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

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Best Films of 2014: 10-1

This series began with installmens 25-21, 20-16, and 15-11, and concludes here.

10. Into the Woods

Into the Woods (2014, Disney)

Two years following Les Miserables it was actually hard to imagine watching a traditionally produced musical (Vocals recorded in studio and played back on set for syncing) being anywhere near as effective as the live audio-recording in the aforementioned film. While there are inherent moments where suspension of disbelief must be willful, it’s no different than any other musical once you know “how the sausage is made.” However, when you factor in the fact that I truly enjoy this music, the humorous take on the many fairy tales, and the fact that the cast really knocks it out of the park:

When judging the merits of a cast as a whole it can get complicated. All the consideration of course is about how the cast acquits itself within the work in question. The two biggest factors are usually the depth of the cast and how high the bar is set that the players are clearing. However, it must be acknowledged that when you think you know an actor and you see them surprise you that’s a great joy. That happens on a few occasions in this film. One of those instances is Chris Pine. Yes, having just seen Horrible Bosses 2 I knew he could be funny but his seemingly Shatner-inspired take on Prince Charming along with a good voice make his turn a joy. Meryl Streep is seemingly always in search of the next thing to show that she can also do and knocking one of the showstopping numbers out of the park is quite a boon. The portrayal of the Wolf in Into the Woods can be one of the most problematic, but Johnny Depp is in very good form here. Daniel Huttlestone follows through on one-upping his breakout in Les Mis. Tracey Ullman brings her usual persona and vocal chops the table. Christine Baranski is a very welcome addition to the cast. Lilla Crawford breaks out and is the stage-to-screen transition in this cast. James Corden may get the breakout performer from this cast showing great comic timing, and affable persona and vocals. Emily Blunt now adds leading lady in a musical to the list of things she can handle easily along with action star in the same year. All the cast get kudos for helping to make a traditionally produced (music recorded in studio and played back on set) musical watchable anew.

The editing, in fact, the entire production team depart-by-department excels. The only things that hold it back is that the edit could’ve been the slightest bit tighter in the home stretch, but it’s a film I already revisited and would gladly do so again soon.

9. Dawn of the of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014, 20th Century Fox)

Chimpanzees? How many times can chimpanzees, and other apes, really work? At this point it’s hard to say but what Matt Reeves did here was highly improbable. He not only made this one a dramatic, tense, quasi-tragic tale with few missteps he also made images ridiculous out of context work so effectively.

Not only did he do that but he managed a quantum of salvation on the first prequel without retconning the newly begun series, which is highly commendable. It’s impossible to say what the future of this series hold, but this is one of the too rare prequels that proves there can be more than a paint-by-numbers approach to these stories and something vital, important and current can come out of them.

8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014, Marvel)

I may have been one of the few who expected even more than I got out of Guardians of the Galaxy having prepared for that release by starting on the Marvel series when it began. While most were blindsided by all the fun they’d have (and it is) and how cute Baby Groot is (and he is) what may be overlooked is the game-changing effect this installment has on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one which also crossed over to the small screen and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

To say too much more would be to give it away, but I was quite floored with this one and got here and impact similar to those who lauded the first Cap I feel.

7. St. Vincent

St. Vincent (2014, The Weinstein Company)

As will be mentioned below the comedic and dramatic are balanced in this film, and the balancing act is not always an easy one in order to get equal effectiveness from both aspects. In actuality I feel St. Vincent works better with the more serious end of things. While the refreshing aspects of a New Age parochial school philosophy, some redefinition of sainthood do stand out, it is the common tropes where the careful handling of subjects by this film is best exemplified.

It also has a demanding conclusion for its young protagonist Jaeden Lieberher which he delivers on in spades. It may promise the classic manic depressive response (I laughed, I cried) but for me in this case it was true, and thoroughly enjoyable.

6. The Judge

The Judge (2014, Warner Bros.)

It may have looked at worse like award-baiting, or a star-tandem film, but It’s more than just Robert Duvall:

What takes Robert Duvall over the top is not just the exacting version of a crusty persona, not just the battle-weary fatigue of a life that’s fought back hard, but also the quiet truths that moments elicit from him. There is a universal individuality to character that he drives home, a kindness that exudes from beneath his gruffness and a sensitivity that circumstances and age bring forth from him.

And more than just Robert Downey, Jr.:

Robert Downey, Jr. is probably equally as capable as a serious and comedic actor. His sensitive portrayal of an estranged, jaded lawyer earns him a nomination anew.

Even I, likely in the interest of time and economy of words, underplayed his performance. It’s refreshing to see him playing a character who is a flawed, hurt human being without supreme wealth or superhero tools; there’s scarecely a false or wrong moment in the entire film. It’s a film good enough to go from the seeming ridiculousness of him urinating on opposing counsel at the beginning and then have the balance to later strike home with real emotional stakes to walk the tightrope of anticipated mourning and laughing off the inherent ridiculousness of certain white lies parents have to tell their kids as evidenced when Hank washes his father after he’s soiled himself and told his daughter what she needed to hear to not see it.

There are many moments not textbook that work on a number of notes in this film, and its that nebulous area of navigation that pulls it this high up the list.

5. Calvary

Calvary (2014, Fox Searchlight)

Transitioning from Saint Vincent where Brother Geraghty says that Catholicism is the best religion because it “Has the most rules,” to one about a Catholic priest, a good one facing a crisis on several fronts. In confessional his life is threatened in a week’s time. His questioning whether to name the parishioner (Doing so would violate an oath of his calling) and trying to dissuade him, forces him to reflect and question many things about life and faith and the state of the world.

It’s one of two films on this list that are about religion’s role in the modern world, unafraid to tell the stories that dabble in doubt, that do not pander, and lack preaching to a choir but rather represent the dilemmas facing the characters effectively and sensitively. Intelligent discourse on religious topics in this day and age are welcome.

Brendan Gleeson’s best actor turn can be attributed to:

..The seriocomic balance being a factor as well as how much of a load a lead had to factor is ultimately what leads to Brendan Gleeson to the top of the heap. In a tale of a good priest in a world that openly questions the role of religion in the secular lives of parishioners the easy temptation is to write and portray that character simplistically; this priest is anything but the same goes for Gleeson’s nuanced detailed performance.

It’s a film that allegorically reinterprets the passion and plays it in a modern context, but offers heart as well as questions, thought, critiques, humor, along with an example of piety.

4. Stations of the Cross

Stations of the Cross (2014, Beta Cinema)

When you hear that a film approaching two hours in length is comprised of 14 long-takes it can be hard to imagine sitting and watching it. However, when you take into account the film is called Stations of the Cross (Of which there are 14) then things start to coalesce a bit more.

Earlier this year I wrote a post where I chronicled how in one way or another Hollywood was fighting a losing battle in its attempt to provide faith-based entertainment. Whether it be the fault of the film, or the faithful there has usually been a disconnect. While on the indie circuit films like Calvary have proven that just because a film deals ostensibly with ecclesiastical concerns doesn’t mean it needs to pander or be bereft of intelligence as far too many faith-based films feel they need to be. In following a pattern where I have factored in the US distribution status of a film into choosing the recipient of this prize Stations of the Cross takes the cake here. The transparency with which this film transcribes the fourteen stations of the cross make it accessible and the debate or interpretation and non-judgmental character study make it a film that can be relatable to an audience whether they agree with the application of Catholicism practiced in this film or not.

3. Finn

Finn (2013, Attraction Distribution)

As I’ve done these lists for a few years the numbers on the list have started to take on a significance aside from their numeral. The number three has been a line of demarcation not just of the truly most exceptional of the year, but usually the spot where the most surprisingly great film of the year pops up:

This is a film populated by deceptively hard characters to play: Finn, has to be simultaneously precocious in that he seeks greater meanings in life and his activities, but naive enough to believe in the improbable and even impossible. The deft scripting assists in that regard but van der Hoeven is often the one, as the film’s namesake, carrying the scenes, who needs to connect with the audience and does. Shuurmans has to be simultaneously quiet definitively hurt and guarded. He has to be brusque with his son without ever alienating the audience and he succeeds in spades because as bad as the arguments get it’s always clear he is torn, has his reasons, but believes he’s doing right by his son.

The film flows with such ease that it washes over you like a dream, which is fitting. This is a factor that should also make this film one that’s conducive to revisiting. Considering that this film is repped by Attraction Distribution, who have had a good track record lately of getting European produced family fare seen in both Canada and the US, prospects of the audience for this film widening are quite good. This is most definitely a film worth finding. This kind of beauteous, lyrical family drama has nearly been the exclusive purview of Benelux in recent years. It is a moving, sincere film ought to be discovered, and one of the best of the year to date.

2. A Birder’s Guide to Everything

A Birder's Guide to Everything (2014, Screen Media Films)

One of the reasons that writing a list like this still serves a purpose even with a full awards slate are films like A Birder’s Guide to Everything this film, and the next one down, are full experiences, that are very strong across the board but may not have that standout big enough that earns a “prize” or a “sweep.” I feel I may have even parsed words too much in citing Smit-McPhee’s performance, the heart of the film, in the Best Performance by a Young Actor in a Leading Role write-up:

This all is not meant to detract from another sparkling turn by Kodi Smit-McPhee that made A Birder’s Guide to Everything one of the best films of the year,

Those sparse compliments extend to the cast as well:

the cast of Birder’s bring a lot of honesty, humor and heartfelt emotion to their roles

Those things (humor, honesty and heart) matter a great deal, especially the middle one because there doesn’t seem to be an abundance of that in North American films. There is a bit more in indies but not too much. This film delivers those qualities in spades, is wholly engaging and as a side effect brings a nerdy hobby into a cooler light.

1. The Way He Looks

The Way He Looks (2014, Strand Releasing)

By this point I’ve already written about this film quite a bit so it becomes a bit redundant to try and add too much more than I already said in the review:

One of the most fascinating angles this film takes on is naturally the addition of an omnipresent burden or condition that makes the awakening of sexuality, and the self-realization of sexual identity, a bit more difficult. It’s also a quietly made statement about the fact that one’s sexual orientation is merely a part of a person’s identity. When examining the narrative progression in retrospect it’s clear some of his dissatisfaction and desire to find himself, perhaps abroad, has its roots in this as-of-yet unrealized facet of his personality.

And in the BAM Awards post:

When all is said and done the statement The Way He Looks is never overt, but always clear. There are any number of ways you can extrude Leonardo’s blindness into a statement about love, but the film allows you to do that yourself and never says so in so many words. The delicacy of the handling of the story, the warmth it exudes throughout and the investment made in the characters that has you understanding their plight quite well is what makes the film’s conclusion so satisfactory and so well earned.

And to close, it’s a tremendous stride for Brazilian cinema who has submitted some controversial choices for the Oscars. This seems to follow an upward trend and also follows up on the work that North Sea Texas did a few years ago for gay cinema.

1984 Blogathon: Devil Fish

Introduction

When deciding what to pick for a 1984-themed blogathon there were many great options. It was a great year. However, many of those were taken so I thought it’d be fun to go off the beaten path. At first I considered something foreign or very obscure. What ended up happening was that it turns out I had written about many of my favorites already. So that introduced a new possibility: something memorably bad; the only debate was “Do I want to write about two bad movies in a row?”

When I decided I did I was instantly surprised. Little did I know that when I chose Devil Fish there would be quite a few things about it to uncover that I had not known prior to starting on this post.

In the beginning, when I first saw it it was just another in the myriad of unfortunate works of cinema that Mystery Science Theatre 3000 introduced me to. Having revisited the film and asking myself questions like “Who wrote this?” and “Who directed this?” I came across some interesting answers that with more experience allowed me to better understand one of the eternal questions about bad films which is “What the hell happened there?”

So the first and most significant discovery I made regarding this film was that the director behind the credit of John Old, Jr. is in fact Lamberto Bava. This being the same Lamberto Bava of Macabre, and a film I have come to love when I just had to see it (as I wrote a short script in the same milieu) Demons. As it turns out he slapped a pseudonymous credit on a few of his works that were in the Italian low-budget rip-off arena. Fashioning this nom de plume after his father’s. Legendary Italian director Mario Bava had many great films but he did the occasional film he felt the need to take a John Old credit for.

Devil Fish is one of countless titles that have sought to cheaply gain an audience by playing off the popularity of Jaws, which will be eternal. I’m not one who tosses about the rip-off phrase about lightly. However, one can scarcely find a shark movie made after 1975 that doesn’t pattern itself after Jaws in some way, shape or form. This doesn’t have the failed tongue-in-cheek homages that say Sharknado has, but it definitely borrows liberally and was produced less than a decade after the original while Universal was still littering the landscape with subpar sequels.

Behind-The-Scenes

Devil Fish (1984, Cinema Shares International)

So that was one thing, but wait there’s more! As it turns out most of the behind-the-scenes talent took on pseudonyms as well. Usually in this case they are somewhat anglicized versions of their given names. For example, cinematographer Giancarlo Ferrando became John McFerrand. Now, one could try to argue that part of the attempt is to make the film seem more genuinely American-made. However, all of the cast doesn’t play ball and one of the go-to jokes for the MST3K crew was “We’re from Europe!” so no one was being fooled.

Beyond the names there are plenty of things to scratch your head about in wonder, or to at least note. Firstly, is that much in the Italian tradition actors came from all over the place and spoke several different languages while the camera rolled and then the dialogue was dubbed to create a uniform soundtrack. That by itself does not guarantee a bad film. I’ve seen well-dubbed works and many of the better low-budget Italian films were made the same way.

Getting back to the Jaws rip-off angle leads to one of the most infuriating parts of this film. There are several underwater shots that are supposed to tease the creature much like Bruce was scarcely seen. The problem here is that it is very difficult to decipher, at times, exactly what you are looking at. Instead of suspense all this builds is confusion, sighs and unintended humor.

The aforementioned John McFerrand’s score is one of the facets that heavily confuses the issue in this film. It sounds like the kind of antithetical music that makes a lot of giallo and Italian horror work but here it just seems to be terribly out of place, drown things out and distract from what the film is trying to accomplish. Just what that is at times is also confused, but you know what I mean.

Dialogue

Devil Fish (1984, Cinema Shares International)

What would a bad movie be without bad dialogue? It’s almost impossible. Much as great movies have memorable lines, bad movies do as well. A few gems that really stand out. Here are a few of those notable exchanges:

“Full of hate?”
“Hate.”
“Yes…That’s it….hate.”

“Do you think it was an accident or that she committed suicide?”
“I don’t know I think that’s for you to decide.”
“Yeah, right on. I think I’ll decide on suicide.”

“Lots of new things in this town lately waitresses, sharks, and ladies who call a taxi and take a bath.”

“A million years of solitude is a long time. I bet it’s just dying to boff something.”

Editing

Devil Fish (1984, Cinema Shares International)

In continuing the laundry list there is also a fair deal of editorial redundancy in this film. The uninspired editing is due to a number of factors namely the script and budget (which influences the tight schedule this film was made on). Aside from the vague shots of the fish that are supposed induce suspense there are also several shots cutting to Peter drinking repeatedly.

Those motifs aside there are mysterious individual cuts like a cutaway to slow-motion pan up phone line to a clock.

Some support for the effects of the schedule and budget can be found in a Michael Skopkiw online interview here:

I would love to know the definition or formula for a “cult classic”. Lamberto was a very nice, gentle guy as most of the Italians are. But you know, the budget on these films would prohibit a Ron Howard from making anything great! These directors are working with a cast from at least three different countries speaking diverse languages and a mixed crew of Italian /American production team on a very tight budget. Lamberto , like most of the foreign crew, loved coming to the States and drinking in as much of our culture as they could get. (The hills of Georgia have a unique personality somewhat portryed [sic] in this film.) We had a crisis one day as a holiday was approaching and the Iataian [sic] film crew wanted to get back to their families. We had been working for 13, I think, long consecutive days in freezing mountain water and adverse conditions and both the cast and Lamberto were wearing thin. The crew wanted to plow right through but I had a good talk with Lamberto and pointed out how the film suffered further if we just continued. He finally went to the producers and they gave us a day off (which they were contractually obliged to anyway). So he did have a heart and tried to do what he could with what he had.

However, the decisions are the decisions regardless of what forced them and many films have succeeded with small budgets and tight schedules, myriad examples of both exist running the gamut of genres.

Even when cuts aren’t technically awkward the narrative makes them aesthetically unintentionally comedic or uncomfortable like a cut from a dolphin to a legless corpse and a cross-cutting sequence between a sex scene (that’s fairly gratuitous) and a murder.

Blame

Devil Fish (1984, Cinema Shares International)

In terms of writing it could be the speed and the number of chefs in the kitchen that lead to a film that referring to as half-baked would be greatly generous.

As I’ve intimated before one cannot blame the inspiration for what the inspired do with it. Meaning that you can’t hold it against Psycho for the rash of slasher films that eventually took their cue from it. Similarly, Jaws cannot be held accountable for the rash of pale imitations telling tales of terrors from the deep.

Characterization

Devil Fish (1984, Cinema Shares International)

In this film the characters don’t really get established, they just are. If you need further evidence of this it gets reinforced later on when there’s a climactic scene, where the stakes should be high and the revelation is large and to an extent you’re confused as to who the parties are; therefore, you haven’t time to care about what they have to hide and what they have to gain.

Part of that has to do with how many characters there are and another part of it has to do with the dubbing. I’ve written on dubbing a few times. In short, my stance is that it can be an artform, there is a technique to it and it can be well done, but all too often it is not. In this film is most definitely a detriment. It’s not just about matching, but about performance, but when the same language is not being spoken on set you have a harder time creating a unified vision on film.

Backfiring

Devil Fish (1984, Cinema Shares International)

It seems almost impossible to say after all of this, however, all is not entirely lost in this film. However, in the true nature of this film that adds to the frustration instead of just imbuing a modicum of appreciation. There are themes that excised from the narratives are fine. There are permutations of the giant, monstrous fish tale that aren’t terrible.The isolated concept of manipulating science, the twists employed, underwater knife fights and not seeing the monster are fine when all has not already been lost. When the movie has already lost hope then these things just make it longer, more boring, unintentionally comedic and worse.

As if you needed further proof that there are things worth working with here this film was remade as Sharktopus on Syfy a few years back. Likely another wasteful effort, but there was something to mine there indeed.

Furthermore, touching on the aforementioned twist again, the mysteries this film plays hurt it. It’s a case where perhaps further, quicker revelation would have elevated it.

Conclusion

Devil Fish (1984, Cinema Shares International)

What is there to conclude about a film such as this? Not much different than other terrible movies that are of the MST3K ilk. I recall reading about The Beast of Yucca Flats and its making, or watching the special features on their take of Manos: Hands of Fate; what I got there was there’s always a story and that was the spirit I undertook this venture in. What was surprising was that I found more of a story than I expected. Having said all this, can I, as I did with Reefer Madness, recommend you watch this anyway? I can’t do so without aid from the Satellite of Love. Your tolerance for cheese has to be really high. If you want to see either Bava at their best I suggest you stray from titles where they were credited as being “Old,” unless you want to end up prematurely in that state yourself.

Accidentally Hilarious Blogathon: Reefer Madness (1936)

If you have not yet seen Reefer Madness, be mindful that it will only consume a little more than an hour of your life. Now you may want to read what I have to say about it before investing said time. One thing that I can tell you is that movies so bad that they make me crack up are rare. Probably even more rare than “Bad Movies I Love.” So the fact that I’ve subjected myself to Reefer Madness a few times, only once with the aid of Rifftrax (the MST3K guys’ new riffing outfit) should say something about it, or me, or both.

In brief, this is a propagandist cautionary tale about the extraordinarily exaggerated dangers of marijuana usage. I am not condoning or condemning recreational drug usage, but if you’ve seen enough movies or TV, or lived in reality, you’ve seen the effects of various narcotics on people. One of the strangest things about this film is that they often seem like they’re on something else entirely, sometimes something you may have never even heard of rarely does it strike one as even a caricature of marijuana usage.

If there is one think I can credit Reefer Madness with is that it changed its title from Tell Your Children to Reefer Madness. It’s a smart marketing move, but also it’s less vague and more closely reflects the rather asinine levels of hysteria that this movie engages in. It’s propaganda to the nth degree, and that in an of itself is not a bad thing. There are films that are very openly propaganda that work to this day. Some seem rather innocuous like The Childhood of Maxim Gorky, others are frightening in their effectiveness and their reflection of a time like Triumph of the Will.

Reefer Madness (1936)

The standard disclaimer prior to the film that had just recently become Hollywood standard operating procedure due to a lawsuit (the one about similarities to real people being coincidence) rings particularly hilarious, not just because of the browbeating foreword that makes allusions to gangsters and also employs the old spelling of marijuana (with an “H” instead of a “J”). However, the unintentional humor this film finds is not just through dated syntax and cinematic techniques. If your tolerance for that is nil almost anything might be funny if it wasn’t meant to be.

Reefer Madness (1936)

Now clearly some of it is attributable to the time in which this film was produced. Whether the statements that marijuana was the worst drug around (Worse than heroin or opium) was commonplace it’s clear that those beliefs are no longer commonplace. And it would seem they were never deemed factual:

What makes Reefer Madness so notorious is its utter disregard for truth, and over-the-top dramatization. It should be noted however that the movie was made with the complete cooperation of the DEA then known as the Bureau of Narcotics.

The narrator [theoretically a high school principal, Dr. Alfred Carroll] warns parents about the dangers . . . “Marihuana is… an unspeakable scourge –the Real Public Enemy Number One! Its first effect is sudden violent, uncontrollable laughter, then come dangerous hallucinations, the loss of all power to resist physical emotions, leading finally to acts of shocking violence…ending often in incurable insanity.” He tells us how “time slows down…almost stops,” that it is “worse than heroin.” Can it get any worse?

Reefer Madness (1936)

Most frequently the chuckles here come from the stiff acting (in straight scenes, even for the time) and the the awkward blocking of characters whether its the dancing, the interpretation of what being high is or other manic behaviors; or in the framing scenes with the didactic lens-spiking and finger-pointing.

The dialogue isn’t exempt from inducing laughter; things like “All you gotta do is keep him from having too many reefers” or “She’s dead. Mae, get me some water” or the audacity to have Shakespeare be poorly recited by these line-readers.

However, the more frequent offender is unquestionably the facial reactions of certain characters. They are almost always overboard and occasionally mystifying as to what is being reacted to, or precisely what it intended – a prolonged stare is only assumed to be murderous rage because we understand the narrative not because the actor staring is conveying the proper emotion. The fact that most of these instances occur when characters are high really undercuts the intent, such as it is. An intent mind you that the foreword of the film clearly states, which is simply something that should not be done.

Reefer Madness (1936)

Another issue is a seemingly all-too-frequent tactic by propaganda films which is framing an innocent for some crime and having them saved by intervention to see the error of their ways. If they really wanted these things to work they would go full on tragedy. Not that it’d make the movie good, but more effective.

When fundamentals like editing lack on top of everything else just enumerated the film will never “work” except to make you laugh when you ought not. Of course, with a running time of just over an hour that dictates that a lot of things happen immediately: upon first puff of smoke you want to dance to something “hot” and engage in spastic bliss, the act of smoking itself becomes euphoric like a dumb baby eating candy. The editorial issues in narrative and technical terms are great, the logic flaws and exaggeration, such as a secondhand story of someone being rendered permanently insane by marijuana, take it over the edge.

Even who the protagonist is and what’s the central event seems in doubt in Act III. The trial is the logical assumption but it crosscuts so quickly with all the other balls in the air that its hard for that to have any impact. Indicative of the nature of the film even things that almost work falter and go too far over the top (which is more attributable to direction than anything else).

Reefer Madness (1936)

As I’ve said, this one does make me chuckle, even as bad and as hard to watch as it is. It does have a narrative so to speak which put it above the several MST3K-ilk films where what the point is is doubtful. Aside from its being a few levels up the dung heap another positive thing is that among credited cast members only Kenneth Craig (Bill, a second banana good-boy-gone-bad) claims this as his only film credit so it didn’t instantly kill careers not even the token kid Junior (Harry Harvey, Jr.).

And having slammed it, and explained why I find it so fun to laugh at this film several times over, I will close on a more positive note: this is a film made in 1936 that was re-released three years later, then 13 years later rebranded with the title that would cling to it to this day. Sure it’s infamous, but its a cult film for better or worst. The Rifftrax I referred to was in 2011 on a Thursday night and it was the most packed theater at a multiplex in my hometown, which is not exactly a cinematic mecca. That says something. And I think when you boil it down, the bad movies that survive are the ones made with earnest intentions by some, if not all the cast and crew. That’s true of Troll 2 and certainly true of Reefer Madness. The people who fashioned this meant well in their own head, they probably didn’t achieve the immortality they wanted with this film but the audience always has the final verdict and to this day we find this one accidentally hilarious.

Funny Lady Blogathon: Louise Fazenda

Introduction

When I heard about Movies, Silently’s blogathon about funny women the first name that came to mind was Louise Fazenda’s, and that was almost instant. However, unlike in my recent Children in Film Blogathon post wherein I knew Jackie Searl’s works, but had just discovered a new side of his them; here I’d quite honestly never heard of Louise Fazenda until I read the wonderful book The Keystone Kid.

The Keystone Kid is part film history and part memoir. The recollections of Coy Watson, Jr. speak most fondly of Louise Fazenda, not only as she became a close family friend, but also of her talents as a comedienne.

My discovering Fazenda’s work, any of it really, is a testament to the importance of The Keystone Kid as a document of film history. As we move further and further in time from given eras in the artform, thumbnail sketches and one line synopses become what we take to be the truth about era, films and performers alike, while other instrumental figures can be forgotten entirely.

Coy Watson

Examples of this would be that through Watson’s book I learned that Bobs, whose talent and fame for crying I knew and have been witness to, was the youngest of a large family; that Coy, Sr. was a pioneer in wire effects in Hollywood and that there was an actress named Louise Fazenda who was highly regarded. However, even in wanting to give her what was her due, and he did so citing her notoriety; and two stories (one on set and one off), I still knew nothing of her really, and I was very intrigued. This was not just because she was an unknown silent actress to me, but also because even her name, which means farm in Portuguese, fascinated me. It was a decidedly “un-American” surname yet remained unchanged.

Method

Louise Fazenda

So this post has that element of excitement wherein I’m not coming of a position of having known a bit about, and having insights into, said performer, but instead was discovering her. And that’s great because part of why I don’t read books about film as voraciously as I could is that element of “I wanna see that, and that and that” for various reasons and being disappointed to find said titles are rare or hard-to-find.

My tactics in finding her, owing to the fact that I didn’t have too much time to get cracking, were to hit two internet resources one was YouTube, the other the Internet Archive. I didn’t scour compilations as it may have taken too long to uncover he appearances there.

The films I was able to see all or part of were as follows:

Your Show of Shows (1929)
Wilful Ambrose (1915)
Ambrose’s Fury (1915)
When Ambrose Dared Walrus (1915)
Ambrose’s Lofty Perch (1916)
Ambrose’s Nasty Temper (1917)
Once Over Lightly (1944)
The Bat (1926)
Her Fame and Shame (1917)
Her Torpedoed Love (1917)
A Versatile Villain (1915)

General Impressions

The Old Maid (1939, Warner Bros.)

If I had only seen Once Overly Lightly, a 1944 moviereel style compilation of many silent films with a voice-over track full of insincere wistfulness and backhanded apologies for silent tropes; I still would’ve known little. Again she’s cited as one of the best but all that’s cut into the film is one very apt pratfall. This release being just five years after her last credit mind you.

Yes, Louise Fazenda survived into the sound era. As the first clip I watched showed (Her segement in Your Show of Shows), though she was playing the straight man, she remained quite funny, versatile and had a pleasant speaking voice. She had a good run in the transition to sound, at least in terms of years, it seemed apparent even in 1929 that writers didn’t know what to do with her talking though – a harbinger of the influx of stage influence in the craft of writing and acting perhaps.

So those first two bits only gave me small glimpses. As I sat down to write this I wondered, maybe the internet has some insights. I found on Golden Silents her bio from Who’s Who on Screen 1920:

“Louise Fazenda, famous Mack Sennett comedienne, was born in Lafayette, Indiana and educated in Los Angeles. After a short season in stock she secured an emergency engagement with Universal, going from there to Keystone and Mack Sennett. Miss Fazenda scored notable success in “The Kentucky Lady,” “Her First Mistake,” “Her Screen Idol,” “The Village Chestnut,” “The Village Smithy,” “The Foolish Age,” “Hearts and Flowers,” “Treating ‘Em Rough,” “Back to the Kitchen,” and “Down on the Farm.” She is five feet, five inches tall, and weighs a hundred and thirty-eight pounds. Her hair is light and her eyes are blue. In spite of her remarkable characterizations of homely girls, Miss Fazenda is one of the screen’s most beautiful actresses.”

Louise Fazenda

At least, here you see some popular titles at the time. It can be worth looking into those down the line, but I’m fairly sure that time has been very unkind to many of her earlier works. Oddly enough through my viewing over this week, I didn’t see what was cited as her staple character:

Her best known character was her country bumpkin — complete with spit curls, multiple pigtails, and calico dresses, a look that went on to inspire such later comics as Judy Canova and Minnie Pearl.

However, I did see her range one of the amazing things I picked up by watching Fazenda, even in the fleeting glimpses I saw, was that there is an elasticity, a chameleon-like quality to her appearance. In the teens she played lovestruck young ladies and matronly housewives. When you compare that to her appearance in Your Show of Shows, she looked more refined, mature (as she could look) but hardly like 14 years had passed.

Louise Fazenda

Sure there was movie magic even back at the very beginning but ones facial structure and the quality of their features have to be perfectly conducive to such a seamless transformation. Fazenda did what needed doing to create her character and seemed to take it seriously even in entirely goofy films. That grounding in reality, even of just one element can be essential for comedic success. It’s not a wonder that legend has it that Mack Sennett would bring in Fazenda to try and quiet Mabel Normand’s comments on the caliber of films Keystone put out.

Fazenda seems to have a physicality that’s ahead of her time, possessing not only natural ability but the innate ability to seem natural on screen. Silents weren’t communicating with words so gestures, movements and looks had to be exaggerated such that those who could be big but also convey and get desired results with restraint are noteworthy. As cameras moved closer to actors broader was no longer better and those who could make subtle communicative gestures continued to work consistently. Fazenda proved early on she had that innate ability.

Her facial expression in Wilful Ambrose as she lines up a “bonk” in Wilful Ambrose is priceless. A husband being smashed on the head is a standard bit, but to make the anticipation funnier than the result is great and the mark of a good comedian. All of these traits, including a good singing voice, were on display in the sound era.

In The Bat you can see that she was the comic relief and brought that levity when needed but her fear always seemed very real. She instantly asserts her presence. Her character, for as superstitious as she is, is often correct to be fearful and it ends up being one of the charms of the film. While that film had its failings it is perhaps the best illustration of her persona that I was able to see: deft physical comedy and seriously grounded commitment.

Conclusion

The Bat (1926)

Going back around to the beginning, it really is a wonder what The Keystone Kid, or any written work about film can do. You open the book with a vague interest in the subject matter and learn of very specific avenues to explore. They are entryways to new constellations in the universe of film. Due to this book I now have definitive thoughts on why Louise Fazenda is great. I no longer take that statement and remember it like a cinematic platitude such as film X is great and film Y is such-and-such’s best. I’ve now seen some of her work for myself.

If a piece of film writing leads you find one new artist of film it’s done a great service. If you find many it’s a debt that can never be repaid save to thanks again. I am now a fan Louise Fazenda’s thanks to Coy Watson, Jr.’s book, and I’m quite grateful I am.

It’s An Honor Just To Be Nominated

Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowall in Cleopatra (20th Century Fox)

“It’s a an honor just to be nominated” is a phrase that’s such a truism that it rings empty and hollow. In fact, you hardly hear it anymore, however, I do believe actors when they do say it. The fact is there are only so many Oscar nominations to go around such that many very, very talented people never even get so much as nominated. While some have one standout performance that grabs everyone’s attention. Below you will find a list that could be longer of some notable actors who never even were nominated for supporting or leading actor/actress prizes.

Pictured above is one of the more unfortunate cases: critics at the time and film historians agree that Roddy McDowall was a virtual lock for Best Supporting Actor in Cleopatra. However, a clerical error submitted him as a lead. Fox tried to rectify the mistake but the Academy wouldn’t allow it thus McDowall was not even nominated. An ad taken out by Fox apologizing for the oversight and commending McDowall’s performance was a poor consolation prize at best.

Best Non-Oscar Nominees

1. Christopher Lee
2. Bela Lugosi
3. Boris Karloff
4. Vincent Price
5. Edward G. Robinson
6. Mae West
7. Michael Keaton
8. Peter Lorre
9. Mel Gibson
10. Sonia Braga
11. Alan Rickman
12. Fernanda Torres
13. Roddy McDowall
14. John Barrymore
15. Joseph Cotten
16. Errol Flynn
17. Bob Hope
18. Lloyd Bridges
19. W.C. Fields
20. Lon Chaney, Jr.
21. Victor Mature
22. Conrad Veidt
23. Peter Cushing
24. Donald Sutherland
25. Eli Wallach
26. Robert Blake
27. Malcolm McDowell
28. Kurt Russell
29. Martin Sheen
30. Christopher Lloyd
31. Jeff Goldblum
32. Steve Buscemi
33. Kevin Bacon
34. Vincent D’Onofrio
35. Marilyn Monroe
36. Jean Harlow
37. Rita Hayworth
38. Myrna Loy
39. Hedy Lamarr
40. Tallulah Bankhead
41. Maureen O’ Sullivan
42. Betty Grable
43. Jane Russell
44. Jeanne Moreau
45. Barbara Steele
46. Mia Farrow
47. Margot Kidder
48. Jamie Lee Curtis
49. Meg Ryan
50. Ellen Barkin
51. Isabelle Huppert
52. Shelley Duvall
53. Madeline Stowe

Review- Due Date

Robert Downey, Jr. and Zach Galifianakis in Due Date (Warner Bros.)

If you’re trying to decide whether or not you should see Due Date it boils down to one key question: How big a fan of Zach Galifianakis are you? As a film it passes marginally. As a showcase for Galifianakis and all his quirks it soars. So that is really what’ll tip the scales for you one way or another.

The epitome of this is shown through the fact that his character who is an aspiring actor seeking to move out to LA. A doubtful Downey Jr. asks him to play out a scenario for him. On his second chance, after another false start, he really shines and it’s a great moment.

Before getting into some of the issues that do face this film it does need saying that this is indeed a very funny film. The three men who deliver the largest doses of that comedy are, of course, Galifianakis, Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx. Some of the situations are also rather humorous so that helps buoy the film along.

The major hurdle this film faces is the question of how forgiving are we as an audience and in turn should our protagonist be. Some of Ethan’s (Galiafianakis’s) mistakes are through sheer ignorance and naivete but towards the end you learn something that really changes things and you stop for a second and wonder how it would really pan out or how you’d prefer it to pan out, depending on your level of outrage.

Granted Galifianakis’s character does not have bad intentions he is just very socially maladjusted and awkward but still everyone has a breaking point and perhaps this had exceeded it. Only the logic that he does have to get there for the birth of his child and he’s already gotten so far really makes it feasible.

The baby brings to mind another quibble: the film plays up the “Is she cheating subplot?” a lot. Such that you think it’s a definite only to squash it. It only ends up being good for some humor but it went too far in terms of circumstantial evidence to be brushed aside so simply.

There are many good laughs to be had in this film it’s just the form it takes and some of the decisions that it makes along the way that are counterproductive to it reaching maximum effectiveness.

6/10

Due Date is out on DVD today.