First of all, I’d like to note that Wednesday is James Whale’s 120th birthday. “Mr. Jimmy” (as his fictional housekeeper in the shaggy Whale biopic Gods and Monsters calls him) isn’t here to celebrate, of course, but it could do no harm to take a look at one of his films in honor of the event. I’m thinking of getting a few folks together for either his comedy/mystery Remember Last Night? (1935) or his version of Show Boat (1936). Neither of these are commercially available, but his quartet of horror pictures are: Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), Bride of Frankenstein (1935). You can’t go wrong with any of them.
This week’s movies
Pottermania is behind us, though we can expect Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to hang around for a while. Even fans of the book who are in the realm of the cheesed aren’t staying away from it. An old friend of mine has complained about the film’s additions and deletions since it first showed up last week. She has also seen it three times—so far.
Other films, however, are about to depart from us. Thursday will mark the last day that both The Brothers Bloom and Easy Virtue—two of the very best films to come out this year—are in town at the Carolina Asheville. If you haven’t seen these movies, you should. Thursday also sees the end of the 3-D incarnation of Up, since the only remaining 3-D venue for it locally, the Carmike 10, is relegating it to a 2-D version in order to bring us two screens of talking guinea pigs (G-Force). No comment. Up is certainly a good enough movie that it doesn’t need 3-D, but the 3-D is unusually effective and intelligently used.
Friday brings us four new titles: G-Force, Orphan, Summer Hours and The Ugly Truth. That means you can choose from chatty rodentia, a sinister child who may not be (and probably isn’t) what she seems, a French import starring Juliette Binoche and a R-rated rom-commery with what appears to be a high predictability factor. Readers who come to this after the print edition may wonder where Summer Hours came from—other than France, that is. That’s simple—the dealine for upcoming movies in the paper is mid-afternoon Monday and the news of Summer Hours opening at the Carolina Asheville arrived about 8:15 Monday night.
Not a single one of these offerings is likely to dethrone Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, of course, but they don’t lack for diversity. Frankly, Summer Hours from director Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep) looks like the best bet in terms of quality. It boasts a 93 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes (66 good and only five bad reviews) and it stars Juliette Binoche, who is, well, Juliette Binoche. The story centers on the disposing of the estate and collected art objects of an aristocratic woman by her family after her death—addressing the issue in terms of the end of an era and how we are less and less connected with our past. A.O. Scott in The New York Times writes that the film is “packed nearly to bursting with rich meaning and deep implication. And this is only fitting, since one of Mr. Assayas’s themes is the way that inanimate things accrue value, sentimental and otherwise—the curious alchemy that transforms certain objects into art.” Of course, the lack of talking guinea pigs will work against it with some viewers.
New on DVD
There are at least two titles to consider this week on DVD. At the top of the list is Henry Sellick’s rather marvelous animated film Coraline, which comes with some kind of 3-D version included. While the film itself was one of the handful of high-water marks for the process, I’m a little skeptical of the value of 3-D for home viewing. Regardless, you also get a “flat” version of this deliciously creepy and wildly inventive nightmare of childhood, and that’s enough by itself.
Also out is Zack Snyder’s Watchmen—in two forms. You can opt for the 162-minute film that played theaters, or you can go with the “director’s cut,” which clocks in at 186 minutes. Personally, I thought it was too long at 162 minutes, but I confess to some curiosity about those additional 24 minutes. Whether my curiosity will get the better of me remains to be seen.
Notable TV screenings
Once again, it’s left to Turner Classic Movies to come up with anything of note. The best I can say for Fox Movie Channel this round is that they manage to go an entire week without showing Dunston Checks In—sad news for fans of orangutan cinema.
The Saint Movies TCM, Wednesday, July 22, starting at 11:15 a.m.
The Saint in New York (1938), The Saint Strikes Back (1939), The Saint in London (1939), The Saint’s Double Trouble (1940), The Saint Takes Over (1940), The Saint in Palm Springs (1941) and The Saint Meets the Tiger (1943)
Back in the late 1930s and early 1940s RKO made a series of—let’s call them inexpensive—mystery movies featuring Leslie Charteris’ Simon Templar, aka The Saint. TCM is running the six they made, plus a 1943 British film that attempted to revive the character on the screen. The maiden effort, The Saint in New York, starred Louis Hayward as Templar, but George Sanders took over with The Saint Strikes Back and became the actor most associated with the role (at least till the Roger Moore TV series). The films aren’t especially good, being little more than serviceable mysteries, but what keeps them watchable is Sanders.
George Sanders was the living embodiment of world-weary Britishness—cynical, superior and slightly amused by it all. This seems to have pretty much been Sanders offscreen, too. (We are, after all, talking about a man who committed suicide at the age of 65, leaving behind a note that explained he was doing so because he was bored.) Sanders brought this quality to the Saint movies and it helped tremendously.
There’s really no series entry that stands out as being superior to the others, but if you only want to sample one, The Saint’s Double Trouble has the marginal advantage of the presence of Bela Lugosi in the cast. Unfortunately, Lugosi is pretty completely wasted in a henchman role, but he does get to ask a fellow gangster with a harmonica, “Can you play ‘Home, Sweet Home’,” which is a slight plus.
My Favorite Brunette TCM, Thursday, July 23, 7:15 a.m.
Of Mice and Men TCM, Thursday, July 23, 8 p.m.
These two titles aren’t paired, but they are showing the same day and make for an interesting set by virtue of the presence of Lon Chaney Jr. playing his stock Lennie character in both. Unfortunately, the films are not being shown in order. Chaney originated Lennie in Lewis Milestone’s Of Mice and Men (1939). For those who don’t know, Lennie is a good-natured, too-strong-for-his-own-good, mentally-challenged character who is at the center of the tragedy of the John Steinbeck novel and Milestone’s classic film version. It’s a powerful, even moving performance—and one that leant itself to immediate parody (see any number of Tex Avery cartoons made in the wake of the performance).
By 1947 Chaney was himself parodying Lennie in the guise of Willie in Elliott Nugent’s Bob Hope comedy My Favorite Brunette. The film is actually one of Hope’s best vehicles—a parody of the film noir genre with Hope as a would-be hard-boiled detective—and Chaney offers a nice comedic take on Lennie with Willie, a character Hope describes as “Boulder Dam with legs.” The gag, of course, is that Hope keeps trying to outsmart the slow-witted Willie—only to be constantly thwarted in his efforts by the very dimness of his intended victim.
A Night to Remember TCM, Friday, July 24, 4:30 p.m.
No, this is not the 1958 film about the sinking of the Titanic. Rather the 1943 A Night to Remember is a sadly overlooked comedy/mystery starring Brian Aherne as a not-very-good mystery novelist whose wife (Loretta Young) has railroaded him into moving into a Greenwich Village apartment with the idea that he can soak up the atmosphere and write a book of some substance. Naturally, it turns out that they find themselves embroiled in a real-life murder mystery. It’s quite funny, brightly written and acted, boasts a delightful musical score by Wener R. Heyman (with a little help from Chopin and Wagner), and offers no less than Sidney Toler as a much-beleagured police detective. The film just happened to be made after Toler’s Charlie Chan series was axed by 20th Century Fox and before it was brought back to life by Monogram Pictures the next year. Toler is actually very funny in the role, which is a far cry from his signature detective, and his presence gives the film a little extra interest. If that’s not enough, there’s also a turtle in the cast.
The Unholy Three TCM, Friday, July 24, 3:15 a.m.
Jack Conway’s The Unholy Three (1930) gives us Lon Chaney Sr. in his only talkie. It’s a remake of Tod Browning’s 1925 version of the same story. The two films make for an interesting comparison. The talkie is definitely slicker, hangs together better, makes more sense and doesn’t offer the unintentional hilarity of a chimpanzee pretending to be a gorilla crashing through papier-mâché sets in slow motion. On the other hand, Conway’s film lacks the atmosphere of the Browning version, so it’s kind of a wash.
The story is the same. Carnival performers—a ventriloquist (Chaney), a midget (Harry Earles), a strong man (Ivan Linow)—have hit upon a bizarre racket where they pretend to be a little old lady with a bird store (Chaney), a baby (Earles) and the old lady’s son-in-law (Linow). Why? Well, so the old gal can sell talking (with the aid of ventriloquism) parrots to rich folks and then case the homes when the customers call to complain that the birds don’t talk. No, it’s not exactly realistic, but considering it also puts forth the idea that you could pick up a gorilla in a pet store back in 1930, realism is not much in supply. If nothing else, Chaney is fascinating in the lead.
On with the Show TCM, Tuesday, July 28, 6:45 a.m.
This early talkie (1929) is part of a day’s worth of Joe E. Brown pictures, but it’s hardly typical of the comic’s work, and he’s merely part of an ensemble cast. The film is a clunky, but fascinating backstage story that offers a neat peak into stage shows of the era. The best thing about it are two scenes—strangely unconnected to the show being performed—where Ethel Waters comes out to sing “Am I Blue?” and “Birmingham Bertha.” Those alone make it worth watching. TCM is listing the film as being in color, and it was shot in Technicolor, but last I knew only a black-and-white print was known to have survived. In any case, it’s a bit of a rarity and a museum piece of some note.