The Citadel (1938): Robert Donat’s First Oscar Nominated Performance

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by Paul Batters

Robert Donat is perhaps one of the most loved actors from the golden years of Hollywood and is best remembered for his Oscar winning performance in Goodbye Mr Chips (1939). It was and still is a beautiful and heart-warming performance, and deserves to be remembered as it still resonates with audiences today. It is one of my favourite films which I discovered as a child but it was not my first experience watching Robert Donat. That discovery came with the film which would draw his first Oscar nomination; 1938’s The Citadel. 

It’s also a performance that does not get the acclaim that it deserves and has been greatly overshadowed by the film which eventually brought Donat his Oscar win in 1939.

Based on A.J Cronin’s novel. The Citadel tells the story of Dr. Andrew Manson (Robert Donat) and follows a character arc which sees him shift from a young, idealistic doctor looking to bring change to the world to losing his faith in himself and the world and discovering it again. As a result, the story still resonates and there are some powerful themes that also still resonate, particularly in light of the current socio-economic and political climate of today – the divisions of class that exist within society, the contrasting lives of the poor and the privileged, the lack of health care for the poor and needy and certainly the lack of action on the part of the authorities to accept the need for change and adopt new technologies as well as new thinking.

Yet at the very personal level there exists something that is timeless; the idealism of youth that turns to disillusionment and despair. Critic David Kehr outlines in his review that director King Vidor was always fascinated by the concept of personal rebirth and that certainly comes through strong in the film, as evidenced by the uplifting climax. If anything, it is the central theme of the film which also has a powerful universal connection to audiences. How many of us have felt our idealism slip away or eroded over time or indeed even destroyed quite suddenly? And how many of us have rediscovered that idealism? Two deeply personal questions but ones that legendary directors like Vidor were driven by and Donat certainly seeks to channel answers through his portrayal of Dr. Manson.

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The young doctor is assigned to the mining village of Blaenely, working under the tutelage of Dr. Page (Basil Gill). The opening scenes show Manson’s excitement as he travels there by train, looking at the countryside as well as some of the conditions the men are working under. There is a foreshadowing of what he will face and perhaps what will temper (and then mute) his idealism when he is warned by the coach driver.

Initially, Manson works hard to treat the local miners and notices that their impoverished life and conditions leave them in misery. Yet all his attempts to bring positive change are thwarted, not only by the authorities but also by the miners themselves. He finds friendship in fellow doctor Denny (Ralph Richardson) who will be a great support and indeed share the same ideal, going to incredible and dangerous lengths to do something about the problems of a possible typhoid break out in the town. True happiness will be found in Christine, a school teacher (Rosalind Russell), whom he will marry afters securing his position as a doctor, although their first meeting will not be a pleasant one. However, after Christine comes to him as a patient for a sore throat, something happens between them. But it seems it is not enough and all his efforts in the town come to nothing, leaving the young dejected and lost, and after a particularly traumatic incident, the couple move to London.

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It will be here that he runs into an old classmate from medical school, Dr.Lawrence (Rex Harrison) and Manson finds himself converted to Lawrence’s way of thinking, to Christine’s disappointment. He becomes a very successful doctor for the upper class of London and enjoys the benefits and money that comes with it. But at what cost?

 

This reviewer will not divulge what follows but it will take not only Christine’s pleading to remember who he was and the ideals they both shared, as well as some tragedy, for Manson to realise what has happened to him. Again, Dr. Manson will find the fire within to act for what is best and the final scene is a strong ending, befitting theme of rebirth which Vidor felt so driven by in his films.

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Robert Donat planned his portrayal carefully, measured within the development of his craft and particularly the development of ‘The Emotion Chart’, that was used in preparation for his role as Dr. Manson. Donat saw the importance of regulating the emotional content of the performance, using the character arc as the guide and plotting the emotional response to the ups and downs of the character’s life.  Vicky Lowe’s article in Film History (2007) looks at Donat’s methodology used in The Citadel with incredible depth. She points out that Donat allowed his acting to be informed by other moments in the story whilst in character and thus using the appropriate emotional timbre for that moment, dependant on what had happened before and afterwards in the plot. As a result, the audience can see the dissolving of Manson’s moral resolve and his idealism dissipating which will lead him to a more lucrative professional outlook, underpinned by his disillusionment. But the audience also see Manson’s growth through the key turning points in the film, particularly the first where Manson first feels like a ‘real doctor’ when he saves the premature Morgan baby. Donat’s whole approach to the moment draws our empathy and it is the moment that connection is made firmly with the deepest investment into the character of Dr. Manson. Naturally, this is beautifully aided by the camera work, using close-ups on Donat’s face and so it is through his experience and interpretation that the moment is experienced by the audience. His point of view and his vocation as a doctor finally becomes a reality for both Manson and the audience.

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The whole cast is exceptional with outstanding British luminaries such as Richardson, Harrison, Emily Williams and a host of other familiar faces from British stage and screen. As a prestige MGM feature made and produced in Britain, the authenticity is not lost with the addition of the beautiful Rosalind Russell, who was the only American in the cast. According to her fascinating autobiography, Life is a Banquet, Russell did not feel particularly welcome as the local British industry felt an English girl should have held the role. Any animosity certainly did not transfer onto the screen and Russell is outstanding in her supporting role, which she had built a career on at that time at MGM. But Russell’s character of Christine is far more than that; she is a strong character who works to revive Manson’s conscience and rediscover his idealism.

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In truth, the film runs close to the wind in terms of preachiness but when considering the state of the world in 1938, it is understandable. Additionally, the film was a first to champion the need for reform in medical institutions which was quite a courageous act as well. Sally Dux in her interesting 2012 article in the Historical Journal Of Film, Radio And Television also points out that it was an important film in depicting the incredible social and class divisions that existed in Britain at the time and thus also significant ‘in the depiction of social realism in British cinema… resulting in its pivotal position in the story of the founding of the National Health Service in 1948’. Quite a feat indeed and also indicates that the power of film to influence and bring about positive change in the world has long existed.

What keeps the film together other than the strong performances is the hand of brilliant director, King Vidor, who anchors the film with his vision and knowledge of how to craft a film. Allowing the content of the film to mould and shape the direction of the film, Vidor allowed for the realism previously mentioned to work through. Donat as a result found a solid framework within which to build and develop his portrayal.

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The Citadel was well-received by a number of publications such as the New York Times and when watching Donat’s performance, it is no surprise that he was nominated for an Oscar. The film would also receive Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay as well, receiving no wins but it was up against some very tough competition in 1938.

As always Robert Donat brings incredible dignity and humanity to the role of Dr. Andrew Manson and was a deserved recipient of the Best Actor nomination. He would lose to Spencer Tracy (for Boys Town) but as classic film fans know, the following year would see him win against the likes of Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Laurence Olivier in the year considered the greatest of the golden years. However, it would be foolish to look past Robert Donat in The Citadel and any fan of the great actor should take the time to revisit this wonderful film.

This article is an entry for the Robert Donat Blogathon kindly run by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Please visit her site for some wonderful entries on the great actor and of course take the chance to read some great work from Maddy as well.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Sunshine Blogger Award – A Second Time Honour!

by Paul Batters

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It is an absolute thrill to receive this award a second time and I cannot thank Brittaney from The Story Enthusiast enough. It is very kind and thoughtful of you to think of me, and similarly I think I needed this award at this time to boost spirits. It’s nice to be recognised and this award gives impetus to bloggers to continue writing and not be disheartened.

In keeping with the process, I’ll first state the rules of the award nomination.

  1. List the award’s official rules
  2. Display the award’s official logo somewhere on your blog
  3. Thank the person who nominated you
  4. Provide a link to your nominator’s blog
  5. Answer your nominator’s questions
  6. Nominate up to 11 bloggers
  7. Ask your nominees 11 questions
  8. Notify your nominees by commenting on at least one of their blog posts

Here are the answers to the questions kindly provided by Brittaney. 

1. What British or International film would you recommend to a friend who has never seen one?

To be honest, this would greatly be impacted by what type of cinematic experience they were after.

I would probably direct them to Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete (1945) as a dark yet beautiful and tragic fairy tale. The magic and fantasy of Cocteau’s vision is stunning and unforgettable.

In terms of Italian Realism, then I would direct them to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), which I think is one of the greatest films ever made and inspired so many international directors.

For sheer beautiful sentimentality and an ending I cry to EVERY time I see it, Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988) is a masterpiece.

To choose a British film is near impossible but if I had to choose ONE as an introduction it would probably be a pre-Hollywood Hitchcock like The Thirty Nine Steps (1935), simply because it’s one of my favourites.


2. Which classic film director do you prefer and what is your favourite of their films?

Hitchcock is a stand-out and whilst I have the greatest affection for most of his films, Vertigo is the one which reaches deep into me every time. A real masterpiece in every way.

Also a huge fan of John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle) and Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Ace In The Hole, Witness For The Prosecution).

3. Which character actor or actress do you think would have made a great lead?

Oh Claude Rains certainly and indeed showed that he could in a few films. For me, Rains is one of the most incredible actors – period. He would have also been a great success in the modern era as well.

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4. What child actor do you believe should have had success as an adult but didn’t?

Bobby Driscoll is a child actor who had wonderful potential but was treated poorly, cast aside and followed a tragic course that ended his life. If things had been different and he had been taken care of as a boy, we may have seen Driscoll become successful as an adult.

5. What film do you love, but dislike the ending?

I wouldn’t say I ‘love’ Schindler’s List but it is one with an ending that I have found problematic. Over time, I have found myself less enamoured with the film, even though it was an Oscar winner and had a massive impact. In fairness, it is impossible to bring to the screen the horror of the Holocaust and do justice to those that suffered (although Come And See (1985) is quite a harrowing film in presenting Nazi atrocities in the East). But Schindler’s List does have its’ issues.

For me the ending is one of the key issues. It seems to shift our emotions as an audience to the figure of Oskar Schindler himself, instead of the millions of Jews, Roma, political prisoners, POWs and others who were murdered by the Nazis. It feels like Spielberg is going for the Oscar winning moment with Schindler declaring ‘I didn’t do enough’ and the orchestral manipulation of our emotions as we cry for Schindler becomes a strange sort of catharsis. Who should we actually be crying for?

The moment at the actual grave of Oskar Schindler is bittersweet but again our attention is drawn away from who the victims of the Nazis were and are. I would have ended it in the following way:

After Oskar Schindler declares the war over to the gathered workers and the SS guards ‘leave as men not murderers’ and asks to observe three minutes of silence, the audience hears a sole voice singing which leads to a candle being re-lit and a return to colour. Fin.

6. Whose onscreen wardrobe do you covet and would like to claim for your own?

I must say that Cary Grant looks impeccable and would undoubtedly stake a claim on his wardrobe.

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7. Which original film do you think could be improved as a remake and who would you cast?

There are certainly many original films which should not be remade. Yet some original films (such as 1930’s The Maltese Falcon and 1936’s Satan Met A Lady) were remade (in the aforementioned case as 1941’s The Maltese Falcon) and became iconic films.
I’m also going to cheat with this question and ‘remake’ and partially recast a film by doing so at the time it was made.

The film I would remake would be Dracula (1931) and whilst keeping Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Edward Van Sloan as Professor Van Helsing and Dwight Frye as Renfield, I would make the additional changes to the cast:

                                                           Mina – Madeleine Carroll                              

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                                                             Harker – Robert Donat

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                                                           Dr. Seward – Claude Rains 

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                                                                Lucy – Myrna Loy

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Certainly the first part of the film would remain unchanged, as Lugosi’s entrance is legendary and his interaction with Renfield especially memorable.
I would like to add more of Dracula’s brides attempt to seduce Renfield, as well as Renfield’s view of Dracula – imagine seeing Lugosi scamper like a lizard down the side of his castle!

Lucy’s demise and vampirization would be further delved into, with the infamous delving into the crypt to confront her as a vampire also depicted. It’s just too good an opportunity to ignore.

The much criticised anti-climactic ending would obviously be far better done, with the Count being staked in full view of the audience (or at least show Lugosi’s face and a wonderful supernatural ending to the vampire).

8. Which classic film actor or actress do you think would be successful in today’s film industry?

Something tells me that Joan Crawford would have been successful. She was tough enough and determined to make it in a very different time under very hard circumstances. Crawford was also incredibly hard-working and adaptable, with a career that spanned five decades – that’s pretty good going!

9. What film trope do you never tire of seeing?

I’ve never tired of the MacGuffin and the way that outstanding directors use it. Hitchcock, of course, used it perfectly, and John Huston used a MacGuffin in The Maltese Falcon.

10. If you could adapt a piece of classic literature that has not yet been made into a film, what book would you choose and who would you cast in the main roles?

I’m going to cheat here and include a response I previously used for a similar question elsewhere. But I cannot get past Budd Schulberg’s book ‘What Makes Sammy Run?’ – not because it’s a favourite per se as many books I love have been made into films but because it’s a powerful book and should be made. I know and understand the stories behind why it’s never been made as a film, as it is a terrifyingly cynical view of the film industry.

In terms of casting, it’s very difficult which might also explain why it was never made. But I’ll take my best shot, using actors from the classic era.

Al Mannheim: Dana Andrews
Sammy Glick: Frank Sinatra
Cathy ‘Kit’ Sargent: Teresa Wright
Sidney Fineman: James Gleason
‘Sheik’: Anthony Quinn
Laurette Harrington: Martha Hyer
Carter Judd: Jeffrey Hunter
Rosalie Goldblaum: Cathy O’Donnell

11. Which of today’s modern actors or actresses do you think would have been successful in classic films and why?

George Clooney and Jessica Chastain. Both have an amazing quality on the screen, photography beautifully and most importantly are outstanding actors who bring their A game to every performance.

The Nominees

I now nominate the following bloggers for the Sunshine Blogger Award. All of these are classic film bloggers are wonderful writers and I encourage you to check out their sites if you haven’t already.

Silver Scenes

Classic Movie Man

Out Of The Past

Stars And Letters

Cinematic Catharsis

The Classic Movie Muse

Silver Screenings

Films From Beyond The Time Barrier

The Last Drive In

4 Star Films

I Found It At The Movies

The Questions

The questions I was given by Brittaney were fun and challenging, and so I am going to offer them to the nominees as well.

  1. What British or International film would you recommend to a friend who has never seen one?
  2. Which classic film director do you prefer and what is your favorite of their films?
  3. Which character actor or actress do you think would have made a great lead?
  4. What child actor do you believe should have had success as an adult but didn’t?
  5. What film do you love, but dislike the ending?
  6. Whose onscreen wardrobe do you covet and would like to claim for your own?
  7. Which original film do you think could be improved as a remake and who would you cast?
  8. Which classic film actor or actress do you think would be successful in today’s film industry?
  9. What film trope do you never tire of seeing?
  10. If you could adapt a piece of classic literature that has not yet been made into a film, what book would you choose and who would you cast in the main roles?
  11. Which of today’s modern actors or actresses do you think would have been successful in classic films and why?

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

 

Great Films Of The 1970s: The Taking Of Pelham 123 (1974)

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by Paul Batters

“Gesundheit” – Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau)

The heist film is always one that draws in an audience at a number of levels. Like a number of other like films in the early 1970s, the term ‘multiple jeopardy’ could apply. But I don’t think it trips into that very clichéd formula, which it could quite easily have done. The Hollywood Reporter points out that The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three had a plot that was “perfect for the national obsession with disaster.” But it isn’t truly a disaster flick a la The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno. In my humble opinion, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three fits more with what critics Emmanuel Levy and Dave Kehr call a focus on ‘urban paranoia’. After all, the story is set in New York, which during the 1970s and into the 1980s became synonymous with crime and danger. True, there aren’t the visuals of typical urban decay or graffiti scarred trains and subways, but we get the gist of it.

The plot is simple enough and certainly not complicated. Led by Mr. ‘Blue’ (Robert Shaw), four disguised men with equally colorful names hijack a train and hold the passengers hostage, demanding $1 million in cash or they will start shooting the passengers one by one. Police Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) of the Transit Authority is trying to not only negotiate the situation but also keep the hostages safe and eventually catch the crooks. At its’ very core, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three is a heist film.

On the surface, you could argue that there’s nothing impressive about the plot. Filler for cable TV? A made for TV midday movie? Absolutely not.

The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three is far better than that!

So what makes it work?

The Setting

From the opening scenes, the feel and atmosphere of the film exudes New York attitude at its’ finest and reflects the concept of urban paranoia. This is probably best expressed by John H. Dorr in his original release review in The Hollywood Reporter:

‘New Yorkers, packed together closer than any other people and living under the constant threat of municipal breakdown…’.  

The over-the-top bustling business of a major city is at every turn and there is even a feel of barely controlled chaos, from the efforts of the police to the general running of subway system, where naturally the bulk of the story is set. People are tired, fed-up and cynical and they deal with this specifically through raw humour that is expressly resigned to the fate of living in New York.  The characters of course are as much part of the animal that is New York as much as they are their own individual people, reflecting attitude that could be clichéd but actually reveals real humanity and their coping mechanisms for living in such a tumultuous city. The street scenes are also ultra-busy and even chaotic as the police try to grapple with the hostage situation and the usual New York traffic at the same time.  Even the mayor, assisted by the excellent and under-used .., wants nothing to do with his own city.

Of course, the irony is that the centre of it all occurs underneath the city in one quiet carriage filled with frightened people and a gang of four led by Mr. Blue. Filmed on the tracks of the famous the Court Street station in Brooklyn (also used in numerous films including The French Connection and the Pelham remake), it allowed for the realism that made it all work so well.

The diegetic sounds of the subways and trains also adds to a film that has a strong sense of realism and gives it, its’ gritty and raw atmosphere.

The Plot

It’s actually simple enough and almost too easy to follow. Yet we are all still wondering how the hell the gang is going to get away with it – and that’s what keep us hooked. Of course, in the course of determining how they will get away with it, there are the sarcastically soaked comments (“They’re gonna fly it to Cuba”) and even Garber offers his theory: “They’re gonna get away by asking every man, woman and child in New York City to close their eyes and count to a hundred.” The truth is that no-one except the gang has an idea.

What also makes the plot work is that our focus is permanently affixed on the plot and not interrupted or distracted by side stories a la other films of the era (such as Airport, Earthquake etc). As Roger Ebert opined, ‘the hijack is worked out in a straightforward, plausible way; the film concentrates on the communications between Walter Matthau, trying to buy time, and Robert Shaw, maintaining credibility…’.

And the ending – one of the best and this reviewer won’t spoil it for you.

The Cast and Characterisation

The performances of Walter Matthau as Lieutenant Garber and Robert Shaw as Mr. Blue are the keystones to the film’s success. The contrast in characters could not be further from each other with Roger Ebert describing ‘these fine, detailed performancesWalter Matthau is gruff, shaggy and sardonic as a Transit Authority lieutenant; Robert Shaw is clipped and cruel..’. Matthau’s Garber is a joy to watch, with that perfect balance of grim humor, pragmatism and resignation whilst Shaw is icy and calculated, carefully annunciating his words without panic. But whilst Garber flexes his quick lip with everyone else around him, he’s professional and serious as he deals with Mr. Blue. Both lock in a tense arm wrestle as the time ticks away and their interaction drives the story forward. The tension is taut, timed and the perfect driver for this tale. 

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But it’s the supporting cast and incidental characters which also make the film work and give it depth and strength. Amongst the hijackers, Hector Elizondo as the psychotic Mr. Grey is believably dangerous and adds to the ongoing tension from the moment he lecherously flicks his tongue at an attractive lady on the train to his penchant for violence, as he casually tells a passenger that he ‘will shoot your pee-pee off’ whilst chewing gum, and looking for any excuse to commit an act of brutality. Martin Balsam as the nervous, former Transit employee with a grudge gives a solid and measured performance that he always delivered as an actor of his caliber.

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Dick O’Neill as Frank Correll, the bad-tempered controller, is a contrast to the relatively calm Garber and Jerry Stiller as Lieutenant Rico Patrone (‘who on weekends works for the Mafia’) shares Garber’s wry humour. Tom Pedi as the angry Transit supervisor who perennially yells finds an unsuspected fate that offers a quick turn from the humor. Even the short scenes with Lee Wallace as the Mayor and Tony Roberts as Deputy Mayor Warren LaSalle are not overdone and add to the tension of the film, again perfectly peppered with humour.

Even the small, incidental roles are worthwhile. Waiting for the train he is about to hijack, Mr. Blue looks at the dandified Vietnam vet who catches Blue looking and asks ‘what’s wrong dude? Ain’t you never seen a sunset before?’ After brief contemplation, even the cool and deadly Mr. Blue cannot help but almost smile.

The Director

Joseph Sargent has spent the 1960s directing television before moving into television films and cinema releases in the 1970s. Best known for this film being reviewed, it was also his best work.

In terms of how characters are utilized, the director Joseph Sargent is astute in the concept that less is more. None of the characters are over-used and Sargent makes sure that the key focus is on his two main stars, Matthau and Shaw and the tension between them in resolving the hijack situation.

Sargent keeps the film taut by allowing some insight into the heist, with the plan going into action as soon as the film starts. He allows for some slackening just to hook the audience, relieving the pressure with incidental humor and then reeling us in, as the action gets more and more serious. As a result, Sargent shows himself as a director sensitive to the audience’s sense of story development and as Ebert mentions does not allow the film to fall into cliché but makes the story more than believable. The audience is constantly manipulated and just as we feel we have found the rhythm of the film, Sargent shifts the gears a little so to speak. Tension is manipulated with the subtle touch which assists in hooking the audience and at no point is it drawn out and over-cooked.

The Dialogue

Aside from what people say, how they say it is the greatest revealer of how people feel, what shapes their thoughts and what world they live in. The dialogue is all New York and reflects the frustrations living in a chaotic city, managed through cynical humor, heavy sarcasm and combative tones.

From start to finish, it’s sharp, quick and fully-loaded.

The key dialogue between Matthau and Shaw is particularly interesting because most of it happens over the train’s radio connection. The cool and measured tone of Shaw up against Matthau’s gravely, Lower East Side accent dripping with sarcastic asides and insults, works beautifully. But there is a bitterness to the humour and an acidity that is hard to miss between the laughs of the audience.

However, all the characters seem quick to insult with the fast talk and acidic sarcasm. Again, the dialogue is reflective of living in a chaotic New York. Contextually it was a time when New York was also bankrupt, suffering from urban decay and gang activity and a rising crime rate.

The Musical Score

It’s one of my favourite 70s film scores and it’s heaving basslines drive deep like the very subways that crisscross underneath New York City. Composed and conducted by David Shire (also responsible for The Conversation and All The President’s Men), the score is ‘every bit as vital to the film’s tempo, tone and key scenes’ as Steve Grzesiak correctly states. The funkiest horns stab across smooth and slippery percussion, giving the audience a sinister feel and a sense of mounting tension.

It’s a multi-layered groove that fits like a glove, reflecting the unpredictability of living in New York City, where you could be on your way home from work and find yourself taken hostage.

According to Grzesiak, ‘Shire was hired quite late and wasn’t given a huge amount of time to work with…’ but that’s what perhaps it ‘works in his favour’ so that when ‘the music starts up again, it actually feels like it matters’. There’s no wasted space or time and like the rest of the film, it leaves the music tight, taut and building the tension.

Final Comments

Michael Sragow in The New Yorker makes an accurate assessment of the film as ‘once, just a solid thriller, now a time capsule spiked with amphetamines. It doesn’t rely on the sparkles, noise and CGI that cinema has relied on for some time. Instead, we are gifted with a tough film that is trimmed of the fat. It shows what can be done with amazing talent, substance and lack of pretence. The Taking Of Pelham 1,2,3 is rarely spoken of when talking about films from the 1970s. But it should be and often.

This entry is inspired by Movie Rob‘s Guesstimation Series with a focus on New York Films of the 70’s, which he graciously allowed me to choose. Please visit Movie Rob to see his incredible reviews on great films from the 1970s. Thanks so much for the opportunity, Rob!

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Top Five Classics For Comfort – The Films We Turn To

by Paul Batters

Cinephiles, film fans, critics and academics have all locked horns, run debates and published on the question of what are the greatest films? Lists have been compiled by some of the most respected publications and the most learned, whilst the rest of us pour over these lists and either nod in agreement or guffaw in disgust. Case in point – some agreed wholeheartedly and others were shocked when Sight And Sound removed Citizen Kane (1941) from its reign at the top of the list and gave Vertigo (1958) the number one spot. There was then and still is plenty of discussion around such decisions and that’s as it should be.

However, when it comes to the question, ‘what films do you turn to for comfort?’, there are no incorrect answers. It’s totally subjective and that, too, is as it should be. We turn to some films that are particularly special to us, especially when we need that boost to our spirits or simply something to make us feel good inside or even an escape to somewhere else.

Taking this opportunity for the CMBA Comfort Classics Blogathon, here are five of my favourite Comfort Classics.

  1. Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

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There are a few who condemn this film as the exploitive death knell of the classic Universal monster era and such criticism is understandable. Yet in fairness, any such exploitation was happening before the comedic duo crossed paths with our favourite monsters, and the shine and quality of the early 30s period was long gone. But it’s still a film that’s filled with fun and for many, including myself, it’s one of the first experiences of a wonderful partnership that stands the test of time.

As a child in the late 1970s in Australia, video was rare and most films appeared on television once a year. As a result, some films were a major event! When Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was scheduled (usually a midday treat on a weekend), neighbourhoods were cleared out as kids raced home to watch.

The story revolves around two hapless baggage handlers Chick Young (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur Grey (Lou Costello) who get all caught up in a mad monster mystery, crossing paths with the tormented Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jnr), who is trying to finally destroy the plans of Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) to revive the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange). There are plenty of scares and Bud and Lou pull off their routines with perfect timing and slick delivery. For me, some of the most effective moments are Bud and Lou’s scenes with Chaney, leaving the audience terrified whilst we are laughing.

The combination of horror and comedy made the film a smash hit at the time and helped not only to revive the duo’s slightly slipping popularity but also gave them a new template to work with. For many fans of Abbott and Costello, their meeting with the Universal monsters remains their favourite and the one that is best remembered. Those cold winter afternoons warm up for me whenever I slip Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein into the DVD player and the magic of childhood returns.

  1. King Kong (1933)

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The mightiest of monster movies – with the one true king being a 50 foot ape rampaging through jungles (both literal and urban ones) whilst holding onto a gorgeous girl screaming for her life. Does pure escapism get any better?

Merian C. Cooper’s and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s incredible fantasy-action tale utilised Willis O’Brien’s then ground-breaking (and incredibly painstaking) stop-motion animation technique that still thrills. It was a gamble by RKO, spending nearly $700,000 during the Depression and long after the studio closed down, it’s still reaping the rewards. It’s got everything and as Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) declares to Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) – ‘it’s money and adventure and fame…it’s the thrill of a lifetime!”. And there certainly is plenty of adventure, thrills and lots more besides. From the moment Kong first appears to his final fall from the Empire State Building, King Kong does not disappoint. The battle between Kong and the T-Rex is like watching a prize-fight (which was apparently inspired by the film-makers’ love of boxing and wrestling) and Kong rampaging through New York is pure mayhem.

Driven by Max Steiner’s superb score, King Kong deserves its place in cinema history but it also holds a special place in my heart. Whenever I watch it, before long I find myself transported to Skull Island to watch Kong in his kingdom, lament his capture and mourn his demise. It truly is a silver screen ‘thrill of a lifetime’ and a classic I turn to for a comforting dose of escapist fun.

  1. The Thin Man (1934)

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Not many films have that perfect combination of mystery, comedy and a little dash of screwball with a screen couple radiating incredible chemistry like The Thin Man (1934). It was a ground-breaking film which not only gave birth to one of the most successful and loved series of the classic era but would see Myrna Loy break the typecast roles she had been playing. Her comedic chops came to the fore, melding perfectly with William Powell, whose wit and ad-libbed moments brought a new sophistication to comedy. The sheer magic of the two on screen has a beautiful naturalness without any confection and that undoubtedly was the key reason for the film’s (and the subsequent series) success.

The Thin Man, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, is far more than a mystery. Neither was the well-paced film simply a vehicle for Powell and Loy. What emerged was something special that was not formulaic but formed from the natural chemistry of the two stars from a well-crafted script and the intelligent foresight of director W. S Van Dyke to let magic happen and ‘catch it’ when it happened. But that did mean that the shooting had to be tight and the cast had to know their dialogue.  

As much as I love the series, the first film is particularly magic for me. The feel of spontaneity, the playfulness and the witty banter makes for a fun filled 93 minutes. With Powell and Loy, there’s romance without the corn and sex without the sleaze. No wonder it was a huge hit on its’ release in 1934 – it’s still a huge hit for me and one I turn to often. Like Nick Charles with a mixer, it’s the perfect comfort cocktail. And boy, is Myrna Loy gorgeous!

  1. The Wizard Of Oz (1939)

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Something tell me this film is on most people’s list and I imagine that’s not much of a surprise. The Wizard Of Oz is that trip over the rainbow that is clearly for ‘the young and the young at heart’. It gets the full MGM treatment, which means the best production quality, with a talented cast and of course some of the most famous musical numbers in cinema history.

For me, The Wizard Of Oz is not only a comfort classic but also holds a strong personal memory. As a child in Australia, colour television did not come to Australia until 1975. When my father brought home a colour television in 1976, the first film we watched as a family that evening was The Wizard Of Oz. That moment when sepia changes to bright Technicolor was a true moment of magic and no matter how many times I watch it, I still get teary.

I’m not particularly a fan of the musical but The Wizard Of Oz has a special place in my heart, and it is a film which I will often turn to for an indulgence.

  1. Witness For The Prosecution (1957)

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A murder trial may seem like the strangest subject for a comfort classic but Billy Wilder’s superb court-room drama is the perfect film to lose oneself in. Tight and taut, with the superb touch of humour that Wilder knew how to add without ruining the tension of the story, Witness For The Prosecution perhaps sets the bar for the classic shocking plot twist.

The film showcases incredible talent not only in its key stars but in the incredible supporting cast, mainly from a range of quality British actors and actresses. For all the brilliance that Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich bring to their performances, the film’s true star is Charles Laughton who is superb as Sir Wilfrid Robarts. The sharp wit, acerbic manner and dazzling mind of the highly respected yet unwell barrister keeps the audience hooked into the story without chance of escape.

I’ve watched the film countless times with a complete and full awareness of how the plot will unfold and what the now famous twist will be at the climax of the film. Yet I am always riveted by the story and the beautiful craftsmanship that goes into shaping the film. The energy in the courtroom never dissipates and the flashbacks add depth and value to the story. There’s no fat to be trimmed and each moment in the film is an important layering to character development as well.

It’s an impeccable film and one which I thoroughly enjoy. More than a favourite, it’s like an old friend whose conversation I always find sanctuary in. Witness For The Prosecution, like that old friend, never fails to disappoint.

This entry is part of the Classic Movie Bloggers Association Spring Blogathon: Classics For Comfort. It’s been a pleasure to take part and a special thank you to the CMBA for running a blogathon that is much needed at this time! Click on the link to discover what other bloggers have revealed about their comfort classics.

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Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

 

The Tomb Of Ligeia (1964): Vincent Price in his Gothic element

by Paul Batters

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“Man need not kneel before the angels, nor lie in death forever, but for the weakness of his feeble will.”

Vincent Price holds a warm place in the heart of many classic film fans. Whilst appearing in many films outside the horror genre in a variety of roles, Price is understandably associated with horror films. Without a doubt, Price had one of the most distinguishable voices and an incredible presence on the screen which could never go unnoticed.

My earliest memory of Vincent Price is of his appearance in the last of the Roger Corman films drawn from the tales of Edgar Allan, The Tomb Of Ligeia (1964). Incredibly, my parents allowed me to stay up with them when it was screened on television in the 1970s. At the time, naturally, I failed to grasp the deeper nuances of the film and was more taken by the looming presence of Price when he first appears on the screen. It felt scary at the time but I also recall being a little bored with it too, perhaps in great part because I could not comprehend all that was going on.

Now reviewing the film well over 40 years later, The Tomb Of Ligeia fares better with a more educated understanding of the film. Yet something still seems amiss.

The film opens ominously with a funeral, where Verden Fell (Vincent Price) is placing his apparently dead wide Ligeia in her tomb, amongst the ruins of an abbey. However, she will not be interred in peace as the local religious authorities pour scorn on the burial, claiming that her blasphemies and atheism do not afford her a Christian burial. Fell returns their scorn despite their curses on her but the sudden screeching appearance of a black cat on the coffin seems like an ominous moment, particularly when the eyes of Ligeia flick open. It is a very effective scene, as we are led into the titles and Price is as dominant a figure as ever, in his disdain and spite for those around him.

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Verden Fell appears to be a man haunted by his dead wife and his dark clothes and even darker demeanour suggest he is still in mourning. However, a chance meeting with the fair and lovely Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd) during a hunting accident will lead to more, as she becomes drawn to him. Likewise, he eventually opens to her and after falling in love, the two marry. For a moment, the morbidity seems to dissipate but for the audience the ever-haunting words from the long-dead but enigmatic Ligeia herself whisper in the background – that she would be Verden’s wife forever. Indeed, even when they return to his home after the marriage, Verden’s happy outlook seems to return to the former haunted morbidity that enveloped him. Is Ligeia’s presence about to announce itself?

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Sure enough, their marriage is soon visited upon by the spirit of Ligeia, particularly in the form of the black cat. A number of times it even attacks Rowena, who also has strange dreams and appears even possessed at times.

The mystery builds as to Ligeia and Rowena’s former beau and fiancé Christopher Gough (John Westbrook) seems determined to discover the truth. The ending, far removed from the original story but very fitting for a Corman film, will see all revealed – Rowena’s horror is all apparent and Verden appears as a broken man given in to the madness which has closed his grip on him almost completely. The audience is left with the supporting cast to explain everything. But of course, the ending will be far more colourful than that. By the way, see if you can pick up some of the stock footage used in the grand finality. If you are familiar with Corman’s approach and his other Poe films, you won’t have to look too hard.

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As with a number of the Corman films, The Tomb Of Ligeia is loosely based on the Poe short story and the very nature of the story meant that screenwriter Robert Towne had to flesh out the story further for a full film production. As a result, there are some other familiar symbols employed, specifically the ‘black cat’ (which feels like more of an annoyance than an object of terror, and could be easily dispatched with by a swift kick).

The film was shot on location in England with exceptional use of the countryside and the ruined abbey. This is perhaps one of the strongest aspects of the film and as Nate Yapp on classic-horror.com points out, releases “Ligeia from the stagy, claustrophobic studio sets that marked the rest of the series”. The subtle use of Dutch angles, colour and beautiful camera work achieves a spooky atmosphere with solid Gothic overtones. with the ruined abbey again beautifully used.

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Corman does build a suspenseful film with the help of Townes’ script but the tension loses its’ way during the second act and the atmosphere needs to be built up again (with a little too much help from the Ligeia-possessed cat and some inexplicable dreams that look parachuted in to help the re-building process. Some of the moments are effective, such as the broken mirror which reveals a doorway and the awful discovery at the tomb itself. However, the film seems to fall into cliché and the usual methods are employed to serve the audience with a climactic ending. Contrary to what some critics have suggested, there are plenty of Gothic elements still employed to hook the audience in – thunder and lightning, tombs, graves, haunted mansions, ruined abbeys and a dark past. Not to mention hints at necrophilia and insanity.

 

Corman would go on to say that he thought The Tomb Of Ligeia was one of his best Poe films. It is beautifully shot and the supporting cast do well. However, with all due respect to a man I greatly admire, I am not sure if audiences would agree. For a film clocking in at 81 minutes, it feels like double that in time. It is also certainly atmospheric with some frightful moments but not ones which will leave the audience reeling in horror. It looks polished but the veneer cannot hide that the film fails to click.

Price is certainly miscast in the role of Verdun Fell, with a younger actor more befitting in the part of the tragic and haunted figure. According to the April 2, 2008 issue of Cinemafantastique, Corman, whilst a huge fan of Price, did not want him in the role but he was at the mercy of AIP’s money. Corman apparently wanted Richard Chamberlain, a far younger and incredibly handsome actor with both characteristics serving the tragedy of the character of Verden Fell even better and making Rowena’s fascination more believable.

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But Price is formidable in the role. He plays the tragedy of Fell to a fault, alternating from the tall-standing, supercilious husband burying his dead wife to the morose man struggling with his existence. The dark glasses are an interesting touch (for 1821!) and he is superb at channelling his pain right up to the finale, which whilst a little silly is still campy and fun.

The Tomb Of Ligeia probably also reveals that the Corman formula had run its’ course. Of all the Corman films based on Poe, this film would make the least at the box office. It may well be the weakest of the eight Poe films by Corman but it is not by any means a non-enjoyable film. It’s still fun to watch and of course the main reason for that is the irrepressible Vincent Price.

A link to the full movie is below:

This article is an entry into the Vincent Price Blogathon kindly hosted by Realweegiemidget. Please don’t forget to click on the link to support this great blogathon and read some fantastic entries from some wonderful writers.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

 

The 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon Is Here – Day Three

by Paul Batters

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It is the final day for the 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon and our final contributions are coming in. Again, if you are a little late, please don’t be dissuaded – I am more than happy to add you in afterwards. Every contribution is valued!

Again, a huge thank you to everyone who has contributed and as a first time host I hope I’ve ran the blogathon correctly. I will be announcing a new one in the next couple of weeks as well, so watch this space!

For Day One entries, please click on the link here

For Day Two entries, please click on the link here.

So to bring the blogathon to a close, let’s not waste any further time and look at our final contributions.

The Count Of Monte Cristo (1975)MovieRob

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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1948)MovieRob

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Three Reasons: Pride And Prejudice (1940)Old Hollywood Films

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Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan (1984)Diary Of A Movie Maniac

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Code Concepts: Code Concepts From Classic LiteraturePure Preservation Entertainment Society

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A Glowing Mist: Sherlock Holmes And The Scarlet Claw (1944)Pale Writer

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Scarlet Street (1945)Down These Mean Streets

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There are a few entries still to come so please re-visit as Day Three will be updated.

Thank you for your wonderful contributions and happy reading everyone!

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Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon Is Here – Day Two

by Paul Batters

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It’s Day Two of the 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon and there have been some amazing contributions so far. We still have a few contributions on the way and of course Day Three is yet to come!

For all contributions for Day One , the link is here.

Here are the contributions for Day Two.

Rebecca (1940)Stars And Letters

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Finding Answers With Ben Hur –  Taking Up Room

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Camille (1921)His Fame Still Lives

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Moby Dick (1956)Dubism 

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Crimes At The Dark House (1940)The Old Hollywood Garden

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Lord Of The Flies (1963)Cinema Catharsis

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Dracula (1931)MovieRob

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Join us for Day Three and if you’re a contributor who is a little late, please don’t let that dissuade you! If you have been inspired by these writers and would like to take part, your presence would be most appreciated and I’ll be happy to add you in.

Sit back, grab a coffee and enjoy these great articles. Your comments, shares and likes are also greatly appreciated, so please don’t hesitate.

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Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

A Look At Two Versions Of Anna Karenina (1935 and 1948)

by special guest Robert Short

General abstract:  In 1877 Russia, Anna Karenina, wife of Alexei Karenin, a senior government official, and mother of their young son Sergei, travels to Moscow from St. Petersburg to visit her brother Stepan Oblonsky, his wife Dolly, and their children.  The family is in turmoil due to Stepan’s unbridled womanizing – a circumstance that foretells Anna’s own future situation.  Upon her arrival in the Moscow train station, she meets Count Alexei Vronsky, a cavalryman.  A romantic attraction and affair ensue, despite the fact that Dolly’s eighteen-year-old sister Kitty is also attracted to Vronsky. 

Bachelor Vronsky is eager to marry Anna.  Unable to secure a divorce from her high-minded husband, Anna nonetheless leaves him, and their son, to live with Vronsky.  Initially moving to Italy, where they can be together, Anna and Vronsky return to Russia, where she is shunned by Russian society, while Vronsky is able to pursue his social life.  Becoming further isolated and anxious, Anna grows increasingly possessive and paranoid about his imagined infidelity, resulting in tragedy.

ANNA KARENINA (1935)  Director:  Clarence Brown.  Starring Greta Garbo, Fredric March, Basil Rathbone, Maureen O’Sullivan, Freddie Bartholomew, May Robson, Reginald Owen.  Screenplay by Clemence Dane and Salka Viertel.

From her stunning first appearance behind a clearing cloud of train steam, Greta Garbo set the 1935 “Anna Karenina” in motion with her extraordinary presence.  Known as “the Swedish Sphinx” among other sobriquets, Garbo’s exquisite face could seemingly express a thousand thoughts while remaining totally blank; she was the epitome of the legendary Gloria Swanson line in “Sunset Boulevard”, “We had faces then”.

Garbo’s 1935 portrayal of Anna was in fact her second on-screen portrait of the Tolstoy heroine; an earlier 1927 silent version, bearing the title “Love”, had co-starred Garbo with John Gilbert, her highly-publicized real-life romantic partner, as Count Vronsky.  Performed in more modern dress, its story reduced to the essential occurrences of the Anna – Vronsky narrative, “Love” may be considered either a clever adaptation or, to a Tolstoy purist, a complete abomination.  Supporting characters such as Stepan, Dolly and Kitty were jettisoned entirely; many other liberties were taken with the story.  Most notably a contrived happy ending filmed for American audiences replaced the original tragic conclusion; the European prints retained the more dramatic finale.  Nevertheless, despite its numerous literary transgressions, “Love” enjoyed the benefit of the almost palpable chemistry between Garbo and Gilbert; the two could transform a scene in which virtually nothing was happening into something resembling an erotic dream.

 

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Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in ‘Love’ (1927)
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Greta Garbo and Fredric March in ‘Anna Karenina’

Returning to the role was Garbo’s idea; in October 1934 the actress had requested that David O. Selznick produce a remake of “Love”, but with greater adherence to the Tolstoy tome.  Paring down the original literary source to a manageable screen adaptation required necessary deletions; Tolstoy’s massive and complex chronicle, running over 800 pages, featuring over a dozen major characters, and presented in eight parts, included more than the narrative of Anna and Vronsky, although their story was a major component of the plot.   Unlike the earlier 1927 version, the “side” stories not focused on Anna, such as Oblonsky’s marital infidelities and Kitty’s infatuation with Vronsky and eventual marriage to Konstantin Levin, were presented, albeit rather superficially.  While screenwriters Clemence Dane and Salka Viertel, the latter of whom was a close friend of Garbo’s and eventually became the mother-in-law of actress Deborah Kerr, remained reasonably loyal to the original themes addressed in the literary work, including desire, betrayal, faith, family, marriage, and Imperial Russian society, creative license was taken in their presentation.  Various incidents were re-sorted and revised from Tolstoy’s original chronicle; alterations and additions to the script were made in order to avoid censure from the prevailing Production Code.  Under great pressure to complete a finished screenplay in the shortest possible time, the screenwriters prepared an oddly unbalanced script, affecting the rhythm of the scenes.

Fredric March was Garbo’s selection for the role of Vronsky.   Producer Selznick’s own first choice was Clark Gable, who was not interested.  Ronald Colman was another consideration; cannily aware that the film would belong to co-star Garbo, Colman purportedly doubled his asking price, effectively taking himself out of the running.  March, an Academy Award winning actor for his 1931 dual portrayal of “Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde”, was no stranger to Tolstoy’s work; in 1934 he had starred in “We Live Again”, based on Tolstoy’s 1899 work “Resurrection”, with Anna Sten.  Undeniably beautiful but ultimately unsuccessful in her career, Sten was, rather ironically, producer Samuel Goldwyn’s hoped-for answer to Garbo.  Having had his fill of period pieces, March did not want to play Vronsky, accepting the role on the order from his studio.  Nor did he, by his own admission, generate the same level of passion with Garbo as had Gilbert in the earlier 1927 version.  Describing the love scenes in the 1935 presentation, March was quoted as saying that they were “nothing so tempestuous as in the silent film”.

Directed by Garbo’s favourite director, Clarence Brown, with cinematography by William Daniels, Garbo’s favourite photographer, “Anna Karenina” emerged a financial and critical success.  Andre Sennwald of The New York Times noted “Miss Garbo, always superbly the apex of the drama, suggests the inevitability of her doom from the beginning, streaking her first happiness with undertones of anguish, later trying futilely to mend the broken pieces, and at last standing regally alone as she approaches the end. Bouncing with less determination than is his custom, Mr. March gets by handsomely as Vronsky.”  For her efforts, Garbo won the New York Film Critics Circle Award as Best Actress; the film itself was named one of the top ten films of 1935 by the National Board of Review, USA.

ANNA KARENINA (1948) Director:  Julien Duvivier.  Starring Vivien Leigh, Ralph Richardson, Kieron Moore, Hugh Dempster, Mary Kerridge, Sally Ann Howes, Niall MacGinnis.  Screenplay by Jean Anouilh, Guy Morgan, Julien Duvivier.

After her Oscar-winning tour de force performance as the wilful Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind”, British actress Vivien Leigh had returned to the movie screen only three times, in 1940’s “Waterloo Bridge”, in 1941 as the eponymous “Lady Hamilton”, also known as “That Hamilton Woman”, co-starring husband Laurence Olivier as Admiral Horatio Nelson, and as Cleopatra in George Bernard Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra” in 1945.  During the intervening years, Leigh had performed on stage, and endured sieges of illness and depression; the opportunity of portraying Tolstoy’s tragic heroine lured Leigh back to the silver screen for a fourth post-”Wind” appearance.  Interestingly, critical elements of her character’s life mirrored Leigh’s own; similar to Anna, who left her husband and child to pursue a new love, Leigh ended her seven-year marriage with husband Herbert Leigh Holman in 1940 in order to marry Laurence Olivier, her co-star in the 1937 British productions “Fire over England” and “21 Days Together”.  Holman ultimately gained custody of his and Leigh’s six-year-old daughter Suzanne.  During the production of “Anna Karenina” Oliver received his investiture as Knight Bachelor; Leigh was thereafter styled as “Lady Olivier”.

Unfolding at a more leisurely 139 minutes, as opposed to the 95-minute running time of the earlier Garbo version, the 1948 “Anna Karenina” was a truer, and more encompassing, adaptation of its classic literary source.  The original screenplay prepared by director Julien Duvivier, in collaboration with French dramatist Jean Anouilh, had been an experiment in angst-ridden existentialism, a relentlessly downbeat chronicle transplanted to a French setting; British writer Guy Morgan came on board for script alterations and revisions.

Unlike the 1935 film, which began with an invented scene showing Vronsky in various stages of revelry, the 1948 edition began with the novel’s famous introductory line “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” superimposed over a scene revealing the turmoil in the Oblonsky home.  More screen time was devoted to the characters of Stepan and Dolly, Anna’s brother and sister-in-law, and Dolly’s sister Kitty.  Most importantly, major segments of the story were not featured in the Garbo adaptation at all, including Karenin’s initial decision to divorce Anna, his change of heart after Anna’s near death after giving birth to Vronsky’s child, stillborn in this version, contrary to the novel, and his re-acceptance of Anna in his home.  These scenes, possibly omitted in 1935 due to Production Code restrictions, were particularly critical in Karenin’s character development; as portrayed by Basil Rathbone in the earlier presentation, Karenin was a tyrant, whereas Ralph Richardson’s Karenin, while still a cold, emotionally sterile man, displayed a glimmer of humanity.

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Vivien Leigh and Kieron Moore as Anna and Vronksy
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Ralph Richardson and Vivien Leigh as Karenin and Anna

Filmed in 1947, and released in the United Kingdom in early January 1948, the making of “Anna Karenina” would appear to have been an unhappy affair; director Duvivier, reportedly autocratically inflexible, was disliked by cast and crew.  The role of Vronsky had originally been offered to Michael Redgrave, who chose to appear in two American projects; handsome Irish-born actor Kieron Moore undertook the part.  Out of his acting depth, Moore had requested a release after only a few weeks of filming.  Producer Sir Alexander Korda refused to grant it; Moore’s ensuing performance, described by fashion photographer Cecil Beaton, a friend of Garbo’s, as a “disaster”, suggested none of Vronsky’s animal magnetism.

Expensive and well-appointed, Leigh’s “Anna Karenina” was ultimately unsuccessful, both commercially and critically.  British reviewers were a little kinder to the film; opening in the United States in April 1947, its American print shortened by twenty minutes, the movie prompted New York Times critic Bosley Crowther to comment in his review “With all due respect for an actress who would willingly undertake a role that has twice been rendered immortal by Greta Garbo within the past twenty years, it must be confessed by this observer that the ‘Anna Karenina’ of Vivien Leigh is a pretty sad disappointment, by comparison or not.”

These harsh words notwithstanding, the 1948 “Anna Karenina” offered much to admire – the first image of Leigh’s beautiful face looking though the frosted window of a train, the sumptuous costumes and settings, cinematographer Henri Alekan’s moody, light-and-shadow photography displaying every shade possible in monochrome.  Crowther’s review did contain, nonetheless, an element of validity.  The 1948 film was a more faithful, albeit still imperfect, screen adaptation of Tolstoy’s chef-d’oeuvre.  Benefiting from an additional forty-five minutes in running time over its 1935 counterpoint, the British presentation explored motifs and situations to a fuller extent; from a literary standpoint it emerged the victor over the earlier Hollywood version.  However, all its physical adornment and homage to literature could not compete with the jewel in Hollywood’s crown, namely Garbo.  For all its faults as a cinematic translation of a major work of literature, 1935’s “Anna Karenina” was clearly the most entertaining; as described by critic Pauline Kael, “God knows it isn’t all it might be, and Garbo isn’t even at her best, but she’s there to be gazed upon.”

It has been a pleasure and a privilege to have Robert Short as a guest writer for the 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon. 

The 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon Is Here – Day One

by Paul Batters

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The 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon has arrived! It’s my first blogathon as host and I hope you’re as excited as I am to read the wonderful contributions that will be made over the next three days.

As a reminder, the focus is on the great novels, short stories, plays and writers that have produced some of classic literatures greatest tales and how cinema has taken those stories and transformed them onto the silver screen. It is testimony to those stories that they have endured.

So without further ado, here are our contributions for Day One!

 

Wilkie Collins: Unappreciated In HollywoodHollywood Genes

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Hans Christian Andersen (1952)Classic Movie Muse

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The Picture Of Dorian Gray (1945)Silver Screenings

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Nicholas Nickleby (1947)Caftan Woman

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The House Of The Seven Gables (1940)Films From Beyond The Time Barrier

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A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)MovieMovieBlogBlog

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The Wrong Box (1966)Real Weegie Midget Reviews

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My Cousin Rachel (1952 and 2017) –  Cary Grant Won’t Eat You

 

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1945)Maddy Loves Her Classic Films

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To Kill A Mockingbird (1960)18 Cinema Lane

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A Look At Two Versions Of ‘Anna Karenina (1935 and 1948) – Robert Short

 

Some wonderful articles to kick us off, so please sit back, relax and enjoy reading them. Hopefully you will also be inspired to watch those films if you haven’t ever seen them or interested to revisit them if it’s been a while.

What a fantastic start!

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Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Films That Brought Us To Love Classic Film – Part Two

by Paul Batters

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Part Two continues with the wonderful, personal stories of how our featured writers came to discover and love classic film.

Maddy 

Blog: Maddy Loves Her Classic Films   Twitter: @TimeForAFilm

I grew up in the 1990’s and was brought up on the animated Disney films such as Bambi and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. I was very into dance when I was little and my parents bought me the documentary That’s Dancing (1985). That introduced me to so many classic era actors and films. It especially got me interested in Fred and Ginger, The Nicholas Brothers, Gene Kelly and Eleanor Powell. I started to seek out many of their films as I grew up.

If I had to pick one film in particular that made me fall in love with this era of filmmaking, then it would have to be Top Hat. It was the first b&w film I saw and I loved everything about it – from the characters and the dancing, to the stunning sets and beautiful costumes. This girl was hooked! In my teens I discovered Alfred Hitchcock. His films made me a classic film fan for life. They were what first made me aware of the language of cinema and got me interested in how films were made. Rear Window was the first I saw and I remember eagerly returning to the Library every weekend to borrow more of his films.

Theresa Brown

Blog: CineMaven’s Essays From the Couch     Twitter: @CineMava

I would need to go into some type of hydro~therapy, deep dark hypnosis to pull the memory of what film led me into loving classic films; and also to get into my past life as Cleopatra. My parents told me I used to run into the living room and stand in front of the tv set during commercials. Commercials, for heaven’s sake!! Were they bite-sized movies for the tiny Baby Boomer I was? It’s hard for me to say just what film set me on this path of being a classic movie buff. My mom took us to practically ev’ry Disney movie back in the 1950’s. American TV of the 60’s and 70’s threw away a lot of “old movies” and I was up all hours of the night trying to get my fill. Maybe seeing these films was a way to connect to my father and aunt with movies they grew up seeing on the big screen. For my 16th birthday my father gave me my first movie book: on Bogart films. Cinemabilia was a NYC book store I got lost in for hours. Classic films are just in my DNA.

Aurora

Blog: Once Upon a Screen    Twitter: @CitizenScreen

I arrived in the United States from Cuba at the age of five and immediately fell in love with movies. We were given a secondhand television set where one day I happened upon Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage. The unique point of view sequence at the onset of the movie fascinated me even then. I longed to see the face that peered out at the dark, grim world. I have loved film noir ever since. The only other genre that competes is the musical; it is what truly made my imagination soar. I remember vividly seeing On the Town and marvelling at the notion that my father had brought me to a place where people danced on the street. We lived in a crowded New York City apartment. I remember too wishing that my family were just like the Smiths in Meet Me in St. Louis. Alas, there are too many of those moments to recount, too many ways the movies made me who I am. It is to those days, when I knew no one outside my family, when those characters were as real as any person I had ever met, that I owe my love of movies.

Robert Short – Writer

Having been a fan of classic films for over fifty years now, I find it difficult to ascribe any specific movie as the pivotal film that inspired my love of the golden era of filmdom.  During the 1960’s and 1970’s, the decades in which I chiefly grew up, the cinematic offerings from the 1930’s and 1940’s were the general fodder of movie viewing on television; I undoubtedly saw many from a very young age.  I can say with greater certainty that I had developed a conscious interest in “old movies”, a relative term, by the age of twelve or thirteen.  Perhaps the interest grew organically; perhaps it was a moment of epiphany.

Again, while I cannot pinpoint any definitive “watershed” title, there is possibly one film of note which served as a cornerstone in my movie-watching career.  “Juarez” marked my first “late show”, the late-night movies that I was finally permitted to watch after beginning high school in September 1969.  A typically lavish production from Warner Bros., and another quality contribution from 1939, the film was immensely entertaining, albeit often historically inaccurate.  Admittedly, the fact that “Juarez” was my introduction to the venerable institution of the late show, now gone by the wayside in the wake of our modern digital era, may seem very trivial and unimportant.  However, the late show itself was once the chief means to watch classic films; through it my access to many wonderful movies was greatly expanded.

Amanda Garrett

Blog: Old Hollywood Films  Twitter: @oldhollywood21

My lifelong love of affair with classic movies began when I stumbled across director John Ford’s Western Stagecoach (1939) on PBS when I was in grade school. It soon became my favourite movie mostly because I wanted to be BFFs with Doc Boone played by Thomas Mitchell (I didn’t understand that what I thought was very funny behaviour was caused by alcohol), and I secretly wanted to be Andy Devine mostly because I thought driving a stagecoach seemed like a cool job. I’ve watched Stagecoach dozens of times since then, and while I’ve given up my ambition of being a stagecoach driver, I still find the film a rewarding experience all these years later. There are several reasons for this including the masterful plot, which Ford unfolds with clockwork precision, and the roster of great character actors. Most of all, I return to Stagecoach because of Ford. The gruff director despised being called an artist or even worse an auteur, but the truth is he was both. Ford’s fluid camera work makes Stagecoach poetry in motion, and he would return to the theme of one man’s quest for justice throughout his career.

Name: Jay

Blog: Cinema Essentials   Twitter: @CineEssentials

Although I grew up watching classic films, most were colour films from the 1950s and 1960s. If there was one film that overcame my childhood resistance to black and white, then it was Green for Danger. It’s a brilliant comedy-thriller that plays with the conventions of the murder mystery genre.

Alastair Sim plays an eccentric detective sent to investigate a series of suspicious deaths at a hospital, where he finds a range of suspects. Sim is unquestionably the star of the show, but there are many good supporting performances, from Trevor Howard, Sally Gray, Leo Genn, Megs Jenkins and Rosamund John.

The film was made by Sidney Gilliat, who co-wrote The Lady Vanishes and its spiritual successor Night Train to Munich. That gives you an idea of the sort of humour and playful tone of the film, which are mixed with a bit of tension and an intriguing mystery.

I first saw Green for Danger when I was 7 or 8. I’ve seen it numerous times since, but I usually forget who the murderer is, because it’s the performances and characterisations that make it irresistible. And the film is so entertaining anyway, that it doesn’t really matter if you remember the solution or not.

Margot Shelby

Blog: Down These Mean Streets

It’s hard to say exactly when, how and why I became a classic film fan. Neither my parents nor my grandparents were interested so I discovered them myself. I was probably around five and I assume some classic film came on TV and I was hooked. I loved history (still do) and somehow old movies were like a history lesson, a window into another world. Something just clicked. I wish I could remember what the first movie was that really left an impression on me, but I really can’t.

I’m so jealous of the people who had friends and family who also like classic films.

Unfortunately I had nobody I could share my love of classic films with. My friends weren’t interested either, everybody was just shaking their heads about my obsession.

Well thankfully nowadays we have the internet and yes, there are other people like me out there. I’m not a freak! Good to know. 🙂

Carol

Blog: The Old Hollywood Garden

I created The Old Hollywood Garden because I wanted to express my love for the classics. I wanted to make people want to watch them, and I wanted to share my undying fascination with Hollywood’s Golden Age with the world.

I became a classic movie buff after viewing my very first classic movie which was Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946). All the way back in 2007 when I was fifteen years old. I was flipping through the channels, and I stumbled upon it on an retrospective type of channel which shows old films and TV shows. Its black and white cinematography caught my attention straight-away and I put the remote down and watched it. I had no doubt in my mind this would be the start of something great for me and I couldn’t wait for it. I was barely half way through it and I already knew that I wanted to consume as many of these wonderful movies as possible. I was mesmerized by Rita Hayworth – who isn’t? – and I loved the love-hate relationship between Gilda and Johnny (Glenn Ford). It was hot. It was exciting. It was a masterclass in screen chemistry. Years later, I still think it’s the sexiest movie ever made.

I was drawn in by them mostly, but right from the start, I thought Gilda was so fascinating. Johnny’s voice-over narration in the beginning (‘To me, a dollar was a dollar in any language…’) was everything I’d imagined these things to be. Great lines, no non-sense attitude; straight-up cool. The plot was interesting enough – small-time gambler Johnny is hired by Ballin Mundson (George Macready) to work in his casino, not knowing Ballin’s wife is his ex-lover Gilda – and the performances were fantastic. Especially Rita Hayworth’s. Her most iconic role was also her greatest. A flawed character, multi-layered and yet mysterious. Confident and yet vulnerable. A sort of anti-heroine that no doubt paved the way for many female characters that followed it. It is still one of my favourite performances of all time and the reason I couldn’t take my eyes off Gilda the first time I saw it. A ‘femme fatale’, I later read. I was transfixed by this. Film noir was intriguing.

Years later, of course, I realised that Gilda isn’t quite a film noir (noir melodrama?) and Gilda isn’t really a femme fatale. Not in the traditional sense anyway. Looking back, Gilda was ahead of her time, in many ways. But back then, I just knew that this was endlessly fascinating. I had to watch more of these. So many more. I had to watch more stuff with Rita Hayworth in it. And Glenn Ford. I had to watch all of these films noirs. And the screwballs and the Pre-Codes. And the musicals! I had to watch all the Golden Age of Hollywood had to offer. Needless to say, I’ve been doing just that for twelve years and it has been absolutely blissful.

It’s been an absolute honour to share the memories and feelings that classic film fans have about the films that matter to them and the experience of discovering classic film. The beauty is that those feelings do not go away but grow and flourish, as the journey continues and as we all discover and re-discover the films we have come to love. But it is also a wonderful thing to connect with classic film fans from around the world and share those experiences.

It has been an honour to share these contributions and my personal thanks to all who have contributed.

The Films That Brought Us To Love Classic Film – Part One

by Paul Batters

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Classic film lovers are passionate about the films they love and all share a special feeling for those films with others. The classic film community is one bound by that love for classic film and it is a romance that will not die. If love forever after ever exists, you will certainly find it amongst those who love it and also write about it.

This article will be the first of two parts which will celebrate the films which brought people to love classic film. A number of people have shared how they came to love classic film as well as the film or films which began that journey for them.

John Greco 

Blog – John Greco Author/Photographer

I can’t name just one movie. Each film I watched was like a piece of a puzzle with the right ones fitting the overall picture. It was an assembly of films and filmmakers that gave me inspiration and a love of cinema.

Many noir and crime films were early influences of both my love of movies and in my fiction writing. The first gangster films I remember seeing were “Al Capone” and “Baby Face Nelson.” On television, I discovered “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Roaring Twenties,” “The Public Enemy,” and many others. A bit later, I discovered Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” “Psycho,” “North by Northwest,” and many others. After Hitchcock, I started following the careers of film directors, and it was works like Polanski’s “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” John Frankenheimer’s “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Seven Days in May,” Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity,” “Some Like it Hot,” “Ace in the Hole” that cemented my love of celluloid. There were plenty of others, Wyler’s “The Collector,” Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” Lumet’s “The Pawnbroker,” Brooks’ “The Professionals,” Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” and Hiller’s “The Americanization of Emily” were and are influences and all still rank high in my admiration.

Kellee Pratt

Blog: Outspoken And Freckled    Twitter: @IrishJayhawk66

For me, my love for old movies came to me as a child when we lived in Taos, New Mexico. The local art center would screen slapsticks on Saturday mornings such as the hilarious Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, and Mack Sennett. My maternal grandmother had a love for classic film and considered it a vital part of my education. I recall an early memory of her introducing a certain film being broadcast on tv, “Pay close attention, Kellee. This is an important film.” She was right, I still love WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION to this day and I included it in a film course I taught. Classic comedies were an early love in particular. For many of us fans, old movies, especially comedy, is a form of escapism. Some of the other films my grandmother brought into my life: “ THE GREAT RACE,” “IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD,” and “THE QUIET MAN.” That last film mentioned, a John Ford classic, was not just a silly film to her, it was propped up as the family how-to manual in our Irish Catholic family. These films are more than simply entertainment, they actually helped to shape my identity.

Michael W Denney

Blog – ManiacsAndMonsters.com   Twitter: @ManiacsMonsters

As a horror movie fan, I have a deep admiration for the classic films from Universal Pictures:  FrankensteinBride of FrankensteinThe Invisible ManDracula, et al.  And yet, they were not the gateway to my love of classic film.  Growing up, I regularly watched The Little Rascals, Laurel & Hardy, and The Three Stooges and I am certain that those short films planted the initial seed.  I am also a long-time aficionado and collector of shorts and memorabilia from the golden age of animation and in particular the Warner Bros. cartoons.  Those cartoons further developed an appreciation for the aesthetics, humour, and timing of classic film.  But if I have to designate a single feature film that cemented my love for the classics, I would have to choose the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races.  The first time I saw it, I was immediately enthralled by both the slapstick and the clever word play.  The frantic nonsense in the last act as the Marx Brothers do everything in their power to delay the steeplechase and then help jittery Hi-Hat win the race made me a devotee of that era of film making.

Patricia (Paddy Lee) Nolan-Hall 

Blog: https://www.caftanwoman.com/    Twitter: @CaftanWoman

Shane is the movie that made me love movies. I first saw Shane on a theatrical re-release in the mid-1960s when I was around 10 years old.

The enlightening experience began with Victor Young’s score. The music had such power and melancholy that it pulled me into the story. Years later when I read Shane I realized that I lived the movie the way the character of the young boy lived those weeks with Shane – observing, sensing, and understanding. I had laughed and cried at movies before, but never had the emotions felt so crystallized.

Strangely, the experience of Shane wasn’t purely an emotional response. One part of my brain was buzzing with the revelation that movies didn’t just happen. Movies had a how and a why to them. That must be why my dad always made us read credits. A switch was flipped and the whole movie experience became alive. I understood why the music moved me, why Shane was often framed away from the other characters, and so much more. It was all too thrilling. Every movie was better after Shane, but it still stands alone as the movie that made me truly love movies.

Toni Ruberto

Blog – watchingforever.wordpress.com    Twitter: @toniruberto 

My love for classic movies can’t be traced to one film but to an entire genre: horror movies. As a kid, I watched the “old movies” (as we called them) on TV with my dad: Universal Monsters, the giant bugs of the 1950s B-movies, the fantastical creatures of Ray Harryhausen. “Them,” “The Thing” “Tarantula” and are among those we watched over and over again – and still do to this day. I never tire of hearing that screechy sound of the big ants in “Them” or seeing the fight against the giant crab in “Mysterious Island.”

Classic horror movies bring back wonderful memories of sitting on the floor by my dad’s chair as we watched them together. I love to hear similar stories from others who share they also were introduced to the classics by a family member. Because of my comfort in watching the old horror movies, it never bothered me to watch a film in “black and white” like it did my friends. So I kept watching. Thanks to dad and all the creatures who helped me discover my life-long love of classic movies.

Blog – The Classic Movie Muse  Twitter: @classymoviemuse

I fell in love with classic movies before I knew it was happening to me. As a one year old (I’m told) I would watch The Wizard of Oz (1939) repeatedly. It seems that I had a penchant for musicals. When my parents visited a family friend who owned Show Boat (1951), that became my go-to while the adults chatted.

In our home we owned a few Gene Kelly musicals that introduced me to the dancing man and some MGM stars: Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), Anchors Aweigh (1945), and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). I also remember watching The King and I (1956) and The Sound of Music (1965) frequently in my adolescence.

In my teenage years I was introduced to Gone With the Wind (1939) and my life changed. I had to know more about this movie, the actors, and how in the world did they make something so grand in 1939? Thus began my endless journey of research and love of this golden era of film.

Jill -Administrator of The Vintage Classics Facebook Page and Group and Instagram.

The films that got me into Classic films were “East of Eden” & “Rebel Without a Cause.” I owe that to my Dad. James Dean played a huge part. My love for classic films has grown so much over the years. I love so many. I prefer the classics to the films of today.

Zoe K

Blog – Hollywood Genes

My dad and I were very close when I was growing up. He loved old movies and used to tape a few (remember VHS?) off of TCM for us to watch. The incredibly fun Bringing Up Baby filled with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant’s madcap antics was a favorite. Desk Set was another. I would sit at the coffee table while I watched with my dad’s work stationary and the giant pink Electronic Dream Phone (from the Milton Bradley game) in front of me. I mimicked Joan Blondell and her fellow ladies in the research department as I blew the minds of callers with my vast array of know-how.

My dad died when I was 11, but those tapes bearing labels with his handwriting remained on the shelf. I think I clung to them as a way to keep us connected. Though I’ve seen many more classic films since then, Bringing Up Baby and Desk Set remain two of my favorites. Good memories make all of the difference.

 

A huge thank you to our contributors for sharing the films that started their journey with classic film. Hopefully we are all inspired by their words to remember the films that also start our own love for classic film.

Tomorrow, we will continue with Part Two of The Films That Brought Us To Love Classic Film.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon Is Coming!

by Paul Batters

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The 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon will be here in a week’s time and being my first blogathon as a host, I’m excited!

There’s been an incredible response and the choices made by contributors has been nothing short of inspirational. In these difficult days ahead, hopefully we are all inspired to be creative and support those who are being creative.

As the blogathon runs over the three days from April 3rd to April 5th, I will post the contributions over those three days, with a final wrap up on April 6th.

Please don’t hesitate to share with or suggest others who would be interested in taking part – the more, the merrier. Even if someone does not have a blog, I’ll be happy to take that person’s work and make it part of this event. The sharing of the blogathon posters on your social media would be greatly appreciated as well!

Below is the list of current contributors:

Pride And Prejudice (1940) – Old Hollywood Films

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1945) – Maddy Loves Her Classic Films

Sherlock Holmes And The Scarlett Claw (1944) – Pale Writer

Little Women (1994) and (2019) – Pale Writer

Nickolas Nickleby (1947) – Caftan Woman

Oliver Twist (1948) –Caftan Woman

Scarlet Street (1945) – Down These Mean Streets

Crimes At The Dark House (1940) – The Old Hollywood Garden

All Quiet On The Western Front (1930) – Overture Books And Films

Lord Of The Flies (1963) – Cinematic Catharsis

The Wrong Box (1966) – Realweegiemidget Reviews

Great Expectations (1947) – The Poppity

Oliver Twist (1948) – The Poppity

Camille (1921) – His Fame Still Lives

Anna Karenina (1935) and (1948) – Robert Short

Ben Hur – Taking Up Room

The Picture Of Dorian Gray (1945) – Silver Screenings

Wuthering Heights (1939) – Silver Screen Classics

Jane Eyre (1943) – Thoughts All Sorts

Moby Dick (1956) – Dubism

The Ministry Of Fear (1944) – The Wonderful World Of Cinema

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) – 18 Cinema Lane

War Of The Worlds – Midnite Drive-In

The House Of The Seven Gables (1940) – Films From Beyond The Time Barrier

Hans Christian Andersen (1952) – The Classic Movie Muse

The Prince And The Pauper –Backstory: New Looks At Classic Film

Wilkie Collins and his underrepresentation in classic film – Hollywood Genes

In Cold Blood – Are You Thrilled

My Cousin Rachel – Cary Grant Won’t Eat You

Cyrano De Bergerac (1950) – Pure Entertainment Preservation Society

Greystoke (1984) –Diary Of A Movie Maniac

Rebecca (1940) – Stars And Letters

The Count of Monte Cristo (1975), Dracula (1931) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949) – MovieRob

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) – MovieMovieBlogBlog

Thank you for all your support with the 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon!

 

The Dark Underbelly Of Americana: ‘Kings Row’ (1942)

by Paul Batters

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“I only know that you have to judge people by what you find them to be and not by what other people say they are” – Madame von Eln (Maria Ouspenskaya) 

Every small town has its’ secrets and stories and Hollywood has found no shortfall in material in telling those stories nor directors wishing to tell them. Usually, Hollywood had depicted small towns as idyllic places, where values and morals to be admired where prevalent and family life created a world of stability and normality. This is certainly true in the Andy Hardy series, the then popular Henry Aldrich series and films such as Meet Me In St Louis (1944) and Our Town (1940), which was incidentally directed by Sam Wood. Capra’s films certainly celebrate the small American town, untainted by the complexities of the big city, as well as ‘the people’ characterised as being the ‘salt of the earth’.

Kings Row (1942) stands tall as a tale of an American Midwestern town at the turn of the 20th century, with all the A Grade production values that were a staple at Warner Bros. Directed by Sam Wood (A Night At The Opera, Goodbye Mr Chips, Pride Of The Yankees), Kings Row is a powerful film, with outstanding performances from its’ principal players and a talented supporting cast. Whilst certainly not a forgotten film, Kings Row is often overshadowed by some of the other big releases from Warner Bros. around the same time such as Now Voyager (1942) and Casablanca (1943). It certainly deserves our attention, as it is one of Warner Bros. finest productions and despite the surface themes of romance, relationship, loss and tragedy, there are far deeper concerns that are addressed in the film. At its’ very core, Kings Row is a story that reveals the uglier and darker undercurrent of the American Midwestern town, tearing down the façade of respectability, polite society and propriety to reveal hypocrisy, perversion, familial dysfunction and corruption.  This essay does not aim to avoid spoilers but to discuss these issues and examine their purveyance in the film. (So readers be warned!)

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From the opening scene, punctuated by Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s excellent score, perhaps one of the finest ever written for the silver screen, the focus is on the town. The audience’s focus is drawn to a sign which declares Kings Row is a ‘good town’, one which is a ‘good town to live in and a good place to raise your children’.  The camera moves across tree-lined streets and picket fences before being drawn to the characters. But the inference is quite clear, as Wheeler Winston Dixon points out, that the film intends to be a stinging indictment of American society…and a dystopian vision of the dark underside of Midwestern small- town life’.  

As the audience is going to discover, to go against the small-minded and morally suffocating rules and expectations of society means a heavy price must be paid.

The story has a two-fold focus in terms of the protagonists; specifically the close friendship of Parris (Robert Cummings) and Drake (Ronald Reagan), though it is Parris  with whom the audience connects with first and foremost.  Parris and Drake share a friendship since they were children and though different in demeanour, they are similar in their strength if character.

Parris is a young and gifted student being raised by his grandmother Madame von Eln (Maria Ouspenskaya) whose values and beliefs she has bestowed upon Parris, as well as her love and kind nature. Unbeknownst to Parris, his grandmother falls ill with cancer but she covers it up, not wanting to cause worry for her grandson. Parris, too, is a kind, thoughtful and passionate young man who begins studying medicine with the brilliant yet reclusive Dr. Alexander Tower (Claude Rains). His childhood friendship with the doctor’s daughter Cassie (Betty Field) will eventually develop into love and they pursue their passions despite the doctor’s warnings and Cassie’s growing anxiety. The two will consummate their love, although naturally this is only suggested in the film but the results will have dire consequences for Cassie.

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However, these ‘star-crossed lovers’ are doomed to a greater tragedy than Parris’ initial concerns for Cassie could anticipate. Cassie fears that she is going mad, as her mother did, and it appears that her insanity is not entirely an unfounded fear. As the audience discovers later in the film, Dr. Tower also suspects that Cassie has gone mad.  What follows is a shocking turn in the tale (which incredibly survived the Breen Office), is the murder-suicide that occurs in the Tower household. Cassie is killed and Dr Tower then turns his murderous hand on himself.

Parris is horrified and wracked with guilt that he earlier dismissed Cassie when she declared her fears to him. He also discovers that the authorities want to speak to him but before he races to the Tower house, Drake stops him and goes instead, claiming he had been seeing Cassie. Drake sacrifices his own reputation in the presence of Dr. Gordon (Charles Coburn) the father of Louise (Nancy Coleman) the girl he has been ‘seen’ with. Yet his faux declaration turns out to be unnecessary as Parris discovers that he is the recipient of something he never expected. Nevertheless, it adds further condemnation of Drake’s moral character (or lack thereof) in the eyes of Dr. Gordon.

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Parris will face greater challenges, with the death of his grandmother who, along with the tragedy of the Towers, spurs him to leave the town and seek something greater. Yet Drake also senses that Parris needs to leave and, sharing the deeper sentiments of Dr Tower, does not want to see his friend stay in Kings Row to become a mediocrity, with his potential drowned by the town’s darkness. Parris does leave for Vienna where he will pursue his career in medicine but specifically the new field of psychology.

Drake, will remain in the town and face his own challenges, not the least of losing his family fortune to an unscrupulous banker. Yet it does result in finding something stable and lasting in Randy (Ann Sheridan). The no-nonsense and tough Irish girl comes from the other side of the tracks and her hard-working family accepts Drake without judgment, indicating that the ‘poorer’ part of town has rejected the hypocrisy and double standards of ‘respected society’. 

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Kings Row spans a period of approximately 20 years, from the childhood of the principal characters into their adulthood. Of course, the tale being told is not only that of the people in the town but of the town itself. The divisions that exist in Kings Row are marked not only in the town’s psyche and fabric but by the very physical differences, classically signified by the train tracks. Drake’s ultimate slide from society is marked not only by his financial fall but also primarily by his moving over the train tracks to be with Randy. Ironically, his ‘punishment’ for doing so, is the horrific accident (and unnecessary operation that follows), which will give Ronald Regan his most famous scene in film history and a heck of a line of dialogue.

When Parris does return home, the expectation from the town is that he will set up a practice in Kings Row but Parris is not so sure. However, he will discover something that may keep him there and may give him the peace and stability that has eluded him.

His reunion with Drake is bittersweet and the love that they share is certainly undiminished by time apart. Yet Drake’s problems runs deeper than his physical trauma and Randy is hopeful that Parris’ return may help. The momentous climax is powerful and emotional, not only placing the cherry on top of Reagan’s performance but also reaching a finality for the key characters in conquering their own obstacles and defeating the very forces of the town, which had sought to crush their individuality.

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Stylistically, Kings Row is a dark melodrama, with Gothic undertones and is beautifully shot by legendary cameraman James Wong Howe, whose perceptive eye finds the inner emotions of the characters, as well as the nature of the town. The wide-eyed panic in Cassie is disturbing and her anxiety and terror reflects an undertow of repression in the town. Terrified of her own thought processes, Cassie tries to reject Parris but her love for him initially prevails only to be de-railed by her own dread and the final act of horror that will befall her. The camera focuses on her face, illuminated in the moonlight like a phantom and the accompanying score not only enhances the tragedy of Cassie’s mental state but also foreshadows the final moment of madness to come. Later, Louise will also face mental illness and instability, also impacted on by a cruel and domineering father. Again, the repressive climate of the town, which discourages individuality and demands subservience to what is considered ‘decent society’, has meant terrible repercussions.  Insanity is a long-running convention of the Gothic genre and in Kings Row it seems to be way too prevalent. But more pointedly, the town of King’s Row seems almost totalitarian in its’ societal laws and expectations. Patriarchy may be the most obvious reason for the power system in place but men also fall prey to the claustrophobia of the town’s façade of propriety; Drake pays a heavy price for his individuality and refusal to bow to the town’s societal norms and Dr Tower faces isolation (even if partially self-inflicted).  Parris will declare Dr Tower as a brilliant man whose intelligence and forward thinking is wasted in King’s Row. What compels him to remain in a hick town with such narrow-minded and stifling repression? It takes great strength of character and true principles set into foundations of integrity to withstand the onslaught.

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Certainly the town of Kings Row understands the art of the cover-up – so much so that even the ‘best’ that the town has to offer, i.e. Parris, has learned how to do it. Parris is more than happy to commit Drake’s former flame Louise to a mental asylum, to protect Drake from Louise revealing the truth behind her now-dead father’s operation on Drake. Parris would know full well the horrors of such a committal yet he is initially happy to humour Louise into a false sense that he will help her. In truth, this is not the act of a honourable doctor and our high opinion of Parris is rattled. But it fits perfectly with the very atmosphere of the town. To protect Parris from scandal when Cassie is murdered, Drake is happy to lie that he was seeing Cassie and ruin his own reputation, which he claims is ruined anyway.

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Perhaps the darkest element of the story deals with the secondary characters and the plot device upon which the film will turn and provide Drake’s character arc. The sadistic Dr. Gordon is later revealed to a self-appointed judge and jury within the town, abusing his position as a doctor and committing unspeakable and abominable operations upon those he considers due punishment for their transgressions. The fact that the good doctor is never questioned suggests the nature of the town protecting him and his activities – and it seems that his practice as a doctor is not exactly unseen by others. Parris, when discovering his grandmother is unwell and being treated by Dr Gordon, questions his mentor Dr Tower about Gordon’s reputation, professionalism and practice. The tone in which Parris asks his questions and the nature by which Dr Tower answers certainly suggests that rumours exist and Dr Gordon is whispered about. But Gordon’s abuse is not merely the act of a wayward or ‘mad’ doctor; it becomes the allegory for the abuse of power and authority by those who have it. Gordon is not only a doctor but in some sense a ‘respected’ leader within the town and its’ high society. His wife will certainly not question him and when his daughter threatens to expose him, he suggests how he will deal with her and seems more than ready to commit her.  The power of patriarchy is more than evident. 

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As a result, Drake’s ability to disempower what Dr Gordon has done to him, with help from Parris and Randy, is a great victory over this long-established patriarchy and becomes a moment of courage as Drake takes ownership of his liberation, breaking the imprisonment of his condition.

It is actually quite a feat that Kings Row was made from Henry Bellamann’s 1940 novel in the first place. Upon its’ release, the novel was a massive success, with studios engaging in an intense battle for filming rights. However, turning Bellamann’s novel into a film that would meet the requirements of the Production Code would be extremely difficult. Not only does the murder-suicide occur but also the original motive behind it is far more sinister and darker than what anticipates the heinous act in the film. As critic Tim Dirks points out, ‘Cassie was afflicted with nymphomania, not insanity. Dr. Tower’s diary revealed that the warped doctor had eliminated his wife and then committed incest with his daughter in order to study its psychological effects. He then killed Cassie when she threatened to leave him and go to Parris’. Parris and Cassie are certainly in love and there are allusions that the two are consummating their love. In the film, Dr. Tower’s motives are designed as almost valorous and noble. Parris interprets the doctor’s act as an attempt to ‘save’ Parris from the same fate as Dr. Tower – marrying an unbalanced woman and finding himself locked for life in a small town with small-minded people. Indeed, Parris even calls Dr. Tower a ‘brilliant man’ for his foresight, as well as his genius as a doctor. Murder-suicide is a heinous act and not one of brilliance or courage, yet there is a twisted logic in Kings Row, which has even reached Parris.

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Arguably, these considerations may not necessarily condemn Parris as a character and the difficulties and complexities of situations that we all encounter in life may have to deal with choosing the lesser of two evils. Nevertheless, it may appear that in Kings Row, such choices become very apparent and if the audience looks carefully, a darker and more sinister reality exists behind the picket fences and claims of being ‘ a good town’.

 Kings Row is a superb film which allows the audience to become consumed in the drama and absorbed by the depth of its’ characters. The quality of production typifies Warner Bros and Hal Wallis, then Head Of Production at Warners, knew how to build a picture and shape it to its’ finest results. The pedigree of Sam Wood as director is well known although by all reports he was less concerned with the visual impact of the film (still beautiful by James Wong Howe’s impeccable standards) and more so with the building of the key characters, particularly Parris.

There is a great courage in the production of this film, as already discussed and the more explicit themes and concerns of the novel are still present in the subtle and nuanced development of the story. Ultimately, Kings Row is far more than a melodrama but a revelation of the darkness of some places, where facades of propriety, community and ‘goodness’ are stripped down to reveal hypocrisy and abuse of power. On a larger scale, Kings Row becomes an allegory for the sinister corruption and hypocrisy that may not only exists in our own towns and cities but within our society as a whole. As an audience we learn that there is a price to pay if we care to challenge it, ignore it or even escape it; and we may well ask if that price is worth paying if it means our integrity and sense of self remains intact.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Update: The 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon

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A huge thank you for the great support so far and have been humbled and excited by the fantastic response! Obviously, it’s still some time away but as far more experienced hosts know, it’s important to be organised and get ahead.

Please don’t forget to share on your own social media, as the more participants the merrier! If there is a fellow blogger you think would enjoy taking part, please let them know. 

Below are the current topic choices and again a warm thanks to the participants! 

Pride And Prejudice (1940) – Old Hollywood Films

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1945) – Maddy Loves Her Classic Films

Sherlock Holmes And The Scarlett Claw (1944) – Pale Writer

Little Women (1994) and (2019) – Pale Writer

Nickolas Nickleby (1947) – Caftan Woman

Oliver Twist (1948) –Caftan Woman

Scarlet Street (1945) – Down These Mean Streets

Crimes At The Dark House (1940) – The Old Hollywood Garden

All Quiet On The Western Front (1930) – Overture Books And Films

Lord Of The Flies (1963) – Cinematic Catharsis

The Wrong Box (1966) – Realweegiemidget Reviews

Great Expectations (1947) – The Poppity

Oliver Twist (1948) – The Poppity

Camille (1921) – His Fame Still Lives

Anna Karenina (1935) and (1948) – Robert Short

Ben Hur – Taking Up Room

The Picture Of Dorian Gray (1945) – Silver Screenings

Wuthering Heights (1939) – Silver Screen Classics

Jane Eyre (1943) –  Thoughts All Sorts

Moby Dick (1956) – Dubism

The Ministry Of Fear (1944) – The Wonderful World Of Cinema

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) – 18 Cinema Lane

War Of The Worlds – Midnite Drive-In

The House Of The Seven Gables (1940) – Films From Beyond The Time Barrier

Hans Christian Andersen (1952) – The Classic Movie Muse

The Prince And The Pauper –Backstory: New Looks At Classic Film

Wilkie Collins and his underrepresentation in classic film – Hollywood Genes

In Cold Blood – Are You Thrilled

My Cousin Rachel – Cary Grant Won’t Eat You

Cyrano De Bergerac (1950) –  Pure Entertainment Preservation Society

Greystoke (1984) –Diary Of A Movie Maniac 

Rebbeca (1940) – Stars And Letters

The Count of Monte Cristo (1975), Dracula (1931) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949) – MovieRob

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) – MovieMovieBlogBlog

Some wonderful writers are taking part and I trust that you are excited as I am to see some of the great chosen topics. Please check the list carefully and hopefully it will inspire your own choices, as well as give you some ideas on what to do. (The list will be regularly updated as well).

Looking forward to hearing from you!

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Announcing The 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon!

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I am very pleased and excited to announce my first hosting of a blogathon – namely the Classic Literature On Film Blogathon!

And of course you are all kindly and heartily invited to partake!

Classic novels and plays have provided cinema with some of the greatest stories of all time. They are part of the fabric of culture and have been powerful in helping us to understand ourselves. Since the early days of cinema, film-makers have mined the richness of classic tales for the silver screen. Some of our most beloved films have been based on the works of Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen and Mark Twain, to name a few. Indeed, many classic novels have been produced many times.

So, the main focus of the blogathon is to celebrate, examine, critique and review those films that have been based on classic literature!

As already mentioned, the concept of ‘classic literature’ reflects what has been traditionally considered by scholars as those books and plays which have had a considerable impact on the development of literature. They have set the standards for and established certain genres and have given us some of the most recognised stories and characters.  So this blogathon aims to keep the focus within those boundaries – but of course that leaves everyone plenty of options!

Please have a look at the rules below and I TRULY hope you will take part!

Outline Of Rules

  1. This blogathon is not just restricted to reviewing actual films based on classic literature. Participants are encouraged to write on any angle regarding the topic area e.g comparisons of films based on a particular text, discussion of the textual integrity of films based on classic literature.
  2. Duplicates of films will be allowed for review but of course it’s a case of first in, so act fast. Whilst you are welcome to write more than one entry, there will be a limit of three posts per blog.
  3. This blogathon does focus on the classic era of Hollywood film – from the silent era to the 1960s. But please don’t let that hold you back, as all entries from all period will be happily accepted.
  4. All contributions must be new material only. Previously published posts will not be accepted.
  5. The blogathon will take place between April 3rd and 5th, 2020. Please submit your entries on either of these days or earlier if you wish. For those of you posting early, just remember that your entry won’t be linked until the event starts. 
  6. To express your interest in participating in the blogathon, you can so in the following ways:

 – please leave a comment on my blog along with the name and URL of your blog, and the subject you wish to cover

 – or you can always register by email at: silverscreenclassics2016@gmail.com. For those of you who wish to register by email, please be sure to include the name and URL of your blog, and the topic you wish to cover.

Once you get confirmation, please spread the word about this blogathon by advertising the event on your blog and other social media. Please feel free to use one of these ads to advertise the event.

Looking forward to seeing you in April!

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The CMBA Profiles Silver Screen Classics!

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It was with the greatest thrill that the CMBA contacted me to inform me that they would be featuring my blog for their first CMBA profile for 2020. Needless to say, I was extremely excited, honoured and humbled by this incredible news!

As bloggers will tell you, being recognised is a great boost to the confidence and being acknowledged is an affirmation of one’s work.

My deepest and sincerest thanks go to the CMBA for the opportunity to be profiled!

For those interested, the link below will take you to the interview on the CMBA Page:

CMBA Profile: Silver Screen Classics

 

 

Death As Redemption in Film Noir

by Paul Batters

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If there is one aspect of the noir universe which is a norm, it is the presence of violence and death. The dark streets are not only literal but metaphorical realities, where all manner of individuals become drawn into, seduced and even captured by the shadows of their own pathology. Anyone who has watched a noir film knows that there is a stark, cold fatalism with little empathy for those who test it. Everyone pays for their sins and indeed they may do so with interest. Like the loan shark who has their mark on a hook, the individual continues to pay and escape seems impossible.

There is another harsh reality that the only form of escape is ‘the big sleep’ – death. It is an inevitability that haunts all in the film noir universe and one that they are desperate to escape, despite this fatalist understanding. Having written on the nature of fatalism and futility in film noir before (see link here), this article will try to avoid these themes were possible and focus on the concept of death in film noir as also being a form of redemption – an understanding that sins must be paid for.

At the ultimate moment, it is arguable whether we seek redemption for past sins. There are enough stories of ‘death-bed confessions’ to fill a multitude of stadiums – and whilst on the face of it, such confessions seemed cliched, the truth is that such confessions are made during the last gasps of someone’s life. At the other end of the scale, even the most reticent to admit fault and seek forgiveness (at least in film noir) WILL pay the ultimate price.

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Death as redemption in film noir is accepted at different stages in the arc of a character. Perhaps one of the most celebrated examples of this, is in a film noir classic and a template for its’ tropes, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Fatalism is evident at the start of the film, where a badly wounded Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) goes into the insurance office he works at, to spill his guts on the Dictaphone of his boss and close friend, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). His opening lines are clearly the beginning of a confession; a mea culpa which will drive the story right to the very end. Neff doesn’t look for excuses nor does he try to explain away his sins by blaming others. Walter’s sins are his own and he takes full responsibility for them. True, in the dying moments of the film after being discovered by Keyes, Walter asks his friend to turn his back as he makes his getaway. But the truth is that it’s a half-hearted appeal for mercy, like a man on the scaffold hoping against hope for a pardon. As Walter collapses at the doorway, Keyes stays with him. Smoking a cigarette (and a beautiful touch with Wilder reversing the motif of Keyes never having a match), Walter waits for justice and redemption to arrive.

The ending is slightly ambiguous in terms of the nature of that justice. The audience never learns Walter’s fate – does he bleed to death in the doorway? Or is he taken to hospital only to recover and be executed for murder? In a now famous image amongst classic cinema fans, Walter Neff stands grim-faced in the gas chamber as Keyes looks on outside. But the scene was cut and the audience is left with a far-better ending. Walter seems to accept his fate and the acknowledgement that he needs to pay for what he has done.

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Out Of The Past (1948), one of the finest examples of film noir, employs a similar approach to death as redemption. Jeff (Robert Mitchum) is a private detective who has been hired by bad guy Whit (Kirk Douglas) to find his girlfriend Kathie (Jane Greer). But whilst Jeff initially believes he has found happiness with Kathie, he discovers the truth too late and that Kathie is a classic femme fatale, who has duped both Jeff and her former lover. In the end, there is a chance for escape but Jeff takes a different option. Rather than running off with Kathie and her former lover’s money, he instead betrays her to the police. Despite her threat that she will throw him under the bus as well, Jeff still betrays Kathie, who fatally wounds him with a bullet. It is Jeff’s moment of redemption; he has ‘done the right thing’ in the face of so many wrongs and paid the ultimate price. Kathie will now face justice but the irony of course is that he has been redeemed through her murderous act of revenge. As Mark Conard points out, Jeff has made a ‘presumably redemptive sacrifice’.

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But for Jeff it is also the end of great misery and unhappiness. Tortured by his choices, death has now removed all his pain and misery as well. In The Killers (1946), the Swede (Burt Lancaster) is a former boxer whose story is one which sees bad decisions made to impress a woman. His involvement in a bank robbery, even after a stint in prison, further exemplifies how far he slides into the darkness. All he finds is incredible misery and the woman he loves, Kitty (Ava Gardner) has used and duped him as well. When death finally comes to him in the form of the killers, the Swede accepts his fate and indeed even welcomes it. There is a relief in death, as an escape from the pain he has endured.  However, though he does not seek redemption per se, he doeshave regrets and acknowledges that he must accept the consequences for his choices. Whilst it may not be a question of a strict code of right and wrong, the Swede “got in wrong” and strayed from who he was. His death will now right that wrong, and again he will make payment for his crimes.

Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) is an excellent example of the protagonist finding redemption, and incidentally relief, through his own execution. Frank Chambers (John Garfield) is a man haunted by the murder he has committed for Cora (Lana Turner), the woman he loves. Their passionate relationship is one which is punctuated by betrayal, mistrust and sexual desire, and they are both riddled with moral corruption. Both will also pay for their sins – Cora through a car accident whilst Frank is driving and Frank as he sits on death row awaiting execution. Ironically, he is tried and convicted for Cora’s death and whilst initially protesting his innocence, Frank accepts that he has to pay for the murder he did commit. But of course, redemption runs deeper in the world of film noir. Frank believes that both he and Cora are paying for her husband’s murder and his acceptance of this acts as his redemption as well. Even more so, Frank is also devastated that Cora died not knowing how much Frank loved her and he prays that somehow her spirit will know this. In the end, Frank and Cora both pay and Frank’s final prayer is that by accepting his fate, redemption will mean that they are together in the next life.

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In Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal (1948), Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) escapes from prison with the help of his girlfriend Pat (Claire Trevor) but facing the complication of a dangerous mobster Rick (Raymond Burr) who wants Joe dead. In the finale, Rick and Joe, both wounded in a gunfight, with Rick thrown to his death. However, Joe also dies in the street with an acceptance of his fate and Pat noting that “This is right for Joe. This is what he wanted.”In essence, Joe’s dying face is not one contorted by fear, pain or panic but one filled with contentment. In some way he has found redemption, through the understanding that he needs to pay for his sins and that his death makes things right.

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Of course, the deep-rooted cynicism of film noir would suggest that redemption is never available. The hard and bleak reality is that attempts at happiness (or perceived happiness) through crime are futile and hopeless. Yet an extension of that hopelessness and futility is a final desire for redemption and the desperate need for it. It also needs to be remembered that those caught up in the dark shadows are not necessarily professional criminals, gangsters and cops/private detectives (who are used to walking tough streets) but ordinary people who are drawn into the depths. In Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), Henry Stevenson (Burt Lancaster) is drawn into a world of crime because of his deep-rooted dissatisfaction in both his personal and professional life. At the very last second, he desperately realises what he has done but its’ too late to turn things around.

Ultimately, everyone pays a price. Femme fatales rarely walk away and even the innocent are wrongly accused or face prison or death. Yet death brings a finality which cannot be reversed. As a result, it brings a new dimension whilst drawing on tropes as old as religion – that redemption is possible, if the price is paid. In the world of film noir, that is the ultimate price.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

 

The Sunshine Blogger Award – Brightening Up A Blog!

by Paul Batters

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It’s a real thrill to be acknowledged by a fellow blogger whose work you respect and enjoy. We rarely receive that acknowledgement and to be nominated by by Zoe K at Hollywood Genes is certainly thrilling! I cannot thank you enough for your kindness, Zoe!

As Zoe pointed out in her acceptance, it’s a great deal of fun to receive the award because the questions allow for introspection that we rarely give to ourselves.  So without further ado, let’s get into the conditions for the Sunshine Blogger Award.

The Rules

  1. Thank the person who nominated you and provide a link to their blog.
  2. Answer the eleven questions from the blogger who nominated you.
  3. Nominate eleven bloggers.
  4. Create eleven new questions for your nominees to answer.

Here are my answers to Zoe’s questions:

The Questions

1). Whose biography would you want to write and why would you pick that person?

James Murray. I became fascinated by his story when I read ‘Hollywood Babylon’ as a kid (which I know is heavy with inaccuracies) but was even more fascinated after finally watching ‘The Crowd’ which is one of my favourite films and an exceptional artwork. There are myths regarding James Murray’s life that need to be cleared up and indeed there’s a lot we don’t know either. There’s something tragic about his story and so many themes to examine that I think it would be challenging and very interesting to research and find out more about the man.

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2). What is a film that people would be shocked to find out you haven’t seen?

I’ve avoided many of the Marvel and DC films, particularly the most recent ones. I’m so tired of ‘over-the-top’ CGI nonsense and noise. And for the record I was a huge Marvel comic fan from the 70s onwards (and still am!). But if I had a free ticket to go, I wouldn’t nor couldn’t be bothered to see any of those films. Not judging anyone who likes them – it’s just my taste.

3). Which favorite book of yours has never been made (or made properly) into a movie? If it were, who would you cast in the lead roles?

Definitely Budd Schulberg’s book ‘What Makes Sammy Run?’ – not because it’s a favourite per se as many books I love have been made into films but because it’s a powerful book and should be made. I know and understand the stories behind why it’s never been made as a film, as it is a terrifyingly cynical view of the film industry.
In terms of casting, it’s very difficult which might also explain why it was never made. But I’ll take my best shot, using actors from the classic era.

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Al Mannheim: Dana Andrews
Sammy Glick: Frank Sinatra
Cathy ‘Kit’ Sargent: Teresa Wright
Sidney Fineman: James Gleason
‘Sheik’: Anthony Quinn
Laurette Harrington: Martha Hyer
Carter Judd: Jeffrey Hunter
Rosalie Goldblaum: Cathy O’Donnell

4). Which blog post did you spend the most time researching and/or writing and what was it about? 

It would have to be ‘Fatalism And Futility In Film Noir’. It’s over 4,000 words and I really focused on it a great deal. Of course I re-watched the films I discussed a number of times, as well as read some critical work and reviews to immerse myself in the essence of what I wanted to write. I think it came out ok!

Here’s the link: Fatalism And Futility In Film Noir

5). When and why did you start blogging?

I began in 2016 for a few reasons; I have always loved classic film and wanted to write about it. The advice that kept popping up in my face was quite simple – just DO IT. It was also an avenue to developing an idea for a book (which I am still working on) nI finally took on the challenge and whilst I have been disillusioned and disheartened at times, I’ve tried to remember why I started writing in the first place and I am starting to get my mojo back.

It’s also a desire to keep alive an appreciation of classic cinema, at a time when it is slowly being eroded away and diminished by so many factors. Researching and writing about classic cinema is also a fantastic way of learning more and I wanted that to be a key part of the reason I started blogging.

The key with writing is simple yet difficult at the same time – just WRITE. Even if they come out terrible, the process is still cathartic as well as being a learning opportunity.

6). You’re hosting a themed Halloween party. Which book or film would you use as the theme and in what ways?

It would be Roman Polanski’s film The Fearless Vampire Killers – simply because it would give everyone a chance to become a creature of the night. Everyone of course would be dressed in period piece, the party would be held in a beautiful old ballroom for everyone to dance the night away and the hired staff (suitably attired) would be on duty to provide everyone with enough food and beverages and keep them satisfied.
For those who are interested, there would be viewing rooms with different classic and not so classic horror films playing – and of course the decorations would be appropriate to the evening.

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7). What was the last film you saw that really blew you away and why?

The Irishman. Not only were there incredible performances from De Niro and Pacino, but there was also the reminder of why I miss Joe Pesci so much on the big screen. Ray Romano was no slouch and perfectly cast. A tour de force of a film!

8). Marry, Kiss, or Kill: Which film character would you marry, which would you share a hot, pre-code kiss with, and which would you kill like a noir anti-hero or villain(ess) with a score to settle? (And why did you pick these 3?)

Marry: Nora Charles (Myrna Loy). That is assuming Nick was deceased and she was available. (I know that sounds awful but…it is Myrna Loy after all! To spend a lifetime with such a gorgeous gal would be heaven!)

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Kiss: Marian Martin (Joan Crawford). Locking lips with a hell of a sexy pre-code dame like Joan Crawford would send the temperature soaring!

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Kill: Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark). He’s a sadistic, mad dog and dangerous as hell!

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9). Which film character’s closet would you love to raid?

Why any character being played by Cary Grant of course!

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10). Recast Star Wars using early Hollywood (silent to 1940s) actors and actresses then recast Casablanca with modern actors and actresses (1990s to today).

I’ve also placed the original players next to the recast actors and actresses.

Star Wars 
Luke – Jackie Cooper

Han – Clark Gable

Leia – Olivia de Havilland

Obi-wan Kenobi – Sir Cedric Hardwicke

Darth Vader – Claude Rains (Voice)

Grand Moff Tarkin – Boris Karloff

Casablanca
Rick – George Clooney

Ilsa – Monica Bellucci

Victor – Christoph Waltz

Sam – Jamie Foxx

Captain Renault – Jean Dujardin

Major Strasser – Mads Mikkelsen

Signor Ferrari – Anthony Hopkins

Ugarte – Steve Buscemi

 

11). You were working in the lab, late one night, when your eyes beheld an eerie sight. What was it and what did you do?

The hour was beyond the clock, as I looked dazedly upon my work. Was it finished? Was it complete? Was what lay before me everything that I had sweated, ached and poured my heart out for? Or was there more to do?How long had I toiled and found myself lost in the seemingly infinite depths of trying to perfect my creation! Yet at every turn there were obstacles; some I had placed there, the rest beyond my control – or so I told myself. The distinction between perseverance and madness had long blurred and I could not remember the last time I had spoken to someone about the weather or sat at the table to eat. Indeed, what was finally driving me to complete my work was something I could not ascertain, even when I deigned to find some moments of peace in disturbed sleep. Even then the only reason I closed my eyes was a justification to allow myself to recover to continue my work.
And so at that point, I slumped in my seat and felt my arms fall lifelessly by my side. It was enough. There was no more that I could do.
Yet something compelled me to turn to my right, as if a presence was watching me. Finding myself torn between daring to look and pretending there was nothing there, I nonetheless apprehensively turned slowly towards an apparition beyond my wildest nightmares.
Staring at me was a figure so grotesque that I could not scream. As I opened my mouth in silent horror, the figure did the same, as if it were mocking my terror and laughing inside at my frozen fear. Its eyes were large and dark, sunken in what appeared to be the hollows of a long dead oak, with hair hanging down bedraggled over its’ face. Its pale face was fixated on me like a predator eyeing its’ prey and as I instinctively raised my hand in some pathetic attempt to fend it off, I saw it too raise its’ fiendish arm as if ready to strike.
Rising slowly out of my chair, the figure also stood and I knew that at any moment, it may rush at me and inflict violence upon me. Determined to defend myself, I saw its’ face contort into a horrific mask of contemptuous violence.
My fists clenched into red knuckled balls of fury.
And waited. Bracing myself for the attack to come.
But then I noticed a change in my tormentor’s face, as it looked at me questioningly. I, too, found myself staring back, realising that I knew who it was and the realisation hit me like a thousand thunderbolts all at once…
I touched the mirror with the tips of my fingers before turning back to my creation and hitting the ‘Publish’ button on the screen. Sleep beckoned…

The 11 Nominees For The Sunshine Blogger Award

Down These Mean Streets – Musings Of A Noir Dame

Four Star Film Fan

Wolffian Classic Movies Digest

B Noir Detour

Noirish

Queen Of The Lot Blog

Diary Of A Movie Maniac

Cinema Essentials

The Classic Movie Muse

Moon In Gemini

Once Upon A Screen

The Questions

My questions are a mixed bag of my own and others that Zoe.K was given so I hope you find them interesting!

1. Which actor or actress who hasn’t received an Oscar do you think deserves one? And for what film?

2. Who is your favourite child actor and name a film they were in which you love.

3. If a biopic was made of you during the classic film era (1920s to 1960s), who would you like to play you and why?

4. Which famous starry couple (of any time and place) would you want as neighbours?

5. Of all the classic monsters, which one do you feel associated with and why?

6. Is there a classic era actor/actress that you have a crush on?

7. If there was ONE actor or actress (living or deceased) whom you could interview for your blog, who would it be and why would you choose that person?

8. Which film character’s closet would you love to raid?

9. Marry, Kiss, or Kill: Which film character would you marry, which would you share a hot, pre-code kiss with, and which would you kill like a noir anti-rhero or villain(ess) with a score to settle? (And why did you pick these 3?)

10. Of all the classic film studios, which is your favourite and why?

11. Choose a film where you would love to change the ending. Explain what that change would be and why you would do it.

Well, I hope you take part and of course totally understand if you cannot or would prefer not to. However, I thoroughly recommend it as it’s a great deal of fun and certainly is a pleasure and honour to be nominated. Happy blogging everyone! And I’m looking forward to reading your responses.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

 

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960): The Essence Of Gothic Horror

by Paul Batters

 

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On those cold nights when the winds howl, the rain is falling and perhaps even the lightning startles the dark sky, who has felt the need to immerse themselves in the deep abyss of a Gothic tale? Whether it be a book or a film, the atmosphere of dread, gloom and fear takes us down dark corridors through ancient mansions and past a myriad of doors behind which are secrets which shock us to the bone. We seem to be drawn to what lurks in the shadows and our curiosities are aroused. The Gothic tale, born in the era of Romanticism, has been interpreted and presented in fascinating ways and its’ themes and tropes are ever-present in popular culture. Whilst initially the classic Gothic tale was bound to its’ British and European origins, it has found life in the ‘New World’, with the term American Gothic also becoming a mainstay in literature (think Edgar Allan Poe!).

But with the birth of film, there was a new way of telling stories and Hollywood was not slow to exploit Gothic literature to not only tell stories but use the visual medium to its’ own advantage and establish a new way of telling stories. From the silent era to the present, Gothic horror has both fascinated and terrified us. Of all the directors who were adroit in bringing Gothic horror to the screen, none were as expert or as influential as Alfred Hitchcock. He was no stranger to Gothic literature, having made Rebecca(1940) and even drew on Gothic tropes when making Notorious (1946); and of course would later re-visit Gothic horror with The Birds (1963).

Hitchcock had long been considered a master of the thriller by the time he made Psycho. Loosely based on the infamous Ed Gein case, the film has oft been considered the beginning of a new wave of horror film and in some regards a precursor to the slasher film that would emerge in the 1970s. Yet it is far more than that and indeed. As Misha Kavka points out in The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction:

“Gothic film brings a set of recognizable elements based in distinct visual codes. Such codes constitute the language, or the sign system, of the Gothic film”

If ever a film had all the hallmarks of a Gothic horror film, then Psycho has them in spades.

(Warning! Be prepared for spoilers!)

The House

The infamous (or famous, depending on your viewpoint) house is perhaps the most powerfully visual and recognisable Gothic element in the film. Once we start to unpack the powerful symbolism of the Victorian mansion, we discover there are incredible depths to what it reveals.

Art historian Rose Heichelbech states that Hitchcock used Edward Hopper’s The House By the Railroad (1925) (below) as the basis for the Bates’ Mansion. But unlike the bright water colours of Hopper’s work, Hitchcock has drained the colour through filming in black and white, leaving a house bathed in greys which give the house an omnipresence which informs the film. Sitting high on the small hill and imposing in its’ nature, its’ looming dominance highlights the relationship between Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his mother (which of course taps into another Gothic theme later to be explored). Later when Marion (Janet Leigh) and Norman speak of being unable to escape ‘traps’, the house certainly comes to mind as what Norman finds inescapable.

 

House by the Railroad, by Edward Hopper

Not only does the house become a symbol of dominance and a foreboding presence over the characters but it is also a strong symbol of values and morals that belong in another era, in complete contrast to the present which could be represented by the Bates Motel below. Both buildings also represent Norman’s fractured state of mind, which in the end will be challenged to the point of breaking completely. In fact, despite the motel also suggesting a new progressive world on the move and the house representing ‘stability’, both are isolated from that same progress; particularly with the new highway built away from the motel. Like the classic Gothic house in literature, those who live there are thus isolated from society, wallowing in their stagnation and living in seclusion from the changes that are occurring in the larger world. They grasp onto the past with desperation which is also transforms into madness and insanity.

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The house holds a fascination for the audience, especially one so old and steeped in history. What secret does it hold inside? What if those walls could talk?  Indeed, the house remains one of the best advertisements for the film and would feature in trailers at the time. Hitchcock knew that the house had a life and spirit of its’ own – as it always has had in the Gothic tradition.

Dark Secrets

If Psycho holds its’ audience with incredible tension from the opening, it’s through the power of secrets. In Gothic literature, secrets run deep and dark, and their exposure reveals trauma, anxieties and conflict. In Psycho, these are already evident in a sexualised and lascivious way, as we become voyeurs to the illicit affair between Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin). But far darker are the secrets that will only slowly be revealed regarding Norman. All appearances will be shattered and the dark secrets within the Bates family exposed.

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Again in terms of the house, the audience is desperate to look inside and see what it is hiding. When that chance arrives, we discover a house filled with antiquity and bejewelled in trinkets and fashion from a different era. Of course, the most shocking and terrible secret will be revealed in the deepest and darkest place in the house – the cellar. As in Gothic literature, the terrifying familial secrets in the Bates family provide the psychological reasoning for Norman’s mental state and perversities.

Corpses and Corruption

By corruption, the Gothic trope of death and decay comes to mind. But what also permeates is the corruption of the mental state and the decay of a family into madness. Strangely enough, corpses are not left to rot per se but are ‘stuffed and mounted’ (through Norman’s ‘hobby’ of taxidermy) and of course, he goes much further than that!

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Norman sustains his insanity via the corpse of his mother and though physically dead, her presence is elaborately constructed and becomes a reality in Normans’ world. Any Freudian can go into great detail about the Oedipal complexities at play.

Madness and Insanity

The incredible twist in the tale hits the audience in the climactic scene in the cellar, where the truth behind Norman is revealed. Initially, the audience believes that Norman is a shy yet pleasant enough young man, who may have some serious mother issues – until his perverse ‘peeping Tom’ moment as Marion gets ready for her shower. The audience is also led down the garden path, when Norman and ‘Mother’ conversations  are heard. Yet even then there is no indication of what will follow.

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When Norman states with a smile ‘She just goes a little mad sometimes’, it becomes the forewarning for what will come – Norman as his own mother committing horrific crimes on his behalf. His personality is constantly at war with himself until the ‘mother’ part of him ‘wins’ the battle.

In Psycho, insanity and madness result in horrific violence and the infamous shower scene (which has been definitively unpacked and analysed a thousand times over) shifts the film’s narrative from the heroine to Norman Bates. The moment still shocks and is much a rape as it is a brutal murder. Again, the climax will reveal the full and terrible truth to Norman’s insanity.

And of course, the split personality is also suggestive of the darkness of secrets, and what is revealed to and hidden from the world.

The Heroine

Marion is the classic Gothic heroine – finding herself in danger and indeed even placing herself there, initially through her own act of stealing the money. Her own conscience pursues her, and she constructs conversations which question what she does. What makes Marion a classic Gothic heroine is that like her predecessors in classic Gothic literature, she’s a breaker of convention and seeks independence to find happiness in her life. The traditional role constructed for her by middle America is not enough.

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Her pulling into the Bates Motel is a fateful one, a trope also present in Gothic fiction, and of course the pouring rain and gloomy atmosphere further adds to the strong Gothic overtones. The stormy night is an ominous sign that something bad will happen and indeed it is a terrible shock to the audience when it does. Marion’s horrific ending in the shower, is a ‘punishment’ for her deeds (as much as a reflection of Hitchcock’s pathology) but it also reflects the physical and emotional pain that the heroine traditionally experiences.

Mood And Atmosphere

From Saul Bass’ opening credits, underpinned by the anxious musical score and split titles, the tension is heightened and the audience knows they are going to be weighted down by it. The audience peering into the window find an attractive couple half-undressed but despite the sexualised scene, their conversation is one of despair and hopelessness, already setting a negative tone.

Marion’s flight from Phoenix with the stolen money thus drives the narrative into one of heightened tension, which is worsened for us by her interactions with the cop and the car salesman. Her nervous and an anxious state therefore becomes ours.

But of course, as Marion drives through the stormy night to find refuge in the Bates Motel, it evokes for the audience the familiar Gothic trope of the traveller lost in the storm and finding themselves in an old isolated house filled with dark secrets and danger (i.e Wuthering Heights, The Old Dark House). Again, the looming shadow of the house with darkened skies above it adds to the gloomy atmosphere.

Of course the audience enters the house itself, it is antiquated and frozen in another time, as well as being terribly silent and filled with shadows.

And of course the decision by Hitchcock to film in monochrome certainly helps shape the Gothic atmosphere!

Psycho would become one of Hitchcock’s most successful and well-known films. It is not only a superb thriller which still never fails to shock; it is also a superb example of the Gothic horror film.

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This article has been proudly submitted for the Gothic Horror Blogathon hosted by Gabriella at Pale Writer . Please click on the link to read other fantastic entries!

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history. 

The Frankenstein Monster: Boris Karloff And His Incredible Portrayal

by Paul Batters

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Of all the monsters in the pantheon of the ‘children of the night’, perhaps none have had such an impact on the sympathies of an audience as the Frankenstein Monster. Many films have been made where Shelly’s Gothic tale is told or at least appropriated. Yet none have ever been able to match Boris Karloff’s performance as Dr. Frankenstein’s near-immortal creation.

This discussion does not aim to focus on the mechanics of the film-making process of the first three films nor their storylines; insomuch that if they are brought up, it’s done so as a reflection of Karloff’s performance. Indeed, a great deal of discussion and discourse has already covered the making of the three films I would like to focus on. If anything, this is a celebration of Karloff’s portrayal.

In popular culture, the Frankenstein Monster has become reduced to a mindless brute – a near-indestructible automaton whose brain can be as interchangeable as a car-battery and is easily identified by his stiff walk and arms stretched out in front of him. With respect to Universal Studios, who played just as important a role as Dr. Frankenstein in bringing him to life, they are greatly responsible in creating this image. Indeed, mention the name ‘Frankenstein’ and the vast majority of people will identify the name as that being of the Monster and not the family name of its’ creator. Even in the Universal world, three other actors other than Karloff (Lon Chaney Jnr, Bela Lugosi and Glenn Strange) all portrayed the Monster to varying degrees of success yet adding to the demotion of the Monster from the brilliant portrayal borne of Karloff to the aforementioned description. If ever a creature from the dark went through a more incredible array of change in character, none were marked than the Frankenstein Monster.

What audiences need to be reminded of is the pathos and touching humanity that truly embodied Frankenstein’s creation, reflected so beautifully by Boris Karloff. As a result, I will speak of the Frankenstein ‘trilogy’ because they feature the great man and are without a doubt the best of the Universal films, after which admittedly they would later denigrate into exploitation, particularly after Karloff left the role.

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Frankenstein (1931) deserves its’ place as one of the most important films in cinema, let alone its’ position as one of the greatest horror films of all time. Unlike its’ equally important predecessor Dracula (1931), it has held up well and has some of the most memorable cinematic moments in film history. As important as James Whales’ direction was, his pick of a 44-year old bit part actor was far more important and fortuitous. Whale could see there was something about Karloff’s face and personality that he couldn’t quite put his finger but knew intuitively would work. If the film and of course the Monster belongs to anyone, it’s Karloff.

The birth of the Monster is without doubt one of the greatest moments in film. The mad machinery will galvanise the Monster, the moving of the hand and the hysterical rantings of Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive), who is in the incredible heights of rapture as he ‘knows what it feels like to be God’, all remain as iconic moments in classic horror. Even here, without seeing Karloff’s face, he is able to act with one hand to convey life coming to what had moments before been a dead cadaver.

But out first view of the Monster’s face is that moment when Karloff became the star. Whale built the tension even further by having Karloff walk in backwards to be followed by that slow turn and the close cutting to that horrific face. Lurching forward at his creator, he shuffles forward following Frankenstein’s commands to sit in a chair. The stiffened movements are like that of a child learning to walk but the doctor’s creation is not a child. He’s a reanimated human jigsaw, complete with a ‘criminal brain’ – a plot device non-existent in the novel, which would forever be associated with the Monster. Initially there appears to be no emotion, and Karloff’s heavy-lidded eyes and sunken cheeks evoke in the audience a dread and horror that will soon turn to empathy and understanding. And it’s all a result of Karloff’s mastery. Again, without any words, his pleading eyes and desperate need for warmth and light, breaks the dread  we feel but he is soon faced with not only being ignored but then completely rejected and treated horrifically at the hands of his creator, his former mentor Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) and his cruel and sadistic assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye). By the time we see the Monster in chains in the bowels of the place where he was born, the audience begins to wonder who the real monsters are, with Karloff beautifully portraying a poor and confused being who did not ask to be born and surrounded by hostility from his first interactions with humans.

But murder will follow; Fritz will pay for torturing the Monster once too often and then Dr Waldman before he is about to dissect and examine the drugged Monster. Karloff portrays the Monster with a hungered and desperate confusion, but he is also far more complex than it may appear; a far cry from the mindless shell that stomps around in later films. Karloff’s Monster is the abandoned child who knows nothing of the world and when he finally does find a human connection with a small child (Mildred Harris), it will end in tragedy. As an aside, the re-edited version that was re-released in 1938 and would show on TV screens for decades, was un-intentionally far more suggestive of the Monster doing something far more horrifc to Maria. 

When both creator and creation finally do face each other again, Karloff exudes menace and anger at the God-parent who has rejected him. Dragging Frankenstein to the top of an old windmill whilst being pursued by the enraged villagers, Karloff’s Monster is again surrounded by hostility and violence. His end comes as he is consumed by the flames that he so fears and does not understand, panicked and screaming in terror (a far cry from the final Universal film of the classic horror monsters which shows him walking stupidly into burning flames). It is a terrible end for a being that did not ask to be created, abandoned to the cruelty of a world he does not understand, all beautifully conveyed by the mastery of Boris Karloff.

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But of course it is not the end. Universal realised that the real star of the film was not Colin Clive but Karloff and the resulting Bride Of Frankenstein (1935), is a far better produced film, with a beautiful musical score by Franz Waxman (which was notably absent from the first film) and far greater liberties taken by Whale as director in terms of themes. The film, thus, is a masterpiece with the story continuing where the last film left off. There are some cast changes and the inclusion of Una O’Connor as Minnie, a servant in the Frankenstein household, reflects Whale’s eccentric humour. (As an aside, I find O’Connor’s screeching an almighty annoyance and her being in the film is superfluous). As the audience discovers, the Monster has survived but burnt and injured, fleeing into the woods for refuge. But not after committing two more murders.

Again, Karloff’s portrayal transcends the make-up and indeed his work from the first film. Wracked with hunger and desperate for basic human connection, his struggles seem to be over when he meets a blind hermit (O.P Heggie). The kindness and genuine humanity of the scenes that follow are touching and beautiful, and Karloff shines as he hears the prayer of gratitude given by the blind hermit, seemingly amazed by the beauty of words he has never heard before. As the hermit cries, a tear also runs down the Monster’s cheek and he comforts the weeping old man. Here Karloff shows that his portrayal is not of a Monster but a lost soul, who seeks only friendship and love. Much has been said and disputed about the scene; regardless it is as the Hermit states ‘two lonely souls who have found each other’.

Another first for the Monster is that he learns to talk. It appears he has been living with the Hermit for some time, as wounds have healed and he has learned to speak. The words, of course, are basic and the word ‘friend’ is closest to the Monster’s heart. Karloff was against the Monster speaking, feeling that it meant something was lost. With the greatest of respect to the man, this reviewer feels it does not detract from the portrayal and indeed holds firm textual integrity with the original novel, where the Monster not only speaks but is articulate. His desperate need for expression starts to grow and after losing his friend and sanctuary in the Hermit, he is again pursued and abused.

Despite being captured and briefly shown in the now famous ‘crucifixion’ pose (hence highlighting his treatment as an outcast and misfit outside the sensibilities of society to be persecuted), he breaks out, using his incredible strength and thus also planting a seed to another important trope. Karloff again shapes a menacing figure as he makes his way through a graveyard, only to enter a crypt and marvel at the face of a corpse. Despite the necrophiliac-like suggestion, the Monster finally has someone who will not reject him. But during this fateful moment, he will meet and make a new ‘friend’ in the form of the notorious Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) whom the audience knows is planning to create life from the dead with Frankenstein. It is also an important moment of consciousness for the Monster as he verbally acknowledges that he knows Frankenstein made him from the dead, after which the Monster intones: ‘I like dead’. Pretorious responds, ‘You’re wise in your generation’. But here the Monster will be manipulated (or allow himself to be) in order to achieve his deepest desire, a friend – or more to the point, a ‘wife’.

Karloff presents a cruel side to the Monster as he joins Pretorius in forcing and bullying Frankenstein into creating a friend for him. But his brutal menace melts when he first sees his ‘bride’ (Elsa Lanchester). His happiness turns to depression and resignation, noting that his rejection by the world is now complete. Deciding to end it all, he tells Frankenstein and his wife to ‘Go! You Live!’ but warns Pretorius to stay and as he declares ‘We belong dead’, the lever is pulled and the whole laboratory with the Monster is blown to atoms. Again, we see the Monster shed a tear as he looks longingly at his ‘wife’, still desperate for love.

Karloff’s expression of the Monster transcended the first film, not only because he actually spoke but because Karloff was given greater screen time and there was the recognition that he was the real star. If empathy with the Monster was felt by the audience, it is most evident in Bride Of Frankenstein. The damaged Monster is not only physically hurt but wounded deep within, so much that he wants to end his life. Karloff is superb and whilst the film could not have existed without the first, it is an outstanding film. Again, as he did in the 1931 production, Karloff surpasses the make-up with a powerful range of emotion conveyed through his incredible skills and the intuitive powers he held as an actor.

Bride Of Frankenstein was the high point of chiller genius at Universal, and whilst there were solid and successful films in the horror cycle which followed, it is difficult to place them on the same pedestal. The amount of horror films began to dwindle afterwards and the few that were released did not have the level of quality that had first enthralled audiences. But other changes had occurred as well; the new Breen Code, the banning of horror films in Britain and even changes at Universal Studios itself would all have a major impact. However, in 1938, the double billing of Dracula and Frankensteinwas a huge hit and Universal decided to start a second cycle of horror, starting with the production of Son Of Frankenstein (1939).

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The casting of Basil Rathbone as the late Baron’s son, Wolf, was quite a coup and the focus of the film does move to him. Without the direction of James Whale (who had lost the desire to direct), the appointment was given to Rowland V. Lee, who whilst competent and interesting in his vision, cannot bring to the screen the magic touch of Whale. It also didn’t help that the script was incomplete and changes were consistently coming in each day. More importantly for this discussion, the former looming presence of the Monster was reduced to a haunting spectre at least until later in the film. After the heights of the first two films, Karloff’s portrayal becomes somewhat muted, explained in the plot as the result of the psychological and physical traumas that he has endured. Whilst in the previous films, the Monster was a figure of fear, menace and horror, he would be now reduced to one of curiosity. Indeed when the audience first sees the Monster, he is weak, barely alive and in a coma. But the inherent scientific curiosity of Wolf demands that he bring the Monster back to consciousness. 

The sets are fantastic and Rathbone’s performance is memorable, as well as that of Lionel Atwill as the Police Chief. But ironically, the one man who steals the film from everyone, even Karloff,  is Bela Lugosi as the evil and twisted Ygor. It is perhaps the meatiest and most interesting role since his star turn as Dracula, and if ever there was the ‘sideman’s revenge’ for Lugosi, than this was it.

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There ARE moments where the Monster’s humanity shines through; his anger at seeing himself in the mirror and the depths of his self-consciousness emerging, the relationship with Peter, the Baron’s son and the howl he gives when he find Ygor’s body, perhaps reminiscent of his role in The Old Dark House as Morgan, the brutal butler weeping over the body of Saul. But sadly, there is the foreshadowing of the tropes that will soon take hold in the mind of the public when it comes to the Monster. He follows the commands of Ygor without question, and whilst this emerges to some degree in Bride Of Frankenstein, there is a sinister motive to the Monster’s relationship with Pretorius. Now, he is nothing more than a mindless slave being used for Ygor’s mad schemes. This will be repeated ad nauseum in future films. Gone is the desperate and futile search by the Monster for his sense of self and an answer to his creation. The range of emotions once present are missing and we see a Monster that is flat and limited in scope.

Ygor and Monster

Additionally, the concept of the Monster being almost ‘super-human’ and indestructible emerges, particularly when Wolf states: Two bullets in his heart but he still lives! And even when he is pushed into a boiling pit of sulphur at the end, the audience has already been trained that it’s not really the end. Karloff is still imposing as the Monster particularly in the final scenes but he could see the writing on the wall. He would never play the Monster again in a major film and lamented the direction in which his beloved Monster was headed. Son Of Frankenstein is still a lot of fun and deserves applause for its’ strong cast and exceptional photography. It’s a tight film and the direction holds it together, with an eerie atmosphere on an outstanding designed set. But something seems to be amiss.

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Karloff would never pour scorn on those actors who followed him in the role, for he was too kind and humble to do so. He did, however, feel that the make-up was doing all the work, even during the filming of Son Of Frankenstein. He felt that the character ‘no longer had any potentialities’ but added that ‘anyone who can take that make-up every morning deserves respect’. Karloff adored the Monster and would forever state that he owed it everything, giving credit to everyone from Whale to make-up artist Jack Pierce, characteristically excluding himself. It must have deeply affected this true gentleman when the Monster became the butt of jokes, which he had always hoped would never happen. When asked to assist in the promotion of Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), he reportedly stated that he was happy to do so ‘as long as he didn’t have to see the picture’. Indeed, as much ‘fun’ as the Universal Pictures of the 1940s are, the menace of the Monster from the early 1930s means that the films initially were not meant to be fun and the dark fairy-tale essence of the first horror cycle is missing.

Sadly, to a public long trained to accept popular culture’s depiction of the Monster (now named Frankenstein), the brilliant portrayal of Karloff seems distant. Yet if one truly wishes to discover the origins of the cinematic Monster, they need only need turn to the original trilogy and watch a master at work. Karloff always praised others, such as Jack Pierce for the make-up. But Karloff did what no-one else has been able to do – he transcended the make-up and costume and blended it into his own fascinating and deeply motivated portrayal. Karloff claims he owed his career to the Monster but the Monster owed everything to Karloff as well.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.