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!: BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (Universal 1935)


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James Whale’s brilliant BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is one of those rare occasions where the sequel is better than the original… and since the original 1931 FRANKENSTEIN is one of the horror genre’s greatest films, that’s saying a lot! Whale’s trademark blend of horror and black humor reached their zenith in BRIDE, and though Whale would make ten more films before retiring from Hollywood moviemaking in 1941, this was his last in the realm of the macabre. It turned out to be his best.

Mary Shelley’s got a story to tell…

William Hurlbut’s screenplay start with a prologue set during the proverbial dark and stormy night, with Mary Shelly (Elsa Lanchester ), Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Walton), and Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon ) discussing Mary’s shocking novel “Frankenstein” as clips from the 1931 film are shown. Then Mary tells them there’s more to the story, and we pick up…

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Halloween Havoc!: THE INVISIBLE MAN (Universal 1933)


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James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN set the bar high for horror, and his follow-up THE OLD DARK HOUSE is one of the blackest comedies ever made. But with THE INVISIBLE MAN, Whale raises that bar by combining gruesome terror with his macabre sense of humor. THE INVISIBLE MAN doesn’t get the respect of other icons in the First Horror Cycle (Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, Imhotep), but Claude Rains’s outstanding performance as the mad scientist Jack Griffin, driven to insanity by the chemicals he’s pumped into his veins, is as sick and deranged as any you’ll find in the genre… and the fact Rains does much of his acting using only his voice is an amazing feat, and a testament to the man’s acting genius.

Whale’s opening shot sets the eerie tone, as a solitary figure, his face swaddled in bandages, trudges through a snowstorm and enters the Lion’s Head Inn seeking solitude. The…

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Horror Film Review: The Invisible Man (dir by James Whale)


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The 1933 Universal horror film, The Invisible Man, never seems to get as much attention as Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, or The Mummy.  Perhaps it’s because the invisible man really isn’t a supernatural monster.  He’s just a scientist who has turned himself invisible and is now going mad as a result.  Or maybe it’s because there have been so many crappy films that have used invisibility as a plot point that the reputation of the original Invisible Man suffers by association.

For whatever reason, The Invisible Man never seems to get spoken about in the same breathless, gleeful manner as some of the other Universal monsters.  But I have to admit that, though I usually can’t stand movies about invisibility, I rather like The Invisible Man.

Based on a novel by H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man opens with a mysterious man (played by Claude Rains) arriving in a small English village.  He checks into a small inn and soon, everyone in the village is scared of him.  It’s not just his haughty attitude or his habit of ranting about his own superiority.  There’s also the fact that he is literally covered, from head to toe, in bandages.  He always wears gloves and dark glasses.  He insists that he’s doing important research and demands to be left alone.

The inn keeper (Forrester Harvey) and his histrionic wife (Una O’Connor) put up with the mysterious man until he falls behind on his rent.  However, once confronted, the mysterious man announces that he’s not going anywhere.  When the police and a mob of villagers arrives, the man starts to laugh like a maniac.  He unwraps the bandages around his head and…

THERE’S NOTHING UNDERNEATH!

Well, there is something there.  It’s just that the man is invisible so no one can see what’s underneath.  It turns out that the man is Dr. Jack Griffin, a chemist who has been missing for several days.  He’s created an invisibility serum but he can’t figure out how to reverse the effects.  Even worse, the serum is driving him insane.  Griffin’s fiancée, Flora (Gloria Stuart), and her father, Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers), are searching for Jack but Jack doesn’t particularly want to be found.  Jack is more interested in exploring how he might be able to use invisibility to conquer the world…

The Invisible Man is historically important because it was the film that brought Claude Rains to Hollywood.  Rains has previously made films in the UK but this was his first American film.  Think of how different film history would have turned out if The Invisible Man had, as originally planned, starred Boris Karloff.  Without Claude Rains coming to America, who would have played Louis in Casablanca?  Who would have played Sen. Paine in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington or Alex Sebastian in Notorious?  Of course, we don’t really see Claude Rains’s face until the very end of The Invisible Man.  Instead, we just hear his voice but what a voice Claude had!  He delivers his dialogue with just the right amount of malicious sarcasm.

I like The Invisible Man.  For modern audiences, it’s not particularly scary.  (Though I do find the idea of being unknowingly followed by an invisible person to be a little unnerving…)  However, unlike a lot of other old horror films, you can watch The Invisible Man and see why it would have been scary to an audience seeing it for the very first time.  In 1933, a time when film was still a relatively new medium and audiences had yet to become jaded by special effects, here was a man unwrapping his bandages to reveal that there was nothing underneath!  That had to have freaked people out!

The Invisible Man was directed by James Whale and the film features the same demented sense of humor that distinguished The Bride of Frankenstein.  The villagers are portrayed as being so hysterical that you can’t help but think that maybe Griffin has a point about being surrounded by fools.  By the time the local constable declares, “What’s all this then?,” you can’t help but start to sympathize with Jack Griffin.

There’s been a lot of  bad invisibility movies made but The Invisible Man is not one of them.  It may not be as well remembered as some of the other Universal horrors but it’s definitely one worth seeing.

Horror Film Review: The Bride of Frankenstein (dir by James Whale)


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1935‘s The Bride of Frankenstein is usually described as being a sequel to Frankenstein, but I think it would be better to call it a continuation.  In much the same way that all modern YA adaptations seem to be split into two parts, Universal split Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein into two separate films.  The bare basics of The Bride of Frankenstein‘s plot — the monster learns to talk and demands that his creator build him a mate — can all be found in the original novel.

(Of course, in the original novel, the monster somehow learns how to speaks like an Oxford grad and Dr. Frankenstein destroys the female monster before bringing her to life.  The monster responds by killing Elizabeth.  Seriously, Frankenstein is a dark book.)

Bride of Frankenstein features one of my favorite openings of all time.  Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Walton) are praising Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) and the story that she’s told about how a dedicated scientist played God and created life.  Mary informs them that she’s not finished and then proceeds to tell them the rest of the story.  It’s a great opening because it lets us know that the rest of what we’re seeing is taking place directly inside of Mary’s mind.  It frees the film from the constraints of realism and allows director James Whale to fully indulge his every whim, no matter how bizarre.  When you’re inside someone else’s imagination, anything can happen and that’s certainly the feeling that you get as you watch The Bride of Frankenstein.

The Bride of Frankenstein opens with that burning windmill and a wounded Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) being carried back to his wife, Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson, replacing Mae Clarke).  Gone is the original film’s coda, in which Elizabeth announces that she’s pregnant.  And why shouldn’t it be gone?  It felt awkward in the first movie and, like any good writer, Mary Shelley is fixing her story as she goes along.

While Henry is recovering, he is approached by a former mentor, Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger).  Dr. Pretorious is undoubtedly an eccentric and definitely a little bit crazy but he believes in Frankenstein’s work.  In fact, Dr. Pretorious has even created life on his own!  He’s created a bunch of tiny people that he keeps in several glass jars.  They’re impressive but, sadly, they’ll never conquer the world.  Pretorious wants Frankenstein to, once again, work with him to create life.  As Pretorious explains it, it’s time to usher in a new age of “God and monsters!”

(Interestingly enough, one of Pretorious’s henchmen is played by Dwight Frye, who previously played Frankenstein’s henchman, Fritz, in the first film.  Frye dies in both films.  Reportedly, Universal bestowed upon him the nickname, “The Man of a Thousand Deaths.”  It can perhaps be argued that Dwight Frye was both the Steve Buscemi and the Giovanni Lombardo Radice of Universal horror.)

Meanwhile, the monster (Boris Karloff, credited with just his last name because, just four years after Frankenstein and the Mummy, he was already an icon) has survived the burning windmill.  He’s lonely, he’s afraid, and he actually kills more people in The Bride of Frankenstein than he did in Frankenstein.  And yet, he’s still the film’s most sympathetic character.  With everyone constantly trying to kill him, you can understand why the monster is quick to attack every human being that he sees.  He’s almost like a dog who, after years of abuse, automatically growls and bears his teeth at anyone that he sees.

And yet, the monster does eventually find a friend.  A blind hermit (O.P. Heggie) invites the monster into his own home.  (Of course, the hermit does not know who the monster is.  He just assumes that monster is a normal man who does not know how to speak.)  As time passes, the hermit teaches the monster how to say a few words and also tells the monster that there is nothing worse than being lonely.  The monster learns that “Friend good.”  The monster even learns how to smoke a cigar and Heggie and Karloff play these roles with such warmth (Bride of Frankenstein is not only the film where the Monster learns to talk, it’s also the one where he learns to smile) that you really start to dread the inevitable scene where everything goes wrong.

And that scene does arrive.  Two hunters stop by the hermit’s shack and immediately attack the Monster.  The Monster flees.  The shack burns down.  The hermit is led away from his only friend, apparently destined to be lonely once again.

Eventually, of course, the Monster does get his bride.  The Bride is such an iconic character that it’s easy to forget that she only appears in the final ten minutes of the film.  Elsa Lanchester plays both Mary and the Bride.  She screams when she sees the Monster.  “We belong dead,” the Monster replies and my heart breaks a little every time.

So, which is better?  Frankenstein or The Bride of Frankenstein?  I don’t think it’s necessary to choose one or the other.  To use a metaphor that might be appreciated by Henry and Dr. Petorious, Frankenstein is the brain while The Bride of Frankenstein is the heart.  They’re two good films that, when watched together, form one great film.

Cleaning Out The DVR, Again #11: Cavalcade (dir by Frank Lloyd)


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So, I’ve been cleaning out the DVR for the past week.  Fortunately, I’m going to be off work for this upcoming week, which should give me a lot of extra film-watching time.  That’s a good thing because I’ve got 36 movies that I’ve recorded on the DVR since Thursday and, over the past seven days, I’ve only watched 13 of them!  That’s 23 movies to go and I hope to be finished by the end of the next week.

The 11th film that I found on my DVR was the 1933 film, Cavalcade.  I recorded it off of FXM on April 3rd.

The main reason that I recorded Cavalcade was because it was the 6th film to win the Oscar for Best Picture.  Now, I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting much from Cavalcade.  It’s a film that many Oscar historians tend to list as being one of the lesser best picture winners.  Cavalcade is often unfavorably compared to the films that it beat — movies like I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, A Farewell To Arms, Little Women, and The Private Life of Henry VIII.  Cavalcade was the first British to ever win the Best Picture and its victory is often cited as the beginning of the Academy’s love affair with British productions.

And really, Cavalcade couldn’t be more British if it tried.  Based on a play by Noel Coward, Cavalcade follows two families through several decades in British history.  One family is wealthy and is anchored by a patriarch who is knighted in the Boer War.  The other family is lower middle class, anchored by a patriarch who starts out as a butler but who eventually manages to open up his own pub.  Through the eyes of these two families, we view what, in the 1930s, was recent British history.

For modern viewers, it may be helpful to watch Cavalcade while consulting Wikipedia.  For instance, the film starts with the two father figures preparing to leave to fight in the Boer War and I’m sorry to admit that I really wasn’t totally sure what that was.  I had to look it up in order to discover that it was a war that the British fought in South Africa.

But you know what?  That’s not really a complaint.  I may not have known what the Boer War was before I started the film but that had changed by the time that I finished watching Cavalcade.  Several times, I’ve mentioned on this blog how much I love history but watching Cavalcade made me realize that I still have more to learn.  Even more importantly, it encouragds me to learn.  That’s always a good thing.

Certain other historical events were more familiar.  As soon as I saw the title card announcing that the date was 1914, I knew that I would soon be seeing a World War I montage.  And, as terrible as World War I was (though, naturally, the film refers to it as being “the Great War,” and, for a few moments, I considered the fact that there was a time when nobody thought there would ever be a second world war), I was actually kind of happy for the montage because it got the characters out of the drawing room and out of the pub.  Cavalcade is a very stagey film.  Though there are a few attempts to open up the action, you’re always very aware that you’re essentially watching a filmed play.

Of course, the film’s best historic moment comes when a recently married couple goes on their honeymoon.  We see them standing on the deck of a cruise ship, talking about how much they love each other and how wonderful life will be.  They then step to the side and we see the name of the ship: RMS Titanic.

In many ways, those dismissive Oscar historians are correct about Cavalcade.  It’s stagey and it’s old-fashioned and some of the performances are better than others.  But, dammit, I liked Cavalcade.  As the upper class couple, Diana Wynyward and Clive Brook made for a likable couple and they got to exchange some sweet-natured dialogue at the beginning and the end of the film.   Add to that, it was a film about history and I love history.

Cavalcade is hardly a perfect film and it probably didn’t deserve to win best picture.  But it’s still better than its reputation suggests.

Cleaning Out The DVR #23: The Adventures of Robin Hood (dir by Michael Curtiz)


(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by this Friday.  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)

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Flamboyant.  Athletic.  Joyous.  Determined.  Handsome.  Outspoken.  Bigger than life.  Revolutionary.  Anarchist.  Sexy.  Libertarian.  Is there any doubt why Errol Flynn remains the definitive Robin Hood?

And. for that matter, is there any doubt why the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood remains not only the definitive Robin Hood film but also one of the most influential action films in history?

The Adventures of Robin Hood tells the story that we’re all familiar with.  The King of England, Richard The Lionhearted (Ian Hunter), is captured while returning from the Crusades.  His brother, King John (Claude Rains, in full autocratic villain mode), usurps the throne while Richard is gone and immediately raises taxes.  He claims that he’s only doing this to raise the money to set Richard free.  Of course, the real reason is that John is a greedy tyrant.

The only nobleman with the courage to openly oppose John is Sir Robin of Locksely (Errol Flynn).  Sir Robin protects his fellow citizens from John’s main henchman, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone, also in full autocratic villain mode).  In fact, Robin is so brave that, on multiple occasions, he even enters Sir Guy’s castle so that he can specifically tell King John and Sir Guy that he has no use for their laws.  This, of course, always leads to Robin having to make a dramatic escape while arrows flies and swords are unsheathed all around.

And through it all, Robin Hood keeps smiling and laughing.  He’s a wonderfully cheerful revolutionary.  He may be fighting a war against a ruthless and unstoppable enemy and he may be the most wanted man in England but Robin is determined to have fun.  One need only compare Robin to his humorless foes to see the difference between freedom and bureaucracy.

(We could use Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood today, though I suspect our government would just blow him up with a drone and then issue a statement about how, by stealing money from the rich and giving it to the poor, Robin was keeping the government from being able to rebuild bridges and repair roads.)

When Robin isn’t exposing the foolishness of organized government, he’s hanging out in Sherwood Forest.  He’s recruiting valuable allies like Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette) and Little John (Alan Hale, Sr.)  He’s playing constant pranks and promoting revolution and, to his credit, he’s a lot more fun to listen to than that guy from V For Vendetta.  He’s also romancing Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland) and good for him.  Two beautiful people deserve to be together.

Even better, he’s doing it in glorious Technicolor!  There’s a lot of great things about The Adventures of Robin Hood.  The action scenes are exciting.  The music is thrilling.  The film is perfectly cast.  Errol Flynn may not have been a great actor but he was a great Robin Hood.  But what I really love about the film is just the look of it.  We tend to take color for granted so it’s interesting to watch a film like The Adventures of Robin Hood, one that was made at a time when color film was something of a novelty.  For those of us who spend a lot of time talking about how much we love old school black-and-white, The Adventures of Robin Hood is a film that says, “Hey, color can be great too!”

But what I mostly love about The Adventures of Robin Hood is just the pure joy of the film.  Just compare this Robin Hood to the grimly tedious version played by Russell Crowe.

(True, nobody in The Adventures of Robin Hood shouts, “I declare him to be …. AN OUTLAAAAAAAAAAAAWWWWWWWW!”  Actually, now that I think about it, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood would have worked much better if Oscar Isaac and Russell Crowe had switched roles.)

The Adventures of Robin Hood was nominated for best picture and it probably should have won.  However, the Oscar went to Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You.