, that doesn’t mean that the wedding is going to be easy.  As a befuddled Stanley watches, the wedding grows more and more elaborate (not to mention, expensive!).  All of the expected complications ensue: Buckley and Kay have a fight, a wedding planner makes things difficult, and Stanley does not immediately get along with Buckley’s parents.  But, for the most part, Father of the Bride is about Stanley struggling to accept that his daughter has grown up and is ready to start a life of her own.

Father of the Bride is a sweet little comedy, though it seems a bit out-of-place as a best picture nominee.  It’s definitely a film of its time.  For all of the scenes of Stanley worrying about the extravagance of modern weddings, there’s not a subversive moment to be found in Father of the Bride.  (One can only imagine what Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk would have done with the material.)

Fortunately, this is also a Spencer Tracy film and whatever gravitas that the film may have comes from Tracy’s honest and straight forward performance.  Tracy never begs for laughs but he gets them anyway, because of the honesty that he brings to the character.  Perhaps his best moment comes after Buckley and Kay have had a fight.  After comforting his daughter, Stanley discovers that Buckley is at the front door.  At first, the protective Stanley tells Buckley that Kay doesn’t want to see him.  Suddenly, Kay comes running down stairs and embraces Buckley.  Between sobs and kisses, Buckley and Kay dramatically swear to each other that they will never fight again.  The camera pans over to Stanley, standing a little to the side and listening.  At first, Stanley seems befuddled by how overdramatic the two of them are acting over a relatively minor fight but there’s also just a hint of sadness in Stanley’s eyes as he realizes that his daughter truly has moved on.

Father of the Bride was nominated for best picture but it lost to the far more subversive All About Eve.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Broadway Melody of 1936 (dir by Roy Del Ruth)


PosterBroadwayMelody1936_01

It’s Oscar month and you know what that means!  It’s time for TCM to do their annual 31 Days of Oscars!  For the next 31 days, TCM is going to be showing movies that were nominated for and occasionally won Oscars.  This is a great month for me because it has long been my goal to see and review every single film that has ever been nominated for best picture.  Considering that close to 500 movies have been nominated, that’s no small task.  However, over the past four years, I have definitely made some progress, as you can see by clicking on this link and looking at a list of every single best picture nominee.  Thank you, TCM, for helping me get closer to my goal!

For instance, if not for TCM, how would I ever had the chance to watch Broadway Melody of 1936?  Broadway Melody of 1936 was one of the twelve films to be nominated for best picture of 1935 but it’s now largely forgotten.  When film loves discuss the best musicals of the 30s, it’s rare that you ever hear mention of Broadway Melody of 1936.

Technically, it can be argued that Broadway Melody of 1936 was the first sequel to ever be nominated for best picture, despite the fact that it has little in common with Broadway Melody, beyond taking place on Broadway and being nominated for best picture.  (Broadway Melody won the award.  Broadway Melody of 1936 lost to Mutiny on the Bounty.)  Silence of the Lambs, The Godfather, Part II, Mad Max: Fury Road, Toy Story 3, and The Bells of St. Mary’s are all sequels that were nominated for best picture but Broadway Melody of 1936 did it first.

As for what Broadway Melody of 1936 is about … well, it’s really not about anything.  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  The film has a plot.  Irene Foster (Eleanor Powell) wants her former high school boyfriend, Broadway director Robert Gordon (Robert Taylor), to cast her in his new show but Gordon refuses because he doesn’t want the innocent Irene to be exposed to the sordid world of show business.  Fortunately, Irene has some allies who are willing to help her get that role.  Ted Burke (Buddy Ebsen) is an appealingly goofy dancer who, at one point, wears a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt.  Bert Keeler (Jack Benny) is a columnist who rattles off his “New Yawk cynical” dialogue in the style of most 1930s news reporters.

Broadway Melody of 1936 has a plot but it’s not really that important.  The story is just an excuse for the songs and the dance numbers.  And while none of the numbers are spectacular (especially when compared to other 30s musicals, like 42nd Street), they are all definitely likable.

Seen today, Broadway Melody of 1936 seems like an odd best picture nominee.  It’s not bad but there’s nothing particularly great about it.  To truly appreciate the film, it’s probably necessary to try to imagine what it was like to watch the film in 1935.  At a time when the country was still in the throes of the Great Depression, Broadway Melody of 1936 provided audiences with an escape.  Audiences could watch the film and imagine that they, just like Eleanor Powell, could leave behind the dullness of reality and find stardom in the glamorous and glitzy world of Broadway.

Never doubt the power of escapism.