Saturday, September 30, 2023

Quick reviews of two films: a classic and an amusing time-waster

At Plan9Crunch blog, we note two vintage films we recently enjoyed. One a classic I’ve seen and loved 20 times. The other a low-budget comedy from an RKO ‘40s team I like.

--Doug Gibson


The above is an iconic scene from Night of the Hunter. I recently watched it again via TCM. Although opinions are subjective, I consider this the finest film ever made. Charles Laughton helmed an allegorical tale - based on the Davis Grubb novel - of Good and Evil battling over the welfare of two innocents.

Robert Mitchum is fantastic as the murderous, coveting faux preacher. But Lillian Gish, as the elderly, flawed but pure, protector of children ... wow, the finest performance I've witnessed in a film.



This Carney & Brown comedy B film recently aired early morning on TCM. I look for the RKO comedy team's other films because I enjoy the team with Bela Lugosi in two films. "Girl Rush" was pretty amusing, an entertaining 65 minutes. One of the co-stars is comedienne Vera Vague. She's considered blowsey and unattractive in film, but she's actually gorgeous.

Also in the 1944 film is a young, just-signed-to-a-contract Robert Mitchum. It's surreal to see Mitchum in drag in the comedy film's climax, Yet the star power is there. Mitchum dominates every scene he is in. Wally Brown and Alan Carney were no competition to Abbott and Costello but they provided fun films in a similar comedy vein. 

Sunday, September 24, 2023

The Magic Sword – A fantasy adventure from director Bert I. Gordon


At a time in the 1960s when Italian sword and sandal action films dominated the drive-in movie screens, American director Bert I. Gordon created this medieval fantasy adventure epic – The Magic Sword (1962). Gordon was known for films depicting giants, usually as a result of atomic radiation, such as a giant spider, giant grasshoppers, giant ants, a giant man in diapers, and even giant teenagers. The Magic Sword is considered by many of Gordon's fans as his best and most ambitious film. From a technical filmmaking and storytelling perspective, The Magic Sword is Gordon's best film.

Princess Helene (Anne Helm) has disappeared without a trace. Lodac the wizard, played brilliantly by Basil Rathbone, has kidnapped the princess. He appears before Helene's father, the king (Merritt Stone), and demands revenge for the king's father executing his sister at the age of 18 for witchcraft. Lodac releases seven curses on the land and threatens to feed the princess to his dragon in seven days. One of the king's knights – Sir Branton (Liam Sullivan), sets out to rescue the princess so he can marry her. Lodac warns that it will not be easy for Branton and his men to find his castle where the princess is being held in a cell.

Meanwhile, sorceress Sybil, played by Estelle Winwood, is foster mother to Sir George (Gary Lockwood), who will not allow George to leave their home until he is twenty-one and in the possession of a magic sword and a strong white horse. George wants to leave their home so he can rescue princess Helena first, and win her love. George tricks Sybil into getting trapped in an underground cavern so he can leave with the magic sword and white horse to find the princess. George assembles six brave knights to follow him on his journey to find the princess.

Sir George and his six knights appear before the king at his castle. George tells the king that he wants to save the princess, but sir Branton insists that he will be the one to rescue the princess and marry her. Branton challenges George to a duel, but his sword is broken across George's chest as he strikes him.

The Magic Sword is filled with many interesting set pieces and well done special effects for 1962. Brandon, George and their knights encounter a forest of dead trees and a giant man eating ogre. The forest is filled with bubbling lava pits. The knights battle the giant with spears. George attempts to rescue a knight who has fallen into a hot lava pit. While rescuing the knight, George is pushed into the pit by Branton.

Another set piece shows cone headed humans in a castle feasting at a table while the eyes of stone gargoyles move back and forth near a fireplace mantle. The princess encounters a hanging cage of midgets when she wanders away from her cell. An uncredited appearance by midget actor Angelo Rossitto happens during a scene in princess Helene's cell. Cult actress Maila Nurmi, known for her iconic role of Vampira on TV in the 1950s and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), appears in the film as a hag. Another cult actor, Richard Kiel, plays a pinhead character.

Director Gordon saves his best set piece and special effect for the ending of the film when Sir George frees Princess Helene from a two headed fire breathing dragon. George battles the dragon with his magic sword. This final scene shows the connection of the Magic Sword to the story of St. George and The Dragon. Helene and George are married and everyone lives happily ever after, just like in a fairytale story. The film was also marketed as La Espada Magica, St. George and The Dragon, St. George and The Seven Curses, The Seven Curses of Lodac, Happy viewing. 

(The Magic Sword is available at many online locations. A great print is at Tubi. It is also on Amazon Prime. And here's a link to a You Tube print.)

Reviewed by Steve D. Stones

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Zenobia a comedy that matched Oliver Hardy and ... Harry Langdon

By Doug Gibson

"Zenobia," a 1939 Hal Roach comedy feature is an charming film, albeit one that failed to attract audiences. It's mostly forgotten today, except for routine once-a-year airings on Turner Classic Movies. (It did, however, recently get a Blu-Ray release.) The film, from Hal Roach, pairs rotund Oliver Hardy with silent- and early-talkies era comedian Harry Langdon. This was because Hardy's iconic partner, Stan Laurel, was engaged in a contract dispute with Roach. Langdon, a close friend of both Laurel and Hardy, stepped in to film "Zenobia," with no real intention of taking Stan Laurel's place, although there was talk of a second Hardy/Langdon feature, that ended after "Zenobia" failed at the box office. Laurel eventually returned to Hal Roach, but soon after the pair left for good, moving to 20th Century Fox.

But let's talk about "Zenobia." It takes place in Carterville, Mississippi, in the post-Civil War deep South, although to be honest the residents there appear to have been spared the recent horrors of war. Hardy plays -- way out of character -- Dr. Henry Tibbett, a mild-mannered country doctor whose finances are a bit shaky because long ago he decided not to use his medical skills to get wealthy. Nevertheless, he lives in a rented mansion with Mrs. Tibbett (Billie Burke), his daughter Mary (Jean Parker) and their three servants, Zero (Stepin Fetchit) Dehlia (Hattie McDaniel) and their child Zeke (Phillip Hurlic). Daughter Mary is engaged to marry a rich young man, Jeff Carter, played by James Ellison. Jeff's snobbish mother, Mrs. Carter (Alice Brady) loathes the match is working to get back with a former girlfriend, Virginia, played by June Lang.

Despite this subplot, this is a gentle film, and no matter how dastardly the machination of Mrs. Carter and Virginia to dash Jeff and Mary's love, there's never any danger of the pair being split up. All ends well and even mean Mrs. Carter apologizes at the end. What's most interesting is that Burke -- who was Glinda the Good Witch in Wizard of Oz -- provides most of the comedy, and not Hardy. Burke proves herself adept at comedy, playing a scatterbrained but quick-witted, and loyal spouse to Hardy's gentle, good-natured Dr. Tibbetts.

This domestic set up is damaged by the performance of Fetch-it as the servant, Zero, who perpetuates a racist stereotype that unfortunately was a part of Hollywood in that era. "Zero" mumbles, whines, cowers and cringes throughout the film. However, the contrast between his performance and that of McDaniel is interesting. McDaniel, who won an Oscar as Mammy in Gone With the Wind, delivers a strong performance, in which she never surrenders her dignity or self-respect.

Now, time to mention the main plot and Harry Langdon's excellent contribution to "Zenobia." Langdon plays Professor McCrackle, a traveling tonic salesman who also has an elephant, named "Zenobia," who travels with him. One day, when Zenobia is feeling poorly, McCrackle begs Dr. Tibbetts to treat his elephant. Because he's such a nice man, Tibbetts treats Zenobia. His treatment works so well that the elephant becomes enamored of the doctor and won't leave him alone, following poor Hardy's doctor and occasionally picking him up. Upset that he's no longer number one with his elephant, Langdon's McCrackle is convinced, with some help by the scheming Mrs. Carter, to file an alienation of affection lawsuit against Dr. Tibbetts.

It's an amusing plot, and Langdon is excellent in scenes with Hardy. He's too good a comedian and actor to try to imitate Laurel. Instead, Langdon utilizes his understated comedic talents and blend of timidity, deadpan blank face and "Little Elf" voice to generate a fair share of laughs. His best scenes with Hardy are when Zenobia is being treated by the doctor, as well as his efforts to keep the elephant away from Hardy's Tibbetts. In the final courtroom scene, which is the strongest point of the film, Langdon is hilarious as he is constantly interrupted while trying to testify using a memorized script.

So why did the film fail? It cost $637,000 and grossed only $351,000 worldwide, according to the Langdon biography "Little Elf. " It's not Langdon's fault. One reason may be that audiences were so used to Laurel and Hardy comedies that they couldn't accept Oliver Hardy in a role that was mostly non-comedy. In fact, when he's treating Zenobia is the closest he gets to traditional "Hardy comedy" and audiences probably wanted more. Also, while Burke is very good in comedy, and witty, it must have seemed strange to audiences to see her, and not Oliver Hardy, getting the laughs. Another reason may be that there is very little drama in this comedy. As mean as Mrs. Carter, Virginia, and others are, you don't really feel that there's any tension in the film. The New York Times described Zenobia as "Gone With the Wind" as devised by Hal Roach, and there's truth to that. Carterville seems like somewhere in NeverLand, an alternative multiverse. Finally the biggest reason Zenobia failed so badly was that the public didn't want to see Hardy with anyone else other than Stan Laurel.

The New York Times also gave props to Langdon, writing (from Wikipedia) "...Harry Langdon has adopted the partnership prerequistes formerly reserved for Stan Laurel...Harry Langdon's pale and beautifuly [sic?] blank countenance...has probably already excited the professional jealousy of Mr. Laurel..."

However, Langdon never intended to attempt to supplant Laurel, a man who went out of his way to help Langdon through tough stretches in the 1930s, and is due a lot of credit for providing momentum that insured the last several years of Langdon's career was fairly busy, and prosperous. Scenes in the otherwise excellent film, "Stan and Ollie," that purport to show that Hardy was upset at Laurel for briefly leaving Hal Roach and saddling him with Langdon are fictional.

Zenobia is worth watching, and I'm glad it's frequently on TCM, as it provides both a glimpse at the versitility of Oliver Hardy and the comic talents of Harry Langdon.