Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Jamaica Inn (1939) at the Pacific Design Center

I was honored to attend a very special screening last night hosted by Los Angeles television station KCET, BAFTA Los Angeles, and Cohen Film Classics.

The occasion was the screening of a restored print of Alfred Hitchcock's final British film, JAMAICA INN (1939), starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara.

The event took place at the Silver Screen Theater in the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles. In a nice touch, an exhibit of Hitchcock photos provided by the Academy were on display in the theater lobby.

I attended along with several other bloggers, including (left to right), Karie, Kimberly, Danny, and Kim.

Below, Kim and Danny with Beth Ann:

Charles Cohen of KCET's Cohen Film Classics served as host, moderating a short pre-film discussion with actor Norman Lloyd (second from left) and two of Alfred Hitchcock's granddaughters, Katie Fiala (second from right) and Tere Carrubba (right):

The ladies related that time with their grandfather tended to focus more on family than his work. They were raised to be low-key and modest about their famous relative, with their mother Patricia emphasizing that while their grandfather did special work, other people's grandfathers did too...and besides, they said, their classmates were much more impressed by John Wayne's granddaughter!

I've had the privilege of hearing Norman Lloyd speak on a few occasions in recent years, and it's always a treat. He's now a remarkably spry 102, and it's rather amazing to contemplate all the legendary people he has worked with.

Lloyd related a couple favorite Hitchcock stories, such as how Alma Reville Hitchcock was the only one to spot Janet Leigh swallowing when she was supposed to be dead in a pre-release print of PYSCHO (1960) and how he fell off the Statue of Liberty in SABOTEUR (1942). He joked that he likes to say he "bounced back" from that!

Additional photos of the evening are available at the Getty photo site.

JAMAICA INN is something of an oddity among Hitchcock films, a fairly dark, ghoulish adventure film set along the coast of Cornwall. It might sound funny to say something ghoulish is atypical Hitchcock, but it's hard to think of any other Hitchcock film I've seen which has the same tone.

The screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Joan Harrison was based on the novel by Daphne DuMaurier. The following year another DuMaurier book, REBECCA, would provide the basis for Hitchcock's first American film, which incidentally won the Best Picture Oscar.

While JAMAICA INN was Hitchcock's last British film, it provided significant "firsts" for Maureen O'Hara; she had been recently discovered by star Charles Laughton, and it was her first starring role and her first film under the name Maureen O'Hara. Previously she had appeared in a pair of small roles as Maureen FitzSimons.

In JAMAICA INN O'Hara plays Mary Yellan, a recently orphaned Irish girl who arrives in Cornwall to stay with her Aunt Patience (Marie Ney) at the inn of the title.

Mary is immediately thrown into a tumultuous 48 hours or so, as her Uncle Joss (Leslie Banks) is the ringleader of a gang of murderous wreckers who meet at the inn. The men lure ships to their doom by removing warning beacons on the coastline, then kill the crews and steal the cargo.

Mary also discovers that nothing is quite as it first seems, whether it's Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton) being one of the gang of cutthroats or rich neighbor Sir Humphrey Pengalian (Laughton) being kindly and helpful.

Mary is quickly tossed from one bizarre incident to the next, as she rescues Jem from being hung in her uncle's basement (!), then must flee with him to avoid being killed herself. And that's only the start of a series of life-threatening adventures. It's quite a violent film for the era! Nothing is graphic, but the ease with which the gang kills is disturbing nonetheless.

While on the surface the story itself doesn't seem very "Hitchcock," the out-and-out sustained creepiness must be attributed to the master of suspense. I found the film lower-tier Hitchcock in the sense that I don't think it has much "rewatch" value due to its unpleasant story -- yet even "lesser" Hitchcock is well-crafted, compelling viewing.

O'Hara is the perfect choice for a nervy character who doesn't let fear stop her from putting her life on the line to do what she believes is right. She was a strong, striking film personality from the start of her career, and the camera loves her.

The supporting cast includes Mervyn Johns, Basil Radford, Emlyn Williams, Aubrey Mather, and Horace Hodges.

The movie was shot by Bernard Knowles and Harry Stradling (Sr.).

Over the years some ghastly prints of JAMAICA INN have been in circulation; I was once given a VHS tape which was so dark that after attempting to watch it I had to throw it away. Consequently I'd never seen the film until last night! This new print was a revelation, crisp and clear. What a treat to be able to see the film as it was meant to be seen.

JAMAICA INN is scheduled to be shown on KCET this Friday night, March 24th, as part of the Cohen Film Classics series.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Tonight's Movies: Infernal Machine (1933) and Sleepers East (1934) at the UCLA Festival of Preservation

I've had a terrific time at this year's UCLA Festival of Preservation!

Tonight I returned for the seventh and final program I'll attend at this year's festival, a double bill of INFERNAL MACHINE (1933) and SLEEPERS EAST (1934).

This was my kind of movie night, a double bill of fast-moving Fox films starring Chester Morris and Preston Foster. These movies had probably not been screened for theater audiences since their initial runs! Neither movie may have been a classic, but I had a good time watching them.

In INFERNAL MACHINE Robert (Morris) "meets cute" with Elinor (Genevieve Tobin) when their taxis collide in France. Soon thereafter charming but penniless Robert decides to follow Elinor and her stuffy businessman fiance (Victor Jory) onto their U.S.-bound ship, but since he has no money he travels as a stowaway.

During the journey the captain (Arthur Hohl) receives a radiogram from Scotland Yard that a bomb (the "infernal machine" of the title) is set to go off at midnight. The communications system immediately goes down so it's impossible to send out a distress signal in hopes of rescue...the only option is to find the bomber and the bomb.

This comic adventure gets sillier from there, as various wacky passengers come under suspicion, and Robert even falsely admits to being the bomber in order to spend time with Elinor (it's a long story).

It's all fairly absurd, perhaps including the captain being so gullible as to believe the bomb threat, but it goes down easily in a lightning-fast 65 minutes, with a pair of charming lead actors, some saucy dialogue, and a wonderful Art Deco ship.

INFERNAL MACHINE was directed by Marcel Varnel and filmed by George Schneiderman. The supporting cast includes Elizabeth Patterson, Edward Van Sloan, James Bell, Mischa Auer, Leonard Carey, Nat Pendleton, Luis Alberni, and J. Carrol Naish.

I love the title SLEEPERS EAST! It sounded familiar and I realized it was based on a novel by Frederick Nebel which was later filmed as one of Lloyd Nolan's Michael Shayne mysteries, SLEEPERS WEST (1941).

Wynne Gibson plays Lena, a recent parolee who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time when she witnesses a nightclub owner being killed by a politician's son. A gangster who had been in the area, ironically intending to kill the victim himself, is arrested for the crime.

Lena wants to avoid any trouble with the law and flees to her hometown, where she's briefly reunited with an old friend, Jason Everett (Preston Foster). Jason carries a torch for Lena, but she takes off again, hoping to hide out from the police in Toledo. No such luck, as an attorney (Harvey Stephens) tracks her down and she's forced to board a train to testify in the murder trial in New York.

Jason is hot on Lena's heels, determined not to lose her this time around, and together they deal with those who want her to testify...and those who don't.

Gibson is well-cast as the hard-bitten, somewhat haggard Lena, who's experienced several years of hard knocks and is trying to reform. She's right for the role, although I admit I didn't find her particularly appealing. That said, she's especially good when she takes the stand, fearful yet wanting to tell the truth, and there's a great end to the scene.

Gibson is a couple years older than Foster, but the gap seems even more than that, perhaps by design. Foster plays a good-hearted, somewhat naive young man who supports Lena even when he learns she'd been in jail rather than an acting success. He's quite appealing, and I was glad to have the chance to see him in this.

I'm always enthused about "train movies" so I especially enjoyed when everyone boarded a train in the last third or so of the film!

SLEEPERS EAST runs a quick 64 minutes. It was directed by Kenneth MacKenna and filmed by Ernest Palmer. The supporting cast includes J. Carrol Naish, Mona Barrie, Suzanne Kaaren, Roger Imhof, Howard Lally, and Fred "Snowflake" Toones. Look for Theresa Harris in a brief but funny bit as the movie begins.

A final note, it's been great to see so many people at the festival! I want to thank everyone once more who's taken the time to say hello or share positive feedback about my blog. It's deeply appreciated!

That's it for me for this year's Festival of Preservation, and I look forward to the festival's return in 2019! The Festival of Preservation continues through next Monday, March 27th.

Happy Spring!

Here are some beautiful floral photos with classic film actresses to celebrate the arrival of spring!

Audrey Hepburn:

Anita Louise:

Myrna Loy:

Frances Dee:

Bonita Granville:

Janet Gaynor:

Deanna Durbin:

Linda Darnell:

Rita Hayworth:

Norma Shearer:

Have a wonderful spring!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Panther Girl of the Kongo (1955) - An Olive Films Blu-ray Review

The Republic Pictures serial PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO (1955) is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Olive Films.

Phyllis Coates stars in the title role as the "Panther Girl," also known as Jean Evans; Jean is a jungle wildlife photographer who also happens to swing from vines and be handy with a rifle. She obtained her nickname thanks to shooting a panther which had been terrorizing the locals.

Jean has seen some huge crab-like creatures crawling through the jungle (shades of the previous year's THEM!) so she sends word to big game hunter Larry Sanders (Myron Healey) that she could use help.

The overly large critters are the work of a mad, mad scientist (character actor fave Arthur Space) out there in the jungle, and he and his henchmen (John Day and Mike Ragan) are none too happy that Jean and Larry are on to their work.

Over the course of 12 chapters there's a lot of running around the jungle in circles, fighting back and forth, with Jean and Larry battling the mad scientist's flunkies along with some local tribesmen.

Although I enjoy Coates, Healey, and Space, it must be admitted this serial is pretty flat; you'd think something with lots of cliffhangers involving gun battles, wild animals, dynamite, giant creatures, and quicksand would be more interesting than it is. I was also a bit surprised that mixing '50s sci-fi with a jungle adventure didn't turn out to be more engrossing, as on the surface it seems like a fun idea.

It was also curious that Jean and Larry have a friendly and respectful relationship, but there's an absence of romance; I couldn't quite decide if the lack of romantic tension in their relationship was refreshing or disappointing. I suspect a romance probably could have added a needed spark to the series, but Coates and Healey play their roles as though the possibility never enters their minds.

Other than occasional exotic behavior like riding an elephant or the aforementioned vine-swinging, Jean doesn't have a particularly strong identity as "Panther Girl." Coates comes off as intelligent and capable, but at the same time she's frequently put in damsel in distress situations as the serial chapters end, clawed by a giant sci-fi critter or about to be killed by a gorilla. There's so much high-pitched screaming I had to turn down the TV!

That said, Jean does also bail Larry out from time to time, including pulling him out of the aforementioned quicksand, so it was nice that the life-saving scenes weren't entirely one-sided.

Speaking of quicksand, there's an interesting article with some background at Western Clippings, written by Bruce Dettman. Among other things, Coates recalled in an interview that after filming in the nasty, stagnant Republic swamp, Healey insisted the two of them go get penicillin shots!

PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO was directed by Franklin Adreon. The 12 chapters combine to run 167 minutes.

The crisp picture looks great on Olive's Blu-ray, although the photography by Bud Thackery isn't anything of particular note, and the film also relies heavily on stock footage and process shots.

This was the first serial I've watched, and though I didn't find this one particularly scintillating, I enjoyed the serial format and am curious to try more. And I'm always glad to see lesser-known titles such as this one be made available to the public in such excellent condition. Kudos to Olive Films for preserving this slice of Republic film history from the waning days of movie serials.

Thanks to Olive Films for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.

Tonight's Movie: His Greatest Gamble (1934) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Richard Dix stars in the emotional melodrama HIS GREATEST GAMBLE (1934), available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

Dix plays Phillip, an irresponsible gambler who deeply loves his little girl Alice (Edith Fellows). He steals her away from his coldhearted ex-wife Florence (Erin O'Brien-Moore), but fate catches up with him when he inadvertently causes the death of an old girlfriend (Shirley Grey) who threatens to tell Florence his and Alice's whereabouts.

Phillip goes to jail and Alice is returned to Florence, and as Alice grows into a young woman (now played by Dorothy Wilson) her mother tries to keep control of the girl by insisting she's an invalid who can't walk. It struck me that in this regard there's more than a touch of THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET to the story; it's interesting to note that HIS GREATEST GAMBLE was released just a month ahead of the Norma Shearer version of BARRETTS.

When Alice tries to flee with her sweetheart Stephen (Bruce Cabot), they're stopped. Thanks to the intervention of Alice's old nanny (Eily Malyon), Phillip decides to escape prison, determined to set Alice's life on a happy path.

The film packs a great deal of story into its 71 minutes. It may not always make logical sense -- for instance, though Alice was nine when Phillip went to jail, she doesn't recognize him when they're reunited and believes his story that he's her "Uncle John."

However, any questionable plot points are more than overcome by Dix's moving performance as a complex character whose love for his daughter can't quite overcome his addiction to the roulette table. And though his former wife is clearly an unpleasant woman -- which begs the question, how did they end up married?! -- he was also in the wrong hiding Alice from her mother. Dix does an excellent job playing a charmer with failings, and he's moving without being maudlin. The more of Dix's work I see, the more I like him.

Dix is ably supported by Cabot as Alice's young man; this was made the same year Cabot appeared in FINISHING SCHOOL (1934), where he was Prince Charming for another young lady with mother issues. Leonard Carey also registers strongly as Alfred, Florence's butler who's soon in "John's" corner helping Alice and Stephen.

I also liked Dorothy Wilson, who was delightful in MEN OF AMERICA (1932); the Alice character could have come off as an easily persuaded dimwit but she manages to be sympathetic and likeable as the girl under her mother's thumb, who eventually finds the courage to live her own life.

Look for Samuel S. Hinds in a brief role as a doctor who's fired by Florence when he refuses to order Alice to stay in bed.

The movie was directed by John S. Robertson and filmed by Ted Tetzlaff.


The Warner Archive DVD of HIS GREATEST GAMBLE is a fine print. There are no extras.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop.

Happy Birthday to Patricia Morison!

Actress-Singer Patricia Morison turns 102 today!

The 23-year-old Morison made a stunning debut as an amoral crook in her first feature film, PERSONS IN HIDING (1939), which seemed to anticipate the crime classic GUN CRAZY (1950) by over a decade.

Morison was a striking screen presence, with vivid eyes and unusually long, dark hair. She registered strongly in lead roles which included HITLER'S MADMAN (1943) opposite Alan Curtis...

...and THE FALLEN SPARROW (1943) with John Garfield.

However, Hollywood never seemed quite sure what to do with her, and she never broke through to be a movie star of the first rank.

Morison made her way to Broadway, where she had a smash success in 1948 starring in the original cast of Cole Porter's KISS ME, KATE.

Her performance was preserved on film a decade later when she appeared in an abridged TV production:

In 1954 she succeeded Gertrude Lawrence as Broadway's "Mrs. Anna" in THE KING AND I opposite Yul Brynner:

I've been fortunate to see Patricia Morison in person twice. When I was a child in the early '70s I saw her as the Baroness in a Los Angeles stage production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC.

Werner Klemperer played Uncle Max.

I also saw her interviewed at a screening of THE FALLEN SPARROW in 2015, just after she celebrated her centennial birthday.

An interesting side note, though her name is seen in posters for one of my favorite film noir titles, KISS OF DEATH (1947), her role as Victor Mature's first wife was cut from the film. At least one still of Morison with Mature and Coleen Gray survives; I've always wondered if outtakes exist, as it would be interesting to see them.

A Patricia Morison portrait gallery:

Happiest birthday wishes to a lovely and talented woman whose work has brought me tremendous enjoyment!

Patricia Morison films reviewed at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings: PERSONS IN HIDING (1939), THE ROUNDUP (1941), ROMANCE OF THE RIO GRANDE (1941), NIGHT IN NEW ORLEANS (1942), WHERE ARE YOUR CHILDREN (1943), HITLER'S MADMAN (1943), THE FALLEN SPARROW (1943), LADY ON A TRAIN (1945), and KISS ME, KATE (1958).