Thursday, October 19, 2006

Viewing the Castro in 3-D (x 3)

This week, I finally earned my stripes as a self-respecting cinema lover by traversing to the Bay Area to see my first films in three-dimension during the Castro Theater's wonderful 3-D Film Festival featuring many of the great and not-great 3-D films from this screen novelty's 1950's heyday.

First up was Gorilla at Large, a tepid 1954 semi-thriller starring the title beast (really George Barrows in a monkey suit) and featuring Cameron Mitchell, Raymond Burr, Lee J. Cobb (who gets stuck leading many boring exposition scenes wherein you're crying for someone, anyone to yell "Bring on the cheesy gorilla!!"), and a young Anne Bancroft, a few years away from her much, much greater acclaim as one of the leading dramatic stars of stage and screen. The clean print featured terrific Technicolor, but the soundtrack was truly terrible (at the necessary intermission needed to change the interlocked reels our host explained 20th-Century Fox didn't feel compelled to clean up the soundtrack using modern technology). Although the 3-D visuals were Gorilla's key selling point, the sound problem made the film's plot somewhat incomprehensible (I'm not even sure I really grasp whodunit, thanks to the lack of sound during key sequences). There were a few charms on display, mainly almost all of Bancroft's, in her role as a temptress trapeze artist: the actress brings considerable Va-Va-Voom to her playing as she vamps though the picture posing in a series of alluring postures, while looking sensational in the red garb she's frequently attired in (in the film's most effective use of 3-D, there's an astounding close-up of Bancroft reclining on a bed with her chest heaving mightily). It could be due to the weak soundtrack, but it also appeared Bancroft was emulating the pouty, baby-doll vocal delivery style of the young Lana Turner, as Bancroft often sounded exactly like the blonde glamour queen. A young Lee Marvin, looking a bit simian himself portraying a lunk-headed policeman, offers some welcome comic relief, helping to lighten Gorilla's sometimes heavy load.

Following Gorilla, the Castro crowd was rewarded for its patience with a showing of Phil Tucker's 1953 slock masterpiece, Robot Monster. This awesomely entertaining, but not-in-the-manner-intended (or is it?), spectacle looks like it was filmed for $1.50 in the most unattractive mountainside retreat Tucker could find near his backyard. As for the cast, one gets the feeling Phil invited friends to a barbecue, gave them a script, and started filming. Calling this movie the biggest catastrophe in Hollywood history just doesn't do it justice- Monster goes beyond anything Ed Wood ever conjured up and, like most of Wood's seminal works, Tucker's Monster offers a wealth of fantastic, unforgettable cinema moments: the first appearance of the title character, "Ro-Man" (he's actually a combination ape/deep sea diver and, believe it or not, a pre-Gorilla George Barrows is once again the man in the suit); out-of-nowhere cuts to stop-motion dinosaurs fighting, story plausibility and coherence be damned (Tucker must have raided Ray Harryhausen's garage); the matching mother-daughter cocktail dresses; the hunky George Nader suddenly removing his shirt to offer the audience something worthwhile to look at; frequent bubble-blowing to remind viewers "You Are Watching A 3-D Movie"; and the incredibly stupid pantomime love scene between Nader and costar Claudia Barrett, whose ultra-serious approach to her inane role- Barrett acts like she's in a Chekhov piece- provides many priceless camp moments to cherish, leading up to her finest (or, at least, most indelible) scene, wherein Barrett first wrestles with Ro-Man (well, she kinda does, depending on the shot- perhaps Claudia was drowsy after lunch during some takes) while being held in his amorous embrace, then suddenly switches tactics and attempts to flatter him into compliance using her substantial and seductive womanly charms. Most of the dialogue is peerlessly appalling, but a couple retorts reach an even lower dimension, including little Johnny's barb to Ro-Man, “You look like a pooped-out pinwheel,” and Nader’s incredibly PC-incorrect and amazingly audacious response to Barrett’s comment regarding Nader’s chauvinistic treatment of her, “I'm bossy? You’re so bossy, you oughta be milked before you come home at night!” (this line almost literally brought the Castro down, with the whooping and hollering heard throughout the theater in the line's aftermath causing the joint to really jump). A surprise "twist" ending is thrown in to justify the script's former ineptitude, but any positive effect produced by this hook is immediately waylaid with Tucker's final shots showcasing three takes of Ro-Man walking towards the screen, just in case we miss it the first, or second, time around. On a side Monster note, I always wondered how poor Selena Royale, a respected stage and screen actress only a few years removed from her reign as a reliable supporting player in such class "A" productions as The Harvey Girls and The Heiress, wound up here; a quick internet search revealed Royale was a victim of the blacklist, and only could find work post-1951 in grade-Z productions such as Monster. Shame, shame.

The following evening, I returned to view Kiss Me Kate, MGM's 1953 screen translation of the Cole Porter Broadway hit. This time, fortunately the sound was excellent, but the picture quality (especially the Ansco Color the studio unwisely chose to film Kate in) was sub-par and washed-out. I've always been on the fence concerning the overall merits of this Kate; however, Porter's lilting lyrics and music, Howard Keel's confident playing, and the superior singing and dancing of Ann Miller and her suitors (Tommy Rall, Bob Fosse, and Bobby Van) compensate greatly for the oftentimes slow pacing between numbers and for Kathryn Grayson's irritating, largely one-note playing (sure, she supposed to be shrewish, but Grayson's Lilli/Kate has little charm as she flounces about the screen yelling almost every line in an ultra-humorless manner). Fortunately, as Fred/Petruchio Howard Keel's laid-back acting and smooth baritone offset some of his costar's abrasive perfoming style, and he duets effectively with his leading lady on "Wunderbar" and "So in Love." However, Keel has his finest moment alone, delivering "Where is the Life That Late I Led?" with slyness and verve. Ann Miller is also around to liven things up considerably as showgirl Lois Lane/Bianca, especially during her wonderfully flashy, invigorating numbers. Miller's tap-dancing finesse is showcased in fabulous fashion during her sole solo number, "Too Darn Hot," while the exemplary dancing skills of Rall, Fosse, and Van are put to brilliant use in several numbers with Miller; this remarkable quartet brings true distinction to Kate (working under the guidance of choreographer Hermes Pan, although you get the feeling the dancers also contributed their own considerable style and skill in constructing the routines). Rall has a couple of fine duets with Miller, and does some incredible acrobatic maneuvering during "Why Can't You Behave?", while Miller and all three men soar through a rousing rendition of "Tom, Dick, or Harry." However, these highlights are surpassed by the wealth of terpsichorean talent on display in the supremely staged "From This Moment On," one of the most exhilarating numbers in musical history. Assisted by Carol Haney and Jeanne Coyne, Miller and the boys display grace and elegance, especially the extremely agile Rall and Fosse (a couple years later, the two paired again for a memorable "dance off" in the enjoyable My Sister Eileen). As I expected, although all of Ann Miller's numbers received an enthusiastic reception from the impressed audience, the loudest applause of the night was justifiably heard at the conclusion of "On." The enduring appeal of this classic number makes up for any of Kate's shortcomings, and ensures the film of a significant place among the cinema's memorable musicals.

Alas, during the festival I missed the opportunity to catch the greatest 3-D film of them all, 1953's Andre de Toth-directed House of Wax, starring Vincent Price in the role that gained him a new career as the movies' diabolical King of Horror. Fortunately, my fellow movie-obsessed blogger StinkyLulu not only attended, but offered up his thoughts on the experience, commenting specifically on Carolyn Jones' scene-stealing Wax work, over here, in his usual intelligent and entertaining manner. Thank you, Stinkylulu.

And a kind word or two for Wax's other lovely damsel in distress, Phyllis Kirk, who just passed away at age 79. Kirk's classic beauty and her rich, deep, cultured voice were a fine fit for her best, most beloved film role as "Sue Allen" in Wax, and her talents are maximized in, for me, the film's finest moment, the famous "stalking" sequence wherein Kirk's smart, feisty heroine outwits the villainous Price by alluding him throughout one of the cinema's most memorable chase sequences, as Price searches for Kirk amid the dank city streets of New York. This suspenseful, fun scene is one of my sweetest movie memories from early childhood, and it held up just fine when I saw the film years later; it's really Kirk's scene all the way, and her adeptness at acting so convincingly terrified throughout the sequence sucks the audience in, then keeps viewers on their seats' edges until she finally escapes danger. I really love the fact Kirk's Sue isn't the standard woman-as-victim (as in the 'falling down, freezing in terror' type) during this vivid scene- this girl 'gets' the fact that, when faced with a psycho killer in a dark room wherein he's just murdered your best friend, you do scream to alert people in the house something’s up; you do use a nearby window to high-tail your butt outta there and run for cover; you do hide out of plain sight from the killer until hope of rescue or safety appears, and then you do run like hell to that safe harbor and sob and scream bloody murder while pounding like a madwoman on a door until said door opens and you are completely out of jeopardy (and with that great voice, Kirk's screams and sobs rank with the cinema's best, including Fay Wray's in King Kong and Janet Leigh's in Psycho). Kirk has a second iconic moment during the tense finale wherein, trapped nude in a box waitng for Price to release hot wax to envelop her (who can forget the closeups of Kirk's nails trying to scrape her way out of peril?), Sue appears to be done for, until Kirk's impressive screams once again manage to find a way to overpower her nemesis' attempts at quieting her once and for all. Phyllis Kirk’s valuable contribution to Wax helps cement the movie's status as a fright classic, and ensures the actress of her niche in the annals of film history.

Coming up in November at the Castro is the Sing-A-Long Sound of Music and, in December, the Sing-A-Long Grease just before Christmas. I'd like to see both, but Grease is a must.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Answered DVD Prayers: Home From the Hill and The Sundowners

After recently bemoaning the fact many beloved classics have yet to see the light of day on DVD, I was excited to find two of my favorite titles announced, via this just posted artwork over at DVD Times for an upcoming release of a Robert Mitchum Box Set from Warner Brothers on January 23rd. Two of Mitchum's best dramatic efforts are contained therein, in a couple of his better pictures, 1960's riveting Home From the Hill and the same year's truly exceptional comedy/drama, The Sundowners (other titles in the set include the 1952 Otto Preminger-directed film noir, Angel Face, Joseph Von Sternberg ‘s Macao, The Good Guys and the Bad Guys, and The Yakuza). Although Face and Macao are worthwhile escapist fare, Hill and Sundowners represent the cream of this DVD crop.

In Home From the Hill, Vincente Minnelli's lovingly crafted screen version of the William Humphrey novel, Mitchum authoritatively anchors the movie with his strong portrayal of Wade Hunnicutt, an imposing Texas tycoon struggling with the less-than-harmonious relations he shares with his lovely-yet-unsatisfied wife, Hannah (Eleanor Parker), and his two sons, Theron and Wade's out-of-wedlock child, Rafe. Strongly supporting Mitchum and Parker (who holds her own with her leading man in their vivid confrontation scenes) are the young Georges Hamilton and Peppard. As Theron, the handsome Hamilton is effective, but Peppard makes the bigger impact in his fine, sensitive interpretation of the neglected Rafe. It's a shame Peppard seldom allowed the vulnerability he employed so skillfully here come through in his subsequent leading man roles as, after his star-making portrayal in Hill, Peppard perhaps was never again so personable on the screen (although he has some colorful moments as Jonas Cord in his biggest hit, 1964's sleazy-but-fascinating The Carpetbaggers). For his fine efforts, Peppard received the National Board of Review's Supporting Actor Award. Former Disney child star Luana Patten also scores big as Libby, the girl romanced by Theron and loved by Rafe, and she has an amazingly intense and believable breakdown/confession scene that rivals the final meeting of Parker and Peppard as the most unforgettable and touching Hill moment. Minnelli adeptly maintains the proper mood throughout the 150-minute running time in excellent fashion, resulting in one of his most entertaining films, and one of the period's more memorable melodramas.

Mitchum rises even higher in his rich, natural, and humor-filled characterization of Paddy, the aimless Australian rover of Fred Zinnemann's glorious The Sundowners. The film (based on the Jon Cleary novel) concerns the various escapades Paddy, his loving wife, Ida, and their young son, Sean, encounter as they traverse about Australia seeking adventure and fortune during the 1920’s. At the heart of the film rests Ida's discontentment with their wandering ways, and her deep desire to settle down to a more normal domesticity. As Ida, Deborah Kerr is nothing less than brilliant and, as in their previous teaming in 1957's Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, the star has beautiful chemistry with Mitchum (they bring out the very best in each other, with Kerr showing an earthy, good-natured robustness seldom seen in her many "Perfect English Lady" roles, while Mitchum appears to gain greater range as an actor, which includes his adroit adaptation of an Australian accent as if he was to the manner born). Further enriching the film's assets is a great sheep-shearing contest, as well as the wealth of colorful characters the family befriends during their travels (Peter Ustinov and Oscar-nominated Glynis Johns are the two liveliest). Shooting on location all over Australia, Zinnemann perfectly captures the essence of the hardships and joys faced by this wayward ‘life on the road,’ and his seemingly unobtrusive, straightforward directorial style appears to free his actors. Simply one of the warmest, most captivating family films ever, The Sundowners is not to be missed. Five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director, and Actress, but, alas, no wins, although Kerr did receive the New York Film Critics' Best Actress prize, and Mitchum took home the National Board of Review's Best Actor Award for his work in both Hill and The Sundowners.

No details yet on the DVD specifics, but I’ll come back and post them (and they should be in the link) as soon as Warners reveals the specifics.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Stormy Weather Wisks Away the Blues

I finally got around to watching the Cinema Classics Collection DVD of 20th Century Fox's 1943's Stormy Weather, featuring one of the more fabulous casts to ever grace a musical. The story, involving a hoofer's (played by Bill Robinson) career and the beautiful singer he loves, is trite and really just there to set up the musical numbers, which turns into a major asset, as the slim plot allows a wealth of song and dance routines to be crammed into the 77-minute running time, and most of these numbers are nothing less than sensational, giving us a chance to see a who's who of remarkable African-American performers of the last century performing at the apex of their careers. Bill Robinson has his finest moment impressively triping the light fantastic atop a field of drums in the lively "African Dance" number, and he teams up with his costars for several other memorable musical interludes. As Robinson's intended, Lena Horne's tranquil sexiness, and mellow, soothing voice is shown to effective advantage in several numbers (including a smooth, classy take on "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby"), leading up to her signature rendition of the title song. With the exception of the seductive minx she portrayed the same year in Vincente Minnelli's very fine directorial debut, Cabin in the Sky, Horne was given little opportunity in her MGM films of this period to showcase her talents outside of performing a song or two in all-star Technicolor extravaganzas such as Thousands Cheer, Ziegfeld Follies, and Words and Music; it's interesting to see the star show a different side to her glamorous image during Weather's dialogue passages, wherein Horne comes across as warm, likable, and down-to-earth.

Adding further stature to the proceedings is the very considerable talent the studio pooled to support the leads. The great Fats Waller shows up to offer some witty asides while backing up blues great Ada Brown on "That Ain't Right"; the film hits an even higher peak shortly thereafter when Waller magnificently puts over a little ditty of his own, "Ain't Misbehavin’.” No less than Dooley Wilson is on hand as Robinson's loyal best friend, while Cab Calloway appears during the latter portion of the film to persuade the gone-Hollywood Robinson to come back to the stage, but it's Calloway who nearly steals the show with his famous kinetic energy and "Hi-Di-Ho"-style wailing during his remarkable scat renditions of "Geechy Joe" and "Jumpin' Jive." However, I say "nearly" because, just when you think nothing can top Calloway's show-stopping swinging and Horne's sultry, dramatic rendition of "Weather" (which features an interesting routine by Katherine Dunham and her dancing troupe), Calloway moves out to the dinner club audience during "Jive" and greets the Nicholas Brothers at a table. As they did while dancing to "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo" during the closing moments of 1942's Orchestra Wives, the two dynamic performers wrap up the movie in flabbergasting fashion with their don't-try-this-at-home acrobatic elegance. While jumping up, down, and all around a staircase, then flying high over each other to land in a split position that might cause even Gene Kelly (the brother's partner in The Pirate's superb "Be a Clown" number) to log some recuperation time in a hospital, this amazing duo keeps topping themselves as one stupendous feat follows another, while the audience witnesses the brother's unbelievable accomplishments in stunned, overwhelmed appreciation. After saving the best for last, the stars briefly take their final bows during the film's happy ending.

For sheer entertainment value and talent on display, few musicals match the glories found in Stormy Weather. It's a must for aficionados of any of the host of legendary performers displayed to great advantage, or for those who simply want to spend an extremely pleasant hour and a half (or so) viewing truly great artists performing more than a dozen terrific songs and numbers. The DVD features a fine B&W print of the film, audio commentary by Dr. Todd Boyd, an inserted booklet providing information on the movie's incredible cast, and a reproduction of four lobby cards from the film's original release. Don’t get caught in the rain and miss out on the fun- spend some time with Stormy Weather today.