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Monthly Archives: August 2009

Hangover Square (Feb. 7, 1945)

Hangover_squareLaird Cregar’s is a sad story. A brilliant character actor, Cregar died in December of 1944 as a result of a crash diet that most likely included amphetamines. Cregar shed approximately 100 pounds in a short space of time in an attempt to reinvent himself. Reinvention is a hard business, and no more so than in the studio-controlled Hollywood of the ’40s. Firmly established as a towering, 300-pound, sympathetic (and often childlike) heavy, Cregar’s notion that he could shed his tonnage, get plastic surgery, and reinvent himself as a romantic leading man was delusional.

Hangover Square is a follow-up of sorts to The Lodger (1944), in which Cregar played a highly fictionalized version of Jack the Ripper. Both films were directed by John Brahm, and both feature sympathetic depictions of mentally ill characters who are compelled to kill. In Hangover Square, Cregar plays a composer named George Harvey Bone, a man who is struggling to complete his masterpiece (an effective if not totally convincing concerto composed by Bernard Herrmann, who also composed the film’s incidental music). However, Bone suffers from a bizarre condition that causes him to black out when he hears loud, discordant noises. In these fugue states he may or may not be committing murders. His energy and creativity are reinvigorated, however, when he meets a beautiful singer, played by Linda Darnell. Unsurprisingly, she leads him on and then does him wrong, which frays his last shred of sanity to the breaking point.

Hangover Square was based on a novel by Patrick Hamilton. The novel was published in 1941 and took place in the late ’30s. I’ve never read it, but apparently it’s a black comedy, and there’s a lot of thematic material about the rise of fascism in Europe. Not much of that stuff made it into the film. Originally the film was supposed to be set in the present day, but it was changed to the late Victorian era, presumably to capitalize on the success Brahm and Cregar had had with The Lodger. Both films are very good, and worth seeing, but Hangover Square is more of a mess than its predecessor. Herrmann’s score, as well as the music he writes that’s meant to be composed by Bone, makes the film feel very contemporary, and the Victorian setting isn’t handled very well. What Hangover Square does have going for it, besides Cregar’s performance, are a couple of incredibly striking scenes, both involving fire, that will stick with a lot of viewers.

It’s a shame that Cregar died when he did. He hadn’t even hit 30 when he passed away (although he could play much older). Even in minor roles he always made an impression. Had he lived, would he have been the gay (or at least gayish) Orson Welles? We’ll never know. In his last role, he’s not what anyone would call “svelte,” but the weight he had lost is noticeable. He appears diminished, haunted, and on the verge of being destroyed. It’s a masterful performance in a pretty good film, and one worth seeing.

Objective, Burma! (Jan. 26, 1945)

objective_burma_xlg
Objective, Burma! (1945)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

Errol Flynn was rejected for military service due to his enlarged heart, tuberculosis, morphine addiction, and bouts of malaria. But that didn’t stop him from making some kick-ass war movies.

Raoul Walsh, who made a number of fine films, directed this patriotic World War II action film starring Flynn as an Army Captain named Nelson. World War II junkies will enjoy the fact that Objective, Burma! features weapons, gear, and uniforms that are all original and accurate.

Of course, the story itself is not all that accurate. The British apparently objected when the film was released, since it took the basic story of an operation by British Chindits and retold it as an American operation. (Flynn, an Australian, seems to be playing an American in the film, though his accent is hard to place.) One of the producers, however, said that the film was also largely inspired by the 1940 film Northwest Passage, which took place during the French and Indian War. So, like a lot of Hollywood productions, it’s a war film that could just as easily have been a Western.

If you’re looking for historical accuracy (or, for that matter, Japanese soldiers who don’t look suspiciously Filipino and Chinese) look elsewhere, but if you’re looking for a gritty war movie that delivers the goods, Objective, Burma! fits the bill.

The Jade Mask (Jan. 26, 1945)

Phil Rosen directed this rather strange entry in the rather strange Charlie Chan series. The mystery writer Earl Derr Biggers created the Chan character as a Chinese-American, Honolulu-based police detective. The character was in some ways a corrective to “yellow peril” characters like Fu Manchu who represented only menace and danger.

Chan was a benevolent figure, but he was still a neutered, sycophantic “other,” the yellowface equivalent of the “good slave” archetype. The Swedish actor Warner Oland starred in a number of successful Chan films in the ’30s. I’ve only seen one of them, Charlie Chan in London, from 1934, and aside from the strange, stereotypical, “ah so” performance by Oland as a Chinese detective, the film is a typical drawing-room mystery with static camerawork and a predictable “whodunit” plot.

In 1938, Sidney Toler took over the role, and his portrayal of Chan (at least in the films I’ve seen) is more interesting than Oland’s Chan. He is less sycophantic to white authority and his humor has an edge. He’s still a white man in yellowface makeup, though, and the faux Confucian aphorisms are still stupid. Also, Mantan Moreland’s performance as Chan’s black driver, Birmingham Brown, is pretty stereotypical, and may offend modern viewers. Moreland is actually black and none of his scenes are meant to be mean-spirited, but a scene in which he outruns a moving car because he’s that afraid of ghosts is still kind of offensive.

Oh, and The Jade Mask is a seriously strange film aside from all the racist anachronisms. The plot concerns a scientist who has discovered a way to make wood as strong as steel. Naturally, the world’s superpowers want to get their hands on his secret, and his murder is what draws Chan in to the case.

This film has some great set pieces, such as corpses strung up and manipulated like mannequins, but there are a few things that are hard to figure out, such as the numerous billowing clouds of supposedly poisonous gas that the characters blithely stand around in while investigating the mystery. Oh, and Edwin Luke plays Chan’s “Number 4 Son,” and doesn’t make much of an impression.

I’ll Be Seeing You (Jan. 5, 1945)

I'll Be Seeing You
I’ll Be Seeing You (1944)
Directed by William Dieterle and George Cukor
Selznick International Pictures / United Artists

William Dieterle directed this film, which is a David O. Selznick production starring Joseph Cotten as a shellshocked Army officer on leave and Ginger Rogers as a prisoner on an eight-day furlough.

Based on a radio play called “Double Furlough,” I’ll Be Seeing You is bittersweet and beautifully acted. The nature of Rogers’s crime is not explained until well into the film, and Cotten’s mental condition is hinted at, but not made explicit until the viewer has gotten a chance to know the characters.

The film overall is great, but there’s one scene in particular that really stayed with me. Cotten and Rogers go to a flag-waving war movie and the camera stays on his face while the viewer hears the sounds of explosions, gunfire, and screaming. Cotten holds his hand to his chin, desperately trying to keep his composure during the date. It’s an upsetting scene, and it’s surprising to see such a realistic, sensitive portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder in a film made while American involvement in World War II was at its peak.

I’ll Be Seeing You beautifully depicts a fragile, growing romance between two likable people who each have something they desperately try to hide from the other. Not only is this a beautifully told love story, it’s also a great story about how hard it is to trust someone else, even when your happiness and sanity both depend on it.

The Mummy’s Curse (Dec. 22, 1944)

The Mummy’s Curse was the fifth and final installment in Universal Studio’s mummy series, which began with the Boris Karloff classic The Mummy, which was released in 1932.

The Mummy’s Curse picks up where the fourth film, The Mummy’s Ghost (July 7, 1944), left off, except that the swamp in which the mummy sank to his demise, along with the beautiful Ramsay Ames (the reincarnation of his lover, natch), has been moved from New England to the American South, which frankly makes more sense.

Unfortunately, the exotic, pillow-lipped Ames has been replaced with the rather plain, sharp-featured actress Virginia Christine. She’s not as alluring as Ames was, but the scene in which she slowly crawls out of the dirt is delightfully nightmarish.

Lon Chaney, Jr. returns as Kharis (the mummy) and again has little to do except slouch around while covered in dirty bandages. Given that he was fired from at least one set for falling off a horse drunk, it’s a safe bet that under all that makeup, with no lines to say, Chaney was three sheets to the wind during most of filming.

Fans of Universal horror don’t hold this film in particularly high regard, but I thought it was fun Saturday matinée viewing.

Murder, My Sweet (Dec. 9, 1944)

murdermysweetDick Powell was known as a song-and-dance man when he was cast as hard-boiled dick Philip Marlowe in this adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely.

He nailed the role by not overplaying it. It didn’t hurt that the script and direction were pretty good, too. Powell in Murder, My Sweet will never give Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep much competition, but he does a pretty good job.

This film marked a turning point in Powell’s career, too. At the age of 40, Powell was able to slough off the public’s perception of him and reinvent himself as a noir tough guy.

He would go on to star in film noirs like Cornered (1945), which, like this film, was directed by Edward Dmytryk, Johnny O’Clock (1947), To the Ends of the Earth (1948), and Pitfall (1948), among others, as well as two classic radio detective shows, Rogue’s Gallery, which premiered in 1945, and Richard Diamond, Private Detective, which premiered in 1949.

House of Frankenstein (Dec. 1, 1944)

house_of_frankensteinIn an effort to more deeply penetrate the pop culture of the 1940s and 1950s, I’ve been listening to radio shows and watching old movies pretty much in the order they were released. I’ve been doing this for awhile, but since we have to start somewhere, we’re starting on December 1st, 1944. World War II was in full swing in both Europe and the Pacific, and a little film called House of Frankenstein was released in theaters in the United States.

House of Frankenstein is 11 pounds of shit in a 5-pound bag. Seventy minutes just isn’t enough time for Boris Karloff as a mad scientist, Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf Man, John Carradine as Dracula, J. Carrol Naish as a sympathetic circus hunchback, and a whole lot of other stuff. I love all the horror movies from Universal Studios in the ’30s and ’40s, and this is a fun flick, but it’s all over the place, and never really finds its way. Recommended only if you’ve already seen Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter, The Wolf Man, Son of Frankenstein, Son of Dracula, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and several others that I can’t immediately recall. If that seems like a lot, it is. If after watching all of those movies you feel that all the combinations of monsters and madmen has already been done, you’d be right, but if you still feel like seeing it done, you could do a lot worse than this movie.

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