2015 Neutron Star Award: Dickie Moore

Introduction

OK, so what is the Neutron Star Award? As I watched older selections through the year, I was frequently compelled to pick a film based on the fact that Vincent Price was in it. When I was younger I was very actor-oriented, more so than with directors. The fact that an actor had that kind of draw, and was one who is sadly no longer with us, made me think there had to be some kind of way I could honor them.

2015: Dickie Moore

dickie-moore-and-pete-the-pup-from-our-gang-ca1933jpg-1f9eded7279ba808

Here’s one I thought I wasn’t going to hand out this year.

However, even though I knew Dickie Moore from things like The Little Rascals, Oliver Twist, The Word Accuses, Three on a Match, and saw him in a few titles this year; I thought his star couldn’t grow to me – matching the definition of a neutron star – a star bigger after its death. However, after his passing I started to realize he would fit.

Blonde Venus (1932, Paramount)

In April I covered a movie he was in for the Pre-Code Blogathon, Blonde Venus.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (1984, Harper & Row)

For the Summer Reading Classic Film Challenge I covered his book Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, which is a bittersweet-at-best account of the early days of child stardom, which includes the perspective of many young stars (himself included) from the early days of sound when he caught up with them again in the 1980s.

The World Accuses (1934)

Then less than a month later he passed away at the age of 89. One of the better obits I read was this one.

Bogged down with other things I didn’t eulogize him at the time. I believe the one I did for Wes Craven was the only one this year.

There is precedent for the recipient dying in the year he was awarded.

Miss Annie Rooney (1942, RKO)

So, while there will not be Film Discoveries like there was for 2013 (Miss Annie Rooney and The World Accusses) for Moore this year, his TCM homage is taking up much of my DVR with many titles I was hoping to have seen for quite some time.

dickie-moore-435

So 2016 and beyond will likely feature more of his films. No one perfectly captures all of film’s past as they learn to love and fully embrace the art. For as much as you learn and know about technique and production there is a tendentiousness to things, and everyone develops personal favorites and preferences. Some films and people are inarguably greats, or talented if their films don’t happen to reach you on a visceral level.

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Despite the fact that he may not have been a Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney or a Freddie Bartholomew; Dickie Moore is one of my favorites. He was undoubtedly a star in his own right, he was just surrounded by many of them in a crowded system. I look forward to getting to know more of his films that remain with us though he may be gone from this world.

RIP.

Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star by Dick Moore

Introduction

This is my latest post (fourth overall) for the Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge hosted by Out of the Past. This book fits in a few categories as biographical/filmographic account of Dickie Moore’s work but also counts as an interview book as he spoke to many of his contemporaries later on and compared experiences.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (But Don’t Have Sex or Take the Car) by Dick Moore

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (1984, Harper & Row)

When I was growing up I was a kid who loved movies, movies of all kinds. When there were young characters, of course, I identified with them. Still recalling what it’s like to be of that age, I still do to the extent I can. As I grew, and started to learn a bit more a bout how films are made, separating the fantasy from reality and liking them both; things were really changed for me with one film and one name: Home Alone starring Macaulay Culkin.

As a kid who sought all different kinds of artistic expression it was mind-blowing that a kid could have that kind of success, and at that age I believed a great deal of talent. Following his trajectory there was quite a class of young actors in the early ‘90s I followed: the star of his next film Anna Chlumsky, another talent he teamed with that had more depth and range, and still does, Elijah Wood. It was quite a group of actors in the early years of the soon-to-be-called Millennials.

As I continued to follow film, and created my personal film awards, I wanted to recognize and reward young talents that were often overlooked. Similarly, as I started to watch older films I started find favorites from different eras. One of those is Dickie Moore, who I’ve seen in a number of studio and Poverty Row titles alike.

Blonde Venus (1932, Paramount)

Perhaps the strongest group of young actors came to the fore in the infancy of synchronized sound and the dawn of the Depression. As is astutely covered in Dick Moore’s account the conditions in Hollywood and society as a whole were perfect for this boom crop.

Typically, when I’ve read about film I’ve been most concerned about the material at hand. The film, analysis of it, the construction and creation of it. Having a staunch belief in separating art from artist as much as possible has limited my interest in biographical accounts to an extent. One thing I do like is setting the record straight, which is much of the larger goal of Cliff Aliperti’s great bio on Freddie Bartholomew, which I just read.

However, seeking a firsthand account lead me to this book, and what’s better is that it constructs itself based on the collected experience of many actors from the era. Yes, there is hindsight involved, but the honesty and self-examination and multi-faceted nature of the investigation of their careers, their lives, and how one affected the other is fascinating to read.

The Devil is a Sissy (1936, MGM)

Those Moore talks to are a veritable all-star cast:

Cora Sue Collins, Jackie Coogan, Jackie Cooper, Edith Fellows, Peggy Ann Garner, Lillian Gish, Bonita Granville, Darryl Hickman, Sybil Jason, Gloria Jean, Marcia Mae Jones, Roddy McDowall, Spanky McFarland, Sidney Miller, Kathleen Nolan, Margaret O’Brien, Donald O’Connor, Diana Cary (a.k.a. Baby Peggy), Jane Powell, Juanita Quigley, Gene Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, Ann Rutherford, Dean Stockwell, Matthew Beard (a.k.a Stymie), Shirley Temple Black, Bobs Watson, Delmar Watson, Jane Withers, and Natalie Wood.

The chapters are typically focused on one topic at a time yet linked chronologically so you get versions of:

Life before the movies; stories of parents on set in; how the studio system pressured kids to keep in front of rolling cameras; an insightful look inside the studio school bubble; how these kids related to the adults they work with and around, important as they had few contemporaries; a chronicle of successes, nerves, and stresses; tales of financial woe in the days before regulation and the loophole in the first law to protect minors’ earnings; tales of further imposed awkwardness and arrested development in adolescence; struggling with what happens after the phone stops ringing; and leaving home and/or show business.

Conclusion

In Love with Life (1934, Invincible)

I could go on and citing quotes ad nauseum as I did quite a bit of underlining in this one, but for those interested I’d rather not ruin the surprises herein. There is certainly plenty of food for thought, differing and insights. It’s not an easy book to get anymore, I believe mine was secondhand, unless it really sat around Strand for years and years but if you look around the Internet you should be able to find it, and if interested in any of the subjects you should give it a read.

Poverty Row April: Oliver Twist (1933)

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old Poverty Row April post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically depending on the theme. Enjoy!

Oliver Twist (1933)

Again there’s a disparity of running time between what I saw and what the IMDb lists. Having said that an extra 10 minutes wouldn’t have made this version feel any less like a Cliff’s Notes version of Oliver Twist. I come dangerously close to breaking my own fanboy ethos here, but even in strictly cinematic terms the treatment is a bit rushed, for a tale that can be such an epic and sprawling one. Oliver’s walk to London for example is one scene as opposed to a montage. Some of the casting choices are quite strange, namely The Artful Dodger, and disbelief has to be suspended throughout due to the fact that Dickie Moore is an American in London. There are enjoyable elements to it, mostly due to the bones of the tale, and being a Monogram film it is higher rent than most, but still feels a bit slipshod.

5/10

Poverty Row April: The Racing Strain (1932)

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old Poverty Row April post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically depending on the theme. Enjoy!

The Racing Strain (1932)

This is a film that seems to be entirely about the periphery and not about the center. In other words, it’s hollow. If you look at the description it purports to be a race car driver who is struggling to overcome alcoholism to return to the top, and that’s in there but not the focus. In fact, the racer in question is not even the protagonist. The protagonist is really his young mechanic, Bill, more commonly referred to as Big Shot (Wallace Reid, Jr.). He’s the character with a trauma to overcome, who has to grow, who comes to the rescue of his driver, who gets into fights. However, there’s approximately three times as much set up as pay-off.

And this is discounting the fact there’s a thinly-written, plot device of a character whose a punching bag for racist jokes and slurs. The movie just doesn’t move enough. Again it’s a shame because the idea is good, but it’s one that could’ve focused more on the addiction to make it a closer facsimile to The Champ. The idea for the project makes sense especially considering the involvement of Wallace Reid‘s son. He and Dickie Moore, on loan from Hal Roach to film one scene, are among the only redeeming qualities this film has, but most of it is wasteful.

2/10

Poverty Row April: The World Accuses

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old Poverty Row April post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically depending on the theme. Enjoy!

The World Accuses (1934)

The World Accuses (1934)

Prior to this screening the selections that I had made for this theme were threatening to make a liar out of me. Save for Short Film Saturday, I did not feel the need to link to any of these titles on the Internet Archive. Aside from the debut screening in the series there wasn’t even another title to which I awarded a passing grade, though others had close calls and good qualities.

Are there melodramatic building blocks to this tale? Yes. Are they necessarily used as such? Not especially. There are some narrative shorthands to cram this story into an hour, but the inciting incident is big, quick and out there. There is a strong villainess and a desperation-forced substitute for that role. The story takes some great twists along the way and is always engaging. As with any story of its kind, it requires you exercise suspension of disbelief, but it never lost my interested either intellectually or emotionally.

In his book Pitts describes much of the acting he watched as high school play caliber. I thought he jested too much, but through some of these I’ve chucklingly agreed. The entire ensemble in this film is capable here, even if a bit stock at times. Surely it’d take talented kids to have a Poverty Row studio like Chesterfield to build a tale around by Dickie Moore (maybe best known as the voice of Pinocchio) and Cora Sue Collins. The production values, particularly the set design, was a bit higher here than standard Poverty Row fare.

8/10

Pre-Code Blogathon: Blonde Venus vs. The Code

Introduction

This post is for the Pre-Code Blogathon. Part of why it is late in going live is that I struggled with my angle on writing about this film. At first, I was just going to write a straight-up review. However, an anatomical, element-by-element approach didn’t seem to be the most intriguing. When I settled on an approach it was late, but I cracked it…

Blonde Venus vs. The Code

Blonde Venus (1932, Paramount)

Perhaps one of toughest things to wrap one’s head around with regards to the era commonly referred to as Pre-Code is that the Motion Picture Production Code was written, amended and had addenda added in 1930. Yet for four wild and woolly years in Old Hollywood it was rather ignored and altogether unenforceable as the an office to enforce it hadn’t been established. The films made in this period were made in the Pre-Code era. Therefore, it was really down to local censors to say “No, we don’t want to see that” since there was no one saying “You can’t say or show that you have to infer it, or strike it altogether.”

Invariably films from 1930 to 1934, both by big studios and independents, broke these rules with such scoffing glee it’s admirable to the rebellious teenager in all of us. What I always found interesting was to refer back to this Code whenever possible.

I did so on a recent post about the first version of The Children’s Hour on film (These Three) whereas it was made in era where homosexuality literally could not be broached. As I turn now to a film made it in the last wild era before the ’60s, when the classical infrastructure of Hollywood started to crumble. I find that while Blonde Venus it may seem tame by the standards of Forbidden Hollywood box sets, but it is still frequently in violation of the code because of its plot, and in part the redundancy of the document.

Blonde Venus (1932, Paramount)

Blonde Venus is about Helen Faraday (Marlene Dietrich) sojourning back into the world of cabaret singing and moonlighting as a pseudo-prostitute solely in order to pay for an operation for her sick husband, Ned (Herbert Marshall). The illness is introduced first and it’s so advanced he can’t sell his body to science to pay for it, nor can he work to earn the money and time is short. An objective is introduced as well as a ticking clock that sends events precipitously into motion. Nick Townsend’s (Cary Grant) infatuation with her paves the way for her to do this and allows not only for the funds to be raised for the operation but for her and her son, Johnny (Dickie Moore) to remain clothed and fed. Their relationship reaches a tenuous agreement where they like one another and spend much time together, but she has no intentions of leaving her husband. It becomes a triangle wherein the other man is trying to win the woman away permanently but is unsuccessful. There are further ups and downs when Ned is cured. Confessing earns her no remorse from her husband. They split and he seeks custody. Helen runs off with Johnny. Adding kidnapping to her rap sheet in this film.

The film uses a few montages to illustrate rises and falls of her fortune, tracking her escape and evasion of authorities and when she’s on her own it tracks her movements, decadence and unhappiness. Ellipses aside we now, knowing the basics, can examine the plot versus the code with just one minor qualifying statement: this is going to be a somewhat litigious, semantic look at the Code. I, personally, as an artist and a film enthusiast bristle a bit at any form of censorship. Informing parents of content so their decision about what their kids are allowed to see is educated one thing; the preemptive approval on scripts and cuts in film so they adhere to a code of ethics is another. More simply stated I do not agree with statements like the following:

“Art can be morally evil in its effects. This is the case clearly enough with unclean art, indecent books, suggestive drama. The effect on the lives of men and women is obvious.”

“They [motion pictures] affect the moral standards of those who thru the screen take these ideas and ideals.”

Blonde Venus (1932, Paramount)

However, the Code did exist, eventually get applied, forced creative solutions to story problems, and helped advance cinematic language, but I feel that was more a secondary intention and byproduct, with all due credit for the assist there to Breen for engaging in dialogues and making that happen.

Taking all that into consideration and looking directly at the Code versus the facts in Blonde Venus a number of issues can be cited.

Here are sections that comment indirectly and directly on marital infidelities alone, under the WORKING PRINCIPLES section:

No picture should lower the moral standards of those who see it. This is done:

(a) When evil is made to appear attractive, and good is made to appear unattractive.
(b) When the sympathy of the audience is thrown on the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil, sin. The same thing is true of a film that would throw sympathy against goodness, honor, innocence, purity, honesty.

Note: Sympathy with a person who sins, is not the same as sympathy with the sin or crime of which he is guilty. We may feel sorry for the plight of a murderer or even understand the circumstances which led him to his crime; we may not feel sympathy for the wrong he has done.

Blonde Venus (1932, Paramount)

As you will soon see the way these are written are typically in guideline form. Specific exemptions are more black and white and very closely following a “thou shalt not” format like the 10 commandments. When dealing with questions about social mores as represented in drama things get nebulous, so as restrictive as some of these reads there is some leeway. With leeway it’s hard to say with 100% certainty always what the reaction would be.

Even clause (b) is a close-run thing. In a vacuum it’s easy to say that prostitution is evil, and you only sympathize with the person’s plight. However, to a more modern audience, knowing what we know of society at the time, it’s hard to fault Helen. How else, as a woman, can she get that kind of money that quickly? The amount is such that an legal means to amass that sum would not be quick. In this light, it kind of becomes a loaded statement about both feminism and morality. Would it be better for her to not do wrong or sin by the book and let her husband die, and her and her child end up destitute?

Even acknowledging that the Code would view these acts are evil it gets complicated:

The presentation of evil is often essential for art, fiction, or drama. This in itself is not wrong provided:

(a) That evil is not presented alluringly. Even if the later on the evil is condemned or punished, it must not be allowed to appear so attractive that emotions are drawn to desire or approve so strongly that later they forget that later they forget the condemnation and remember only the apparent joy of the sin.

(b) That thruout the presentation, evil and good are never confused and evil is always recognized clearly as evil.

(c) That in the end the audience feels that evil is wrong and good is right.

Blonde Venus (1932, Paramount)

Helen definitely goes through the wringer, and she does eventually give up being on the lam recognizing the error she made. However, clause (b) says confused inferring in doubt. I think you’d grant the film at least created the doubt. The vagueness of words like “evil is wrong” and “good is right” is also troublesome. Isn’t Ned’s refusal to listen to his wife’s explanations, insisting on divorce, also wrong? Aren’t they then both sinners by a conservative interpretation of the Judeo-Christian ethos’ that are the basis for much of the Code.

Next section is also troublesome with regards to this film:

(A) The presentation of crimes against the law, human or divine, is often necessary for the carrying out of the plot. But the presentation must not throw sympathy with the criminal as against the law, nor with the crime against those who must punish it.

Under the PRINCIPLES OF PLOT heading, the aforementioned statements are re-iterated, almost regurgitated:

(3) No plot should be so constructed as to leave the question of right and wrong in doubt or fogged.
(4) No plot by its treatment should throw the sympathy of the audience on sin, crime, wrong-doing or evil.

Under the following heading, there is further, similarly worded citations:

General Principles – regarding plots dealing with sex, passion and incidents relating to them:

(2) Impure Love, the love of a man and woman forbidden by divine human law, must be presented in such a way that:

(a) It is clearly known by the audience to be wrong;

Only under the PLOT MATERIAL heading we get specifically into adultery:

(b) Sometimes adultery must be counted on as material occurring in serious drama.

In this case:

(1) It should never appear to be justified;
(2) It should not be used to weaken respect for marriage;
(3) It should not be presented as attractive or alluring.

It can definitely be argued that it does not do (2) or (3), (1) would be the issue against a strong Code. She likes Nick but she’s definitely in the relationship for the benefit of her husband. He eventually does know that and takes care of them more because of it.

Conclusion

Blonde Venus (1932, Paramount)

While the transcription may have proved tedious seeing the Code ultimately got me into the right head-space to consider this film more within the context of its time. Viewing films through the prism of the zeitgeist will always be a disservice to that film, it allows for revisionist censorship and other issues.

It’s clear that a musical number like “Hot Voodoo” would never be acceptable today by societal mores even if the MPAA didn’t suggest an edit. However, the shocking aspects of the film, what makes it a compelling drama is not likely to move the needle of outrage or intrigue today.

What is undoubtedly timeless is the fine construction and execution of this film, it’s intriguing and quite a roller coaster ride. It is a film certifiably Pre-Code based not only on when it was produced but also the treatment of its subject matter.

BAM Awards: Neutron Star Award Winners

Here you will find a historical list of the honorees of this recently-created award. A neutron star is one that glows more brightly after it “death,” similarly these filmmakers and actors do. It’s a counterpart to the Lifetime Achievement Award which is intended for filmmakers and actors who are very much alive and kicking.

The Neutron Star Award

OK, so what is the Neutron Star Award? As I watched older selections through the year, I was frequently compelled to pick a film based on the fact that Vincent Price was in it. When I was younger I was very actor-oriented, more so than with directors. The fact that an actor had that kind of draw, and was one who is sadly no longer with us, made me think there had to be some kind of way I could honor them.

2019 Gunnar Björnstrand

In my viewing and re-viewing of Bergman films this past year I came to appreciate more fully the actors the he frequently worked with, none more so than Björnstrand who appeared in his works from 1944 to 1983

2018 Ingmar Bergman

While my viewings overall were down, the handful of new-to-me Bergman films I saw thanks to Criterion’s amazing new box set spurred yet another renaissance of my awe for his genius.

2017 Carrie Fisher

Carrie Fisher’s death in late 2016 was a cruel shock. The tragedy was of course compounded by the fact that her mother Debbie Reynolds died the very next day.

43a6ec7e58867501b7564f47520b7f9b-27145-640x435

Shortly after their deaths HBO released a doc about them that they were producing anyway. I saw Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds shortly after it became available. It was an insightful, touching and bittersweet look at their life together. It underscored the fact that too much about her career didn’t get attention until after the fact. I remember maybe vaguely hearing about her script doctoring once but by the time the fact came up again I couldn’t recall if that was something I ever knew or if it was new information.

And that list of titles is quite good.

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And, of course, after the fact I would find things that either I forgot she was in (Austin Powers International Man of Mystery) or never knew realized was in (When Harry Met Sally…, Hannah and Her Sisters).

carrie-fisher-austin-powers

Then, of course, there was The Last Jedi. Of course, when I went to see it I knew it would be one of the last new films I’d see her in (Wonderwell is slated for release this year) but I didn’t expect Leia’s role to be that much larger than it was previously and that much more epic. In the nominating process I asked myself the hard question: was she included in the nominees only because it was a posthumous honor? Absolutely not.

For those reasons and so many more Carrie Fisher gets the honor this year.

2016 Walter Lantz

One series of viewings I was able to achieve was to watch my Woody Woodpecker box set this year. I always was a fan of that cast of characters, from my childhood, but I had gotten to such a removed perspective from having seen them that I thought it might’ve been mythologized nostalgia.

In finding things about Lantz, those characters (especially the secondary ones), I see that was not the case. There are more out there to find, they should not be overlooked, and I’ll be glad to see them. This man on a smaller scale made a world of characters to take note of. Not just Woody but Andy Panda, Chilly Willy, Wally Walrus, Buzz Buzzard, and others.

2016 Qusai Abtini

aptopix-mideast-syria-child-actor

In a better world I never would’ve learned who Qusai Abtini was, in a better world the show he was one wouldn’t have needed to exist. However, it also shows the power of the arts as escapism, even when the comedy is very close-to-home.

Abtini starred in Um Abdou Aleppan, a sitcom started in 2014 in Aleppo’s rebel section, the first production to start as so:

A Syrian sitcom which takes place in one of the historic stone houses in the old city of Aleppo and in which all the roles are played by children has lost one of its stars this month: a tragic reality that has intruded on the innocence of the show. A 14-year-old boy Qusai Abtini, was killed when a missile struck the car he was in as he tried to escape Aleppo. Fresh-faced with a toothy grin and thick black hair, Abtini had become a local celebrity. His life and death underscored the suffering of Aleppans. Their city was once the commercial center of Syria with a thriving, unique culture. It has now been torn to pieces by fighting, with whole neighborhoods left in ruin. since the summer of 2012, when Aleppo split into rebel- and government-held districts and the two sides turned on each other, tens of thousands in the city have been killed. 14 year-old Qusai Abtini is now one of the killed.

2015: Dickie Moore

dickie-moore-and-pete-the-pup-from-our-gang-ca1933jpg-1f9eded7279ba808

Here’s one I thought I wasn’t going to hand out this year.

However, even though I knew Dickie Moore from things like The Little Rascals, Oliver Twist, The Word Accuses, Three on a Match, and saw him in a few titles this year; I thought his star couldn’t grow to me – matching the definition of a neutron star – a star bigger after its death. However, after his passing I started to realize he would fit.

Blonde Venus (1932, Paramount)

In April I covered a movie he was in for the Pre-Code Blogathon, Blonde Venus.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (1984, Harper & Row)

For the Summer Reading Classic Film Challenge I covered his book Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, which is a bittersweet-at-best account of the early days of child stardom, which includes the perspective of many young stars (himself included) from the early days of sound when he caught up with them again in the 1980s.

The World Accuses (1934)

Then less than a month later he passed away at the age of 89. One of the better obits I read was this one.

Bogged down with other things I didn’t eulogize him at the time. I believe the one I did for Wes Craven was the only one this year.

There is precedent for the recipient dying in the year he was awarded.

Miss Annie Rooney (1942, RKO)

So, while there will not be Film Discoveries like there was for 2013 (Miss Annie Rooney and The World Accusses) for Moore this year, his TCM homage is taking up much of my DVR with many titles I was hoping to have seen for quite some time.

dickie-moore-435

So 2016 and beyond will likely feature more of his films. No one perfectly captures all of film’s past as they learn to love and fully embrace the art. For as much as you learn and know about technique and production there is a tendentiousness to things, and everyone develops personal favorites and preferences. Some films and people are inarguably greats, or talented if their films don’t happen to reach you on a visceral level.

732288_ori

Despite the fact that he may not have been a Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney or a Freddie Bartholomew; Dickie Moore is one of my favorites. He was undoubtedly a star in his own right, he was just surrounded by many of them in a crowded system. I look forward to getting to know more of his films that remain with us though he may be gone from this world.

RIP

2014 Honoree

Mickey Rooney

Mickey Rooney and Deanna Durbin

So I thought literally about stars, and being a nerd I confirmed that a neutron star fits the definition of a star that has gone out but glows more brightly after its passing.

Mickey-Rooney-and-Judy-Garland-Andy-Hardy-Meets-Debutante-1940

This one was not easy to figure out. Much of the reason this award proved difficult to choose is that with my viewings being somewhat down across the board it was difficult to find a number of actors or filmmakers who jumped up in prominence this past year. Usually, they were known as well. However, with Mickey Rooney’s unfortunate passing I did have cause to post my first In Memoriam in some time and I did feature some of his shorts after the incident, and had seen some earlier titles he appeared in. I still have, and have been meaning to see, many of his Andy Hardy titles sitting around. Then in December he reprised his role in the Night at the Museum series. As always this kind of appearance was bittersweet (particularly as Robin Williams always features prominently in those films also). For Mickey some of the bittersweetness owed to the fact that the lingering effects on his speech of a stroke were apparent. The saving graces were that he did fine and the film very classily and prominently dedicated a title card to them both.

Rooney’s credits are many and I will continue to seek them out, and who knows I may find more that I can share legally here. I hope that seeing his later works will encourage new fans to discover some of his earlier works. Many of them, from varied points in his career, have been with me for quite some time.

Ironically, the first I ever heard of Rooney was through an impersonation of him by Dana Carvey on SNL. Like a lot of impersonations there was some basis in fact for it, much as there was for Mickey to legitimately claim he was once the biggest star in the world. That point can be debated if you like but his impact and longevity may not be matched anytime soon. Therefore, any growth in the appreciation of his work is worthwhile.

“It’s never too late to see a movie.”
-Edgar Wright

2013 Honoree

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (RWFF)

The award was created last year to recognize an actor, but this year’s winning selection is a slight fudge. However, I don’t feel I’ll be likely to re-define or expand the award any time soon so I’m going to go with it.

Basically, the winner did act in films and did even play leading roles, however, to be completely honest, Rainer Werner Fassbinder is winning this award for his work as a writer and director. Now a bit like Jackie Searl I did have some familiarity with Fassbinder in the past. He made appearances on both my 2011 and 2012 Favorite Older Movies list.

However, 2013 was much more viewing many more appearances and was topped off by my getting both the Region 2 box sets of his films. Granted even those aren’t all his works.

When you see a few things by a director you are responding to individual titles, when you see quite a few you start responding to a voice and Fassbinder’s was a voice I sought to hear speaking repeatedly through 2013, and I’m sure that will continue into the new year. In tandem with this award you should look out for this year’s favorites list, which will include his titles; and I may create a subsequent series designed to reflect the year’s winner as I have with other body-of-work awards in the past.

Fassbinder had a knack, in standard feature-length dramas, making the first forty minutes impossibly gripping over and over, of also creating approachable density and magnetic melancholy, and it’s why I sought to come back to his works many times over last year and why he is the recipient of this award.

2012 Honoree

Vincent Price

Vincent Price
As tends to be the case when I’m breaking out a new honor (e.g. The Ingmar Bergman Lifetime Achievement Award or the Robert Downey, Jr. Award for Entertainer of the Year), my initial write-up about it will be fairly short.

OK, so what is the Neutron Star Award? As I watched older selections through the year, I was frequently compelled to pick a film based on the fact that Vincent Price was in it. When I was younger I was very actor-oriented, more so than with directors. The fact that an actor had that kind of draw, and was one who is sadly no longer with us, made me think there had to be some kind of way I could honor them.

So I thought literally about stars, and being a nerd I confirmed that a neutron star fits the definition of a star that has gone out but glows more brightly after its passing.

Which brings me back to Price. If you look at my older films list this year you’ll find Vincent Price all over it. He was not only a talent, and not only elevated works he took part in, but in a way elevated the entire horror genre; in large part because of the horror icons he arguably was the longest-lasting and most identified with it. Christopher Lee, for example, has for years been synonymous with other kinds of films, but once Price got his foothold it was nearly his sole dominion.

I fight Netflix indecisiveness so anyone that great that makes me say “Oh, he’s in it? Good enough for me.” Is certainly worthy of some honor.

I truly like this idea and I hope it acts as another incentive to discover and get to know other actors’ filmographies in the future.

Favorite Older Films First Viewed in 2013 (Part 5 of 5)

This is a list I first saw on Rupert Pupkin Speaks. The idea is to list your favorite films from the past year that you saw for the first time, but exclude new releases. This allows much more variety and creates a lot of great suggestions if you read many of them.

Since I tracked these films much more closely this year my list grew long. I will occasionally combine selections by theme, but there is enough for five posts. These choices are in no particular order.

Enjoy!

Veronika Voss (1982)

Veronika-Voss

Yes, this is more Fassbinder and more of the BRD trilogy (two-thirds of it on this massive list). The BRD Trilogy through female protagonists tells tales of Post-War Germany and the repercussions it had for many years.

This particular tale takes place in Munich 1955 where a sports journalist meets Veronika Voss, a woman now hooked on painkillers who purportedly had an affair with Goebbles.

This film delves into quite a few aspects of the war, as well as the post war era and offers interesting commentaries on the Nazi link with the German film industry.

Mirage (2004)

mir3

Later this year, with regard to In Bloom and the other films from former Soviet states that I was watching, I came to realize that there is a wave of new postcolonial cinema that has been blossoming worldwide since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the Eastern Bloc in general. While it was those films that pointed it out to me it has been illuminated for some time, and this an early example.

This is a Macedonian film, and was an Oscar submission in its own right the year it came out. It successfully connects coming-of-age tropes with a burgeoning nationhood. A nationhood that’s not conducive to hope; one that glorifies the outside world and presents only violence and pain within its borders. The fact that this tale marries fantasy and reality is also a comment on the perception of both the local environment and the world at large, and a powerful statement.

Duma (2005)

Duma_01

If there’s one thing that always kind of bugged me about Carol Ballard’s The Black Stallion is that the portion Alec and The Black meet and bond, which is mostly silent, is far superior to the portion of the film wherein he comes home and starts to race the horse. Having bonded with a horse in the wild it just never quite jibed with me that he’d then willingly race it. Such artifice rang false. I still like the film, just not as much as I thought I would. Duma, another Ballard-directed film, based on the nature of its tale doesn’t have that issue. It’s still a tale of a boy and a wild animal bonding, helping each other becoming friends, but the nature of the animal doesn’t get altered, and furthermore, Duma helps Xan come to terms with things he couldn’t deal with in his life prior. It’s a great film that’s not as widely acknowledged as it should be.

The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971)

merchantoffourseasons1

Being the last installment of the list and the one I designated for any overflow, and in part due to luck of the draw, I had to have two Fassbinder titles here.

My reaction to this one was delayed, and the most powerful I felt after any of his films. Again I was gutted as the film comes closer to dropping than ending. It’s a simple tale, with a rather straightforward, and to an extent foreseeable, trajectory but powerful nonetheless.

Miss Annie Rooney (1942)

MissAnnieRooney

This has very basic set-up, however, when you look closer there are a few interesting things going on in this film. The basic premise is that a girl from a working-class family (Shirley Temple) meets and upper-crust boy (Dickie Moore) and needs a dress to fit in at a party she’s invited to. The class commentary, the love conquers all portions are fairly common. There’s a few interesting twists thrown into the happily-ever-after endings. More interestingly is the way a transitional vehicle for young actors is handled, they’re cast close to their actual age, and in fact, seem to be playing a bit older than they are at times and are not really dumbed down too much. More often than not now it seems that successful transitions from child star to adult employment on camera is facilitated by hiatus but this seems quite the successful transitional vehicle for both young stars.

Dead of Night (1977)

Dead of Night (1977, Dan Curtis Productions)

Here’s the second made-for-TV movie to be featured on this list and marks a return to the list for writer/director/producer Dan Curtis whom last appeared thanks to Burnt Offerings.

This is a TV movie that tells three tales, and the opening monologue does not lie, each tale works in a bit of a different milieu: the first, regarding a very odd time traveling incident is a fantasy, a work of imagination, that is not bereft of eeriness. The second is a mystery tale though also with a decidedly horror slant, as in this one Matheson is working off his own short story about vampires. The grand finale, and it is grand, is the truest horror tale of them all, titled simply “Bobby” deals with the horrific results of a grieving mother getting what she wished for: the return of her deceased son.

It is a taut tale, it runs 72 minutes for the three tales, so each is roughly the equivalent of an episode of a half-hour TV show; which is a perfect vessel for drama. There is a tenor of seriousness and an undertone of tension throughout the film, which culminates in rather narrative film fashion in the last tale, which is absolutely pitch perfect. Joan Hackett and Lee Montgomery are the only actors in the tale, barring a voice-over husband away on business, and they are frequently in singles and could not be more flawless in their commitment and delivery.

Dead of Night is a great anthology and one that really gives me an impetus to move Curtis further up my queue, as this is masterfully done.

R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour – Don’t Think About It(2007)

R.L. Stine's The Haunting Hour - Don't Think About It (2007, Universal Home Entertainment)

At times, I will confess that choices do have to be representative. You can categorize, sub-categorize and pigeonhole films (or any art) in any number of ways. However, it’d be hard to represent 2013 for me without some reference to R.L. Stine. Yes, there was the huge write-up on the new series he produces, but also quite a bit of reading of his works, and then there’s also this film.

It took me a while to get around to screening this one because the last film I’d seen based on one of his works was quite a bad miss. This one, however, thankfully, mostly works.

A lot of that has to do with the practical effects work by Gregory Nicotero, one of the best in the game right now, who created an awesome creature for this film.

The film works itself into its story slowly. It does follow its protagonist (Emily Osment) and builds her character, and motivations for all the characters involved, but it does so a bit languidly. When things do get going though they’re rather freaky and things resolve themselves nicely, with the characters growing and a well-earned horror-film end.

As this film felt a bit stretched, it will be interesting to see if the planned Goosebumps film, comes to fruition if the anthology-styling suits it better, which it should.

In Love with Life (1934)

In Love with Life (1934, Invincible)

As many painfully poor titles as I had to suffer through in my Poverty Row theme it sure has made a dent on this list. Here’s my rather lengthy initial reaction to this film:

A few things come to mind when discussing this film, most are specific to Poverty Row others aren’t as much. I’ve discussed the running time and the utilization thereof on a few occasions in these posts. This is not something that stems from worries about my attention span or time management issues but is inherent to structuring. Some of these films are trying to cram a lot of film into not much time, others are at points stretching. This one, at a brisk 51 minutes seems to handle things just right.

Now one note I will include, I believe this is the TV edit. I base this conclusion on both the book by Mr. Pitts and the IMDb, which list the running time at 66 minutes, as does a supposedly remastered version available on the IMDb. Sadly, with many of these Poverty Row titles those are the only cuts that remain. If this is truly a TV edit kudos to the editors of this version, while it is brisk it never feels overly truncated. There just seem to be a few instances of dropped frames.

Things that separate this film are: that there is scoring throughout rather than just on the opening and closing title, there are moving shots which required sophisticated sound editing, elevated production values for the budget namely set design and good montage/titling work.

Not exclusive to, but more common in works of this type, are stories that pre-date and lead up to the stock market crash. It being a melodrama the moral is clear: we lost our money but have what matters. However, it doesn’t go as far over the top as it could, particularly with a mother-child separation at the beginning. It plays its tropes fairly well and quickly.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953, Columbia)

This is kind of surprise that this list was built to highlight. There is much in this film that I usually would not connect with. However, this particular film connects in a number of ways.

The first, and most surprising thing for me, is not only is this an original screen idea by Dr. Seuss, but one I really connect with. Even as a kid I was never really into Dr. Seuss at all, quite the contrary, but on occasion I will find a tale that sneaks by and I enjoy and this is one. Next this film features Tommy Rettig pre-Lassie and he’s perfectly cast and has quite a bit to carry aside from singing he also breaks the fourth wall and narrates the tale. The villain, played by Hans Conried, struck me as familiar. As the film started, I knew I had heard that voice. Sure enough I was right, and guessed it. I heard that voice a lot as Disney’s Captain Hook. Almost immediately I pegged this film as a one nomination film and having fallen in love with the production design thought it’d be that, it was the score which is also good. It merited multiple honors in my estimation.

The Color Out of Space (aka Die Farbe) (2010)

This was a film that I initially qualified for the 2013 year, but upon further research I discovered it was on Amazon Instant Video for a while without my knowing about it. When I had a slip-up in the planning of these lists and found this list one film short it was the perfect title to slip in.

The malleability of the tale again shines through as in this rendition while the tale begins in Arkham, Massachusetts; the protagonist is in search of his father who vanished in Germany after World War II, and that is where he will spend most of his time. As he arrives in his last known whereabouts he meets a man who starts to tell him of the strange events that had occurred in that town. These events make up a bulk of the short story.

Now the film being transplanted to Germany is already a bold decision that works out quite well. The next emboldened choice is that the film is predominantly in black and white. It’s a great choice for Lovecraft’s antiquarian style, but also aids in selling a majority of the effects work that is needed to render this tale. Yet, in a tale about color it is further brave – and without putting to fine a point on it, does serve a purpose.

There is some English dialogue in the film, but a vast majority of it is in German, and due to that performances are usually spot on. Both the cinematography and the edit do tremendous things to build the atmosphere of outre and foreboding that is one of Lovecraft’s hallmarks. Things in this tale are slightly askew and on a precipitous decline leading to one earth-shattering moment and it moves there almost unerringly.

The workmanship in this tale rivals what the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society has been able to do with its films. It really is quite a work and proves that The Colour Out of Space is what I would refer to as one of the great stories, meaning that I can view many renditions of it and revel in the tweaks an modifications each brings to the table.

Shorts

Not much text is needed to discuss the shorts, but they do deserve inclusion. Especially when you consider my list of films seen I should highlight a few older shorts, some not featured on Short Film Saturday. So here are some notable ones.

Captain Eo

Captain Eo (1985, Disney)

Thankfully I went to see this wondrous relic of the ’80s before the attraction disappeared from the Walt Disney World landscape for all of eternity. In my opinion, it’s Michael Jackson’s best and most cinematic video/short film.

The Show (1922)

The Show (1922, Vitagraph)

I sought out quite a few films based on having read The Keystone Kid. This was the first and quite a humorous one at that.

The New York Hat

This is one of the shorts I saw for the Funny Ladies Blogathon wherein I wrote about Fazenda. This is most definitely a Gloria Swanson vehicle, and most definitely a D.W. Griffith title and very good.

There were also this year a few categories, be they directors or performers, that I saw many notable films from. Namely:

Georges Méliès

545px-George_Melies

For these titles I was able to find YouTube links. However, for the long Documentary about him, I recommend the box set Méliès the first Wizard of Cinema, for the Alice Guy and Louis Feuillade titles I refer you to the Gaumont Treasures vol. 1 set, For The Little Rascals I refer you to The Little Rascals The Complete Collection.

The Human Fly

The Impossible Voyage

Untamble Whiskers

A Moonlight Serenade

There was also a noteworthy film about him I saw called: Le Grand Méliès by Georges Franju

Alice Guy

544px-Alice_Guy

The Magician’s Alms
The Game Keeper’s Son
At the Photographers

Louis Feuillade

louis feuillade 3

Spring
The Trust
The Heart and Money

Little Rascals

Shivering_shakespeare_TITLE

Shivering Shakespeare

Poverty Row April: Viewing Log and Introduction

Introduction

Welcome, to another month and another theme. My plans for this one I believe will be similar to 31 Days of Oscar, which means that I believe I will keep this theme to one running log, and if I should find occasion a few additional posts to fill in some detail.

The theme for April will be films produced by what were known as the Poverty Row studios. Most of them were not around long, and while all their productions were made on a shoestring, and their facilities were located in a strip of desert on the outskirts of Los Angeles, some of them are quite good and have endured. One of my first exposures to the serial format that I really enjoyed was a Poverty Row project entitled, Blake of Scotland Yard by Victory Pictures Corporation.

This theme idea was inspired by a few factors, the main one being that I read a book entitled Poverty Row Studios, 1929-1940; cover-to-cover as research for a personal writing project. The book profiles a vast majority of these small companies that sprouted up like weeds at the end of the silent era/the dawn of sound.

The additional impetus, aside from further research, was added because the book contains filmographies, synopses and reviews that sound intriguing. Due to their vintage and copyright history many of these films are now in the public domain and easily found at The Internet Archive. When you further add the fact that many of these films were designed to play in double-bills and run about an hour, there’s more added incentive.

More details about the era and the companies will be included as the films are viewed, but the last thing that bears mentioning now is that many of these studios featured, actors, directors, writers and musicians either on the way up or the way down in their career, so that drew me to a number of the choices I plan to make.

In the log I will include links to the Archive selections where applicable. So it’s fun, easy, free, and fascinating to take in a bunch of these films when I’ve already had occasion to see a few without being aware that they fell into the Poverty Row category at the time. It will also allow me, and perhaps you if you’re so inclined, to see some weird and mostly forgotten stuff that oughtn’t be.

A Shriek in the Night (1933, Allied Pictures Corp.)

1. A Shriek in the Night (1933)

This is, for the most part, an entertaining and engaging mystery tale. It’s interesting that the film features an early appearance by Ginger Rogers. The downfall of the film is the staging and editing of the climactic sequence, which includes cheats that drain some of the suspense from it.

7/10

2. Maniac (1934)

What a nutty, perambulating, mutating story this one is. Refracted through time some of the quotes do seem legitimately like what psychiatric textbooks would describe the conditions, and the title cards where these quotes appear help rein in the otherwise wild story. Again this is another one that is great fun, has many unexpected turns, that make up for the technical failings (some may have to do with degradation, real or through video), but then the conclusion is terribly run-of-the-mill and unsatisfying.

5/10

3.Shadow of Chinatown (1936)

It became quite apparent as I started to watch this film that I was watching a composite serial. What that means is a feature length version of a serial, this was usually done to have a second profit off the same project. To give credit where credit is due the editors did a pretty marvelous job. I never saw the serial, but followed the narrative fairly well. This tactic does create more clumsy exposition than otherwise necessary and some seemingly wild intuition. The breakneck pace aside it was easy to take in though ultimately unsatisfying because I knew there was backstory all over the place that I wanted to know more about and never would in this version.

4/10

4. Toll of the Desert (1935)

This was the most frustrating view of them all. The set-up: An accident. A father assumes he lost his wife and son takes up with bandits. The son is saved by locals and raised as their own. Many years later estranged father and son, strangers to one another, cross paths. The set-up is brilliant. Some of the plot points are great, on paper. However, the cast, and the production that Commodore Pictures was able to assemble for this film is not up to snuff to say the least. It’s also a story that needed more time. The difficulties of working a 50-70 minute feature are more strongly underscored by a bad one. The conversations are redundant, dialogue is frequently a wooden time killer rather than revelatory. It’s definitely a concept that would be worthy of revisiting with different talent.

3/10

5. Murder by Television (1935)

Murder by Television (1935)

The idea is rather out there and not over-drawn as it can be in much B-grade fare, but the pace and quantity of events is rather sparse throughout the middle. The film features a good post-Dracula appearance by Lugosi. However, in spite of a good twist it’s a bit lethargic.

5/10

6. Phantom (1931)

Of all the four films being added to this post today this one is the most debilitatingly dull. As will become a theme, there is a criminal here referred to as The Phantom. Here, however, it’s an escaped con. The set-up is a bit clunky and awkward, whether just establishing facts or in attempting misdirection. The angering thing here is that this film takes a nosedive in pace from the mid-point forward, and completely disengages.

2/10

7. The Rawhide Terror (1934)

Here is another terribly frustrating western because of it being a good concept squandered. The film is another poorly staged and shot affair that subjugates, through poorly expository, overt foreshadowing, a good concept and leaves it twisting in the wind for far too long.

3/10

8. The Phantom Cowboy (1935)

Aside from the staple obstructionist arm-holding-up-a-cape-motif there are some good things going on in this film. Again, you have here a short tale wherein the pace suffers, here character identification also suffers and lessens the impact this tale could have. There is also a deplorable excess of early comic relief in this film, which makes that section of the film hard to bear.

4/10

9. The World Accuses (1934)

The World Accuses (1934)

Prior to this screening the selections that I had made for this theme were threatening to make a liar out of me. Save for Short Film Saturday, I did not feel the need to link to any of these titles on the Internet Archive. Aside from the debut screening in the series there wasn’t even another title to which I awarded a passing grade, though others had close calls and good qualities.

Are there melodramatic building blocks to this tale? Yes. Are they necessarily used as such? Not especially. There are some narrative shorthands to cram this story into an hour, but the inciting incident is big, quick and out there. There is a strong villainess and a desperation-forced substitute for that role. The story takes some great twists along the way and is always engaging. As with any story of its kind, it requires you exercise suspension of disbelief, but it never lost my interested either intellectually or emotionally.

In his book Pitts describes much of the acting he watched as high school play caliber. I thought he jested too much, but through some of these I’ve chucklingly agreed. The entire ensemble in this film is capable here, even if a bit stock at times. Surely it’d take talented kids to have a Poverty Row studio like Chesterfield to build a tale around by Dickie Moore (maybe best known as the voice of Pinocchio) and Cora Sue Collins. The production values, particularly the set design, was a bit higher here than standard Poverty Row fare.

8/10

10. The Ghost Walks (1934)

The Ghost Walks (1934)

Well, one more and you can call it a streak. As I watched this in the wee hours, it made me wish I watched a few more during the day, like I did early on when my luck wasn’t nearly as good.

Perhaps the first thing that struck me as a side note is that this is the first of the selections I chose that struck me as being very Pre-Code, though its December 1st, 1934 release date made it after promised Code re-enforcement. Most of that impression has to do with the theatrical producer and his the male secretary, the secretary both in affectation and through dialogue directed at him, is being portrayed as gay – perhaps the biggest code taboo. This all leads me to my second point, which is had the acting not been of such quality, the lines not as well-timed or funny, this film would’ve been ridiculous. Instead it’s one of the funnier films I’ve seen in a while. Granted the horror/thriller portions are intended too and the first act pantomimes a straight horror film excellently, but the comedy is very much by design and laugh out loud funny.

The only patch this film, wherein a staged murder mystery in a creepy house comes true, stumbles is toward the end when the villain monologue plays out it’s not tremendously successful at being either a villainous horror plot or comedic. However, that’s a small bit of this film that runs a little over an hour and is highly entertaining throughout.

9/10

11. The Tonto Kid (1934)

This film got a second chance from me and in the end it truly did deserve, and earn it. My first attempt at screening this film was marred by home remediation project for a leak, thus, a lot of ambient noise was about. Pair that with digital files, substandard sound technology from early talkies and you can see my issue.

The film had more for it than I initially gave it credit for, but there were issues inherent with a sixty minute feature abound, such as telling a rather intricate tale that quickly, establishing a plethora of characters and motivations early on and lastly tying up loose ends very quickly.

However, it is an interesting film to note merely for the fact that it is a very early example of a western hero who plays both ends against the middle and is a gray character, one whose motivations and true nature aren’t very easy to figure.

6/10

12. In Love with Life (1934)

In Love with Life (1934, Invincible)

A few things come to mind when discussing this film, most are specific to Poverty Row others aren’t as much. I’ve discussed the running time and the utilization thereof on a few occasions in these posts. This is not something that stems from worries about my attention span or time management issues but is inherent to structuring. Some of these films are trying to cram a lot of film into not much time, others are at points stretching. This one, at a brisk 51 minutes seems to handle things just right.

Now one note I will include, I believe this is the TV edit. I base this conclusion on both the book by Mr. Pitts and the IMDb, which list the running time at 66 minutes, as does a supposedly remastered version available on the IMDb. Sadly, with many of these Poverty Row titles those are the only cuts that remain. If this is truly a TV edit kudos to the editors of this version, while it is brisk it never feels overly truncated. There just seem to be a few instances of dropped frames.

Things that separate this film are: that there is scoring throughout rather than just on the opening and closing title, there are moving shots which required sophisticated sound editing, elevated production values for the budget namely set design and good montage/titling work.

Not exclusive to, but more common in works of this type, are stories that pre-date and lead up to the stock market crash. It being a melodrama the moral is clear: we lost our money but have what matters. However, it doesn’t go as far over the top as it could, particularly with a mother-child separation at the beginning. It plays its tropes fairly well and quickly.

9/10

13. The Racing Strain (1932)

This is a film that seems to be entirely about the periphery and not about the center. In other words, it’s hollow. If you look at the description it purports to be a race car driver who is struggling to overcome alcoholism to return to the top, and that’s in there but not the focus. In fact, the racer in question is not even the protagonist. The protagonist is really his young mechanic, Bill, more commonly referred to as Big Shot (Wallace Reid, Jr.). He’s the character with a trauma to overcome, who has to grow, who comes to the rescue of his driver, who gets into fights. However, there’s approximately three times as much set up as pay-off.

And this is discounting the fact there’s a thinly-written, plot device of a character whose a punching bag for racist jokes and slurs. The movie just doesn’t move enough. Again it’s a shame because the idea is good, but it’s one that could’ve focused more on the addiction to make it a closer facsimile to The Champ. The idea for the project makes sense especially considering the involvement of Wallace Reid‘s son. He and Dickie Moore, on loan from Hal Roach to film one scene, are among the only redeeming qualities this film has, but most of it is wasteful.

2/10

14. Oliver Twist (1933)

Again there’s a disparity of running time between what I saw and what the IMDb lists. Having said that an extra 10 minutes wouldn’t have made this version feel any less like a Cliff’s Notes version of Oliver Twist. I come dangerously close to breaking my own fanboy ethos here, but even in strictly cinematic terms the treatment is a bit rushed, for a tale that can be such an epic and sprawling one. Oliver’s walk to London for example is one scene as opposed to a montage. Some of the casting choices are quite strange, namely The Artful Dodger, and disbelief has to be suspended throughout due to the fact that Dickie Moore is an American in London. There are enjoyable elements to it, mostly due to the bones of the tale, and being a Monogram film it is higher rent than most, but still feels a bit slipshod.

5/10

15. The Phantom Express (1932)

The Phantom Express (1932)

As I read and downloaded titles I noted the proclivity for the word phantom in titles. It must’ve scored well in marketing research of the day, it gives an air of mystery and intrigue. Sadly, no film I saw with the word phantom in it had either featured a ghost or been any good. This one at least accomplished the latter and is a highly entertaining tale. It’s not a whodunit so much as a “howdunit” as the perpetrators are revealed early. The film concerns a man who derails a train attempting to make an emergency stop causing many fatalities. He claimed there was an oncoming train he wanted to avoid, there was no record of this supposed train so it was dubbed “The Phantom Express.” The investigation into the mystery, the repeated incidents, the reveal along with explicatory closing monologue are all great. The effects work, mainly miniatures, may look primitive now, but is well done for the time and budgetary constraints. It’s really captivating stuff.

10/10

16. The Night Rider (1932)

Here again we have another western tale with a mysterious desperado whose identity is withheld throughout. The issue that films of this kind have faced thus far is that they are so preoccupied with the opacity of the villain’s identity that little else, if anything, gets developed. There are many attempts at humor, which mostly fail; the identity is well-guarded, but the reveal is poorly staged, and lastly, the story just flatlines once it takes its sweet time establishing all its players. It does that clearly enough, but little of what follows is compelling.

3/10

17. Ten Minutes to Live (1932)

Quite a few times during this festival I have gone back to what is essentially the bible to this theme Pitts’ book on the Poverty Row Studios. It list companies, filmographies, synopses and has reviews. When I read of Oscar Micheaux, who for 30 years as an independent filmmaker was a pioneer. He was not only a virtual one man operation, but a black man doing so from 1918 to 1948 makes him even more compelling. While he jump-started many a career, he was not without controversy both in his community and in white America also. In the end, I knew I had to see at least one of his films. I’m not sure if I searched The Internet Archive for all the titles listed in the book. After watching this film I did refer back to the review and my take on it is similar to Pitts’ “a jumbled mess,” and though it’s his only film I’ve seen, Pitts’ assertion that it’s his worst film is one I would hope would hold true. The sound is shoddy, the acting is the real-life inspiration of “bad acting” impersonations and much of the 57 minutes of screen time is wasted on non-diegetic song-and-dance numbers that act as filler during minimal stories, which, as Pitts states, are likely recycled footage.

1/10

18. Hearts of Humanity (1932)

Hearts of Humanity (1932)

They don’t make melodramas like they used to. To be a little less trite, because they make nothing like they used to, what made melodramas in the Pre-Code and Golden Age era work was the unrelenting wave of unabashed emotion, the incredible circumstance, be it hardship or triumph, the near-cloying tugging at heart strings in a tale with a more straight-forward narrative style made for a less cynical world. Yes, these date them, but any film from any period can be perceived as dated. What these films don’t fear is trying too hard for the emotional response.

In this film there’s an example of much of what I was talking about as a boy is orphaned one day through two unrelated acts. Both his parents die on the same day. His father has just learned of his mother’s demise when he meets his unfortunate fate. The plot that follows his less high-stakes to an extent, but it is moving. Jean Hersholt is endearing in the lead and Jackie Searle showed his ability to play endearing characters as well as conniving ones, though his Irish accent isn’t that great. It’s a simple film, but a truly enjoyable one in the style that only this era could produce.

8/10

19. High Gear (1933)

Oddly enough here you have an example, right after the last, of a melodrama that doesn’t work. This one also features Jackie Searl (as he was more commonly credited) albeit in a smaller role, he’s also orphaned, has a similar climax in terms of plot points, but is flat, rushed and for the most part ineffectual. Part of the issue with this film is that the stakes aren’t all that high. The climax of the film and denouement are lazily, cheaply handled with poor dramatic effect. The characters in this tale are flatter and less engaging than the prior one. Again this is a case of parallels causing easy comparison, but it just doesn’t work. The child, aside from the scene of immediate shock, seems greatly unaffected by his being orphaned. The trauma our protagonist deals with is handled with mediocrity and while the film moves well-enough and is done quite professionally in most regards save for the writing. In the end it’s just too much to overcome.

5/10

20. One Year Later (1933)

One Year Later (1933)

Every once in a while there is a film that will have you firmly ride the fence for a while. I usually like to give myself time to digest and think about a title. There have been quite a few titles that were about nothing or next to nothing in this theme (and that was not unexpected). This film is clearly not in that category, but it does have its issues, and plays a little coy with the details of the drama unfolding.

Ultimately this title gets a pass for a few reasons: while it doesn’t use a lot of voice over or flashbacks, the combination of audiovisual cues was still new film grammar at the time, it does tell a tale of fractured chronology, which is rather different than most of the fare thus far. Though it plays a little hard to get and does time-wasting tactics, it is also playing subtext while skirting what precisely happened in the year of the story that intervened. The events that escalate towards the film’s climax don’t click as well as they could, but they all make sense. I had a concentration lapse that cost me not to fully account motivations at first; I’ve bridged those gaps. It’s a film that is well-made, takes interesting story paths and for the most part stays engaging, despite its hiccups and difficulties.

6/10

21. Sex Madness a.k.a. Human Wreckage (1938?)

This title opens up more of the idiosyncrasies that Poverty Row titles had. Extant copies of the film do not have all the titles in front of them, therefore the director and release year are left in some doubt. Next, many of these films would have entered the public domain by now anyway, though many others were never copyrighted. Lastly, I noticed that the distributor as per the IMDb is the company that handled States’ Rights Distribution. Essentially, these small production companies, in order to find more screens, would then have these distributors act as subcontractors to barter podunk screens in certain states for them. Long story short, it’s the wrong company.

Now, I had planned, when I had more grandiose goals for this theme, as I typically do when these things start; to see more exploitation films of this era. However, I got at least this one. In all honesty, two things happened: firstly, while shocking for its era the title still proves hyperbolic, which isn’t shocking. Second, though highly melodramatic, the film for the most part was much better than I could’ve expected. It’s a bit bald-faced but it does put its didacticism in story elements and disguises its PSA DNA pretty well. If it had just not broadcast one key point I could’ve passed it.

5/10

22. The Mystery Train (1931)

Here again you get another misnomer. This film is not so much a mystery, but what it does have enough of is sufficient levels of intrigue. Also, it has what few of these titles have had and that’s a clear and distinct structure that works very well in its running time. Prior to the inciting incident two set of circumstances are perfectly drawn, thus so are motivations. This propels the film through much of the second act.

Fate, and a climax that is not quite as thrilling as the start bring it down slightly, but the way it does end is interesting, but it is is a very entertaining film.

7/10

23. Tangled Destinies (1934)

Tangled Destinies (1932)

If you’ve ever seen a murder mystery weekend episode of a sitcom, the gag is that invariably a real murder ends up occurring. This is the kind of tale that inspired that charade because for the most part it plays out like one of those tales, minus the subterfuge. The set-up is fantastic: an emergency landing of a small plane during a storm forces the passengers to seek refuge in a nearby empty house. The storm causes power surges and ample opportunity for the mysterious murderer/crook to strike.

There are some Pre-Code twists to it that will leave you guessing, and the occasional not-suitable-for-the-21st-Century comment, but the film does well to build and develop its mystery and buck expectations.

8/10

This concludes the running post for my Poverty Row April theme. Albeit in May, I will return with some concluding thoughts on the series tomorrow.