Friday, July 29, 2016
My Facebook friend, and fellow big Lugosi fan, Leo Wiltshire, has written "Reign of the Vampire: A Tribute to the Perseverance of Bela Lugosi." It's an excellent introduction to Bela and his life. It serves the purpose of whetting the appetite to learn more about Lugosi, and there are ample resources from Gary Rhodes, Frank Dello Stritto, Arthur Lennig, Robert Cremer and others.
Wiltshire's book is also a self-help book. Wiltshire has an M.A. in Organizational Leadership and concludes the book detailing how lessons from Bela's life can help us with our challenges.
You can buy the book here. Be aware that Wiltshire occasionally has sales days where the book costs less or the Kindle is free.
Below is my review on the book's Amazon page:
This is a short volume and is not intended to be an in-depth look at Lugosi's life. However, the author does a thorough, excellent job in providing a short biography of Bela Lugosi's life. He has done his research and readers interested in learning more should pursue the footnotes, which point to excellent Lugosi biographers such as Gary Don Rhodes and Frank Dello Stritto. I recommend this book for those wanting to learn more about the Count and for even more advanced Lugosi fans, as another resource.
-- Doug Gibson
Tuesday, July 26, 2016
By Steve D. Stones
The 1930s was a time full of government sponsored propaganda films that warned of the dangers of drug use and promiscuous sex. Reefer Madness (1936), Cocaine Fiends (1935), Marijuana (1936) and Sex Madness (1938) are just a few of these from the 30s. Today these films have a kitschy, camp quality that humors fans of cult movies. Many are still shown in midnight movie houses today.
What Becomes Of The Children? (1936) warns of the dangers of neglectful parents. It's another 30s propaganda film that stereotypes people who engage in a specific type of behavior and the outcome it has on everyone around them.
Railroad tycoon John Worthington, played by Robert Frazer (who is in Bela Lugosi films "White Zombie" and "Black Dragons") is so obsessed with money, power and his occupation that he pays little attention to his children. His wife Edith, played by Natalie Moorhead, is a socialite who enjoys spending her husband's money and ignoring both her husband and her children.
Both parents are also very bored of each other and argue frequently, so they decide to get a divorce. John is awarded custody of his son Fred, and Edith is awarded custody of their daughter Marion. Both siblings have little contact with each other as the years roll on.
It's not until the children grow up to be adults that their upbringing starts to have an impact on their lives. Marion gets mixed up and married to a jewel thief named Daniels. Fred and Marion somehow end up in the same bar one night after not seeing each other for many years, and a fight breaks out between Fred and Daniels. Both siblings end up on a murder trial for the accidental killing of Daniels.
The underlying theme of this film comes from the old saying - Money can't buy you happiness. Worthington has achieved great financial success in his life, but he has failed miserably as a husband and father for being at work all the time. Even his lawyer friend warns him of the dangers of spending so much time achieving financial success and the impact it is having on his family. Worthington does not heed this warning until everything starts to fall apart in his family life.
The message of this film today might seem a bit naive, considering the fact that most American homes have both parents at work full time, and often one of the parents is working two or more jobs to keep food on the table. Like Reefer Madness (1936), a warning is posted at the beginning of the movie, only this warning is about the selfish nature of parents who neglect their children.
In the end, Marion and Fred are acquited of any murder charge, and the Worthington family gets back together with a much stronger bond in a happy Hollywood ending. Happy viewing.
Friday, July 22, 2016
Review by Doug Gibson
"Down From the Attic: Rare Thrillers From the Silent Era through the 1950s" is a new offering from McFarland (www.mcfarlandpub.com, 800-253-2187). It's a follow up to a book I have not read, "Up From the Vault." Twenty-four films are analyzed in essays, and they are pretty comprehensive, with detailed synopsis and tons of facts told in a breezy, yet scholarly manner; there's even the occasional snarky comment.
Of the authors, I have heard of John Soister, who wrote some excellent pieces for now defunct Cult Movies Magazine. The films are suitably obscure and a diverse lot. There's a lost silent "Charlie Chan" serial, "The House Without a Key," in which actually you learn that Chan wasn't even a major character. That leads to a very interesting section on the evolution of Chan as the key character of"Chan mysteries" and the progression of actors who portrayed Chan. The reader learns that the less important Chan was, the more likely the detective was to be played by an Asian!
It's also cool to learn a bit about Spencer Bennett, the serial director. He's a name that carried for several more decades. My son and I, who enjoy the serials of the 30s to the early 50s, have watched a lot of his later work.
Another strength is that it provides glimpses into the lives of some pretty colorful, "minor" characters of the film industry. Bud Pollard, whose film(s) "The Horror" and "John the Drunkard," which was a revised version of "The Horror," which only played in Japan, are discussed. Pollard was a minor character who mostly hung around New Jersey making films. He seems to have dipped the tips of his fingers into various, often sullied pots of showbiz. He made comedy shorts for a Harold Lloyd-ish discovery, dabbled in faux smut films of the silent era, traveled to Europe in a failed films venture, made the rounds of ethnic and race films, Italian, Jewish and African-American.
Going further, he made an early bizarre sound version of "Alice in Wonderland" (watch it below), groomed a young girl for stardom who committed suicide, made an anti-war film that were popular in the early years of the Great Depression but also made a patriotic war film once World War II started.
He eventually settled into directing ultra-low budget programmers, many for African-American audiences. Even his death was unique; he died in a Culver City, Calif., listening to a low comic who promised that the next joke would kill him. It did, as he suffered heart attack.
Pollard reminds one of a Broadway Danny Rose gone to seed and his life story I'd wager would make a fun biography or movie.
I'm rambling a bit; as mentioned, there are two dozen films explored in depth. They include "Der Tunnel," a silent, and "Transatlantic Tunnel," a talkie. Both were adaptations of a popular melodrama that imagined a train traveling under the Atlantic. There's another chapter exploring some pacifist melodramas, "High Treason" (1929) and "Men Must Fight," a 1933 film that allows war a positive rally at the end.
The films sound extremely interesting, but that's a secret to Down From the Attic": the authors make you want to see the films. This can be frustrating as some of the films are quite obscure, the type that are restored and then shipped off to the very occasional film festival.
But some can be seen via YouTube. Ever wonder how El Brendel became a star? The authors discuss the musical science fiction film from 1930, "Just Imagine."
Another is "Return of the Terror," an Edgar Wallace adaptation from First National that made usual good guy star Lyle Talbot the heavy. I can't find this one for free on the Net. But there's John Barrymore playing Sherlock Holmes in a 1922 silent. That film is discussed in entertaining fashion.
There's a fascinating chapter on a film called "Forgotten Faces," (1928) a silent that has a criminal as the hero, protecting his daughter from the exploitation of her mother. It's based on the story, "A Whiff of the Heliotrope," and involves the hero using his murder -- at the hands of his panicky wife -- as a means to provide a safe future for his daughter.
A chapter on silent adaptations of "The Monkey's Paw" and "Sweeney Todd" note film makers' interests in providing these grisly tales with happier "it's only a dream endings. It's an interesting discussion. The films distributors still had the option of retaining the grisly ending and the authors recount critical opinions, pro and con, of the happy or grisly endings.
The aforementioned "Death Takes a Holiday" is analyzed. I love this film, particularly Fredric March's performance I first heard of it as a child, included in a book, maybe titled "Classic Horror Films," and I had to see it. What a great concept: Death taking a vacation. (By the way, as the authors note, the film is available as an extra in a 1998 DVD release of "Meet Joe Black). The authors correctly note the strong camera work that portrays death in his spectral form compared to his life-like "vacation" form.
I'm going to mention one more film, a 1951 Czech "anti-capitalist" opus, 144 minutes in two parts, called "The Baker's Emperor, The Emperor's Baker." This movie sounds so deliciously bizarre. It involves a lazy emperor who starves his kingdom to fulfill his collection hobbies. There's actually a Golem in this film that the emperor managed to obtain. He throws his baker in prison for feeding the hungry. Later, the baker gets out and with a beard looks like a younger version of the emperor (I forgot to mention that charlatan magicians are trying to make the emperor younger.) Throw in the Golem and a palace coup attempt and this is a film I'll be checking for late Sunday night foreign film showings on TCM. Here's a link to an expensive DVD of the film.
It's a McFarland book, so it is expensive, but $39.99 is worth the cost for serious film fans who are always searching to learn more about the genre. "Down From the Attic" will increase your knowledge of film history; that's a guarantee. (And even though it's not one of the 24 in this book, catch that goofy Pollard film below).
Thursday, July 14, 2016
Review by Steve D. Stones
I'll never forget seeing a trailer for Jaws when I was about three years old. The images on the screen scared me so bad that I wanted to crawl under my seat and hide forever. When my family took a trip to Southern California in the late 1970s, I didn't want to get out of the car to go down to the beach for fear that a shark might get me. Movie goers had this same fear for years after the premiere of Jaws.
After the success of Jaws, a follow up film was discussed by the executives at Universal Studios. In their book "Jaws 2 - The Making Of The Hollywood Sequel," authors Louis R. Pisano and Michael A. Smith chronicle the events of the making of Jaws 2. It's from BearManor Media.
Originally the folllow-up film would be a prequel instead of a sequel. The prequel film was going to pick up Captain Quint's story in the original Jaws of the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis in July of 1945. That idea was abandoned, and instead a sequel was made that focused on many of the main characters returning, but also a story of teenagers being hunted on the ocean by a giant shark.
Director John Hancock was asked to direct the sequel in 1977. Just a few months into filming, Hancock was fired from the production. Many involved with the film felt like it was going in the wrong direction. Hancock created a dark and dreary Amityville, drained of color. His vision was much more violent than the executives at Universal Studios wanted, making it so that the film could not possibly get a PG rating.
Arriving on the set one day, Hancock was driven to a local airport with his bags already packed and asked to leave. This created chaos with the production. Many of the young actors involved with the project were also fired, including Ricky Schroder, who had his hair dyed brown to look like Police Chief Brody's son - played by Roy Scheider reprising his role.
The script was soon changed and a new director, Jeannot Szwarc of France, took over the production. Jeannot was someone who could work well under pressure and take orders from executives. He brought color and vibrancy back into the production. Now his task was to re-shoot most of the film and get the production back on track.
Interestingly enough, many of the actors interviewed in the book claim they had no idea that the production was going so badly, and seemed a bit shocked by the firing of director Hancock. Their biggest shock was in being let go from the project and replaced by other actors.
Another interesting fact noted in the book is that Roy Scheider was not interested in doing the sequel, and Steven Spielberg was not interested in directing it, especially since he was involved with directing Close Encounters of The Third Kind (1977) at the time. Scheider eventually agree to reprise his role after executives told him that if he did the sequel, his contract would count it as two films, instead of one. Many actors involved found Scheider hard to work with and tempermental at times.
Authors Pisano and Smith point out at both the beginning and ending of the book that most of the films on the top ten list of highest-grossing films of all time have been sequels. Their analysis is to prove that Jaws 2 created the sequel formula that led Hollywood to make sequels to box office successes. At the time Jaws 2 was made, sequels were unheard of in Hollywood. Even the second Star Wars movie - Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980), had not been made yet.
The last section of the book is interesting because it gives the testimonies of die-hard Jaws 2 fans, many of whom say that Jaws 2 is not only the greatest sequel in Hollywood history, but also feel it is even better than the original Jaws. Some fans suggest that Jaws 2 is more interesting than the original film because it is from the point of view of the shark hunting teenagers on the ocean, instead of the hunters hunting a shark. There is even some artwork created and shown in the book by young fans of Jaws 2.
If you are a fan of Jaws, particularly Jaws 2, you may want to check out Jaws 2 - The Making Of The Hollywood Sequel. To date, Carl Gottlieb's book - The Jaws Log, is the best-selling book about all things Jaws. Gottlieb provides the forward to the Pisano and Smith book. Gottlieb co-wrote Jaws and served as screenwriter of Jaws 2. Happy reading.
Friday, July 8, 2016
Review by Doug Gibson
In another of Plan9Crunch's occasional review of lesser-known Columbia comedy shorts, we take a look at 1951's "The Champs Step Out," starring a comedy team of former boxing champions, heavyweight Max Baer and light heavyweight "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom.
Both were well past their fighting days but they keep their own names and play themselves in this short. They have a detective agency called Kayo; subtle, isn't it. The short does have some impressive credits, though. The better half of Columbia's factory, Hugh McCollum's, produced "Champ Steps Out" and it's directed by my favorite Columbia director, Edward Bernds, and penned by Elwood Ullman.
The talented Emile Sitka and attractive foil Jean Willes have key supporting roles. Except for some toughs who have uncredited bit parts, it's a four-cast short. The plot: Professor Bentley (Sitka) is a nervous wreck. His collection of priceless artifacts, including a couple of "priceless" Ming vases, are unguarded. His sexy assistant/secretary Miss Pearson (Willes) tries to calm him.
The professor sees an as for the detective agency and decides to call on them. (When he hears their names he says, "that rings a bell," ... more subtle humor.) He identifies himself as a "collector." Maxie, thinking he collects bills, throws him out twice. Eventually, the boys are hired to go to the professor's home, where moronic Rosenbloom breaks one of his Ming vases. Baer flirts with Willes, who slips him a mickey. We find out that Willes is in cahoots to rob the professor with a couple of toughs and it's up to our ex-fighters, who throw their share of punches, to stop them.
This is not a bad short; it's better than I anticipated. I'm a big boxing fan, or I probably would have passed on it. It's a semi-pleasant diversion, but it's not really funny. I counted two laughs. Once, when Willes coos to Baer that she likes him, saying "I adore your type, sort of ugly good looking," which is kind of true. The second laugh comes when Rosenbloom gets his tie knocked off his shirt by an errant bullet fired by one of the baddies. He'd tossed the gun, thinking it was unloaded.
As mentioned, Sitka and Willes do their usually effective support. Baer and Rosenbloom, unfortunately, are not great actors. I was surprised the latter was not effective because he had a long career in film and was a stage comic. Baer is actually the better of the two in this short. He underplays his role, allowing the small amount of charm and gusto he has to provide humor and a quick pace.
Rosenbloom is just plain mediocre; he tries to play 60 percent Curly and 40 percent Larry to Baer's "Moe"-sh persona and it doesn't work. He does have a very small amount of "aw shucks" charm that carries him through the two reels.
According to Ed Watz and Ted Okuda in "The Columbia Comedy Shorts," Baer and Rosenbloom were the last comedy team signed by Columbia. They made four shorts. For a long time none were available but YouTube brought us this one to enjoy.
Baer won the world heavyweight championship by KOing Primo Carnera in 1934. He lost the title a year later in a huge upset to James J. Braddock. That story was told in the 2005 film "Cinderella Man." In an otherwise above-average film, Baer's reputation was unfairly impugned. He was depicted as a boorish, sadistic, sexist brute, which he was not. After losing the title Baer appeared finished after Joe Louis knocked him out but he recovered and stayed a contender for several more years, finishing in 1941.
Rosenbloom fought an incredible 274 bouts over a 16-year career that ended in 1939. He won the world heavyweight title in 1930 defeating Jimmy Slattery. There was far less money in that division than the heavyweights and Rosenbloom fought heavyweights, but never received a shot at that title. Both he and Baer were champions at the same time for a few months in 1934.
The pair never met in the ring.
Watch a fine version of "The Champs Step Out" above courtesy of The Shorts Department.
Saturday, July 2, 2016
Review by Doug Gibson
"A Mormon Maid" is an intensely fascinating time-capsule silent melodrama. It is very. anti-Mormon, a filmed polemic against the unpopular religion. Remember its era: Professional anti-Mormon apostate Frank J, Cannon was peddling his book to magazine installments and big sales; he was also a draw on the Chautauqua circuit.
Even that more famous anti-Mormon silent, "Trapped By the Mormons," was still several years away. "Trapped ..." had played in SLC as an historical novelty. I saw it about 25 years ago at the Tower Theater.
Frankly, "A Mormon Maid," which you can watch at the top of this review, merits more ink than "Trapped ..." which was peddled more or less as an independent (meaning it was not a major release). "A Mormon Maid" was a bigger release, with a major company of the time, Lasky. It has name stars in Noah Beery Sr. and then-popular starlet Mae Murray, who takes the title role. Murray's the type of silent star who prompted tens of thousands of teenage girls to dream about moving to Hollywood and being discovered.
"A Mormon Maid" jabs at the church are more personal and cutting. Some church avengers are styled after the Ku Klux Klan ("Birth of a Nation" seems to have been an influence.) The avengers, and faithful Mormons, wear garb that is distantly related to temple garb that Mormons consider sacred. Perhaps the most jarring sight is an apron with pictures of plants sown on the aprons. I'll leave things at that. The garb, though, also looks silly at times, with a large "all-seeing eye" in the middle and the men with cloaks over their heads.
Mormons who view this in 2016 will appreciate that the LDS Church 99 years ago was still very unpopular. The long 20th century effort to make Mormonism more palatable to the public, other churches and businesses, was in its early stages. The church leadership did protest "A Mormon Maid" quite vigorously, and my have had some success.
According to the AFI films page on "A Mormon Maid" it reads: "that Paramount decided not to distribute the film due to pressure from the Mormon Church. Papers in the Cecil B. DeMille Collection at Brigham Young University indicate that Lasky did not feel that the film was up to company standards." Also, AFI claims that its original 8-reel production was cut to six reels, which puts it a little over an hour.
One more thing is that the Director General of "A Mormon Maid" is Cecil B. DeMille. This was long before he became one of Hollywood's greatest directors. I'm not quite sure what a director general is, but his name is prominent in the credits. The director was Robert Z. Leonard.
A PENNY-DREADFUL MELODRAMA
I'll provide a quick recap of the film: It's a classic "penny-dreadful" melodrama of the era, a dime novel translated to screen. There are virtually no characterizations; we don't get to know the characters beyond the faintest personalities. The only emotion effectively conveyed is lust, which Beery's evil apostle, Darius Burr, the power behind a surprisingly weak "Lion of the Lord, Brigham Young (Richard Cummings). Burr lusts after the beautiful, non-Mormon tom-girl Dora Hogue (Murray).
I'm digressing; the plot: We open with a faux book intro, accompanied by films of the Mormon pioneers. It's commendable at first, and there are some nice scenes of pioneer wagon teams. But eventually we learn the pioneers are exploited by Young (Cummings plays him as a constipated looking Puritan), the evil apostles, of which Burr is the most evil, and the avenging forces, which prevent any opposition and track down disillusioned members who want to leave.
In the middle of nowhere live the Hogue family, dad John (Hobart Bosworth), mom Nancy (Edythe Chapman) and Dora. A Mormon scout, Tom Rigdon (Frank Borzage) from Salt Lake City informs the Hogues, who are not members, that Indians are about to attack. Dad Hogue wants no help from the Mormons but after the Mormons save the family from an Indian attack (well filmed) they accept an offer to move to Salt Lake City.
Fast forward a couple of years. The Hogues are successful residents, and Dora and Tom are in love. But Apostle Burr wants Dora to be his polygamous bride, so oppression sets in. At a secret meeting with the avengers, family membership in the church is "offered" and Frank can either take a polygamous wife or Dora has to marry Apostle Burr. To save his daughter, Frank takes a second wife. A shocked, grief-stricken Nancy commits suicide (rather shockingly shown on screen).
Naturally, evil Burr still lusts for Dora and the remainder of the film involves the Hogues, and Tom, fleeing from, or fighting, the Mormon avengers and the leadership. I'll mention that in one scene Dora rather shrewdly avoids (for a time) coerced marriage with Burr by lying and saying she's not a virgin.
This is a fun film to watch because it shouldn't be taken seriously. It's a history lesson, a silent film polemic that focuses on an easy target. Church members should not be offended. It's a case of the film's theme revealing the vacuousness of its proponents.
Because it's 1917, much of the film plays like a stage play; all of the action is comprised on a screen and the camera work is often static. However, there are impressive shots of wagon trains and the heroes trying to escape the Mormon avengers.
"A Mormon Maid" has not been ignored by recent scholars. LDS history blogger Ardis E. Parshall recently mentioned the film in the Keepapitchinin blog, Parshall writes: "1917’s A Mormon Maid was a rude introduction to popular motion pictures supposedly about Mormonism. Heavily advertised and extremely popular, it played for months in the United States, and was exported to Europe where it also played well."
Parshall's blog is worth a read. It includes newspaper ads for the film. I searched Google for similar ads an I'm sharing one here.
In 2009, Parshall also wrote about the film, and included a review of a 1987 scholarly appraisal of the film's propaganda value. It was titled "Commercial Propaganda in the Silent Film: A Case Study of 'A Mormon Maid,'" by Richard Alan Nelson, Film History, Vol. 1, No. 2.
A snippet: "The author examines why this particular film, of so many similar ones produced at approximately the same time, was even more successful than the rest and deserves special study. He describes the extremely high production values, the talents of the director, cinematographer, and editor – a powerhouse crew of early movie talent which included Cecil B. DeMille. The skillful direction, filming, and editing of A Mormon Maid created practically a new genre, the docu-drama, which made the tale it told especially believable to a national audience and especially distressing to the Saints. ..."
So there's just about all you need to know about "A Mormon Maid." I'd like to learn more about it, what DeMille thought of the film, and it'd be fun to see it on the big screen; maybe Salt Lake Film Society or The Egyptian Theater might do that?