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Movie Crash Course: The Crowd

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Jumping back to 1928 for a silent film again!

After his 1925 film The Big Parade (discussed earlier) became a hit, director King Vidor was the darling of Goldwyn Studios.  After some careful thought about how to follow up his war film, he had an idea – isn’t the daily grind of everyday life kind of a war, too?

And thus, The Crowd. The “crowd” in the story is more of a metaphor for societal expectations, social customs, and the everyday pressures affecting all of us anonymous teeming millions, told via the story of one such anonymous ordinary guy.  We first meet “John Sims” (he could just as easily been “John Smith”) at the exact moment of his birth, in a small town on the 4th of July, in the Year Of our Lord 1900. His proud father declares that his son “will have every advantage” and that “he’s going to be someone the world hears from!”  The boy John takes this to heart, telling his schoolmates that “my Pop says I’m going to be someone big!” one day, right before his father dies suddenly, leaving John’s family bereft.

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But John’s self-confidence stays intact, and at 21 he heads for New York City, a headful of dreams and schemes and not so much in his pockets. He gets a desk job in short order (note: this is from the 1920s), and secretly steals moments to plot and plan his Get Rich Quick ideas, most of which involve writing slogans for advertisements.

John’s schemes work about as well as anyone’s, however – in the sense that usually, they fail. In the meantime, he meets the spunky Mary, marries her, has a couple kids, and all the while keeps promising that his ship is bound to come in any day now; but in reality, he’s stuck in a low-level desk job, they’re falling behind on bills, and they’re stuck in a cheap two-room apartment.  Even when John does get a modest success – finally selling a slogan to an ad company – the family suffers a personal tragedy, sending John into a tailspin.  Early on, John is the love of Mary’s life – but the film is surprisingly honest about how their trials often come close to splitting the pair up.

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The whole thing is amazingly and refreshingly ordinary – and at times, hit me uncomfortably close to home, like with the soul-stealing shots of John in his desk in a vast open-plan office (not naming names, but I’ve been stuck in many offices like that).  Vidor is honest and frank about how the mundanities of life – broken plumbing, squashed cakes, lids on milk jugs that refuse to open – can be just as frustrating and can sap just as much of your energy as the bigger tragedies like lost jobs and car crashes.  I was most impressed that the film doesn’t give us a happy, fairy-tale ending either; instead, after an uneasy argument, John and Mary decide to give themselves a bit of a break and see a vaudeville show. Their relationship is unclear, and so are John’s prospects; but they’re happy right now, at least….

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That last shot of them is actually one of a handful of scenes where Vidor plays up the “John as a single face in a teeming crowd” angle with some fantastic camerawork.  The first comes early on, as twelve-year-old John gets word of his father’s death; the camera is at the top of a long stairway in John’s family home, with a curious crowd huddled at the bottom.  John emerges from the pack and starts to slowly climb the stairs, gradually hiding the crowd behind him and taking focus.

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The office scenes all start with a shot of the whole sea of desks before singling out John’s; the first time we see it, we even get some introductory shots of the size and scope of the buildings around the office before panning all the way up the façade of a skyscraper and in through a window.

In one of the more famous and poignant sequences, John is hovering nervously at the sickbed of one of his children. While he waits for the doctor’s verdict, he starts insisting on quiet so that his child can rest – gently shushing other family members first, then running outside and trying to silence a team of fire trucks before finally facing down a huge crowd of people rushing after the trucks, futilely begging them for silence.

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The very last sequence stuck with me longest – John and Mary are at the vaudeville, their future uncertain, but they are together right now, and laughing. The camera gradually pulls out to take in more and more of the surrounding audience, with John and Mary fading in amid all the other people laughing at the show; we lose sight of them at the end, they’ve blended back in.  Initially this felt bleak – we realize we’re never going to know what happens to them – but then it reminded me that Vidor’s point was that ultimately, each one of the other people in that crowd had their own struggles they may be coping with, unbeknownst to anyone else around them.  It’s a visual expression of the saying, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

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Movie Crash Course: A Night At The Opera

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In my first year of college, I was part of a crowd that regularly hung out in my dorm hallways shooting the breeze. Another such hallway bum was Jeff, an enormous Marx Brothers fan; when he was in a mischevious mood, he’d do bang-on Harpo imitations. However, I hadn’t yet seen any of their films, and had to finally ask what he was doing. He explained, but was completely floored that I was Marx-Brothers Ignorant.

About three weeks after that conversation, I was puttering in my dorm room one Saturday when Jeff came by.  “Are you busy right now?”

“…No, why?”

He ignored my question. “Do you have anything going on today?  A test to study for or a date or anything?”

“No?”

“Good,” said Jeff eagerly. “You haven’t seen the Marx Brothers, and I need to fix that.  The moviehouse up the street is showing A Day At The Races and A Night At The Opera back-to-back. It starts in 20 minutes. Get your coat.”

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It was a perfect introduction to the Marx Brothers; A Night At The Opera, along with Duck Soupis one of their best-known works, and contains one of their best-known sequences – the “Stateroom Scene,” which sees fifteen people try to cram into a shipboard room the size of a closet.

But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.  This time around, Groucho is Otis B. Driftwood, business advisor to the wealthy widow Mrs. Claypool (the unflappable Margaret Dumont).  Mrs. Claypool is looking for an inroad into high society, and Driftwood has advised her to make a donation to New York’s Opera, then helmed by a Mr. Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman).  Gottlieb is eager to use the money to hire famed Italian tenor Rodolfo Lasspari.

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Lassparri is something of a jerk, however; he regularly beats up his dresser (Harpo), and is trying to hook up with the opera’s soprano, Rosa (Kitty Carlisle Hart).  Rosa’s heart belongs to a lesser-known, but equally talented, tenor in the chorus named Ricardo Baroni.  When Driftwood comes sniffing around the opera house, hoping to sign Lassparri for New York’s opera, Baroni quickly hires a family friend, Fiorello (Chico), as his manager and tries to get in on the action as well.  Harpo also ditches Lassparri in favor of Baroni.

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But Gottlieb only has eyes for Lassparri, and hires him and Rosa to appear in New York’s opera houses. After Baroni gives Rosa a tearful good-bye at the dock of their ship,  Fiorello manages to get Team Baroni on board after all – by stowing away inside Driftwood’s steamer trunk.  Driftwood is by now sympathetic to Rosa’s preference for Baroni, and agrees to champion him to Gottlieb as well.  Maybe they could interrupt Lassparri’s debut performance somehow….

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The script was a little more cohesive than Duck Soup, largely at the behest of producer Irving Thalberg, who was working with the Marx Brothers for the first time.  He’d pointed out that the previous constant-stream-of-jokes with a plot sort of mixed in was funny and all, but the jokes targeting the film’s “good guys” could be seen as off-putting.  He proposed an overall formula for the Brothers’ scripts on his watch:

  • There’s a romantic couple that Chico is friendly with and wants to help them.
  • Harpo is a put-upon underling who teams up with Chico.
  • There is extensive verbal wordplay between Chico and Groucho.
  • Jokes that come at the expense of another character should target the “villains” of the film.
  • There are musical numbers.
  • There’s a happy ending.
  • The whole thing is set in an eye-popping venue, like the opera, the circus, an exotic city, etc.

Fans of the total-anarchy version of the Marx Brothers objected, but I actually think it’s an improvement; the story leads the jokes, rather than the other way around.  The brothers are more consistent characters, rather than swinging from sympathetic to mean-spirited.  And there’s still plenty of chances for gags, such as the stateroom scene above (it was so good, Alex actually applauded), or with Chico and Harpo crashing the orchestra to mess with Lassparri.

The film uses a good deal of opera, understandably, but also adds two original songs – a love duet between Rosa and Baroni, and “Cosi Cosa”, a fanciful romp that takes place when Baroni, Chico and Harpo crash a spaghetti dinner down in the steerage part of the ship.  The “Cosi Cosa” sequence felt pretty superfluous, to be honest; but it gave Chico and Harpo a chance to show off their respective musical talents, with Chico doing a quick piano solo and Harpo….well, you know.

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By the way, Harpo comes by his name honestly; his solo was lovely.  And it felt utterly bizarre to see Harpo switch from the anarchic manic physical comedian to a sensitive ethereal musician.  And then right back to zany comedy guy.

On the whole, Thalberg’s new formula worked, especially for A Night At The Opera, which received some of the best reviews of the team’s career thus far.

The Movie Crash Course Blogathons!

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So hey!  Did you know that there are a lot of movie blogathons?  I just learned that.

Fortuitously, three films I’ve already reviewed would fit very neatly with three upcoming blogathons; I’m throwing my hat into the ring for each, and will definitely participate in future.  My first is this weekend’s Winter In July blogathon, featuring films with wintry settings (at least in part).  Technically Great White Silence took place in Antarctica’s summer, but I think it counts.

Watch for the next one (non-English films) in a couple weeks, and one on World War I in November.  …That last will be on the rolled-out new blog….when I roll it out sometime in August.

Movie Crash Course: The 39 Steps

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This project of mine may be like dating in a weird way. The 39 Steps is one of those movies where I can empirically recognize the quality, and intellectually I can appreciate the skill, but yet somehow…there’s no “x” factor that makes me swoon. Possibly because this is a thriller; I’m not a huge fan of that genre as a general rule.

I can appreciate the cleverer parts of the script, however – particularly that the woman who’s being put forth as the lead’s love interest actually doesn’t fall head over heels for him as quickly as she would have done in other films.

….But I’m getting ahead of myself a little.

The hero of our tale is Richard Hannay, a bloke in London on business who’s taking in the show at a music hall. During the performance, someone in the audience fires a gun, and in the ensuing panic, Hannay ends up thrown together with “Annabella Smith”, a beautiful and mysterious woman who takes one look at him when they’re safely outside and then informs him she’d like to come home with him.  A bemused Hannay agrees – but when they get up to his room, Smith quickly tells him she wasn’t looking for a pickup. Instead, she explains, she is a secret agent, trying to stop a network of spies from smuggling RAF secrets out of the country. The gunshots in the theater were meant for her, and she had to escape.

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Hannay is of course dubious – but then notices that there are a pair of men loitering on the sidewalk outside, staring up at his flat and trying to act a little too casual.  Smith decides the safest thing is to try to get a few hours’ sleep and hope the lurkers eventually leave; but just in case, she tells Hannay a few basics in case anything happens to her: she needs to meet with a man in Scotland for further instructions, she doesn’t know exactly what the spies are trying to smuggle out of the country, and the head of the spy ring she’s trying to bring down is missing the tip of one of his little fingers.  Okay, good to know.

…Especially when in the middle of the night, someone sneaks into Hannay’s flat and stabs Smith in the back.  She manages to stagger into the living room – Hannay has gallantly taken the couch to let her have privacy in the bedroom – and she gasps out the name of the town in Scotland where her contact lives, begging him to make contact for her. Then she collapses, leaving Hannay with a dead spy in his living room and two more outside his door.

Well then.

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After slipping past the spies, Hannay hits the road and has nearly reached Scotland when he learns that he is under suspicion for killing Smith. Sharp-eyed policemen spot him on the train, and he is barely able to evade them, fleeing desperately across moors and bribing farmers for help – and then realizes that the spy ring that killed Smith is now after him as well.

Despite her spending the night in Hannay’s flat, Smith actually isn’t the love interest the film is trying to throw at Hannay. Instead, the film tries to hook him up with “Pamela” – a stranger Hannay briefly meets on the train while trying to escape police. He sees her sitting alone in a compartment, barges in, and apologetically says he’s desperate – then locks lips with her, in an attempt to hide his face from oncoming police.  She understandably doesn’t take that well, pushes him away and tries to turn him over to the police.

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Pamela then disappears for most of the rest of the film; then, much later, when Hannay is trying to bluff his way through making a political speech (it makes sense in context, trust me), Pamela just so happens to walk in, see him there, and fetch the police again.  Except the men she fetches, unbeknownst to her, aren’t police, and insist that she should also come to the station too…

I’m afraid that Pamela’s chance presence at that political rally is one of the two plot wrinkles I had trouble with.  The other came earlier, with Smith’s initial stabbing; any spy would have assumed she’d told Hannay something, but they’d only killed her and not him.  Wasn’t there a chance that someone was still in the apartment? Why weren’t they?  I even pointed that out to Alex, who was watching this with me; he only said, enigmatically, that “those are very good questions to be asking.”  They weren’t answered, though, which bothered me – I was expecting some kind of a double-cross Mission-Impossible thing that never came.

Another thing I was expecting, however, was for Hannay to engage in some kind of sex scene – and was pleased to see that he didn’t.  He and Pamela are forced into being fugitives together and ended up sharing a room in a wee Scottish inn, and all they do is sleep. Most likely the reason was because of the Hays Code – but it was downright refreshing to see that the most physically intimate Pamela and Hannay get is for his hand to rest on her knee, and even then it’s only an inadvertent thing because they are handcuffed together and she’s trying to take off her stockings.  (Again – it makes sense in context.)

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Speaking of handcuffed – I’m feeling a bit shackled about the final twist I appreciated: the climactic scene where Hannay finally figures out what it is the spies are trying to smuggle out of the country, and more importantly, how. It’s a clever twist, but it would thoroughly be spoiled if I said anything. So I’ll say that if you see it…yeah, that’s a neat touch at the end, there, huh?

There are similar “neat touches” throughout the film – moments of gorgeous cinematography, clever bits of dialogue – all of which I can appreciate for their skill, even though they’re applied to a genre that I’m only lukewarm about.  As dates go, it was okay.

Movie Crash Course: Mutiny On The Bounty

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I’m afraid I approached Mutiny On The Bounty with a bit of a bias.  I did try to ignore it, though – to no avail.

Thirty (!) years ago, I was a drama student at New York University. One of my drama coaches was discussing being true to how your character would have “really felt” in a given situation, and as an example he pointed to Mel Gibson in The Bounty, which was the 1984 movie about this historic mutiny.  “If you watch the mutiny scene,” our coach said, “you can see that Mel Gibson looks terrified.  And that makes sense, because Fletcher Christian would also have been terrified at leading a mutiny.”  Then he scoffed – “Clark Gable, now, he just looked like he was trying to be heroic when he was Christian.  That wouldn’t be the case at all.”

There are other discrepancies between the 1984 Bounty and this one, as well; but this is no surprise, as the times were different as well.  The 1984 version was based on the historic account itself, while the 1935 version was based on a fictionalized version of events. No doubt the 1930s taste for escapism called for a story with much more thrilling heroics and an obvious hero and a clear-cut villain.

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And we certainly get a villain with Charles Leighton as Captain Bligh.  The very first time we see Bligh, he is on board the Bounty, warning his crew that he deals sternly with miscreants; as an example, they are all to witness the flogging of another sailor who struck an admiral.  But right as the sergeant is about to carry out punishment, he notices – the sailor is dead.  “…..Proceed with the flogging”, Bligh says drily.

Okaaaaaaay.

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By contrast, the first time we see Gable as Fletcher Christian, he is sauntering into a pub with a smirk, leading a press gang to draft a few unwilling sailors into the crew.  “We’ve got all the fish we need in one net!” he gloats, looking at the crowd in the pub. But just one scene later, he’s downright avuncular with one young draftee, offering him protection and urging him that “if anyone mistreats you, you come to me.”  And then just one scene after that he’s teasing the snooty know-it-all midshipmen on their first voyage by giving them a tricky pop quiz on navigational techniques.  And one scene later….

You get the idea.  The whole rest of the film is like that – Clark Gable bouncing from smirking rogue to frustrated leader to besotted lover to swashbuckling hero, while Charles Laughton is just uniformly mean throughout – barking orders, starving the crew, skimming off rations for his personal use, doling out floggings and keelhaulings and other punishments for the skimpiest of offenses.

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And as if that all didn’t make it very, very obvious where our sentiments are supposed to lie, we get a completely imagined scene towards the end with Roger Byam (himself a completely imagined character); Byam was swept up in the mutiny and later caught; at his court-martial, he explodes, giving the court a lengthy and vitriolic accounting of All Of The Reasons Captain Bligh Sucked.  (Most of which we’ve already seen.)

There are a few other bit parts, all of them a little one-note – the young draftee Christian takes under his wing, who just wants to get back to see his wife and baby boy again.  The ship’s doctor, who’s blitheringly drunk most of the time and dispenses booze as medicine, but who looks out for the men and tries to keep them in good spirits.  The sailors who signed on to dodge prison sentences and now suspect they made the wrong choice. It’s obvious from the first what we’re supposed to think of each character when we meet them, and everyone falls neatly into one trope or another throughout.

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Yikes – I sound like I’m thoroughly trashing the film.  It wasn’t that bad; not my absolute favorite, no, but not terrible.  However, even though I was trying to ignore what my old drama coach told me, Clark Gable was just plain getting on my nerves throughout the whole thing – he felt more like he was trying to Look Heroic than play a part.  Even at the very end, when he’s in a weird sort of Pirates Of The Caribbean costume looking hunky while the rest of the mutineers all are thin and scruffy – Clark Gable is clearly trying to just be Hunky Clark Gable, and I don’t buy it.

Movie Crash Course: Judge Priest

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So. I got through Limite just fine – I didn’t understand a lick of it, but watched it all the way through.  Five different Soviet expressionist films – same thing, I was confused and bored but kept watching. Even Un Chien Andalou – I covered my eyes at the icky bit, but still watched.  Judge Priest therefore has earned a dubious honor – it is the first film in this project I seriously considered turning off halfway through.

Not because of the quality, mind. It’s shot well enough, and even enjoys a couple of cute “special effects” touches.  The talent assembled is also impressive – an Oscar winning actress appears here in her first role, a renowned director is also on board, a famed comedian stars, and a star reporter is trying his hand at the script. They all ply their craft well enough.

The problem is that they are all working to support one of the most ridiculous, pandering, illogical, hokey, and all-around insulting scripts I’ve ever seen in my life (and I used to run a playwriting contest, so I’ve seen plenty of insulting scripts).   Characters’ motivations are inconsistent, the rule of law is subverted by a judge, an entire class of people is belittled, and there is a running gag involving a spittoon that somehow manages to subvert laws of physics.  And the whole thing ends with a yay-Confederacy Stars-and-Bars flag-wavy sequence at a parade (and pandering to Confederate sympathies is actually what drives the happy ending).

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The whole thing is set in a small Kentucky town in the 1890s.  Will Rogers plays Billy Priest – a beloved but irreverent judge, whom the film’s introduction states is renowned for his common sense and tolerance, and who in the first scene is presiding over the trial of a man accused of stealing a chicken. The prosecuting attorney is a former state senator; but during the trial, Priest is flat-out ignoring his opening arguments in favor of reading the funny papers. Our defendant “Jeff Poindexter” is played by the controversial comedian Stepin Fetchit.  Or, to be accurate – mumbled by Stephin Fetchit.  I swear I only understood five of the words that Poindexter babbles out in his own defense in this scene; and that’s only because Priest (who’s put down his paper long enough to pay attention) has engaged him in conversation – about the appropriate bait to use while catfishing. After hearing Poindexter’s secrets, Priest dismisses the case to fish with him.  We never hear anything about the trial again.

That is only the first five minutes.

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The film has two interrelated “subplots” – the first involving Priest’s nephew Jerome, newly returned from law school “up North”. He’s just been newly appointed to the bar and has returned home to begin a practice, and to win the hand of his longtime sweetheart Ellie Mae. But Jerome’s mother Caroline disapproves of the match because Ellie Mae has an unclear parentage; she is the daughter of an unmarried woman who died in childbirth, and Caroline is afraid Ellie Mae’s father might not be respectable enough.

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But Priest soon suspects that Ellie Mae’s father is the town blacksmith Bob Gillis – a loner he sees visiting the grave of Ellie Mae’s mother one evening.  Priest is also present when Gillis is at the barbershop and overhears some men leering over Ellie Mae, joking that since she’s fatherless, there’s no risk of a shotgun wedding.  So they can have their way with her scot-free! (The true horror of that notion, which I somehow missed during viewing, has just dawned on me now – yeccch.) Gillis punches them and leaves, they attack him later in revenge, someone is badly hurt and Gillis is accused of assault. Jerome is appointed his defense attorney, and Priest is asked to recuse himself from presiding over the trial – but not because of Jerome.  No – he’s forced off the trial because he sided with Gillis in the barbershop.  But no worries – he finds a way to sway the trial anyway, by sauntering in on the second day and announcing he’s associate defense lawyer, by persuading the town priest to betray a confidence, by sending anonymous letters to the prosecution, and by paying off Poindexter to play “Dixie” outside the window at a pre-arranged signal to sway the jurors’ emotions.  Gillis was a war hero, you see. (He’d also been on a chain gang, but let’s not dwell on that!)

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Priest’s “tolerance” is manifested through hiring Poindexter for odd jobs like this, and by singing with his maid “Aunt Dilsey” – played by Hattie McDaniel, in an early role. Singing is pretty much all McDaniel is called upon to do, actually – she sings a spiritual at a church social, she sings Stephen Foster songs while cleaning Priest’s house, she even sings about doing Priest’s laundry while engaged in said act.  Her few non-musical scenes all involve cooking or food, like a moment where she defends a batch of donuts from Poindexter’s grasp (he retaliates by stealing some whiskey instead). But otherwise, she’s no more than a walking jukebox Priest harmonizes with occasionally.

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Not that Fetchit fares much better. Aside from the trial, and playing “Dixie”, he’s reduced to being Priest’s errand boy.  Whenever he’s not fetching and carrying he’s hovering close by Priest – in some scenes literally sitting at Priest’s feet, like a faithful dog.  At least they have occasional conversations – Rogers and Fetchit, both veterans of the vaudeville circuit, would sometimes ad-lib during their scenes, to the great frustration of director John Ford. But they were jokes (at least in theory) so they stayed in.

To paraphrase Roger Ebert:  I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated every simpering stupid biased illogical pandering moment of it. Hated the producer that thought there would be an audience for it. Hated the realization that there no doubt was an audience for it.

Most of all – I hated the realization that there most likely still would be an audience for this film today, that there would be those who overlook abuses of the law and write off character flaws on the basis of tribalism and sentiment, that there would be those who are blinkered to its caricaturizing, that there would be those who see this as a nostalgic look at “the good old days”.

I could not get this disc out of my DVD player fast enough.  If I had good enough aim I would be forgoing the postal system and hurling this back to Netflix like a frisbee, just for the sheer satisfaction of throwing this movie as far as possible.

Movie Crash Course: The Black Cat

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1934 was a big heyday of classic horror films, with two big “names” representing the genre; Bela Lugosi, who’d earned his big break as Dracula, and Boris Karloff, who’d played both the Monster in Frankenstein and the title role in The Mummy.  Studios were discovering that there was a wealth of horror writers to draw inspiration from, as well – Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, H.G. Wells…Universal Studios therefore thought that putting both Karloff and Lugosi together would be a sure thing.  And as for the script? Say, no one’s done a big-budget adaptation of anything by Poe, have they?  Perfect.  They selected one of Poe’s short stories, The Black Cat, secured Karloff and Lugosi’s commitment, and turned everything over to fledgling director Edgar Ulmer.

…Things…didn’t exactly go as the studio planned.  Ulmer quickly vetoed most of the scripts, and the Poe story – it wouldn’t be filmable, he argued, as it was more of a psychological tale.  He had a point – Poe’s Black Cat is very similar to The Tell-Tale Heart, with an unreliable narrator who commits a crime and then is driven by his own guilt to confess. Instead, Ulmer went with a script that included more eye-catching elements – things like, oh, necrophilia, torture by flaying, ailurophobia, and Satanic ritual sacrifice.

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There’s a more serious story buried in there, however; one of revenge, betrayal, and lingering fallout from the First World War. Lugosi is Dr. Vitus Werdegast, a Hungarian psychologist who’s been at a P.O.W. camp in Siberia for the past 15 years and is finally free.  He’s traveling back home to confront his former Commanding Officer, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff); during the war, their unit was stationed at a fort in the Hungarian countryside, but Poelzig double-crossed his unit and betrayed the fort to the enemy, leading to an enormous massacre and Werdegast’s capture.  While Werdegast was in Siberia, Poelzig became a renowned architect, married Werdegast’s newly-abandoned wife, and built himself a lavish Art Deco mansion on the ruins of the fort.  So Werdegast has a bit of a bone to pick.

But fate throws a pair of wild cards into his plan – Peter and Joan Allison, a honeymooning American couple he meets on the train. Their onboard chat is amicable enough (even though Werdegast is a bit creepy), so the Allisons offer Werdegast a lift in the shuttle bus that’s taking them from the train station to their hotel.  Poelzig’s mansion is on the way, they can easily drop him off!…However, as they approach the mansion, the bus driver starts to play tour guide, relating the story of the doomed fort; he gets so caught up in the tale that he crashes the bus, right down the road from Poelzig’s mansion. Werdegast has no choice but to drag the Allisons with him when he arrives for his confrontation with Poelzig.

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The presence of the Allisons does some interesting things to the story. Poelzig immediately knows what Wergegast wants when he shows up – but since the Allisons are there, both he and Wergegast have to play it cool.  And they always seem to be underfoot – Joan has suffered some injuries in the crash, and Werdegast keeps having to tend to her, and every time the old rivals are about to finally confront each other, Peter wanders into the room all, “What’s up, guys?”  Our leads are thus prevented from making any big histrionic speeches, and end up communicating solely in Meaningful Looks for most of the film.  This works to the film’s advantage – Lugosi’s accent can be difficult to parse when he gets excited, and Karloff can loom really intimidatingly.

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Joan’s presence also gives Poelzig some ideas.  For we discover he’s not just a traitor – he’s got a couple of other eensy bitty issues, like a fetish for possessing beautiful women.  Literally – at one point Poelzig heads down to the basement where he has a collection of what look like mannequins in glass cases.  Except they maybe aren’t mannequins….and at another point, we see him thoughtfully reading a passage from a book about “Luciferian Worship”, lingering on the page concerning “sacrificing a maiden woman.”  Hmmm.

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The Black Cat comes across like an intriguing mix of B-movie cheese and psychodrama; the creepy mansion and evil Satanic sacrifice stuff is overwrought and lurid, but is played subtly for most of the film, as much a part of the subtext as is the World War backstory.  The Allison’s involvement could even be a comment on the trope of busybody Americans blundering around Europe as naïve tourists.  It’s a lot to take in – and can feel at first like it can’t make up its mind what kind of film it wants to be.  The Black Cat didn’t do all that well at the box office as a result; but the subtext can lead to some intriguing after-the-fact insights.

Happily, Lugosi and Karloff got on well together, and collaborated on another six films, including two Frankenstein sequels.