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Monthly Archives: November 2012

Canon City (June 30, 1948)

Crane Wilbur’s Canon City is a low-budget entry in the docudrama genre, a genre that began in 1945 with the Louis de Rochemont-produced espionage melodrama The House on 92nd Street and enjoyed enormous popularity in post-war Hollywood.

Docudramas were dramatizations of actual events that featured actors but that strove for authenticity by filming in actual locations, using real documents in key scenes, and featuring participants in the case playing themselves in bit parts.

After The House on 92nd Street followed more fact-based spy thrillers like 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) and The Iron Curtain (1948), and legal docudramas like Boomerang (1947) and Call Northside 777 (1948).

Some films, like Kiss of Death (1947), T-Men (1947), and The Naked City (1948), were mostly fictional, but were presented in a docudrama fashion and filmed on location to add authenticity to otherwise run-of-the-mill crime stories.

Canon City uses a combination of docudrama techniques. It begins in a straightforward documentary style, and slowly draws us into the fictional world of its incarcerated protagonists. The obligatory scroll of text that opens the film informs the viewer that all events depicted in the film are based on actual events that took place in and around the Colorado State Prison in Canon City on the night of December 30, 1947. (Canon City is pronounced “Canyon City,” and is sometimes spelled Cañon City.) It goes on to say that the convicts shown in the film are the actual convicts involved in the case, and that Roy Best, the warden of the prison, plays himself. Finally, we are told that “the details of the break are portrayed exactly as they occurred and were photographed where they happened.”

Reed Hadley narrates the opening in his signature style (docudramas provided a lot of work for Hadley). He describes the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City as “a home for those who like to have their own way too much, and have taken forbidden steps to achieve their aims. All kinds are here; murderers, kidnappers, thieves, robbers, embezzlers.”

Warden Best and the disembodied voice of Hadley lead the viewer on a tour of the prison, introducing the variety of work that the prisoners do and conducting short interviews with actual inmates of various types; a man soon to be paroled, an old man who’s been doing time since 1897, a 14-year-old murderer sentenced to 20-30 years who’s working on a hooked rug in the art shop, and a murderer whose death sentence was commuted to life by the warden, and who now hopes to be paroled in 1949.

We then see the process of nighttime lockdown, and at the 9-minute mark of the film Hadley’s narration introduces the viewer to a pair of inmates with adjoining cells: Jim Sherbondy, a 29-year-old inmate who was sentenced at the age of 17 for killing a police officer, and Johnson, a long-termer who is working on the model of a ship. (His real work — a zip gun — is hidden behind the ship. He’s part of a plan to break out.)

Hadley’s narration doesn’t stop after Sherbondy and Johnson are introduced, and the film continues in a semi-documentary style, but the introduction of these two characters marks the moment when the film moves from fact to fiction. Remember that opening text from the beginning of the film I mentioned? The one that said “The convicts you will see are the actual convicts”?

Well, this was clearly a lie, since Sherbondy and Johnson are both played by actors, not actual convicts. This is par for the course, though. Despite what they invariably claimed, docudramas in the ’40s usually had a tricky relationship with the truth.

I couldn’t figure out who the uncredited actor who plays Johnson is (if you know, please comment on this review), but Sherbondy is played by Scott Brady, the younger brother of notorious tough-guy actor Lawrence Tierney. (Lawrence Tierney and Scott Brady’s youngest brother, Edward Tierney, who turned 20 years old in 1948, also had a career in the movies starting in the ’50s.) Brady was born Gerard Kenneth Tierney, and Canon City was his first major film acting role, and the first film in which he was credited as “Scott Brady.” (His first appearance was a small role in Sam Newfield’s 1948 film The Counterfeiters, in which he was credited as “Gerard Gilbert.”)

Brady bears an uncanny resemblance to his older brother, but his face is a little softer and more innocent-looking, which works well for his role in Canon City. Sherbondy is a reluctant participant in the breakout. He has a job in the prison’s photography shop working in the darkroom, which is the perfect place for the conspirators to hide a load of zip guns, since the darkroom requires guards to wait outside until it’s safe to turn the lights on and open the door.

I wonder if anyone who saw Canon City during its initial theatrical run noticed Brady’s resemblance to Lawrence Tierney, or if there were any astute viewers who noticed the slim, bespectacled Whit Bissell and said to themselves, “Hey, wasn’t that guy in Brute Force?”

I also wonder how many viewers didn’t specifically recognize any of the actors but were able to tell that they were watching actors and not the actual participants in the case. And if they did, did they feel cheated after the opening claim of total and complete veracity?

I wonder these things because I do think that Canon City is remarkably skillful in the way it draws the viewer in and the way it manages to feel raw and real throughout. A little before the half-hour mark, the breakout kicks into high gear with an assault on a guard and a furious rush to fit all the pieces of the plan together. For nearly an hour, Canon City is as tense a picture as one could ask for. A dozen men pour out into a snowy night, disguised as prison guards. The prison alarm tolls throughout the small town. Terrified moviegoers swarm out of a theater whose marquee shows the Abbott and Costello comedy The Noose Hangs High (which wasn’t released until the spring of 1948, incidentally) and people on the streets rush to get home. But home offers no solace, as the convicts break into house after house looking for shelter, food, and weapons.

The cinematographer of Canon City was John Alton, who was responsible for brilliant work on many film noirs (most notably his collaborations with Anthony Mann). There aren’t a lot of memorable “noir” setups in Canon City, but overly stylized lighting wouldn’t have fit with the docudrama approach to the material. The darkness and the driving blizzard are terrifying enough filmed in a straightforward fashion. Canon City is the kind of movie where the cold gets into your bones just watching it.

Canon City is a film that is dated in many ways, but it still packs a punch if you can go along with the semi-documentary style. Writer-director Crane Wilbur gets the most out of his limited budget by filming inside the prison and in the rugged beauty of the southern Colorado landscape around Cañon City, and the pacing is swift and brutal once the breakout occurs.

Oh, and if you’re a Star Trek fan, keep your eyes peeled for a young DeForest Kelley as one of the dozen escapees.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (June 15, 1948)

There are two schools of thought regarding Charles Barton’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

On the one hand, it was the final nail in the coffin of the increasingly moribund Universal monster series. If you’re a horror purist, then Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein represents the nadir of Universal Studios’ monster movies.

On the other hand, if you’re someone who loves horror-comedies, then Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein represents one of the best-known and most enduring films in the genre.

It wasn’t the first horror-comedy. Paul Leni’s silent film The Cat and the Canary (1927) was the cornerstone of Universal’s horror machine, and it had plenty of comedic elements. James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) is both scary and incredibly funny, which is not an easy mixture to pull off.

And the practice of throwing comedians into a horror-movie scenario didn’t start with this film either.

The Ritz Brothers were paired with Bela Lugosi in The Gorilla (1939), and Bob Hope and Paulette Godard starred together in a remake of The Cat and the Canary (1939) and the horror-comedy The Ghost Breakers in (1940).

So by the time Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was released, not only were horror-comedies an established part of the box-office landscape, but Universal Studios had firmly demonstrated that they had run out of ideas beyond the “mix and match” approach, which gave us Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), and House of Dracula (1945), each one more campy and silly than the last. (And the last “straight” monster movie that Universal released in the ’40s — Jean Yarbrough’s 1946 film She-Wolf of London — was pretty dull.)

My main problem with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is that I don’t find Abbott and Costello funny. The duo started in vaudeville, and every comedic set piece in their films feels to me as if it needs to be watched in the midst of an easily amused, wildly guffawing audience for the full effect. Watching their films at home just doesn’t work for me. (I felt the same way about Mel Brooks’s 1974 horror-comedy Young Frankenstein when I rented it years ago. After hearing for most of my life that it was one of the funniest movies ever made, I was shocked by its obvious jokes, its incredibly slow pacing, and the way Gene Wilder mugged for the camera. The problem, I think, is that the jokes are timed to allow for a large audience to rock with laughter before the next joke is dropped. If you’re watching it for the first time alone, however, it can feel awfully slow.)

As a nearly life-long aficionado of Universal monster movies, I appreciated the look of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The film is set in Florida, and the sets are an effective mix of castle-like structures and steamy swamps. I also enjoyed seeing Bela Lugosi reprise his most famous role — Dracula. John Carradine played the Count in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, and he was fine, but there’s no beating Lugosi. And it’s always fun to see Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot, a.k.a. The Wolf Man.

I also liked that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein wasn’t overloaded with characters. Lugosi performs a kind of double duty. As Dracula, he turns into a bat and bends people to his will, but he’s also a mad scientist, scheming to bring Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) back to life to do his bidding. (The gag is that he plans to use the brain of Lou Costello, one of the dumbest characters in the history of cinematic comedy.)

Despite its classic Universal-horror look, there’s really nothing scary about Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The director, Charles Barton, was a hard-working journeyman who had a lot of experience directing comedies and none directing horror. But the special effects do look really good. The main thing that stood out for me was Dracula’s transformations into a bat, which look much better here than they did in Dracula (1931). In Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein the transformations are achieved with a mixture of hand-drawn animation and puppetry. Still, I’ll take the eerie power of the original and its rubber bat on a string over an Abbott and Costello horror-comedy any day.

Shed No Tears (June 9, 1948)

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times … only a chump fakes his own death.

And yet, that’s exactly what Sam Grover (Wallace Ford) does in the very first scene of Jean Yarbrough’s Shed No Tears. He sets fire to his hotel room and leaves a cadaver behind as he sneaks out the back way. It’s all part of a scheme he’s cooked up with his wife Edna, an icy blonde played by June Vincent, whose best-known film noir performance was probably in Roy William Neill’s Black Angel (1946).

Edna is as young and beautiful as Sam Grover is middle-aged and schlubby. When an old woman on the bus sees Sam looking adoringly at a picture of Edna, she asks him if it’s a picture of his daughter. “My granddaughter,” he responds with a sigh.

If you’ve ever seen a B noir before, you’ll know that Edna’s up to no good before Sam even kicks over the flaming wastebasket in his hotel room, but all doubt is erased a few minutes into the film when Sam scurries off to hide out and Edna falls into the well-muscled arms of her handsome young boyfriend Ray (Mark Roberts, listed in the credits as “Robert Scott”).

The plot thickens when Sam’s adult son, Tom (Dick Hogan), suspects foul play and engages the services of a slippery and pompous private investigator named Huntington Stewart (Johnstone White). Meanwhile, Sam grows restless in hiding and gets itchier and itchier as he waits for Edna to come through with the insurance dough for his “death.”

Shed No Tears is based on the novel by Don Martin. Its dialogue is heavy on exposition, but the editing and visual storytelling are tight. The acting by everyone except the always dependable Wallace Ford is merely passable, with Dick Hogan’s stilted performance qualifying as the most egregious. I suspect that he was cast more for his cute little face than for his acting ability. Incidentally, this was one of Hogan’s last roles. After Shed No Tears he would go on to appear in the Alan Ladd vehicle Beyond Glory (1948) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), in which he played the murder victim.

Shed No Tears never rises above the level of a B-movie programmer, but for what it is, it’s an entertaining 70-minute melodrama. It’s in the public domain, and there’s an OK-looking DVD available from Alpha Home Entertainment that was transferred from a 16mm print. There are also a few versions currently streaming on YouTube:

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (June 4, 1948)

I don’t know about you, but comedies like H.C. Potter’s Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House really stress me out.

When the subject of “things I could never laugh at” comes up, most people think of things like the death of a beloved family pet or ethnic cleansing, but while I don’t find either of those subjects fertile ground for comedy, one subject stands above all others as something I can never laugh at — chasing good money after bad.

I don’t know if Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is the first comedy in which most of the “comedy” involves someone making terrible decision after terrible decision and throwing vast sums of money into a disastrous project, but it’s one of the best-known and most well-loved.

The first movie like this I saw was the 1986 Tom Hanks “comedy” The Money Pit, which even as a kid I found stressful and unfunny.

The second was the Joe McDoakes “comedy” short So You Want to Move (1950), in which every bad decision the main character makes and every accident he has is flashed on screen in dollar amounts. As the one-reeler continues, and he drops things and crashes into things, his financial responsibility grows and grows. As an argument for using professional movers, So You Want to Move is a persuasive infomercial, but as a comedy it’s totally devoid of laughs. At least for me.

At least Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is enjoyable in the early going, and stars Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, who previously starred together in Wings in the Dark (1935) and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), and who are both attractive, charming, and a lot of fun to watch.

Grant plays Jim Blandings, a college graduate who lives in Manhattan, works in advertising, and makes about $15,000 a year. We learn all this from the film’s omniscient narrator, who also calls Mr. Blandings a “modern-day cliff dweller,” since he lives in a high-rise apartment building with his beautiful wife Muriel (Myrna Loy), their two daughters, and their housekeeper Gussie (Louise Beavers).

Here’s a case where inflation doesn’t tell you everything, since $15,000 is roughly $145,000 in 2012 dollars, but I don’t think even that salary today would be nearly enough to support a wife who doesn’t work, two kids in private school, and a Manhattan apartment big enough to fit a family and a live-in servant.

Granted, the Blandings live in cramped quarters. Everything in their apartment is full to bursting and ready to explode like Fibber McGee’s hall closet, and as the narrator tells us, “just getting shaved in the morning entitles a man to the Purple Heart.” But that’s just Manhattan living, folks. Even for the relatively well-to-do.

One day Mr. Blandings is enticed by a brochure from a Connecticut real estate firm that encourages him to “trade city soot for sylvan charm.”

I can’t even talk about what happens next. It’s just too painful.

I will say this, however. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House was funny enough to entertain even someone like me, and Mr. Blandings is presented as just enough of a screwball idiot to make his terrible decisions a little easier to laugh at. For instance, when his lawyer Bill Cole (Melvyn Douglas) asks what his engineer said about the foundation of the house he just purchased, Mr. Blandings responds, “Who needs engineers? This isn’t a train, you know.”

Up in Central Park (May 26, 1948)

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I have a special place in my heart for Deanna Durbin.

I think Durbin is one of the most charming, talented, and attractive performers to ever appear on screen. If some of the material she appeared in was beneath her, it’s hard to tell, since she brought the same vivacity, humor, and clear-as-a-bell singing voice to every one of her roles.

Durbin — a.k.a. “Winnipeg’s Sweetheart” — went from nearly single-handedly saving Universal Pictures from bankruptcy at the age of 14 with her first feature, Three Smart Girls (1936), to permanently retiring from acting in 1948 after appearing in her last film, For the Love of Mary.

Up in Central Park was Durbin’s penultimate picture. She was nearly 27 years old, and was tired of working within a stultifying studio system and playing the same type of character she’d been playing since she was 14. After appearing in For the Love of Mary, Durbin married producer Charles David and settled in a small village in rural France. She never appeared in another film.

Up in Central Park was based on the successful Broadway musical of the same name that opened in 1945. It takes place in 19th-century New York and stars another of my all-time favorite actors — Vincent Price — as the notoriously corrupt Boss Tweed.

Wide-eyed Irish immigrant Rosie Moore (Durbin) and her father, Timothy Moore (Albert Sharpe), come to New York with dreams of a better life and are quickly ensnared by the agents of Boss Tweed, who set up Mr. Moore with a plum position as Central Park zookeeper, as well as a little house in the park to call their own.

When things seem too good to be true, they usually are. But Rosie loves her new life, so when a crusading reporter for The New York Times named John Matthews (played by crooner Dick Haymes) tries to convince her that Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall cronies are no good, she refuses to believe him.

Up in Central Park is an entertaining little musical, but my favorite thing about it was watching the louche Price woo the naive Durbin, as well as chew the scenery on his own. For instance, when Tweed gives his puppet mayor Oakley (Hobart Cavanaugh) his cigar to dispose of and Oakley can’t find a spittoon, Tweed says — in a withering, condescending tone — “We use ashtrays here, Mayor. This isn’t the city hall.”

Raw Deal (May 26, 1948)

Raw Deal
Raw Deal (1948)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Eagle-Lion Films

Anthony Mann’s T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948) together form one of the most powerful one-two punches in the history or film noir.

Both films star Dennis O’Keefe, both feature musical scores by Paul Sawtell, John C. Higgins has a writing credit on both, and both feature the exquisite cinematography of John Alton.

What makes these two films such a great one-two punch is that they are each one side of the film noir coin. T-Men is a docudrama, purportedly made to show square-jawed agents of the Treasury Department cracking a big case, but like all great noir docudramas, the depiction of the criminal demimonde and the gray areas of its protagonists’ moral codes are the most interesting parts of the film.

Raw Deal is the other side of the coin. It’s a film noir purely about crime and criminals, and it has all the great elements of noir — a doomed male protagonist on the run, a “good girl” and a “bad girl” competing for his love, dream-like voice-over narration, a casually sadistic villain, and it’s set in one of the great noir cities — San Francisco.

Like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945), and Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), Raw Deal is the Platonic ideal of a film noir.

Raw Deal begins with aging gun moll Pat Cameron (Claire Trevor) going to visit Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) in prison. Right away Raw Deal establishes that it is not a run-of-the-mill crime film, as Claire Trevor’s voice-over narration is accompanied by a haunting theme played on a theremin. The element of the theremin is only present in Paul Sawtell’s score during these voice-overs, and establishes Pat’s point of view as dreamy and hyperreal. Raw Deal is the first film in which I’ve heard a theremin since Miklós Rózsa’s masterful scores for Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), both of which used the eerie sound of a theremin to establish altered states of perception.

When she arrives at the prison, however, Pat is told she has to wait a little while because Joe already has a visitor — Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt). Ann works for Joe’s defense lawyer’s office and she cares about his case and wants to see him paroled, but she admits that he will probably have to wait at least three years. She leaves, Pat enters, and Joe is faced with a more tantalizing prospect. Gang boss Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr) has devised an escape plan for Joe. If he can make it over the wall Pat will be there waiting in a getaway car.

Of course, nothing is what it seems to be on the surface, and Coyle — whose double-cross is how Joe ended up in prison in the first place and who still owes Joe his cut from a robbery — is hoping that Joe will be shot by prison guards during his escape, taking care of Coyle’s problem for good.

Burr formerly played a memorable villain in Mann’s noir Desperate (1947), but he’s an even nastier and more violent character in Raw Deal, casually setting his girlfriend on fire in a shocking scene of cruelty that presages a similar scene in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953). His right-hand man, the bizarrely named “Fantail,” is solidly played by John Ireland, who formerly starred in Mann’s noir Railroaded (1947).

First and foremost, Raw Deal is a masterpiece of suspense. For most of the movie Joe, Pat, and Ann are on the run from the police, and the film hits all of the classic “fugitive movie” moments — navigating a road block, hiding out in a cabin in the woods, one narrow escape after another, etc. Finally, for the last act of the film, the type of suspense changes, and a ticking clock takes the film closer and closer to its inevitable violent confrontation.

Since so much of Raw Deal takes place on the open road, there aren’t as many opportunities for Alton to flex his cinematographic muscles in the same way he did in T-Men, which mostly took place in urban environments. But he makes the most of what he has to work with. There’s a lot of day-for-night shooting in Raw Deal, and it’s a technique that never looks quite right, but at least with Alton operating the camera it always looks good. Finally, scenes toward the end with Claire Trevor’s face reflected in a ticking clock as she weighs a decision in her mind are absolutely masterful.

Anthony Mann was a great director who made wonderful films in all genres, but among his film noirs, I’ll never be able to decide if I like Raw Deal or T-Men better. They’re both great, must-see pictures for every aficionado of film noir.

The Halloween Movie Meme

I know it’s a day after Halloween. (Two days after if you live in Europe. It’s getting late.) But I love horror movies, and when I’m not living 64 years in the past, I watch a fair amount of horror from all eras.

So I couldn’t resist posting these 13 questions and my responses when I saw this list on The Girl With the White Parasol, which is an excellent classic film blog that you should check out if you haven’t already.

1. Who is your favorite movie witch?
Cassandra Gava, the witch who seduces Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian (1982). She barely has any lines, but she’s the perfect primal sorceress, both sexually alluring and ferociously terrifying.

2. What is the first movie you can remember being scared by?
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983). They used to show movies (real film reels projected on a small movie screen) in the basement of my local public library, and this was the first horror movie I saw from beginning to end, and it scared the crap out of me.* I also remember seeing most of Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968) on TV and being frightened and fascinated by it, but I’m not sure which came first.

3. Name a classic horror film that would be substantially improved by better special effects.
Dracula (1931). I love the special effects in most Universal monster movies, but this one really falls flat. The rubber bat on a string that plays a major role in the film looks ridiculously bad, even if you squint your eyes and suspend your disbelief really hard.

4. Name your favorite Val Lewton film.
Fifteen years ago I would have said I Walked With a Zombie (1943). Ten years ago I would have said The Body Snatcher (1945). Right now, though, I’ve gotta go with Isle of the Dead (1945). Boris Karloff’s performance is just phenomenal, and the “buried alive” climax still gives me chills just thinking about it.

5. What movie villain or monster has the most frightening “stare-into-the-camera” moment?
I don’t know. There’s not one that stands out for me. But I’m pretty sure if you asked my mother she would say Raymond Burr in Rear Window (1954).

6. What is the most irritating horror film cliche?
I love ‘em all.

7. Are there any movies you refuse to watch alone?
Black Christmas (1974) in the dead of winter. I did it once. Never again.

8. Picture an old childhood nightmare of yours. Now try to adapt it to film. Can it be done?
I don’t think anyone wants to see a movie about a bald guy with a thick, dark beard who wears a suit and tie and kills kids on a playground with hedge clippers. Also, when you wake up and go to the bathroom and think you’re not dreaming anymore he comes out of the guest room.

9. Who’s your favorite “scream queen?”
Heather Langenkamp.

10. What is the most disappointing horror remake?
Friday the 13th (2009). It wasn’t a good sequel, it wasn’t a good reboot, it wasn’t a good remake, it wasn’t a good whatever-the-hell-it-was.

11. We’ve all seen our share of vampires, zombies, and werewolves on film, but are there any mythical creatures or monsters out there that you think deserve more movies (i.e. golems, changelings, the Minotaur, etc.)?
Definitely manticores. The manticore is weird enough to be one of those crazy-monster-crossed-with-crazier-monster movies that Roger Corman’s been making for the Syfy channel, but it’s got a sweeter pedigree.

12. Along the lines of “Scary Mary Poppins,” can you think of any non-horror flicks that could easily be adapted to fit the genre?
Herschell Gordon Lewis’s One Hundred and One Dalmation Maniacs!

13. And now, just for fun, pick one movie monster or villain to be remade into a cuddly plush toy, just for you.
I want to go to bed tonight cuddling a stuffed toy of that zombie with the mustache in Dawn of the Dead (1978) who’s sitting on the floor wearing a shirt that says “Bach’s Arco Pitcairn” and is looking longingly at Gaylen Ross through the glass.

*EDIT: My mom e-mailed me today after reading this and informed me that Something Wicked This Way Comes was probably too new to be one of the movies shown at our local public library, and that we saw it at one of the local theaters. So I think my memory is conflating things here.

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