Friday, January 31, 2014

Burstup Holmes' Murder Case (1913)

The proliferation of screen adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories in the early years of the 20th century soon lent themselves to parody, such as this two-reel farce comedy directed by Alice Guy at her Solax studio in Fort Lee, NJ. A fun send-up of the Holmes mysteries with some broad physical humor.

Starring Fraunie Fraunholz, Darwin Karr, and Blanche Cornwall.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Silent Sherlock

THE COPPER BEECHES (1912)
Early Sherlock Holmes screen adaptation notable for being made under the personal supervision of Arthur Conan Doyle (as well as the first to be authorized by Doyle). It is the only remaining entry in a series of eight episodic Holmes films produced by the Eclair company. This one is short on action and long on exposition, with some scenes playing out more like a series of tableaux representing key moments in the story. Despite the static camerawork and staging, there is a great deal of attention paid to the set design of Holmes' flat at 221B Baker Street, and some nice location photography as well.

Holmes is played here by Georges Tréville, and his performance is interesting to watch considering that it predates not only the iconic performances of Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett, but even those of actors like Ellie Norwood or Arthur Wontner who helped to shape the character. Still, Tréville does a good job, especially given the limitations of the production, and embodies many of the traits as described by Doyle.

Directed by Adrien Caillard from the story by Arthur Conan Doyle. Starring Georges Tréville.


THE MAN WITH THE TWISTED LIP (1921)
"The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes", a series of films produced in the early 1920s by Stoll Picture Productions, is regarded as one of the first adaptations to really do justice to Doyle's stories. Eille Norwood starred as Holmes in all 47 films (and holds the record for having played the character on screen the most number of times). Three of the films in the series are available on the Internet Archive.

The first of them, "The Man with the Twisted Lip", dates from 1921 and, if it is any indication, demonstrates that the producers got a lot of things right in adapting the stories to the screen. Running just 26 minutes, it is also indicative of the serialized format in which these films were released. Eille Norwood makes a fine Holmes and his performance stands up well against later interpretations. The film is a stylish one, featuring strong high-contrast, shadowy cinematography, and also makes good use of authentic London locations, which provide a fascinating glimpse into the period. There are some startlingly inventive shots, such as an apparent murder played out in silhouette against a lighted window. All in all, a solid mystery film and a must for Holmes fans.

Directed by Maurice Elvey; written by William J. Elliott from the story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; photographed by Germain Burger. Starring Eille Norwood, Hubert Willis, Robert Vallis, and Paulette del Baze.


THE DEVIL'S FOOT (1921)
The second of the three Stoll Productions' "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" series available at the Internet Archive, THE DEVIL'S FOOT is another stylish adaptation with Eille Norwood returning with a thoughtful, effective performance as Holmes.

The remarkable thing about these adaptations is how well-paced they are despite the need for heavy exposition, finding creative solutions to the problem of conveying information that would normally be handled through dialogue. Once again, director Maurice Elvey keeps things visually interesting with stylish lighting and camerawork that at times seems to recall DeMille's experiments with chiaroscuro lighting several years earlier.

Directed by Maurice Elvey; written by William J. Elliott from the story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; photographed by Germain Burger. Starring Eille Norwood, Hubert Willis, Harvey Braban, and Hugh Buckler.


THE DYING DETECTIVE (1922)
Third and final of the Stoll Productions' "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" films available at the Internet Archive. Exceptionally well-paced mystery, expertly shot and directed. The story features an interesting twist, with Holmes apparently contracting an Asiatic disease under mysterious circumstances, which proves to be a quite clever method of solving the mystery. With Holmes incapacitated for much of the film, it adds an interesting variation on his usual sleuthing techniques.

I continue to be impressed by Eille Norwood's performance of the title character, and even after seeing him in just three films, I've come to think of his interpretation of the role as the equal of other fine actors to play the part in multiple films.

Directed by Maurice Elvey; written by William J. Elliot, from the story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Also featuring Hubert Willis, Cecil Humphreys, Joseph R. Tozer, and Mme. d'Esterre.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Silent Heroes (1913)

Two-reel Civil War melodrama (produced by Thomas Ince) about a young man who is branded a coward for staying home to take care of his dying mother instead of enlisting to fight. When his mother dies, he proves himself a hero by mobilizing the Home Guard to defend the town against Northern raiders.

Fairly typical melodrama enhanced by some well-staged battle sequences and good use of locations, along with an interesting high-angle shot - taken from a balcony looking down on the street below - that is unique for this time. Also includes an early screen appearance by future director Frank Borzage.

Directed by Walter Edwards and Jay Hunt. Also featuring Estelle Allen and Tom Chatteron.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Who's Minding the Store? (1963)

Delightfully zany, madcap fun from Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis. An honest, hard-working (but accident-prone) young man is engaged to a department store heiress and must make good by working in her mother's store, where he is given a series of impossible tasks designed to trip him up.

One of the very best Tashlin-Lewis collaborations, filled with dozens of clever cartoon-like sight gags, expertly-timed slapstick, and sharp satire of the retail business. The kitschy atomic age set design is enhanced by the splendid Technicolor photography. The laughs come fast and furious as Lewis gives one of his finest performances, supported by a wonderful cast of character actors. The highlight: Lewis' "typewriter" routine set to the Leroy Anderson tune.

Directed by Frank Tashlin; produced by Paul Jones; written by Tashlin and Harry Tugend, from a story by Tugend; photographed by W. Wallace Kelley; music by Joseph J. Lilley. Starring Jerry Lewis, Jill St. John, Ray Walston, John McGiver, Agnes Moorehead, Kathleen Freeman, Fritz Feld, and Richard Deacon, among many others.

Strange Behavior (1981)

Effective low-budget thriller about a small-town sheriff investigating a trail of killings of local kids. He suspects that the local school's psychology department, which has been conducting bizarre mind-control experiments on students - including the sheriff's own son - is behind the gruesome slayings.

Stylish slasher flick with sleek early '80s aesthetic complemented by throwback '50s feel, featuring a score by Tangerine Dream. Although the film is set in Illinois, it was shot entirely in New Zealand.


Directed by Michael Laughlin; produced by Anthony I. Ginnane and John Barnett; written by Laughlin and Bill Condon; music by Tangerine Dream. Starring Michael Murphy, Louise Fletcher, Dan Shor, Scott Brady, Charles Lane, and others.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Wolf of Wall St. (2009)

Martin Scorsese's talent for presenting unbalanced, larger-than-life characters comes out in full force with this epic story of real-life Wall Street fraudster Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in a tour-de-force performance), who works his way up from selling fraudulent stocks to making a fortune with higher-stakes investment fraud, is indicted by the FBI and, after serving a short sentence in prison, returns as a motivational speaker, giving talks to audiences who see no contradiction in learning the secrets to success from a convicted charlatan.

It is this contradiction that is at the heart of the film. Scorsese wisely does not shy away from portraying the high-power world of the stock brokers - a world of extreme excess, of sex, drugs, booze and lots of cash - as sleek and seductive, creating a strong attraction-repulsion reaction that makes the film's conclusion all the more damning.

The film's structure is similar to GOODFELLAS in depicting its protagonist's rise from humble origins to his precipitous fall, although the Belfort character perhaps has more in common with Travis Bickle or Rupert Pupkin.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Sasquatch: The Legend of Bigfoot (1977)

Another entry in the "Bigfoot" subgenre prevalent during the 1970s, this film takes an intriguing docudrama approach to the subject, following a team of wildlife researchers on an expedition to northern British Columbia in search of the elusive Sasquatch.

The film benefits from good nature photography, and adds an air of authenticity by utilizing clips of the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film and alleged recordings of Sasquatch calls and howls on its soundtrack, but will probably only be of interest to Bigfoot enthusiasts and fans of this subgenre.

Machine Gun Mama (1944)

Zany and chaotic B-movie comedy with Wallace Ford and El Brendel as a couple of guys from Brooklyn who come to a carnival in Mexico to sell their elephant, Bunny. Ford and Brendel stay on with the carnival and before long, a romance blooms between Ford and the owner's daughter (Armida). There's comedy, romance and even music. Of course, there's also intrigue and suspense, as the villainous Jose (Jack La Rue) plots to sabotage the carnival, but everything turns out fine in the end.

The direction and writing are uninspired, but Wallace Ford puts in a good performance, and El Brendel does his usual shtick, while the comic potential of the elephant gimmick is underdeveloped. Still, it's charming and fun, and the byplay between Ford and Armida is enjoyable enough; a light diversion that works for what it is.

Directed by Harold M. Young; produced by Jack Schwarz; original screenplay by Sam Neuman; songs by Neuman and Michael Breen. Starring Wallace Ford, El Brendel, Armida, Jack La Rue and Luis Alberni.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972)

The "Citizen Kane" of Bigfoot movies, this 1970s drive-in favorite is a great example of regional and low-budget, atmospheric filmmaking done right. Filmed in parts of Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas (according to the IMDb), the film has an authentic flavor to it that is a key component of why it is so effective.

Director Charles B. Pierce wisely goes the route of emphasizing atmosphere, creating a sense of real dread through what is implied off-screen, which is far more effective than showing too much of the monster. The use of local, non-professional actors (some playing themselves) adds to the documentary-like approach taken by Pierce.

The film ultimately succeeds because it takes the local Bigfoot legend seriously, and does not treat the subject with derision or unnecessary sensationalism. It also treats the characters with respect, focusing on the power that the legend holds for them.

Directed by Charles B. Pierce; screenplay by Earl E. Smith; photographed by Pierce; music by Jaime Mendoza-Nava. Starring Chuck Pierce Jr., William Stumpp, Willie E. Smith, and narrated by Vern Stierman.

The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936)

This 1936 filming of the "Sweeney Todd" story is a generally slow and visually dull adaptation that makes far too little of its intriguing central premise, focusing too much instead on bland and uninteresting secondary characters and subplots. The film is played as a straightforward melodrama when it could have been played more effectively as a dark comedy.

The latter approach comes through in the brilliant performance of Tod Slaughter in the title role, definitely the highlight of the film. He plays the part with a wickedly dark sense of humor and energy, and is clearly having a lot of fun with it, but without losing the sinister and menacing edge that the story calls for. It's one of those parts that seems tailor-made for its actor. It was a role he'd played on stage with his own theatrical company, and thankfully was preserved for posterity on film here. I haven't seen any of Slaughter's other films, but I plan to seek them out on the basis of his performance here alone.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Pay Off (1942)

This Poverty Row quickie from PRC stars Lee Tracy as Brad McKay, a wisecracking reporter involved in some serious investigative journalism after the city’s prosecutor is found murdered. The plot takes the usual twists and turns, as he teams up with his editor’s son (Tom Brown) and Phyllis Walker (Tina Thayer) to crack the case. There’s a twist at the end, but by that point it’s clear the most interesting thing about the film is watching Lee Tracy’s performance.

This is an otherwise-routine newspaper film with the real highlight being Lee Tracy in the kind of role that had made him famous (on Broadway in “The Front Page” and in early talkies such as “Blessed Event”). He’s a bit older here, with a sense of world weariness to his character, but plays the part with the wisecracking gift of gab that he brought to all his best work.

The direction is unobtrusive and the cinematography generally unremarkable except for the occasional camera moves that help keep things interesting during the scenes of expository dialogue.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Cavalcade (1933)

Based on the elaborate stage production by Noel Coward, Cavalcade follows the lives of an upper-class British family, the Marryots (Clive Brook and Diana Wynyard) and their servants, the Bridges (Una O'Connor and Herbert Mundin) during the early decades of the 20th century. When the film is written about today, it is all too often held up as an example of the one of the least worthy films to receive the Best Picture Academy Award.

Unfortunately, to think of it only in terms of its place in the history of the Academy Awards is to overlook the power of Coward's approach to the story, interweaving his characters against the backdrop of key events in early 20th century British history, which gives the film a truly epic scope. Diana Wynyard turns in a fine performance as Jane Marryot, who serves as the emotional center of the film. Only 27 when the film was made, she does a remarkable job at portraying Jane at various ages over time ranging from 1899 to 1933.

The film is a clear model for such latter programs as Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey in its focus on contrasting upper-class and servant-class families against an historical backdrop. This narrative tapestry works best in the format of long-form programs like "Masterpiece Theatre", which can devote more time to individual characters and events, whereas Cavalcade frequently feels episodic and rushed. There are also a few moments, including the sinking of the Titanic, which feel almost unintentionally comical in their brief and ironic treatment.

Director Frank Lloyd (who won a Best Director Academy Award for his work on this film) does a fine job helming this massive and handsomely-mounted production. Its sets, which won their designer William Darling an Oscar for Art Direction, suggest a scale surpassing that which we see in the frame. The war sequences were directed by William Cameron Menzies, who creates a dizzying montage of shots depicting the Great War, accompanied by an equally rich soundtrack, intricately mixed to combine the sounds of battle with the voices of the soldiers singing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary", creating a powerful contrast. The film was shot by Ernest Palmer, Murnau's cameraman on 4 Devils and City Girl, and Frank Borzage's cinematographer on 7th Heaven.

It's too easy to dismiss the film on the grounds of its somewhat staid cinematic style and obvious theatrical origins. Instead, when viewed as an innovative approach to weaving personal stories against the tapestry of history, told with taste and restraint, Cavalcade represents a noble effort to tell an epic story through the eyes of characters swept up in the events.