RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: October 2009

Sunset in El Dorado (Sept. 29, 1945)

SunsetElDoradoA lot of men were drafted during World War II. Roy Rogers was one of them. With a 1-A classification, he expected to be shipped out in the spring of 1945. Consequently, screenwriter John K. Butler (working from a story by Leon Abrams) came up with a script to showcase Rogers’s leading lady, Dale Evans. When V-E Day rolled around, however, the draft board exempted men over the age of 30 who had children, so Rogers never had to serve. Director Frank McDonald’s Sunset in El Dorado ended up starring both “The King of the Cowboys” and “The Queen of the West,” but Evans is still the central figure, and it’s a great showcase for her sunny persona.

The film begins in the present day. Evans plays a young woman named Lucille Wiley, who works for a company called “Worldwide Tours.” In the first scene, Lucille shows a filmstrip that illustrates everything visitors will see on their western tour package. As shots of a ghost town appear on screen, Lucille says, “And this is El Dorado, in its day a roaring boomtown. The Golden Nugget, El Dorado’s most famous, or infamous, fandango hall. In its day, it rivaled the halls in Dodge City or the notorious Barbary Coast. The legendary Kansas Kate was the feature attraction here. And what a colorful attraction she was.”

Although she has a good pitch, and Kansas Kate was Lucille’s grandmother, Lucille has never been west of Hoboken. In a fit of pique, she runs off on one of Worldwide’s tour buses, determined to see the little town of El Dorado. She’s having a grand old time, singing “Go West Young Man” with her fellow passengers (Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers), when her drippy fiancé Cecil Phelps, the president of Worldwide Tours (played by Hardie Albright), and her old-maid aunt Dolly show up to spirit her away. Cecil intends to marry Lucille immediately, in Yuma, but she desperately wants to see El Dorado.

Their car breaks down on the way, and any hope Cecil has of making Lucille his wife pretty much falls off a cliff when Roy Rogers and Trigger ride up to help. He finds Lucille, off on her own, and says to her, “Well, I’ve seen mirages before, but this is the first one that ever talked back. Are you a mirage?”

Trigger tows their car to the nearest town, which happens to be El Dorado. Once there, Lucille explores the remains of the Golden Nugget and discovers a painting of Kansas Kate hanging above the bar. She’s interrupted by an ornery old coot named Gabby (George “Gabby” Hayes) who’s been dropping by the saloon for 40 years to make sure nothing happens to the painting. As Lucille stares at the picture and fantasizes about what her grandmother’s life might have been like, the movie flashes back to the old west, but the narrative continues, as everyone has a counterpart. Evans plays Kansas Kate, Rogers continues to play that character called “Roy Rogers” he played in so many movies, Gabby plays his younger self, and Cecil the drip becomes Cyril the heavy.

The plot moves at a brisk pace, and hinges on the coded map to Gabby’s gold claim being stolen by a group of bandits. Roy suspects that Kate was behind the plan, especially since she originally told him she was a schoolteacher, not a saloon owner, in order to impress him.

After Roy slugs it out with the toughest guy in the bar, a heavy named “Buster” (Roy Barcroft), he takes over Buster’s position as Kate’s bodyguard. Apparently his first duty as her bodyguard is to perform “Belle of the El Dorado” with Kate and her backup singers in a fully choreographed number.

The romantic scenes between Rogers and Evans are, as always, sweet and believable. After they take a break from riding together, she asks him, “What I can’t understand is why you took this job in the first place, particularly when you thought I swindled old Gabby out of his gold mine.”

“That’s why I took the job, to find out if you did,” he responds.

“Did you find out yet?” she asks.

“Oh, just a hunch, that’s about all,” he says, chewing on a piece of alfalfa and smiling.

I won’t be giving anything away if I tell you that everything turns out all right for Roy, Dale, Gabby, and Trigger, both in their present-day incarnations and their rootin’ tootin’ old-west versions. The only question I was left with was, since Lucille looks exactly like Kansas Kate, her own grandmother, and Roy looks exactly like the old-west character “Roy Rogers” who presumably married Kate, does that mean that the modern-day Lucille and Roy are actually cousins? Well, probably not, but it couldn’t help but cross my mind.

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Sept. 21, 1945)

LesdamesduboisdeboulogneFrench film director Robert Bresson is famous for his use of non-professional actors. Prior to watching Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, I had only seen one Bresson film, Pickpocket (1959), whose protagonist was most certainly not a professional actor. He shambled through the proceedings like a man on a heavy dose of tranquilizers, his movements slow, his eyes haunted. It was an interesting film, and one I may watch again some day, but it didn’t move me.

It wasn’t always this way. Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, Bresson’s second film, features a cast of professional actors, and is based on a short novel by Denis Diderot with dialogue written by Jean Cocteau. The result is a polished and romantic film that completely engrossed me.

María Casares plays a haughty member of high society named Hélène who has long had a loosely defined relationship with a handsome gentleman named Jean (Paul Bernard). They may have other dalliances, but they are committed to each other, more or less. As the film begins, Hélène is on a date at the opera with a gentleman friend named Jacques (Jean Marchat), who warns her that Jean’s passion for her is cooling. When Jean later shows up at Hélène’s apartment, apologizing for having forgotten her birthday, Hélène tells him she would prefer they end their romance and become simply friends. She says this merely as a ploy, and she is devastated when he tells her he feels the same way, and leaves her apartment unperturbed by the momentous decision to end their affair. Left alone, she vows revenge.

The power of the film comes from Bresson’s ability to depict the emotions that rage behind placid exteriors. He is aided by Casares, whose performance is truly astounding. Without ever raising her voice or engaging in histrionics, she plays the “scorned woman” to the hilt. She is fascinating to watch, and sometimes even frightening. Part of the fascination comes from the fact that Jean and the young woman Hélène befriends, Agnès (Elina Labourdette), are unaware of how they are being manipulated by the cold Hélène. They are preoccupied with each other. More importantly, they are preoccupied with themselves, especially Agnès, who has a sordid past and doesn’t feel worthy of being loved by Jean. She hides her true self from him, but the longer she hides, the more devastating Hélène’s revenge will be.

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne is a film about the redemptive power of love and the corrosive allure of vengeance. Many modern viewers may find the social mores on display in the film outdated, but if they look past the surface, they may find that the world hasn’t changed as much as they think it has. The lives of the Parisian leisure class may look and feel very different from the lives of most people who view the film today, but the story Bresson tells is timeless.

Along the Navajo Trail (Sept. 15, 1945)

AlongTheNavajoTrailThere are no Navajos to be found in this run-of-the-mill Roy Rogers picture, or American Indians of any tribe, for that matter. The title comes from a popular song that was written by Dick Charles (a.k.a. Richard Charles Krieg), Larry Markes, and Edgar De Lange in 1945, and is sung by Rogers, Dale Evans, and the rest of the gang to close the picture. No, the only people of color in Along the Navajo Trail are Spanish-speaking Gypsies, who are portrayed in much the same way Mexicans were in Hollywood westerns except that they wear funny clothes, travel in wagons, and the men wear gold hoop earrings. They also provide George “Gabby” Hayes’s character with a series of comic interludes in which he attempts to cheat the Gypsies, and is in turn cheated himself. These horse trades don’t add much to the plot, but they do result in Hayes sputtering the memorable line, “I sure have gypped that gyppin’ Gypsy!”

In Along the Navajo Trail, Rogers plays a character named “Roy Rogers” who at first appears to be an itinerant cowpoke, but whom we later discover is a Deputy U.S. Marshal. Dale Evans plays a ranch owner named Lorry Alastair, and Hayes plays her foreman, Gabby Whittaker. Lorry is skittish about Rogers when he drifts onto her property, the Ladder A Ranch, and orders Gabby to run him off. She changes her tune, however, when she walks to his relocated campsite herself to kick him off her land, but he ends up singing to her under his tarp in the rain, making up a song as he goes, and asking her if she knows a girl’s name that rhymes with “Saskatoon.”

Lorry eventually finds the Deputy U.S. Marshal badge in his boot and realizes beyond a doubt that he’s one of the white hats. The black hats in Along the Navajo Trail are the representatives of the Santa Fe Drilling Company. There isn’t any oil on Lorry’s land, but the company needs to lay a pipeline through her property, and they’ll stop at nothing to do so.

Along the Navajo Trail is heavier on action than some of Rogers’s efforts, and it should please most fans of old B westerns. As usual, Rogers solves problems with haymakers and gunplay, but stops short of ever getting too bloodthirsty, since plot contrivances take care of the worst of the bad guys. The climax of the picture occurs when the final black hat loses control of his buckboard, and it flies over a cliff and he falls to his death (in the form of an especially noticeable dummy). Rogers rides to the edge of the cliff and surveys the destruction with the same look of mild disapproval one reserves for drunks puking in Dumpsters in the middle of the afternoon.

At the end of the picture, Rogers, Evans, and the rest of the cast gather to sing “Along the Navajo Trail,” and then they all live happily ever after. Or at least, their characters do. Rogers, Hayes, Evans, and Trigger would all be back exactly two Saturdays later, when Sunset in El Dorado was released into theaters.

The House on 92nd Street (Sept. 10, 1945)

House92ndStWhen The House on 92nd Street was released on DVD in 2005, it was as part of the “Fox Film Noir” collection. This is misleading, since it’s more of a docudrama than it is a noir. It’s a historically important film, however, since it was one of the first to feature location shooting for nearly all the exteriors, and one of the first to skillfully blend fact with fiction while presenting itself as essentially factual. (Charles G. Booth won an Academy Award for best original story for his work on this film.)

The House on 92nd Street stars William Eythe as Bill Dietrich, a second-generation German-American who becomes a double agent for the F.B.I., Lloyd Nolan as his contact in the Bureau, Agent George A. Briggs, and Signe Hasso as the leader of the spy ring, Elsa Gebhardt. The film is a fictionalized account of the F.B.I.’s 1941 operation against the Nazi spy ring led by Fritz Joubert Duquesne. It was one of the largest counterspy operations in U.S. history, and led to the conviction of 33 people. In reality, however, none of them were involved in anything quite as grand as the secrets of the atomic bomb, which is the MacGuffin in The House on 92nd Street. And the real Dietrich was not the all-American boy portrayed by Eythe. He actually was a German-born man named William G. Sebold who served in the German army during World War I but became a naturalized American citizen in 1936. Presumably the war was still too fresh in the minds of the American viewing public for them to accept a German as the hero of a picture.

This film also shows the beginnings of J. Edgar Hoover’s massive publicity campaign for the F.B.I., which he disguised as a simple display of information. In reality, of course, Hoover carefully controlled the information that the public saw about the F.B.I., twisting and distorting as necessary. A good example of this information control is a scene early in the film, in which we see an indoor enclosure the size of an airplane hangar, filled with filing cabinets. The booming voice of the narrator (Reed Hadley) explains that this is the F.B.I.’s collection of 100 million sets of fingerprints, a number that seems unlikely, given that the population of the United States was fewer than 140 million people in 1945. Were they counting each finger? The message, of course, is that there is no hiding from the F.B.I. If you commit a federal crime or spy for another nation, they will find you. (This was also the message of the radio show This Is Your F.B.I., which began broadcasting dramatizations of real federal cases on American Broadcasting Company stations in the spring of 1945, all with the cooperation of Hoover, who called it “the finest dramatic program on the air,” and “our show.”)

The House on 92nd Street was directed by Henry Hathaway, but much of its style can be attributed to producer Louis de Rochemont, who created the “March of Time” newsreel series. When he lacked the footage he wanted, de Rochemont would stage clever recreations, but his newsreels were presented as wholly factual. It’s important to keep in mind that American audiences were less savvy about media trickery in 1945. After all, it had only been six years since people tuned into Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast midway through the program and thought Martians were vaporizing people in New Jersey.

The House on 92nd Street begins with a compilation of actual footage of people entering and exiting the German embassy, which is interesting. Of course, the characters in this film watch a great deal of surveillance footage. Some of it is real, some is not. It’s not that audiences in 1945 didn’t realize that the film was a blending of reenactments and actual footage, it’s the overall message they were taking away from the film that was perhaps not completely accurate. For instance, in Thomas M. Pryor’s September 27, 1945 review of the film in the New York Times, he wrote the following:

Since the picture, produced by Twentieth Century-Fox with full cooperation from the F.B.I., was completed some months ago, the secret of the atomic bomb has been revealed. Now the picture carries a simple and restrained foreword explaining that the “Process 97″ which the Nazi agents are attempting to steal was in reality a part of the atomic bomb formula. It is to the producers’ everlasting credit that this information is not sensationalized in the film.

In reality, however, there is no evidence that there was a single “missing piece” of the atomic bomb process that spies were in danger of transmitting back to Nazi Germany. And of course, film by its very nature presents a sensationalized picture of reality.

Also, a big deal is made at the beginning of the picture that every person playing an F.B.I. agent, aside from the principals, is an actual F.B.I. agent. This, however, does not make what is depicted any more or less truthful than if they were played by actors, but it seems to.

The House on 92nd Street is not a bad picture by any stretch. Taken at face value, it’s tense and exciting. And director Hathaway, when not constrained by the documentary-style approach of de Rochemont, creates some great sequences, such as when Dietrich gets himself arrested just to get in touch with Briggs at the F.B.I., or the meeting between Dietrich and his co-conspirators at a waterfront dive. And the final shootout, which involves tear gas grenades and a surprising disguise, is fantastic. If you’re looking for a film that uses the framework of a docudrama to present a tense film noir, however, you’d be better off watching Anthony Mann’s excellent T-Men (1947).

Dead of Night (Sept. 4, 1945)

DeadOfNightDead of Night is a British anthology of horror stories with many layers and a cyclical story structure. The five segments are based on stories by H.G. Wells, E.F. Benson, John Baines, and Angus MacPhail. Each is great, but the way the stories are told and the way they are linked together is the most interesting thing about the film.

When Dead of Night begins, an architect named Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) is driven to an English country estate, where he has been hired for a reconstruction project. Once he arrives, and is introduced to the group of people in the living room, he experiences déjà vu. He claims to have dreamed the room and the people in it many times. He is able to predict certain things before they happen in the narrative. A psychiatrist named Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk) refuses to believe any of it, but Craig claims that he is being treated by the doctor, and works hard to dispel the doctor’s doubts. In between the stories that people tell, Craig presages disaster. Horrific events will come to pass, he keeps telling his fellow house guests.

Antony Baird tells the first tale. His character is a race car driver named Hugh Grainger who survives a smash-up on the track, but soon after has disturbing visions of a hearse driver who appears in different guises, but always at a quarter after four, and always speaking the words, “Just room for one inside, sir.” This story provides the template that was followed by every Final Destination film, and it does so in less than seven minutes.

The second story is about a young woman named Sally O’Hara (Sally Ann Howes) who attends a Christmas party. While playing hide-and-seek with the other young people, she is found by a young man who hides with her, and claims that there was a murder committed in the house in 1860 by a mad young woman. Going off on her own, she discovers a passage into a child’s bedroom, where a little boy sits, weeping. He tells her about his older sister. She puts him to bed and sings to him. When she rejoins the party, she learns that the name the little boy gave her was the name of the boy who was murdered by his sister.

In the third story, a woman named Joan Cortland (Googie Withers) recalls buying a birthday present for her fiancé, Peter Cortland (Ralph Michael), a large mirror. He starts seeing strange things in the mirror, such as a room completely different from the one in which he is standing. Increasingly disturbed by her husband’s claims and his strange behavior, Mrs. Cortland tracks down the history of the mirror, and learns that its former owner was a wealthy gentleman who groundlessly accused his wife of infidelity. He murdered his wife, and then sat down in front of the mirror and cut his own throat. Will history repeat itself?

In the fourth story, the owner of the house, and the host of the party, Eliot Foley (Roland Culver), tells a comical ghost story about his two good friends, George Parratt (Basil Radford) and Larry Potter (Naunton Wayne), who were both avid golfers. Bitter rivals on the links, they were the best of friends at all other times, until they both fell in love with the same woman, Mary Lee (Peggy Bryan). They decide to settle things with an unfriendly game of golf. When the game is finished, one of them quite unexpectedly walks into a lake and drowns himself. The winner marries Mary, but is haunted by the voice of his late friend, destroying his golf game for good. (Radford and Wayne played comically sport-obsessed British gentleman in a number of films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 film The Lady Vanishes. Their alliterative pair of names changed from picture to picture, but the schtick was the same.)

In the final story, Dr. Van Straaten tells his own tale. He was once called to examine a ventriloquist named Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) who was accused of the attempted murder of an American ventriloquist, Sylvester Kee (Hartley Power). Frere’s dummy, Hugo, seemed to have a mind of its own, and threatened to leave Frere for a new owner, Kee. Dummies in horror movies had been done before, (e.g., The Unholy Three), but Dead of Night created a template that many films have used since.

Dead of Night was released on September 4, 1945 in London, and a little less than a year later in the United States, on June 28, 1946, in an edited version. Apparently the U.S. distributors felt that the film’s running time (103 minutes) was too long, so they cut out the golfing story and the Christmas ghost story, leaving only three stories. I can’t imagine seeing this film without them. The structure of the film is deliberate, and all the segments are tied together in a brilliant and surreal climax.

Isle of the Dead (Sept. 1, 1945)

IsleOfTheDead
Isle of the Dead (1945)
Directed by Mark Robson
RKO Radio Pictures

Director Mark Robson’s Isle of the Dead, which was produced by legendary horror filmmaker Val Lewton, takes place in Greece in 1912, during the First Balkan War. In it, Boris Karloff plays a cold and brutal general in the Greek army named Nikolas Pherides. Known as “The Watchdog,” Gen. Pherides is the kind of man who, when faced with an officer who has failed to complete an objective, hands the man a revolver with a single bullet in it and orders him to shoot himself.

When Gen. Pherides and some of his troops are garrisoned in a house on an island, the serving girl, Thea (Ellen Drew), refuses to pour him wine, because he once gunned down people in her district who refused to pay taxes. He confronts her in private. She denounces him for murdering people who were rebelling against unjust taxation. “Who is against the law of Greece is not a Greek,” he says. Not only is he a rigid interpreter of the law, he seems to take pleasure in wielding power. After his encounter with the girl, he tells another man, “When I went up there she wasn’t quite so impudent. She was frightened.” He says it with grim pleasure.

The next day, however, the island is faced with an outbreak of septicemic plague, and Gen. Pherides promises that the quarantine on the island will observed. Having the military, under the command of someone like him, available to enforce order falls under the category, “Be Careful What You Wish For,” and not surprisingly, there are complications. A woman named Mary St. Aubyn (Katherine Emery), who is staying on the island with her husband (Alan Napier), suffers from attacks of catalepsy. Unable to refill her medication on the mainland, she falls into a catatonic state, is presumed dead, and is buried alive.

Compounding this horrific event is a superstitious old woman named Madame Kyra (Helen Thimig), who has the general’s ear. She convinces him that Thea, the young serving girl, is a vorvolaka, a harmful undead creatures from Greek folklore, roughly equivalent to the vampires feared in neighboring Slavic countries, although blood drinking is not something they seem to engage in. In the world of the film, the vorvolakas are sent by the gods to punish humans who offend them. The combination of the plague and the apparent death of Mrs. St. Aubyn gives Kyra’s mad proclamations a certain believability, and Gen. Pherides becomes convinced that Thea was responsible for Mrs. St. Aubyn’s “death.”

After Lewton’s phenomenal success with Cat People in 1942, RKO would give Lewton a title, a maximum running time, and a budget. Most everything else was up to him. He could have been handed a script called Zombie Gut Munchers and ended up making an eerie film about the Silesian weavers’ revolt of 1844 in Prussia that was more about poverty and oppression than it was about the living dead. Starting in 1945, however, the studio also forced Karloff on Lewton, a move he reportedly wasn’t immediately happy about, since Karloff was emblematic of the Gothic and increasingly corny Universal Pictures approach to horror films that Lewton actively resisted. Karloff was an exceedingly good actor, however, and his performances for Lewton are some of the strongest of his career. (Isle of the Dead was the first to start production, but shooting was suspended when Karloff needed to take time off for back surgery, and The Body Snatcher ended up being their first collaboration to be released into theaters.)

Like The Ghost Ship (1943), which was also directed by Robson and produced by Lewton, Isle of the Dead is a meditation on the abuse of power. Unlike The Ghost Ship, however, Isle of the Dead is not just a metaphorical title, and the film delivers some truly stunning and horrific scenes in its final reel. In fine Lewton fashion, Mrs. St. Aubyn is never shown inside her coffin, desperately clawing at the wood that imprisons her. A shot of the coffin sitting on a stone bier accompanied by her screams suffices. Later, the coffin is shown again, with water dripping on it. There is no other sound. The viewer is left to wonder whether or not the woman inside is still alive, being driven mad by the sound of the water.

There is a theory that some people who were buried alive in less scientifically enlightened times may have clawed their way out of their graves and shown up in town filthy and quite possibly raving mad, and that this phenomenon is what led to folk tales and legends about vampires and their ilk. Whether or not this ever actually happened, Robson and Lewton take full advantage of the concept to fashion a denouement that is not supernatural but that still ranks among the most horrifying depictions of a person rising from the grave ever depicted on film.

What leads up to it is sometimes stilted and slow-moving, although a second viewing reveals a lot of well-done foreshadowing. Like a lot of Lewton’s films, the symbolism in this film is overt. Gen. Pherides is known as “The Watchdog.” Several times in the film there are shots of a statue of Cerberus, the three-headed dog who stopped the souls of the dead from escaping Hades back across the River Styx. Which is exactly what the general does. There are many shots of water, and of decaying marble columns and balconies that hearken back to a more enlightened time in Greece.

At the end of the film, someone says of the general, “Back of his madness there was something simple, good. He wanted to protect us.” This is a charitable description that is not entirely supported by what comes before. Karloff’s portrayal of the general is not as overtly malevolent as other roles he has played, such as Cabman John Gray in The Body Snatcher, but he has few redeeming characteristics.

State Fair (Aug. 30, 1945)

StateFairState Fair was the first musical made specifically for film by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Their two previous musical collaborations, Oklahoma! and Carousel, were both stage productions. (Although both would eventually be made into films in the ’50s.) State Fair was based on a novel by Philip Stong that had previously been made into a non-musical film in 1933 with Will Rogers.

Margy Frake (Jeanne Crain) and her brother, Wayne (Dick Haymes), go to the Iowa State Fair with their parents (played by Fay Bainter and Charles Winninger) and their prize hog, Blue Boy. Margy and Wayne are both somewhat dissatisfied with their current significant others, and each find someone a whole lot more exciting at the fair; she a cavalier reporter played by Dana Andrews and he a flame-haired singer played by Vivian Blaine. Things go well for both, but can their love affairs outlast the fair?

Musically primitive and relentlessly cheery, State Fair injects life into its clichéd proceedings with charm, humor, and some cartoonishly outsized, Technicolor images of middle-American excess. And Andrews (who played the detective in the 1944 noir classic Laura) is rakishly charming, almost but not quite a thug, and always fun to watch.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 363 other followers