On Blu-Ray: Boris Karloff in Frankenstein 1970

Decades after getting his big break in Frankenstein (1931), Boris Karloff revisited the idea in Frankenstein 1970 (1958). This time he was the one harvesting body parts and playing with knobs as Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Karloff is the draw in this low-budget quickie production which recently made its debut on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

In this continuation of the Frankenstein legend, the doctor lives alone in a creepy castle, disfigured by the torture of World War II Nazis, and desperate for funds to continue his work. That work is to create a version of himself before his face and body were deformed, so that the Frankenstein bloodline may continue.

Frankenstein finds a source of cash via a television crew looking to use his home as the set of a horror film. He also relishes the influx of fresh organs for his creation. As people begin to disappear in the night, the production’s director starts to ask questions.

Of course, an atomic age Dr. Frankenstein needs an atomic reactor to complete his work, which he is able to do with his new funds. He also has recording equipment, which gives Karloff the opportunity to provide long, unnecessary monologues about what exactly he is doing. His creation remains wrapped in bandages for most of the film, a budget-friendly decision which makes it seem more like a mummy movie than a monster flick.

Frankenstein 1970 suffers from a lack of energy and tension. It’s got a lethargic pace and not much to distinguish the familiar story. A tinge of camp might have given it more oomph, but the cast plays everything straight.

Karloff is the reason to watch: he’s got that Joan Blondell quality of never being bad, however lackluster the film. Even saddled with the cliché of moodily playing an organ, he manages to be effectively creepy. There’s also a gruesome thrill in watching him pout because he drops a pair of eyeballs from one of victims and has to deal with the bother of killing again to get a fresh set. This was a milieu Karloff knew well and could work to his advantage.

Special features on the disc include commentary by historians Charlotte Austin, Bob Burns and Tom Weaver from the original Warner Archive DVD release of the film and a trailer.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

45th Annual Seattle International Film Festival: A Norwegian Biopic of Ice Skating Star Sonja Henie

Sonja: the White Swan (2019) is a biopic of skating star Sonja Henie, who made records as an athlete and sparkled briefly, but potently as a movie queen in Hollywood musicals. I don’t know enough about this phenomenally successful athlete/actress to be able to say whether it succeeded in telling her story, but it does reveal a fascinating character. Starring as Henie, Ine Marie Wilmann portrays a complex, passionate woman. The film around her doesn’t always rise to the level of her performance, but it is magical when it does.

Sonja moves around in time, showing the origins of Henie’s skating passion and occasionally dipping back into the past to shed light on her present. From the beginning, she possesses a ferocious belief in herself. She summons success as much as achieving it. When athletic fame brings her to Fox Studios, she will take no less than a four picture deal, thwarting studio head Darryl F. Zanuck’s efforts to try her out in small parts before taking a real financial risk.

Henie is the same in her relationships, demanding that her family move from Norway to be with her in California and then molding their lives to her satisfaction. When she hires an assistant, she expects the same fealty, having her move in so that her employee’s life is in service to her. At first, this behavior is mildly disturbing, but as the story progresses, her ruthless nature reveals itself more fully and it is chilling.

While it is undeniable that the Henie portrayed here was capable of horrific behavior, just as often the things she did that caused scandal would hardly inspire a raised eyebrow if done by a man. Driving a hard bargain or indulging in free love and afternoon champagne were not the domain of women then, and to this day can be the cause of scorn.

In the end, I didn’t recognize the Henie I’d seen in the movies here. Even the gorgeous scenes where her film production numbers are reproduced with magnificent glamour don’t capture the button-nosed sweetness of the star. Wilmann does much with the material she is given though, portraying a woman capable of great cruelty, but also delightfully indulgent in the pleasures of life.

The film as a whole played unevenly for me. In her rise to fame, we see her successes in great detail. As she declines, much of the action plays off-screen, sometimes related in voiceover, which made her fall difficult to engage with on an emotional level. The early scenes pop with an almost sensual energy, buoyed by a punchy modern soundtrack full of electronic beats and upbeat soul and hip hop that instead of seeming anachronistic, does much to express Henie's passionate drive. That feeling devolves into a bland second act, where some scenes are lit so dimly that it is hard to make out what is happening.

In a coda with a sequence of film clips featuring the real Henie, the star is presented in her later years, happily married and apparently thriving. We see where she ended up, but precisely how she got there remains a mystery.

This is worth a view based on Wilmann’s remarkable performance and the punch of the early scenes and movie sequence reproductions.

Tickets for the final SIFF screening of the film on 5/27 can be purchased here.

45th Annual Seattle International Film Festival: A Collage of James Mason Clips in Invest in Failure (Notes on Film 06-C, Monologue 03) (2018)

While I think that it is usually best to go into a film cold in order to enjoy it fully, the work of Austrian filmmaker Norbert Pfaffenbichler benefits from some explanation. His experimental works are accessible, but require preparation. Invest in Failure (Notes on Film 06-C, Monologue 03) (2018), which features clips from 160 James Mason films is a riot if it catches you in the right frame of mind.

The film is the final installation in Pfaffenbichler’s Monologue Trilogy, a series of films in which he has compiled clips of male movie stars in surreal juxtapositions of moods, ages, and situations. In the first two films, which featured Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff, his stars interacted with themselves in different roles. I had the opportunity to watch the Karloff film, A Masque of Madness (2013) at SIFF 2014 and found it mesmerizing to watch the actor performing with himself across time, even chasing himself at one point.

This time Pfaffenbichler shakes things up by adding women to the mix. Mason is shown loving, beating, berating and romancing his leading ladies in seventeen thematic episodes. Unlike the Karloff film, Mason disappears from the screen for lengthy periods as the women in his cinematic life regard him with disappointment, fear, and very occasionally admiration. It is in essence a violent portrait with a sprinkling of lust and romance to make it a shade more palatable.

Pfaffenbichler uses sound and music to challenge the emotions evoked by these clips, placing lushly romantic music with grim imagery or adding repetitive clicks and the like to increase the tension of a sequence. It is this editorial hand that makes the film more compelling than the strictly-themed collection of clips it first appears to be.

I hate to say that a film is not for everyone, but I have to admit this might move too slowly and erratically for those who prefer a conventional narrative. It’s worth a look for fans of classic film though and especially Mason fanatics. While firmly advancing through its structured themes, it is also curiously freeing, because it releases the viewer from narrative storytelling and allows somewhat untethered exploration of all the feelings, images, and sounds that make movies, and their stars, so thrilling.

The SIFF screening of this film includes Austrian filmmaker Virgil Widrich’s amusing short Copy Shop (2001).

Tickets for the May 30 screening of Invest in Failure (Notes on Film 06-C, Monologue 03) can be purchased here.

Book Review: A Lively Biography of Legendary Screenwriter Ben Hecht

Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures
Jewish Lives Series
Adina Hoffman
Yale University Press, 2019

Hollywood movies would have been very different without the brilliance of screenwriter Ben Hecht. He not only wrote enduring classics, but in the early days of the talkies gave shape to major film genres. In a new book, which is part of the extensive Yale University Press Jewish Lives series, Adina Hoffman explores the life of this volatile personality and devoted craftsman.

Hecht got his start as a newsman and the life experience he got from big city reporting would have a big influence on the street smart, lightning fast dialogue he would later pen for the movies. He gave the gangster genre prominence with early entries like Underworld (1927) and Scarface(1932), which drew heavily from reporting life. The same could be said of screwball comedy, which truly began to emerge after he adapted his stage play for Twentieth Century (1934).

There are so many other good films he wrote beyond these genre builders. It’s almost overwhelming to take into account all the classics that Hecht created, whether credited or behind the scenes. Among them: Nothing Sacred (1937), Gunga Din (1939), Wuthering Heights (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), Spellbound (1945), and Notorious (1946).

Hecht was always a bit scornful of Hollywood, but was happy to draw large paychecks over many decades doing work that came easily to him. Hoffman reveals a man who may have been skeptical of his film work, but who approached screenwriting seriously, with a careful eye to what would delight an audience. Part of that life included his frequent writing partner and close friend Charles MacArthur, an underrated talent with much of the same inborn skill for lively dialogue.

The Hollywood stories are bookended with tales of Hecht’s raucous early life and his later devotion to projects that would promote his Jewish activism. That activism would be the source of controversy for years and eventually threaten his career, but with a talent that big, he found a way to keep working. It seems his life was never dull, with wives, lovers, hard drinking writer friends, and political and artistic drama to fill all the corners of his existence.

Hoffman’s writing is lively and wry, with a fidelity to revealing detail and great storytelling. It’s rare to see the personality and work of a biographical subject so expertly intertwined. As a result, the tone of the book is as acutely mischievous as Hecht himself.

I found this to be an especially entertaining and informative biography. It cuts right to the action and moves with crisp, invigorating efficiency through a remarkable life.

On Blu-ray: Doris Day and Rod Taylor in The Glass Bottom Boat (1966)

I wrote this review days before the legendary Doris Day passed on. It is in a way a tribute to her charm and talent, because every word I've ever written about her has been a tribute. She was the living embodiment of sunshine and so phenomenally talented.

Produced in the last decade of Doris Day’s prolific career, the cheerfully chaotic The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) has the not unpleasant feeling of being crafted from a reliable formula. It’s got a jaunty DeVol score, boisterous direction from Frank Tashlin, who was born to work with Day, and a cast full of actors who tend to go with one note and do it very well. This light-hearted romantic comedy with spy intrigue is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Day is the widowed daughter of a glass bottom boat tour operator (Arthur Godfrey). She helps her Pop entertain his customers by dressing up as a mermaid and swimming underneath them. One day a NASA scientist (Rod Taylor) snags her tail with his fishing pole and rips it off, leaving her bottomless. She’s furious, until she realizes he’s her new boss at the laboratory where she does public relations. She also likes the looks of him.

A misunderstanding leads Day’s employers to suspect she works as a spy for Russia. She’s more indignant that they assume she’s dishonest than afraid of any trouble she might face. With still more miscommunication to follow, she takes revenge for their mistrust in her.

This was one of two films Day made with the profoundly underrated Taylor (they made Do Not Disturb together the year before). Though Rock Hudson was her best screen match, you could never imagine them hitting the sack the way you can her and Taylor. Of all her leading men, she’s got the most heat with him.

That said there’s a charming feeling of camaraderie between Day and Taylor. For the most part the film is comically turbulent, but there’s a quieter scene where Day sings songs with her Pop, his girlfriend and Taylor where they all appear to genuinely be having fun together. Here Taylor seems especially delighted and full of admiration for his costar and he's not alone. She lights up any setting, and here all involved seemed delighted to bask in her glory.

Paul Lynde, Dom DeLuise, and Alice Pearce are among the reliable supporting cast. It’s full of actors like these who knew precisely how to plug their personas into any situation. There are few surprises, but everyone is working to a high standard.

The Glass Bottom Boat succeeds where a lot of spy spoofs fail, because it relies more on the quirks of its cast than genre jokes for laughs. It’s a real mood lifter and a great moment for Day and Taylor.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Book Review--Forbidden Hollywood: The Pre-Code Era (1934), When Sin Ruled the Movies

My introduction to the concept of pre-Code as a film category probably began with the Forbidden Hollywood VHS series hosted by Leonard Maltin and featuring Warner Bros films. Having delighted in those saucy flicks, I would eventually devour Thomas Doherty and Mick LaSalle’s books on the era, learning as much as I could and writing long lists of films I wanted to see.

As helpful as all of those resources were, the pre-Code book that had the most profound effect on me was Mark Vieira’s Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood. It was an impulse buy at a used book store, which turned into an obsession. Something about the way he combined glowing photographs with a deep dive into the films got me hooked. I got a taste of the period and just enough information to make me want to learn more.

For this reason, I was thrilled to learn Vieira would be returning to the subject with Forbidden Hollywood: The Pre-Code Era (1930-1934). In the twenty years since Sin in Soft Focus was published, pre-Codes have increased exponentially in popularity among classic film fans, perhaps even equaling film noir as a beloved film category. That TCM has partnered with Running Press to publish the book is especially amusing, as pre-Code screenings at the TCM Classic Film Festival are notorious for filling up quickly and leaving long lines of fans in the lobby of the multiplex.

The beauty of Vieira writing this book is that he knows the topic so well that he’s able to write about it efficiently, relating vital facts and revealing the essential character of the period. Using various films from the era as starting points, he explores different genres, controversies, and production stories, while steadily moving through the overall history of the birth of the Code and its eventual enforcement.

Forbidden Hollywood looks good, with lots of the gorgeous photos for which Vieira’s books are best known, but there’s also a lot of solid research here, related in an engaging way. This is an entertaining, informative read that deserves to endure as a classic reference book.

Many thanks to TCM for providing a copy of the book for review.

Pre-Code on DVD: Constance Bennett in Our Betters (1933)

I’m a big fan of pre-code Constance Bennett, with her razor sharp hip bones and saucy quips. She doesn’t get nearly enough credit for her contribution to the lively adult-themed flicks of that time. While Our Betters (1933) is not the best of those films, Bennett is reliably excellent as an American heiress who marries a titled man and thrives in the morally flexible world of British aristocracy. Now available on DVD from Warner Archive, this was an entertaining flick.

As the wealthy Pearl Saunders, Bennett is still in her wedding dress post-ceremony when she realizes her new husband (Alan Mowbray) has a lover and he has only married her for her money. Years pass, and she has discarded any pretense of wedded bliss, instead becoming a scandalous society sensation among the upper class. Though not given to passionate affairs, she keeps an open mind and doesn’t clutch her pearls at the prospect, a fact her squeaky clean sister Bessie (Anita Louise) begins to realize with alarm.

While there are multiple romantic dramas unfolding at any given time, Our Betters is an essentially plotless look at the energetic if meaningless lives of these social elite. With characters given to comments like, “If I leave you, you’ll have nobody but your husband” and a bizarre reference to bananas as a “most unpleasant vegetable, so fattening,” the action may occasionally flag, but it is never entirely dull. As empty as these people may ultimately be, you want to blow raspberries when a sanctimonious outsider makes a plea for “honor, decency, and self-restraint.”

After seeing many a film where a pre-code heroine sins freely until she accepts matrimony in the last act, it is almost a relief that Bennett is only temporarily punished for playing the game as she sees it and remains essentially her own woman. In the end, she emerges triumphant because she retains her power to manipulate any situation as she sees fit. If her perspective has become a bit more moral, so be it. You get the impression the halo won’t stay in place for long.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
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