Jul 262018

jameswhaleHis background was in set design, but he learned directing quickly and had his own style that elevated him above the other directors of the time. He looked at the world as a gothic playground, filled with the strange and wonderful and terrible. Even when the material was less then brilliant (silly melodramas were the rage in the early ‘30s), Whale’s style could make the picture interesting.

He is mostly remembered now for his horror pictures, though he directed more melodramas than monster movies, and also made a good number of comedies. His career died with the release of The Road Back (1937), a sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front. Rumor has it that Whale’s cut was good, but we’ll never know as Universal, recently under new management, gave in to German demands and edited the picture to remove content that the Nazi’s found unflattering. Whale was not silent with his feelings about the management of Universal, which resulted in him finishing up his contract assigned to poor projects.

He only made 21 films before retiring in his early fifties. While he can be considered one of the truly great film directors, a majority of those films are deeply flawed, suffering most from terrible acting, though the ridiculous scripts come in a close second. I can’t say why he didn’t rein in his actors when they were emoting all over the walls. I cannot understand how he made the overwrought nonsense The Kiss Before the Mirror the same year he made the masterpiece The Invisible Man. But when he could find the right actors, and the right script for his mentality, he could create marvels. And I enjoy at least parts of even his worst films because there’s always something special in them.

I’ll give an honorable mention to WaterlooBridge (1931) simply because it is the only film of his beyond the eight below that approaches being good.


#8 – By Candlelight (1933) — A romantic comedy of mistaken identities and class conflict. The casting doesn’t quite work, but Whale is in fine form, if not particularly flamboyant, and the end product has a subtle charm.

#7 – Remember Last Night? (1935) — A bunch of terrible rich people have a wild drunken party and wake up the next day with no memory and a dead body. The two most likable of the crew set out to solve the mystery before they get arrested. It is genius for the first two acts, but slips toward the end simply by becoming more conventional. I think of it as The Old Dark House with bright lights.

#6 – The Old Dark House (1932) — The signature James Whale film—his mastery of shadow and movement, control of everything in the frame, and exuberant and quirky sense of humor. But The Old Dark House has nothing but Whale’s style, but that style is enough. [Also on The Great Actors List for Boris Karloff] (My review)

#5 – Show Boat (1936) — The main melodramatic storyline was tiring on stage and is equally so here (though it really does manage to jerk the tears), but the racial material is dynamite (and was at the time, needing a special exemption from the censors to cover mixed-race marriage, a subject the censors were “protecting” people from…), and multiple songs are classics. I could have used a lot more of the Black characters and less of the leads, but still, this is a movie to see. Consider it an antidote to Gone With the Wind. Though successful, it broke a studio and killed the Laemmle dynasty.

#4 – The Great Garrick (1937) — One of the best comedies of ’37, in which a band of French actors attempt to humiliate the English star David Garrick by pretending to be all of the workers and guests at a country inn, but things become complicated when an unconnected woman (Olivia de Havilland) stumbles into their performance. The supporting cast, including Edward Everett Horton, are as good as the leads. [Also on The Great Actors List for Olivia de Havilland]

#3 – The Invisible Man (1933) — Whale’s second Universal Monster is almost as good as his first, and skating on a major success, he relaxed and let himself go, adding a great deal of comedy. It was also the big break for the greatest character actor of all time, Claude Rains.

#2 – Frankenstein (1931) — How many films have had this kind of effect on pop culture? The Monster that is as iconic as Mickey Mouse is not from the book, but was created here, a combination of the creative minds of Whale, actor Boris Karloff, and makeup expert Jack Pierce. The theme that science should not mess in the realm of God is not actually the theme of this film, but people thought it was, and so started a non-stop river of mad scientist films, none of which came close to this one or its sequel. [Also on The Great Actors List for Boris Karloff] (My review)

#1 – Bride of Frankenstein (1935) — Arguably the greatest horror film of all time, and the greatest sequel of all time. It is (without argument) Boris Karloff’s best performance. With Frankenstein, Whale held back a bit, but with this film, he gave in completely to his instincts. It is weird and wild. Sure it is horror, but it is also black comedy and satire. [Also on The Great Actors List for Boris Karloff] (My review)




Jul 102018
  July 10, 2018

WS_Van_DykeSometimes greatness comes from complicated technique, superior skill, and slow, methodical work. Sometimes it’s knowing when to get out of the way and just get things done. Van Dyke was in the second category. Nicknamed “One-take Woody,” Van Dyke was know for his quick work and keeping under budget. The studio loved him for his speed, but this meant they often gave him lesser projects where getting the film out the door in a hurry was the most important factor. His greatest success came with William Powell and Myrna Loy in the Thin Man series, where script and actors were the thing, so quick shots weren’t a detriment. He also worked with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy multiple times, which is a plus or minus, depending on how you feel about those two stars. They tire me quickly.

An honorable mention for the twenty good minutes of the otherwise painful San Francisco (Full Review Here). And a bigger honorable mention for his uncredited work on The Prisoner of Zenda; both he and George Cukor were brought in to reshoot the action scenes. And a final honorable mention for Hide-Out (1934); Robert Montgomery is poorly cast as an gangster hiding with an innocent farm family, but Maureen O’Sullivan is adorable.

His top 8:

8 – Rage in Heaven (1934) — A tense thriller where Robert Montgomery plays a paranoid nut-case who is jealous of his wife (Ingrid Bergman) and his “best friend” (George Sanders). More stylish than most of Van Dyke’s film, it excels in its performances. (My Review Here)

7 – Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) — The first of the Weissmuller Tarzan films that follows Jane’s father’s search for an elephant graveyard until they run into Tarzan. Weissmuller is an impressive Tarzan, but this is Maureen O’Sullivan’s show. [Also on The Great Actors List for Maureen O’Sullivan]

6 – Penthouse (1933) — It was a trial run for The Thin Man, with a pre-code twist. Warner Baxter stars as a lawyer detective who’s friends with hoods. He teams up with a call girl played by Myrna Loy and is helped by a mob boss (Nat Pendleton, who was Lieutenant Guild in the Thin Man series). Baxter is no Powell, but the pre-code stuff helps (in questioning her allure since he didn’t jump into bed with her the night before: “I didn’t exactly have to fight for my honor. A few more weeks of this and I’ll be out of condition.”)

5 – Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) — The 4th Thin Man film and the 4th best. Powell and Loy are as good as ever, the dialog is solid, and the mystery is fun. It is now clear that adding a child was a bad idea, as well as a servant, but otherwise, the series is still going strong. [Also on The Great Actors List for Myrna Loy]

4 – I Love You Again (1940) — It may not be a Thin Man movie, but it’s still Powell and Loy. This time Powell has been an obnoxiously straight-laced boor who wakes up after a blow on the head to realize he’s had amnesia for years, and is really a con artist. [Also on The Great Actors Lists for William Powell and Myrna Loy]

3 – Another Thin Man (1939) — The third Thin Man film and its nearly as good as the first two. Nick and Nora have to deal with murder connected to Nora’s father’s business partner. Like the others, it is great fun. [Also on The Great Actors Lists for William Powell and Myrna Loy]

2 – After the Thin Man (1936) — Much like the first Thin Man film, but with Jimmy Stewart added, this is a very close second place. Taking place soon after that film, the pair is summoned by Nora’s snobbish family because a husband is missing and Aunt Katherine wants to avoid scandal. The relationship is wonderful, the humor is spot on, and the mystery is engaging. [Also on The Great Actors Lists for William Powell and Myrna Loy]

1 – The Thin Man (1934) — She’s a rich socialite; he’s a retired PI (now living the high life on her money) who gets sucked into a murder case. Funny and charming, this introduction of Nick and Nora Charles is as good a time as you can have at the cinema. I lucked out, getting to see it on a big screen around 50 years after its release. The mystery stuff is good, but it is the husband and wife interactions that make this film special; they are my favorite couple after Gomez And Morticia Addams. [Also on The Great Actors Lists for William Powell and Myrna Loy]

Jul 092018
four reels

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has only a few days left of his house arrest—a result of his plea deal from the events of Civil War—and is about to start a security business with Luis (Michael Peña) and his team. He hasn’t heard from Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) for a time; they are displeased with him and on the run due to those same Civil War events. But then an overly-realistic dream of Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) brings the estranged team back together as Hank now has a way to retrieve Janet from the quantum realm if he can use the information in Scott’s head. All they have to do is avoid FBI agent Woo (Randall Park), crime-boss Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), and mysterious super-opponent Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), while getting help from an ex-shield scientist (Laurence Fishburne), and not putting Scott’s ex-wife (Judy Greer) or daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson)in danger.

Ant-Man and the Wasp seems relaxing after the last two MCU films as the stakes are personal, not global or universal, and while nicely tied in to the other films, stays mainly in its own box. It’s a light, fun romp and feels much like the previous Ant-Man, except they listened to Guardians of the Galaxy enough to make retro-music more prominent (The Partridge Family…Huh).

While this is a near non-stop action film, the constant movement is the least important element and occasionally is too much. Ant-Man and the Wasp is more of a romantic comedy and that’s what works best. It is the character moments between our leads where the real fun is. Rudd and Lilly have have much better chemistry than before, as do both with Douglas. Peña and his gang have great gags, and while she is low on jokes and time, Pfeiffer is an excellent addition. What I wanted was these people playing off each other and that’s what I got. There were big laughs and strong emotional beats. Even the stuff with the child was strong.

As for all that action, some of it ranks with the best that Marvel has done. If this isn’t my new favorite car chase movie, it is certainly a contender. The fights, particularly those involving The Wasp, flow really nicely giving the MCU a much needed super-powered female bad-ass. Plus she’s sexy as hell, almost as sexy as Pfeiffer.

The whole mix is a bit over-stuffed. There was no need for any villains and certainly not multiple ones. Scott and Hope and Hank are perfectly capable of generating their own problems without bad-guys. But because there is so much going on, everything gets a little less time. I’d have traded away Ghost for a few more minutes of Janet or an extra few minutes of Hank fuming at Scott. Luckily the character stuff doesn’t stop during the fights (ear communicators are sure handy in a script) but there’s just too many characters.

The science is all on such a nonsense level that it didn’t bother me. I don’t need to understand anything; I just have to not see that it is wrong. The only thing that troubled me is they never stated anything about the hardness and stability of reduced items so I did find myself asking why a tiny building didn’t break.

For a film that does stand alone, it has major implications for Avengers 4 (the quantum realm is going to be popping up again quite soon I’m betting) and I was pleased how they slipped that in. It was an organic part of this film; that it looms as a possible answer for how to deal with what happened in Infinity War seems almost coincidental.

Like all MCU films there are after credit sequences, the first of which had the greatest effect on an audience since the one in Iron Man introduced Nick Fury. There was a combination of laughter and “Wows” with a man nearby exclaiming “Oh, they did that. They just did that! Oh!” That kind of reaction is usually a good sign.

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Jul 042018

Michael CurtizThe greatest director of the studio age and by my account, the greatest director of all time, Curtiz was a master of the craft, and exercised his skills across genres. He helmed melodramas, adventure films, Noirs, comedies, romances, musicals, mysteries, horror pictures, histories, war films, literary movies, westerns, and whatever else there is. This put him on the outs with auteur theorists, who judge a director’s quality on his tendency to do the same thing over and over. Curtiz told stories and gave each what it needed—it wasn’t all about him. Andrew Sarris, film critic, adherent to the auteur theory, and idiot, did his best to tear down Curtiz as his versatility didn’t fit the theory (although he admitted that Casablanca was special and was the one film that screwed up his theories).

He often worked with Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Humphrey Bogart.

Curtiz is nearly as famous for being a horrible person as he is a great director. He was abusive to actors and crew. A few actors could get along with him (Bogart managed), but many tell tales of his tyranny and Errol Flynn physically attacked him after Curtiz caused the deaths of over 20 horses on the set of The Charge of the Light Brigade (the outcry resulted in an animal welfare law being passed).

I could give every film not on the list below an honorable mention because even when a film didn’t work, Curtiz’s direction did, so I’ll show discretion. Doctor X (1932) is a flawed gem, one of the first two-strip Technicolor films (Full Review). And an honorable mention for the faux biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy. It’s cloying and non-stop lies, with horrible makeup, but the songs are good, the direction is superb, and Jimmy Cagney’s dancing is fascinating. And I’ll add one for The Sea Wolf, that is too unpleasant to be one of the greats, but then it was intended to be unpleasant and in that it is a great success.

Is 8 best are:

#8 – Four’s a Crowd (1938) — Errol Flynn is a charming cad who runs positive PR for the worst people. It’s a romantic comedy and one of the multiple Curtiz/Flynn/de Havilland films. [Also on the Best Actors lists for Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland]

#7 – Romance on the High Seas (1948) — A strange kind of musical as the music is pleasant, but barely registers as this plays out more like a romantic comedy. This was Doris Day’s first film and her best. Curtiz said it was because she was natural and fought to keep her that way. It also gave perpetual supporting actor Jack Carson a leading role—he deserved many more.

#6 – White Christmas (1954) — There’s no better icon of the light, colorful, and joyfully shallow side to Christmas than this bright and shiny musical. Oh, it hasn’t got a brain in its cute little head, but brains can be over rated. The songs are great, the dancing is wonderful, and the schmaltz is thick. (Full Review) [Also on the Best Actors list for Bing Crosby]

#5 – Captain Blood (1935) — The first (time-wise) of the three great Curtiz/Flynn Swashbucklers. Flynn is a physician forced into piracy. This is where non-silent Swashbucklers found their footing. (Full Critique) [Also on the Best Actors lists for Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone and Olivia de Havilland]

#4 – We’re No Angels (1955) — Humphrey Bogart’s last great performance in a picture that’s far too obscure. It is a Christmas comedy and absolutely lovely. He plays one of three escaped convicts who end up playing angels to a family. [Also on the Best Actors list for Humphrey Bogart and Basil Rathbone]

#3 – The Sea Hawk (1940) — The last of the three great Curtiz/Flynn Swashbucklers, it shares much of the cast and crew with Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood. Besides being a fine adventure film, is was a solid piece of propaganda for an England that needed it. (Full Critique) [Also on the Best Actors list for Errol Flynn]

#2 – The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) — The greatest classic Swashbuckler and one of the Best films ever made. It is beautifully shot, with a wonderful score and a strong supporting cast, and it made Errol Flynn an icon. Curtiz was brought in when director William Keighley failed to pull off the action scenes. The studio knew Curtiz could do wonders with Flynn though Flynn was none-too-happy about it as the two hated each other. (Full Critique) [Also on the Best Actors lists for Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone and Olivia de Havilland]

#1 – Casablanca (1942) — The finest of Curtiz’s film and one of the finest period. It is a true masterpiece in every way. It is startlingly good. Books have been written about why it is such a great film, so I won’t bother to explain it. [Also on the Best Actors list for Humphrey Bogart]