Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on December 3, 2013
For Jack Benny The Horn Blows at Midnight was a punchline, the crowning clunker in his failed movie career. He made it the object of self-deprecating scorn on his radio and TV shows, and as late as 1957 on The Jack Benny Program he staged a slow burning sketch that ended with a security guard spotting Benny on a studio lot: “-Jack Benny? -Yes. -The one that starred in The Horn Blows at Midnight? -Yes, yes. I made that for Warner Brothers years ago. Did you see it? -See it? I directed it!” As his last feature in a starring role, Benny kept the film alive as a joke, but as the recent Warner Archive DVD release shows, it’s worthy of more than his deadpan putdowns.
A true oddity that seeped through the Warner Brothers studio filter, it depicts heaven as a corporate bureaucracy in which Jack Benny is just another angelic cog, a variation of which Albert Brooks used in Defending Your Life. Earth is an anonymous planet slated for destruction by harried middle manager Guy Kibbee, who sends Benny to do the deed. After a series of mortal mishaps, Benny gets stuck in NYC, and cultivates a liking for the finer things in flesh-bound life. The script is a pileup of increasingly improbable gags, which director Raoul Walsh speeds through with verve and a definite lack of religious deference. Aided by the kaleidoscopic special effects of Lawrence Butler, the celestial choir is turned into a faceless mass of cardboard cutouts, making life in the swing clubs and ballrooms all the more desirable.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on November 12, 2013
“It didn’t take those women at the stage door to convince me I was nobody’s hero. I’d looked into a mirror once or twice. These light eyes, these limp features, these scars all over my face!”
-Lee Tracy, Picture Play Magazine, 1933
Although his career lasted until 1965, the image of Lee Tracy will forever be of a chatterbox on the make, established during his prolific run of pre-codes in the early 1930s. Whether he plays a tabloid reporter or ambulance chasing lawyer, Tracy’s characters were always looking for an angle as sharp as the crease in his fedora. His catalytic personality, a shotgun blast of nasal putdowns, led him to leading man roles, overcoming the perceived shortcomings of his pockmarked face, thinning hair and bantamweight build. Audiences, though, liked to root for this ruthless underdog. The Warner Archive released three Tracy pre-codes on DVD last week: The Half Naked Truth (’32) , Turn Back The Clock (’33) and The Nuisance (’33). In The Half Naked Truth, Tracy is a con-man/publicist as he turns hoochie coochie dancer Lupe Velez into a Broadway star. A hidden gem directed by Gregory La Cava, I wrote about it last year. So today I’ll focus on the latter two. He is cast against type in Turn Black the Clock, a proto It’s A Wonderful Life where his meek tobacconist is granted a time-traveling chance to re-live his life for money instead of love. The Nuisance, though, is a prime rat-a-tat Tracy, in which he hammers the local train company with phony injury claims, with the aid of his drunken doctor pal Frank Morgan. Cinematographer Gregg Toland and director Jack Conway make sure the camera moves with as much agility as Tracy’s tongue.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on November 5, 2013
In the third quarter of 2013, Netflix’s streaming service passed HBO in its number of subscribers, reaching 31.1 million. Buoyed by the success of its original series, as well as exclusive “season-after” deals on shows like The Walking Dead, the streaming business continues to grow exponentially. In comparison, the company’s original DVD-by-mail operation has become an afterthought. Only 7.1 million still receive those red envelopes, less than half of DVD subscribers from just a few years ago, and the company has been shutting down distribution centers in response (down to 39 from a high of 58). While CEO Reed Hastings pays lip service to the importance of physical media, all of its actions indicate that Netflix DVD-by-mail is close to extinction (for more, read this article by Janko Roettgers). These are distressing times for movie lovers, as each technical innovation paradoxically makes it more difficult to view the vast majority of film history. With higher resolutions come higher print standards for transfers, and so many original negatives no longer exist from Hollywood’s early days. This leads to the recycling of established classics with HD-ready material, while the unlucky unacknowledged get kicked into the analog dustbin of history. A once-totemic figure like Frank Borzage, who was honored in a Fox box set in the long-ago year of 2008, has no titles streaming on Netflix. But for years the Fox discs have been available to rent from Netflix. As one of the 7.1 million still renting physical media from Netflix, I took advantage and watched 7th Heaven for the first time.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on October 29, 2013
Society prefers death to be hidden. Bodies are covered in sheets, buried in caskets. There are no morgues in malls, but they are cast into hospital basements, where even lost visitors are unlikely to stumble upon it. Our mortality is a fact of life we are abstractly aware of, but a mutual pact has been made to keep it out of public view. Horror films have exploited this reluctance by making corpses ultra-visible, re-animating limp flesh and exposing the viscera that once gave us life. Frankenstein is the model for this, its monster cobbled together from the remnants of other bodies. In a macabre subgenre, body parts are severed and gain life of their own, including one that involves, creeping, scampering, choking hands. The mangled classic in this strange sector is The Beast With Five Fingers (1947), in which Peter Lorre is convinced a severed hand is murdering the inhabitants of an Italian mansion. Other entries include The Hands of Dr. Orlac (1924), The Crawling Hand (’63), Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (’65) and, succinctly, The Hand (1981, an early Oliver Stone effort), but the Lorre film is the one that endures, and it has received a longer life in a DVD from Warner Archive, released just in time for Halloween.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on August 13, 2013
Going Hollywood (1933) was a gambit by William Randolph Heart to rejuvenate his lover Marion Davies’ career, but instead it accelerated the rise of Bing Crosby. By the end of 1933 Crosby was a top-ten box office attraction, while Marion Davies would be out of movies altogether a few years later. Like their careers, the whole movie is pulled in different directions, as its patchwork backstage musical romantic comedy plot lunges from lavish Busby Berkeley style spectacles to a filmed radio show. Even the box office receipts are schizophrenic, with a cost of $914,000 and total revenues of $962,000 it was a money-maker that barely broke even. Though immensely talented, the actors perform at cross-purposes, with Crosby at his most louche and Davies in a perpetual panic. That Going Hollywood holds together at all can be credited to ace songwriting duo Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, as well as director Raoul Walsh, who had just managed the controlled chaos of his turn of the century NYC comedy The Bowery (1933). Going Hollywood is out now in a handsome DVD from the Warner Archive.
Posted by Richard Harland Smith on August 9, 2013
With James Wan’s recent haunted houser THE CONJURING (2012) scaring up all kinds of big business at the boo-xoffice lately, I’ve had occasion to opine, mostly to the open air of my empty house and in my most lamentable ghostly wail, “Whyyyyyyyyy… whyyyyyyyyyy isn’t THE UNINVITED on DVD in this country? WHYYYYYYYYYYY???” And also, “Wheeeerrrrrrreeeee’s my gooooolllllllllllldddennnn arrrrrmmmmmm?” Well, silly me, it is available… or is about to be made available. (THE UNINVITED, I mean. Made available on DVD; golden arm still M.I.A.) Lewis Allen’s masterful 1944 ghost tale (not to be confused with the crap-ass 2009 American remake of the 2003 Korean ghost movie A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, which cadged the title THE UNINVITED rather gratuitously, rendering generic a brand that had been for almost half a century threaded with the very stuff of mystery and menace), based on the charming 1941 novel Uneasy Freehold by Irish writer Dorothy Macardle, is being released on DVD and Blu-ray by the estimable, the frighteningly comprehensive, and the exceedingly cool Criterion Collection. The announced street date is just over two months away. October 22nd. Just in time for Halloween!
I’ll tell you exactly where I was when I first saw THE UNINVITED, thank you for asking. It was New York City, it was the late 80s — 1988 or 1989 — and the thing just came on TV. I have no recollection of what channel was showing THE UNINVITED, if I had looked forward to seeing it or just found it already in progress, but my roommate and I found ourselves glued — glu-oo-ooed — to our cheap little black-and-white set as we sat side by side, two 20-something Bohemians with scratchy three days beards and black clothes, on the floor my futon, which doubled in those halcyon days as the couch in our Upper East Side railroad apartment. We both enjoyed the movie thoroughly throughout its crisp, fleet o’floot running time, but it was the ending… the ending, when the whooky-de-woo went all woooooo-oooooooo-ooooooooo and the protagonists were like yeow-ow-ow-ow that made us get all “GAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” And then I spent the next, I don’t even know how many years — 20 at least — wondering “Did I really see what I thought I saw?”
Based as it is on a novel (two radio adaptatons followed within five years, and a stage version in 1979), THE UNINVITED turns not on a shopping list of tricks or feints or special effects but on words, on conversations, on secrets, on declarations, and in superstition and dread given voice. It’s a story that is fundamentally interested in people — the living, mind you — and one that does not suppose (as do so many contemporary ghost stories) that the dead have anything to tell us that we do not already know. This is not to say THE UNINVITED doesn’t believe in ghosts — far from it — but rather it understands that the restless dead derive the entirety of their power from the living, from the oral tradition, from the information we conceal from one another and ultimately from ourselves. Largely faithful to the Macardle novel (apart from changing various location and character names — the nickname of the main character from Roddy to Rick and his profession from theatre critic-cum-playwright to music critic-cum-composer), THE UNINVITED begins, leisurely but assuredly, as vacationing brother and sister Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) espy an empty old house on the stormy Devonshire coast and decide that they must have it as a change of venue from dreary old London. Not daring to dream they could afford such a manor, Rick and Pam manage to buy Windward House for a song from retired military man Beech (Donald Crisp). Getting chummy with the commander’s granddaughter, Stella, (Gail Russell), a beautiful but demon-drawn young woman, the Fitzgeralds find out there is a tale to be told about their new digs, a proper ghost story, whose third act has yet to be written.
THE UNINVITED is such an engrossing little yarn that you don’t even care that it throws in your way not one love story subplot but two. Happily, these represent not padding but rather a fleshing out of the overriding theme of loneliness. If Rick seems a bit mature for the budding Stella (while representing for her, it’s worth noting, a happier ever after than she had to expect at Cornelia Otis Skinner’s sanitarium), you’ve got to love the sparks that fly between Hussey and Alan Napier, as the local sawbones (who is able to add a few pieces to the niggling puzzle that is Windward House). The dialogue by Frank Portos (THE STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR! THE SNAKE PIT!) and Dodie Smith (who wrote the source novel for Disney’s 101 DALMATIONS) is brisk and fulgent, light when it needs to be and then clamping down like a steel glove when things get heavy. The playing is expert, Lewis Allen’s direction (his first go at features after a career in theatre) is efficient yet evocative, and the icing on THE UNINVITED cake is the eerie process photography of Farciot Edouart (relatively fresh from Paramount’s comical but still creepy THE GHOST BREAKERS with Bob Hope and United Artists’ I MARRIED A WITCH with Veronica Lake). Edouart’s spectral contributions were not part of the original design and were only added, NIGHT OF THE DEMON-style, in postproduction, after Lewis Allen turned in his cut to Paramount. To say more about what happens specifically would be to do the uninitiated and THE UNINVITED a disservice. When this thing streets, see it. See it for yourself!
THE UNINVITED got its British DVD release just last year, with Exposure Cinema’s region 2/PAL issue of the film. The transfer is only adequate, a bit dark, a bit soft, and a bit thumb-rubbed… but still, what a treat (for those of us with multi-region capability) to finally have this one on disc. The Brit release came with both the 1944 and 1949 radio versions of the film as bonus features, along with the original trailer, and a stills and poster gallery. Exposure also included a keepsake booklet, nicely illustrated with original poster art from American and foreign markets, featuring a foreword by The Dark Side publisher Allan Bryce, an essay on the film by Claudette Pyne (which offers a lot of biographical information on the cast and director, though gives Farciot Edouart short shrift), an essay on the ghost movie subgenre by American critic Clydefro Jones, and a bio of Ray Milland by film critic and historian James Oliver. Criterion’s impending release of THE UNINVITED raises the stakes immeasurably with a digital restoration of the film — in and of itself entirely worth the sticker price. Additionally, Criterion is offering as supplements a print essay by film blogger Farran Smith Nehme (aka The Self-Styled Siren) and a visual essay by New York indie filmmaker Michael Almereyda. I love Almereyda and am about the only person in the world who dug his female vampire movie NADJA (1994), though I think I like his TWISTER (1989) just a little bit more. I wish there were more extras but I’ll be happy just to have the film itself, looking grand, on a region 1 disc and you should be, too!
To pre-order THE UNINVITED DVD for $13.99, click here.
To pre-order THE UNINVITED Blu-ray for $19.99, click here.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on June 25, 2013
“The dullest movie ever made.” -Rex Reed, review of The Human Factor
Nothing much happens in Otto Preminger’s film adaptation of The Human Factor. A group of gray men sit in poorly upholstered rooms and talk about cheesemongers and malted milk balls. The detente between Eastern and Western powers reduces the workload of the bored British secret service agents to whinging and paper pushing. So when an inconsequential leak is uncovered, it is treated as a matter of national security, the boys gifted a bone to gnaw on. They end up gnawing on each other, their whole world reduced to a series of boxes that splits and drains them. Their deaths are as dull as their lives, but the emotions held in check by these relentlessly logical manipulators – fear, doubt, loneliness – curls the wallpaper in its repressed intensity. Newly released on DVD by Warner Archive in an un-restored transfer (the print shows plenty of wear and tear but it was certainly watchable), this final film of Otto Preminger pushes his dispassion to a radical extreme.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on June 4, 2013
The history of Japanese cinema can never completely be told. It is estimated that 90 percent of its pre-1945 film output was lost or destroyed, the silent era razed in the 1923 Kanto earthquake, and Allied firebombing in WWII incinerating the rest. One of the most tragic casualties of this cultural obliteration are the films of Sadao Yamanaka, of whose 27 features only 3 survive. A galvanizing figure in the 1930s, he was a passionate cinephile and member of the Narutaki Group of Kyoto that sought to modernize the jidai-geki, or period drama. His films bring the heroes of pulp novels and kabuki theater down to earth, into sake bottle level views of the everyday lives of the working poor. They speak in modern Japanese, in dialogues modeled after his drunken late night conversations with the Narutaki Group. He wrote, “If what drinkers say is lively when utilised in a film, I may insist that drinking is part of my profession.”
He took flak for turning the popular nihilistic samurai Tange Sazen into an irritable layabout, but he gained fans and friends from peers like Yasujiro Ozu. He died at the age of 28 as a military conscript in Manchuria, from an intestinal disease. The scrupulous Masters of Cinema label (the Criterion Collection of the UK) has released his surviving works in an essential two-DVD set (make sure you have an all-region player): Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot (1935), Kochiyama Soshun (1936) and Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937).
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on May 28, 2013
Today’s Hollywood has a reputation for unoriginality, but the classical era was also rife with recycling. Before Robert Riskin became Frank Capra’s favorite screenwriter, he was a struggling playwright with co-writer Edith Fitzgerald. When their 1930 sex comedy Many a Slip became a modest hit and was adapted at Universal, Warner Brothers optioned one of their un-produced plays and cranked out two movie versions in three years. Illicit (1931) and Ex-Lady (1933), both available on DVD from the Warner Archive, reveal a studio in flux, scrambling to grab the audience’s waning attention during the Great Depression. Both cast energetic young ingenues in the role of a liberated woman who thinks marriage is a prison, but gets hitched anyway for the sake of the man she loves. Illicit stars Barbara Stanwyck and opts for escapism, taking place among the leisure class of NYC, from Manhattan townhouse hangars to Long Island mega mansions. The story gets downsized in Ex-Lady, with Bette Davis given a middle-class job as an illustrator for an ad agency. The shift is an early and unsuccessful attempt (Ex-Lady was a flop) at Warners’ downmarket move to court blue-collar dollars, which would pay dividends soon after with saucy Busby Berkeley backstage musicals and gritty James Cagney gangster flicks.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on May 14, 2013
Delmer Daves is having a moment. The Criterion Collection, the closest thing the U.S. has to a cultural gatekeeper, just released 3:10 To Yuma (1957) and Jubal (1956) on DVD and Blu-Ray, while the Anthology Film Archives in New York City is holding a mini-retrospective of rarely screened Daves titles, including Pride of the Marines (1945) and The Red House (1947). I had never delved into the director’s work because the ambivalent words of Andrew Sarris and Manny Farber were ringing in my head. Sarris thought his films had “stylistic conviction in an intellectual vacuum”, while Farber positioned Daves against the Spartan “Hawks-Wellman tradition” as “a Boys Life nature lover who intelligently half-prettifies adolescents and backwoods primitives.” While encapsulating their writing approaches, Sarris’ lucidity versus Farber’s contradictory collisions, they both convey images of shallow postcard beauty. Then I saw Daves’ extraordinary The Hanging Tree (1959, on DVD from the Warner Archive), which uses a cliffside cabin as a visual metaphor for Gary Cooper’s moral atrophy, and realized his use of landscape is far more complex than Boys Life kitsch. Eager for more, I watched five Daves films over the weekend, which revealed a sensitive director of actors drawn to tales of regeneration both spiritual and physical.
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