Favorite Older Films First Viewed in 2013 (Part 4 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!

The Great Ghost Rescue (2011)

The Great Ghost Rescue

Family horror is an under-appreciated and under-utilized subgenre. It is usually a delicate balancing act where you have to have elements of a harsher genre keep it true, effective and still palatable for young audiences and hopefully engaging enough for those accompanying said viewers.

There are definitely different phases to this narrative, and it’s also one that, at least in its backstory does not fear taking things to the scariest place it can for children (death), but also presents a flip-side offers comedy and a strong lead performance by Toby Hall that elevates it above the ordinary.

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

The Life of Emile Zola (1937, Warner Bros.)

Here was my 31 Days of Oscar take on this film:

A Paul Muni biopic strikes again, and perhaps he takes an early lead in the Neutron Star Award race for this year. What’s fascinating is that it chronicles a writer’s rise in typical biopic fashion in act one, then a military frame-up at the head of act two and has them smash together and culminate in a riveting courtroom drama. It distills the essential and best elements of a few subgenres to make a riveting and engaging film that surpasses its formulaic and periodic tropes.

Caught up in trying to stay current I was vague, so I will elaborate some: as opposed to his rendition of Pasteur, which had its own interesting take on scientific ideals and fear of new ideas; here we have a man who gets comfortable, perhaps forgetting his roots and then in seeing grave injustice lays his life and reputation on the line. It’s a fascinating, as holistic as possible in a two-hour film as it can be, treatment. It owes much of its success not only to the narrative, but also its structure and also Muni.

The Phantom Express (1932)

The Phantom Express (1932)

This is the first of the Poverty Row titles on this portion of the list. It’s also one of the more surprising revelations from that theme.

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.

In a Year with 13 Moons (1978)

In a Year with 13 Moons (1977, RWF Foundation)

Were my list shorter than it is Fassbinder could have easier dominated it rather than just being a prominent theme, which is why I like allowing this list to bloat as it allows more themes to seep through. However, my increased consumption of Fassbinder titles cannot be denied here.

In a Year with 13 Moons explains its name with title cards to start, and has the kind of narrative that could easily be exploitative were it wielded by less skilled hands. Here’s a synopsis per the IMDb:

This drama follows the last few days in the life of Elvira (formerly Erwin) Weisshaupt. Years before, Erwin told a co-worker, Anton, that he loved him. “Too bad, you aren’t a woman,” he replied. Erwin took Anton at his word. Trying to salvage something from the wreckage love has made of his life, he now hopes that Anton will not reject him again.

It could wander into parody, or the absurd; it never threatens to instead it’s just absolutely gutting and virtually pitch perfect.

Rainbow on the River (1936)

Rainbow on the River (1936, RKO)

I believe it was first through Movies Unlimited, when they had brick-and-mortar locations, that I first discovered the Sol Lesser-produced musicals that star Bobby Breen. Rainbow on the River, however, is likely the last of them that I can see, as his last outstanding film (Johnny Doughboy) is hard-to-find and overpriced through resellers at Amazon.

Fairly often in these films the story was but more than a pretense to get Bobby singing. On the rare occasion both of these combined perfectly. Yes, there’s an uncomfortable postbellum rendition of the south that’s a bit dated, but there’s a predominant fish-out-of-water aspect and fairytale caliber adoptive family that distract from that and get sympathies where the film wants it. The songs are naturalistically instilled and, as usual, brilliantly rendered.

To the Left of the Father (2001)

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This is a film I first heard about years ago when visiting family in Brazil. It’s one I didn’t get a chance to see there and it took a while for it to migrate over and secure North American distribution both in theaters and on home video via Kino Lorber. It’s one that took me even longer to see, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit because of its running time.

What you find in this film is an extraordinarily poetic title both in verbal and visual terms that externalizes the inner-workings of the mind extremely well and successfully manipulates time as only film truly can. While it has very internal conflicts it brings them forth, and even while being a very technical “filmmaker’s film” still allows room for the actors to work and drive home the emotions being underscored by the narrative. I’m completely unfamiliar with the written work upon which this film is based and did not find that it’s opaque without having read the book.

It may have taken me a while, but it’s testament to Edgar Wright’s statement that “It’s never too late to see a movie.”

Gorgo (1961)

Gorgo (1961, MGM)

In hindsight I was rather fortunate in my viewing themes as they are providing most of the content of these selections. This is another 61 Days of Halloween selection that…

came to me by way of Stephen King’s list of horror films in Danse Macabre. I have to admit, I chuckled a bit and had some trepidation when I saw that this was a monster movie. After all I’m fairly sure that during the period from which King curated the list (1950-1980) there were other, more well-known giant-monster-attacks-city films; most notably the Japanese brood. So what makes Gorgo special?

I soon realized what it was and it’s not really about the fact that this species of prehistoric beast is discovered off the coast of an Irish isle, but rather the thing the film does in just 78 minutes. There’s a period of time wherein the film is like a proto-Jaws. There is a threat identified and a mostly unseen enemy. There is a plan to try and take it down.

What occurs then is a spin on King Kong, which has also been done. One notable example I viewed, that didn’t really work out, was Jurassic Park: The Lost World. However, here it does work because that second twist on the average monster film isn’t the last.

It’s also another brisk selection that’s worth looking up.

Imitation of Life (1934)

Imitation of Life (1934, Universal)

One interesting thing about this title is that after having seen it I discovered it one of friend’s all-time favorite films, which got me thinking about that aspect. Specifically about how some overlooked titles can affect people. Even before I was made to realize and reflect upon that I had before me the film and there were many notable things about that made it stand out to me.

Merely being ahead of one’s time is a great in and of itself, however, that alone doesn’t make for a great drama. What’s fortunate is that for this film it has both. Imitation of Life deals with race about as openly, maturely and progressively as any film of its era – if you can fault it for anything cinematically it’s being slightly repetitious (But it addresses that), in social terms it discusses and even challenges norms. This was considered a dangerous films and Universal was strongly urged not to make it. Not only does it deal with race relations but in having Delilah’s daughter be able to pass for white, it also implies miscegenation, which was at the time one of the biggest taboos there was.

However, as I said without a compelling narrative all of the above is just a footnote. Bea’s chance meeting with Delilah snowballs in a very compelling way into a most unlikely friendship and partnership. The trials as single mothers also form dueling subplots that at times are equally compelling. The only knock I thought I had against it was that I wanted more focus on the more unusual plot, but based on the way things play out it is handled properly.

Blossoms in the Dust (1941)

Blossoms in the Dust (1941,

Perhaps one of the biggest laments in all my TCM 31 Days of Oscar watching has been the fact that I didn’t sit and watch all of Greer Garson’s consecutive Oscar-nominated roles back-to-back. Since that block aired I’ve been trying to make up for it and I haven’t been disappointed yet. Here’s my reaction to my latest find:

This was actually I found in a drug store on Oscar Day in 2012, this was after my having missed this on a TCM broadcast. This film is part of Greer Garson’s legendary run of five consecutive Oscar Nominations for Best Actress and six in seven years. Yes, this film doesn’t get away with not having its stump-speeches and it does give a classical Hollywood whirlwind treatment to and elongated tale, but it is so tremendously moving and gorgeous to look at. Watch it for the the acting, watch for Karl Freund working in color and stay for the tale, which when it really has to, when it wants to hit home, holds up just enough. It took me a while to get this one off my to watch pile, but it certainly was a memorable viewing. There are plenty of jaw-dropping moments in the film. I also learned a few things so it has the righteous indignation angle working for it too.

The Ghost Walks (1934)

The Ghost Walks (1934)

There are two titles on this section of the list with the word Ghost in the title. Only one, however, can stake any claim to being a straight horror film and this isn’t the one. There’s plenty going on in both, more so here:

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.

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Favorite Older Films First Seen in 2012, Part 2

This is an idea I first saw on @bobfreelander‘s blog. 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!

Wait Until Dark (1967)

Wait Until Dark (1967, Warner Bros.)

Part of what I really like about 31 Days of Oscar is that despite how high up the you-shoulda-seen-this-by-now ladder a film is the slate typically makes it quite easy to catch up on many of those titles. I always figured that the closing half of this film must be great, but what good is that without an effective build-up? Not much, but this film has both.

Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

Wild Boys of the Road (1933, Warner Bros.)

Yes, I learned it an always vaguely knew what Pre-Code was, but this year was the first time I really studied up on it and started to watch it more. This film, in part, was the catalyst. What really strikes you is how this film epitomizes the working class, stoic tackling of Depression themes head on that was a Warner signature of the era.

The Window (1949)

The Window (1949, RKO)

If I wanted to try and completely drive myself insane and place these films in order, this would likely come out atop the fray. This is a film based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich, the same man who gave us Rear Window, and is essentially that tale crossed with “The Boy who Cried Wolf.” It’s short and as suspenseful as you could possibly stand, with real danger and a tremendous performance by Bobby Driscoll that earned him the Juvenile Award from the Academy.

Mrs. Parkington (1944)

Mrs. Parkington (1944, MGM)

This is a another 31 Days of Oscar selection that allowed me to redeem missing one of Greer Garson’s nominations as Best Actress. A few years back TCM aired each of her five successive nominations in order and I should’ve seen the whole block. This is a duplicitous family portrait that spans lifetimes and does so very entertainingly.

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

The Masque Red Death (1964, AIP)

In my previous post I discussed the dichotomy between Roger Corman and Charles Band. Where Corman sets himself apart is in the careers he helped kickstart, but also with his Poe adaptations. I saw a lot of these films in the past year and this was likely the most artistically daring and complete of the lot.

Faces of Children (1925)

Visages d'Enfants (1925, Pathé)

I have a lot of silents and older films sitting on my DVR that I must get to. This is a case of my catching a piece of this film on TCM late one night then being determined to watch it whole again one day. This film stuck with me not just because I discovered the work of Jacques Feyder through it, but also due to the wonderful tinting work involved in it.

Spectre (2006)

Spectre (2006, LionsGate)

I embrace any and all horror series like Six Films to Keep You Awake that round up genre directors from certain countries to tell quick effective tales. It’s not dissimilar to Door into Darkness or Masters of Horror, this edition highlights the uniquely opaque, intricate and dramatic flair that Spain has for the genre. There will be another tale from the series on this list. This is the one that separates the die hards from the casual admirers.

A Child Called Jesus (1987)

A Child Called Jesus (1987, Silvio Burlusconi Communications)

Any film willing to fill in some Biblical gaps, or at the very least cover ground rarely trod, will get my attention. Similarly any film that can hold my attention in spite of terrible dubbing is also worth noting.

The Christmas Tale (2005)

A Christmas Tale (2006, Lionsgate)

As mentioned above in Spectre, this is a Six Films to Keep You Awake tale, but this is the more accessible of the two I chose. It deals with a group of kids who find a woman trapped in a hole, as they learn about what got her there each faces moral dilemmas about how to deal with the situation. It not only sets up good horror but great character study.


Death and Cremation (2010)

Death and Cremation (2010, Green Apple Entertainment)

Prior to Jeremy Sumpter being the not-so-obscure object of desire in Excision he starred in this film which features a very overt and twisted mentor-protegé relationship. Bringing horror icons into the fold of a new project can be a double-edged sword but Brad Dourif is very effective in this role. Conversely, Sumpter utilizes his seeming vulnerability to channel a disconnected attitude and anger. The undertaker/death obsession mixed with suburban malaise can be seen as an obvious connection, but it’s not an overwrought one and works well with the performances.

Two for Tuesday #1

OK, first of all I realize it’s Wednesday. I may find a way to write and post in anticipation of the day but in order to truly get started I want to watch films on the day of and identify my theme properly and then post. Yesterday it was just too late by the time I would’ve gotten around to it.

Anyway, the idea for Two for Tuesday is just to watch two films, no matter how different they may be. Yesterday’s choices were disparate indeed: they were Mrs. Miniver and the aforementioned feature film cut of Blake of Scotland Yard.

Mrs. Miniver

Mrs. Miniver (MGM)

This is another film I watched for 31 Days of Oscar. What was frustrating to learn was that this was during a Greer Garson block on TCM wherein her five consecutive best Actress nominations were shown. This is a feat that was only matched once, by Bette Davis. It makes sense to feature Garson, however, because I, like most, am underexposed to her. With Robert Osborne doing the introduction there was much to be learned. First being that the role of Mrs. Miniver was originally offered to Norma Shearer. Shearer didn’t want to play the mother of a fully grown son, as there’s a stigma of being an aged actress attached and thus it was offered to Greer Garson who at the time didn’t want to do it either but didn’t have the clout to turn it down. The age concern was such that Garson according to the studio was 34 but in actuality was 37 at the time. Thankfully she did it and it worked out wonderfully.

This film swept away quite a few Oscars and it’s not a wonder. Suffice it to say I just thought myself brash in guessing it was nominated for 10 Oscars, I underestimated it. It was up for 12 and won six. This film also bears a stamp this time is that of William Wyler. Wyler, who despite winning three Oscars and the Irving G. Thalberg Award doesn’t seem to get as much recognition as a man who has a similar name to him, Billy Wilder. Wyler’s film’s are always well-shot and moreover beautifully framed. This film also has a quiet realistic tension to when Mrs. Miniver (Garson) is held captive in her own house by a wounded German soldier there is no scoring it’s all quite realistically handled. Then there is shockingly good sound design that also makes you flinch as you see the quiet, simple village life disturbed by air raids.

It’s also not a wonder that there was pressure on MGM to get this film released to show the American public what life in Europe was like during the war. It’s also no surprise that this film was added to the National Film Registry in 2009.

There was also the wonderfully woven in subplot of the flower show. This not only demonstrated class differences and stasis in society but as things developed came to symbolize the solidarity of a nation. As Mr. Ballard says “There’ll always be roses.” A beautifully deft and understated way of saying the world will go on and life will persist despite what may try to ravage it. I could go on elaborating the naturalistic-humanistic symbolism of the film ad nauseum but you get the idea.

However, the poetics of the film do not halt there. During one of the first air raids the Mr. (Walter Pidgeon) stay awake as their young children do manage to fall asleep and they discuss their love for, and recite the ending of, Alice in Wonderland. The words made far more haunting and beautiful due to the backdrop and wonderful example of artistic re-appropriation of material.

Christopher Severn, Walter Pidgeon and Calre Sandars in Mrs. Miniver (MGM)


There were also some notable long take and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Wyler allowed the camera to roll a bit to see what his actors did. One example of this, and the genesis of this idea for me, is when Mr. Miniver and his young son Toby (Christopher Severn) and young daughter (Clare Sandars) are looking into one of the rooms of their house after an air raid taking in the damage. they look for quite a bit of time such that it feels like the scene should end but then Toby kicks a piece of rubble over the step and laughs, forcing a smile from his father. Whether improvised or whether this long pause was dictated kudos are still in store for Wyler.

Mrs. Miniver (MGM)

The very ending is also remarkable without giving too much away. There is a great reveal of the roof of the church most of which is missing. Through the hole in the roof can be seen bombers off to another battle as the congregation sings “Onward Christian Soldiers.” You can protest as much as you like about the propagandist nature of this ending or of mixing religion and war but without even involving politics it’s a great piece of cinema that ending.

In the interest of not spoiling too much I avoided the plotline of Vin (Richard Ney) and Carol (Teresa Wright, who also won an Oscar for her role) it is a major component of the story as it is a love affair that springs from a subplot and becomes quite an important and poignant part of the film. One interesting note was that the part was originally offered to Montgomery Clift who turned it down because it came with the stipulation that he sign with MGM for seven years. Clift, and the industry apparently, felt his time would come and he stayed on Broadway in the meantime.

This movie slowly and steadily rolls itself along picking up meaning and creating a tense environment in the characters. There is no real resolution within the narrative, as they are still in the midst of war but life goes on and “There will always be roses.”

Blake of Scotland Yard (1937; theatrical cut)

One thing that could’ve been added to my manifesto is that I want to try not to be redundant. I realize that I just posted about this here but yesterday I saw this version mostly for lack of something better to do and time. I will try not to over-elaborate but merely convey how utterly gutted I found this film.

The main thing that’s off when you lop 75% off a story is pace. There are moments that are far too slow or protracted and then some that whiz by in a blur, the film ends up being shorter than it feels because of that. There are far too many characters involved in this tale for it to only run 71 minutes and taking out so much you lose clues, speculation and discovery of facts and are left with basically an inciting incident, a long chase which becomes tiresome and a final reveal that is still a surprise because you had little time to wonder who the scorpion could be and were busy trying to figure out what’s up. I had issues following it and I’ve seen the longer version twice I can’t imagine the uninitiated confusion upon viewing this mess.

The intent of this piece is to honor the original film as it was made. There were some notable players involved in this such as Ralph Byrd who played Dick Tracy in more than one incarnation, Joan Barclay who starred alongside Douglas Fairbanks in The Gaucho and Dickie Jones who later went on to voice Pinocchio. There’s also a lot of good story cut out: There is a big arc with the false beggar that here seems pointless, there is Baron Polinka who is oft suspected and one of his catchphrases that cracked me up (“But I’m Baron Polinka”) is missing from this, even the tertiary involvement of Scotland Yard, which is in the title here seems unnecessary.

The only thing I liked is that it made me nostalgic for the original version. This one also gave you a virtually muted soundtrack as the theme rarely played within scenes but was always played in titles which, of course, you only see once here. Due to the desire there are some weird and bad cuts including a very awkward “If you can’t solve it, dissolve it.”

As a DVD presentation it is also a failure: it looks like there are VHS tracking lines at the bottom as if this was a dub and there’s no resume play option so when I stopped I had to find a spot within the chapter.

Ultimately, this proved it’s a failed concept as you see a long but simply-told tale diluted into a short confused mess. I hope other distributors stick to full-length serials.