Films: Drama/Romance


REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

CAFÉ METROPOLE. 20th Century Fox, 1937 Loretta Young, Tyrone Power, Adolphe Menjou, Charles Winninger, Helen Westley, Gregory Ratoff, Christian Rub. Screenpla: Jacques Deval. Story: Gregory Ratoff Directed by Edward H. Griffith.

   This Hollywood take on French farce written by character actor Gregory Ratoff could use a bit less romance and a bit more farce, but thanks to the cast and an intelligent screenplay has more than enough charm to get by.

   There are no real crimes here, though the police are certainly involved. It’s the sort of film where everyone is conning everyone else, sometimes even themselves.

   Monsieur Victor (Adolphe Menjou) owns the Café Metropole and his accountant Maxl (Christain Rub) has just informed him he is in the red and the auditors are coming. He needs to think and act fast, but luckily for Victor things are already falling in place in the person of an American millionaire Joseph Ridgeway (Charles Winninger), his sister Margaret (Helen Westley) and his daughter Laura (Loretta Young) who are arriving soon and hoping to meet celebrities and royalty. If Victor can arrange a royal romance, he might get the money he needs from Winninger.

   All he needs to arrange that is the right man, and who should show up but flat broke American heir Alexander Brown (Tyrone Power), who manages to fall in debt at the gaming tables to Victor with a rubber check bouncing around signed by him.

   But everything will be just fine if Alexander Brown becomes the Russian Prince Alexi Paneiev and charms the beautiful Laura.

   And almost immediately things get complicated. Alexander and Laura meet before they know who the other is (or is supposed to be) and actually start to fall in love, Daddy Ridgeway smells a rat (though the wrong one), and Paul the waiter (Gregory Ratoff) proves to be the real Prince Alexi more than a little incensed by the impostor.

   Power and Young, who were virtually a screen team, play their parts with effortless charm, their combined beauty and screen presence, even as male and female ingenues, enough to carry any film, but this one doesn’t have to rely on that alone, with Menjou as the suave continental con man Victor, Winninger the slightly befuddled comical American millionaire, Westley his sharp witted sister and advocate for Laura, and Ratoff a proud, haughty, but for sale Russian prince.

   Menjou specialized in variations on this jaded but still romantic charmer no more honest than was required by the circumstances. What energy the film has comes mostly from him, Ratoff, and Westley, though Young gets her turn at the end.

   Power bridled at these sort of roles eventually and welcomed a chance after the War to play something with a bit more depth.

   Young proves smarter and tougher than anyone expects when Alexander wants out of the con game and gets framed by Victor to get money from Ridgeway, and this being American and not quite French farce, there is little edge and no sex considering the model here is known for both.

   This isn’t Lubitch, Billy Wlder, Preston Sturges, or Mitchell Leisen, and their deft hand at this sort of material is sorely missed, but it is still fun in a low key, all white tie and tails, elegant settings, good food, great wine, beautiful young people in beautiful clothes quoting François Villon in charming cafes and gorgeous suites, and charming con artists.

   The best way to describe how this material is done in the grand Hollywood style is effortless. Café Metropole is a souffle and not a meal, light, charming, romantic, and with just enough spice to keep it from being boring. Of course it is almost impossible to make this kind of film today, which may or may not be a good thing, but we will always have Paris, at least the Hollywood one.

   The sharpest bite is saved for the great last line with Westley and Ratoff getting the fade out and the laugh.

         “Get your checkbook out. Here we go again.”

   It’s almost enough to redeem the whole film on its own.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

BLACK ORPHEUS. Dispat/Tupin, Brazil, 1959. Original title:  Orfeu Negro. Breno Mello, Marpessa Dawn, Lourdes de Oliviera, and Ademar da Silva. Written by Marcel Camus & Jacques Viot, based on the play Orfeu da Conceição by Vinicius de Moraes, which is itself an adaptation of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. Directed by Marcel Camus. Winner of Oscar® for Best Foreign Language Film at the 32nd Academy Awards in 1960.

   Costumes, celebration, death and voodoo — could any film be more fitting for Halloween?

   Yes, I know it’s paternalistic, simplistic, and slowed down by too many overlong dance scenes, but the sheer vibrant energy and romantic urgency of the thing sweeps me along with the uncluttered story-line: A beautiful young Eurydice comes to Rio at Carnaval, fleeing Death. She is temporarily rescued by Orpheus, but in the end, he must seek his love in the next world.

   The simple story is conveyed with memorable visuals. The shanty-towns of the city seem to hang on cliffsides as precarious as the pursuing death, the costumes glitter and shimmer in the sun, and Death itself (athletically portrayed by Ademar da Silva) moves with a coiled grace that makes me wonder if the creators of Spider-Man (whoever they may be) were inspired by his lithe and lethal acting.

   Just as striking is Orpheus’s descent into the underworld, wandering empty corridors until a benign Janitor — Charon, with a broom instead of a barge pole —  guides him down a staircase of infinite emptiness to a hellish voodoo world where the myth must play itself out once again.

   Like me, you may be used to thinking of Halloween movies in terms of Karloff, Lugosi, Universal and Lewton. Or you may be of a generation that equates Horror Movies with serial slashings and CGI monsters. But I found Black Orpheus the equal of these, and in its own way, better than most.

   Need more? Actors Breno Mello and Marpessa Dawn, the star-crossed lovers of the film, died within weeks of each other, and Ademar da Silva died on the same day as the composer of the film’s justly-celebrated score:

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Universal Picures, 1943. Nelson Eddy, Susanna Foster, Claude Rains, Edgar Barrier, Leo Carillo, J. Edward Bromberg. Jane Farrar, Frank Puglia, Stefan Geray, Fritz Feld, Miles Mander, Fritz Leiber, Barbara Everest, Hume Cronin. Screenplay by Eric Taylor & Samuel Hoffenstein. Adapted by Hans Jacoby as John Jacoby, based on the novel by Gaston Leroux. Directed by Arthur Lubin,

   When Universal sought to capitalize on the film that first made them a great studio in the silent era thanks to Lon Chaney Sr., they spared no expense. Like the original silent film, this version of the oft-told tale features lavish sets and costumes, a cast of some of the finest faces in Hollywood, including the ever popular Nelson Eddy, and one of the finest actors in Hollywood in the lead as the Phantom, Claude Rains.

   To this, add an original operatic score, cinematography by W. Howard Greene and Hal Mohr, and stunning Technicolor.

   It is too bad that somewhere along the way they forgot the mystery, the horror, terror, and for the most part Eric, the Opera Phantom.

   They remembered the opera though.

   Here we have Erique Claudin (Claude Rains), a violinist in the orchestra of the Paris Opera who secretly loves Christine (Susanna Foster), stand-in to vainglorious diva Biacarolli (Jane Farrar), so much so, he has secretly been paying singing master Leo Carillo to train her, But when Claudin loses his job, he needs money, so he takes the music he has written to publisher Miles Mander who dismisses him.

   In his despair and desperation Claudin kills Mander accidentally and scars his own face with acid, fleeing to the sewers which lead beneath the Opera house, there beginning his reign of terror against Biancarolli so that Christine may take her place.

   And all that is well enough if Rains and his Phantom did much more than run around in a costume borrowed from Lamont Cranston, casting a few half-hearted shadows and mostly lurking offscreen unseen and unheard, while we get a parade of some of the finest character actors in Hollywood in what mostly plays as a light opera with way to much comic business between baritone Nelson Eddy and policeman Edgar Barrier fighting over Christine, and far too many operatic numbers.

   The famous chandelier scene is well-handled, and there is a well done chase between Eddy and Rains in the rigging above the stage, but mostly this generates virtually no mystery, no terror, and no horror, no Masque of the Red Death. Even the famous scene of Christine unmasking the Phantom is tossed off with no suspense or style.

   Oh, yeah, he’s disfigured. Ho, hum.

   Rains is largely wasted. The fine cast has to hold a thriller with no thrills and a mystery with no mystery there between too many musical numbers there only to justify Nelson Eddy being cast in the film.

   Just about everything you expect of the Phantom is missing. There is no Gothic atmosphere, no labyrinth sewers beneath the Opera, no menacing shadows, and the violence, when it comes is all done off camera ending anti climatically with Claudin fleeing through the large well lighted halls of the opera dressed like an escapee from Mad Magazine’s Spy vs Spy.

   Seldom in film history has more money been spent to less effect.

   That’s a pity, because the makings were there for a fine film of the classic, if everyone hadn’t been so overcome by the class of the project they forgot it was also a tale of murder, madness, terror, horror, and obsession.

   

THE NINE “Pilot.” ABC, 60m, 04 October 2006. Written by Hank Steinberg & K. J. Steinberg. Director: Alex Graves. Currently available on YouTube.

   I’m not including a list of cast credits yet, as it will take both some time and space. I’ll add them below. This is the story of bank heist gone bad, so bad that hostages are taken and are not released until over two days later. Not everyone survives. Those who do, after the media coverage subsides and eventually disappears, as it always does, find that their lives have “changed forever.” The following is taken from Wikipedia. I couldn’t do better:

Main cast, alphabetically, except for the two bank robbers, listed at the end:

   Lourdes Benedicto as Eva Rios, a teller in the bank that is robbed and single mother. Eva is injured during the standoff and dies shortly thereafter. Eva is Franny’s sister.

   John Billingsley as Egan Foote, a data processor. Egan begins the series severely depressed and suicidal. He is in the bank the day of the robbery to kill himself in the bathroom. After the standoff, he is hailed as a hero and feels that he has a “new lease on life”.

   Jessica Collins as Elizabeth “Lizzie” Miller, a social worker. Lizzie is in a serious relationship with Jeremy at the beginning of the series. She finds out she is pregnant before walking into the bank.

   Tim Daly as Nick Cavanaugh, a police officer who happens to be a customer in the bank during the robbery. Nick has a gambling problem. Just prior to the robbery, Nick and Eva arranged to go out on a date.

   Dana Davis as Felicia Jones, a high-school student and daughter of Malcolm. Felicia is in the bank when the robbery occurs. After the standoff, she develops amnesia and cannot remember anything from the event.

   Camille Guaty as Francesca “Franny” Rios, a bank teller and Eva’s sister.

   Chi McBride as Malcolm Jones, the bank manager and Felicia’s father.

   Kim Raver as Kathryn Hale, an Assistant District Attorney. Kathryn is in the bank with her mother at the time of the robbery; her mother is set free. Kathryn’s boyfriend proposes after the robbery. She accepts but has a connection with Nick.

   Scott Wolf as Jeremy Kates, a cardiothoracic surgeon. Jeremy is in a serious relationship with Lizzie at the start of the series.

   Owain Yeoman as Lucas Dalton, one of the two bank robbers. His brother is the other robber. Lucas seems to have a strange connection to Felicia.

   Jeffrey Pierce as Randall Reese, Lucas’s brother and colleague during the bank robbery.

   There were 13 episodes in all, but ratings were poor, and whether all 13 were shown in the US, I haven’t yet worked out. Some may have been shown only online. It’s too bad, as this is a series that is designed to be followed from beginning to end, as the viewer gradually learns what actually happened in those 52 hours, and how the closeness the hostages felt during their crisis carries over to their normal lives. It’s a show meant for bingeing now, and one that would be very difficult to jump into the middle of.

   It’s very well done, and after this first episode ended, I immediately wanted more. I think that went wrong, though, is that it’s very difficult in one 42 minute pilot, to introduce all of the players properly. Some stand out, of course, others far less so. In this pilot, also, during what is shown at the beginning of the hostage standoff and the media frenzy that occurs as they are released, is done with hand-held cameras, adding tremendously to the confusion, but this was the intent and exactly as it should be.

   It might also be that as time went on the story line just wasn’t all that interesting. I’ll probably never know.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

DEAD END. Goldwyn/UA, 1937. Sylvia Sidney, Joel McCrae, Humphrey Bogart, Wendy Barrie, Claire Trevor, Alan Jenkins, Marjorie Main, and the Dead End Kids. Screenplay by Lillian Hellman, from the play by Sidney Kingsley. Directed by William Wyler.

   A year after The Petrified Forest (recently reviewed here), Bogie found himself again playing a gangster on the run in a film based on a popular (and somewhat self-important) play. But in that year, he had learned how to act for the screen, and the difference is agreeable.

   Let’s dispense with the bad news first: Dead End is as pretentious and mannered as The Petrified Forest was, and even more didactic. Sylvia Sidney’s noble working woman; the insulated, uncaring rich people; the feral youths; and especially Joel McCrae as the voice of Progress… they’re all types first and characters as an afterthought. The film only flickers to anything like real life when it leaves them to check in on “Baby Face” Martin’s tragic homecoming.

   That’s Bogart, ably abetted by Alan Jenkins as his dubious stooge, and if you can wade (or fast-forward) through the other stuff, the payoff is rewarding indeed.

   First there’s Marjorie Main as Martin’s weary-unto-death mother, carrying the infamy of her notorious son like a dead baby in her womb. When they meet, we see the first chink in Martin’s tough-guy façade, and Bogie plays it splendidly, like a fighter trying not to show how bad he’s been hurt, taking his punishment and hoping to make the next round.

   When that round comes though, it’s only for Martin to find out his old girlfriend is now a hooker, and not a very classy one at that. As played by Claire Trevor in a moving cameo, her face is a mask of tragedy cast in brass. And Bogart’s face as he realizes the truth is a study in disillusion: disappointment giving way to disgust and disintegration.

   Kingsley writes a small but telling moment into this scene. Anxious to be rid of her, Bogart shoves a wad of money at Trevor, who stashes it away without counting, then asks Martin if he can spare another Twenty! The mix of need and greed in her voice evokes the character as few could, and when she caps it off by asking for one last kiss, for old time’s sake the effect is incredible.

   Director Wyler and the players do what they can with the rest, but it’s all as artificial as the massive and deliberately stagey set built for the film when Producer Sam Goldwyn refused to shoot on location. That said, it’s still worth seeing for Bogie’s bits.

   And yes, the juvenile delinquents in Dead End became stock players at Warner’s as The Dead End Kids, then elsewhere as the East Side Kids and the Little Tough Guys, before settling down at Monogram as The Bowery Boys. Which makes me wonder if Sidney Kingsley ever got any royalties for Bowery Buckaroos.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

A HOUSE IS NOT A HOME. Embassy Pictures, 1964. Shelly Winters, Robert Taylor, Cesar Romero, Ralph Taeger, Kaye Ballard, Broderick Crawford, Mickey Shaugnessy, Jessie White, Lisa Seagram, Benny Rubin, Mari Welles, Tom deAndrea, Edy Williams, Connie Gilchrist, J. Pat O’Malley, Hayden Rorke, Roger C. Carmel. Screenplay by Russell Rouse & Charles Greene, based on the autobiography of Polly Adler. Directed by Russell Rouse.

   “We don’t know enough about life to be sad about this.”

   A House is Not a Home, and in this case it isn’t much of a movie either.

   Supposed to be frank and shocking this is mostly tired and trite, unless you are deeply shocked by someone shouting the word “whore” on screen, or by the fact men pay for sex there is nothing much in this that wouldn’t be perfectly at home with the board of censors.

   Better movies had been much racier and more frank in this same period without once having to scream the word “whore,” out loud or repeatedly (and in a tour de force of bad overacting).

   Polish immigrant Polly Adler (Shelly Winters) is poor and innocent (and Winters at this point in the film is a parody of the kind of part she played so well in A Place in the Sun, actually painful to watch), narrating her fall and rise and moral fall in Adler’s own self serving “what’s a girl to do” style.

   After getting in trouble with a guy she is rescued by good guy Bootlegger Frank Costigan (Robert Taylor) a mobster with ties in government and crime who aides Polly in her becoming a famous madam with rich clients and lady like prostitutes who dress well and behave, mostly.

   Innocent Polly just wakes up a madam one day with absolutely no clue how it happened.

   Meanwhile still nice Polly meets bandleader Casey (Ralph Taeger) who she falls tragically in love with much to her later regret.

   No attempt is made to use period costume or clothes, and the sets are few and far between. It might as well be 1964 in most scenes, and this television instead of a movie.

   Mickey Shaughnessy is a crooked cop “Backdoor Reardon” (and no, not one person involved in the film seems to have gotten just how hilarious that is in this context); Broderick Crawford a crooked cop; Cesar Romero Lucky Luciano; Lisa Seagram a prostitute with a drug problem; Roger C. Carmel a drug addicted horn player, Hayden Rorke a crooked lawyer becoming Luciano’s private judge; Kaye Ballard young Polly’s pal in a sweat shop; J. Pat O’Malley a police inspector; and so on.

   In short a blend of old familiar faces and “and then I slept with” film bio.

   “It seems that sex was a common denominator for all stratum of society.”

   Gee, that’s profound. I think most of us figured that out around puberty, but it is nice to know the world’s most famous madam picked up on it. The Happy Hooker, Polly ain’t. By this movie, save for being raped early on, you could draw the conclusion that Polly herself is a virgin, just a poor little golden-hearted darling picked on by all the mean gangsters, politicians, and policemen wanting a cut of the pound of flesh she carves out of her girls lives.

   The screenplay is a paean to Dick and Jane level dialogue, so pretentious and self serving not a single word sounds as if it had ever passed the lips of an actual living human in the real world. Polly’s ghost writer sounds as if he read The Old Curiosity Shop and Fanny Hill over and over to get the tone he wanted.

   Attractive Meri Welles suicide is a highlight/lowlight a moment of overacting by an an under-talent that could end any career. The writing, staging, and Winters hysterics will have you on the floor laughing. The proper reaction is “throw another one in the river and see if they float.”

   You have to show people as human before their fate means anything even in a movie this bad. Welles sudden New Year’s depression and leap from a balcony is staged like a high school production of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, without context and telegraphed so broadly Marconi could read it from his grave.

   Bad movies come and go, this one mostly went, except it had one thing going for it, seems a couple of young songwriters tackled the title song, and when their names were Hal David and Burt Bacharach, the result was far better than anything in the film. “And a house is not a home, unless love is there..” may not be Cole Porter, but it blows anything in this film away.

   No one really gets a career boost from this. Taylor sleepwalks, Winters keeps trying to act as if this was a real movie. Romero tries hard not to be noticed. Everyone else just does their schtick, though Shaugnessy could be prosecuted for mugging in the first degree.

   “You’ve been a madam, you sold flesh. They haven’t made a soap that can wash that away,” Polly is told by Frank (Robert Taylor) who actually opens his eyes to deliver this gem.

   Polly tries desperately to escape her fate when Casey proposes, but Frank’s words ring too true. What is a poor girl to do, but write a bestseller and have something to retire on.

   “In my house full of people I pin my diamonds on loneliness and despair and I will never have a home.”

   Apparently Polly read one too many Cornell Woolrich novels without having learned the point about fate so she madly dances as gangster Frank looks on trapped like a poor canary in her life of sin … “she’s only a bird in a golden cage …”

   And though she would be good again, this is the exact point Winters career became a satire, a parody of what she was at her best.

   As a general rule it should be noted something about the idea of whorehouses brings out the worst in everyone involved in a Hollywood drama. They work well enough in comedy, but get serious and you can wade knee deep in the angst and overacting.

   Do yourself a favor, listen to the title song over the credits and then quickly turn to something else. It is only the only defense against this film.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

THE PETRIFIED FOREST. Warner Brothers, 1936. Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Genevieve Tobin, Dick Foran, Charlie Grapewin, Joe Sawyer, Porter Hall, and Adrian Morris. Screenplay by Charles Kenyon and Delmer Daves, from the play by Robert E. Sherwood. Directed by Archie Mayo.

   Sherwood’s play and the film made from it have not aged well, but if you can accept the artificiality and pardon the pseudo-poetics, it remains oddly fascinating and very watchable.

   The contrived plot has wandering writer manqué Leslie Howard turning up at an isolated eat-here-and-get-gas joint owned by self-styled militiaman Porter Hall, run by his would-be poet daughter Bette Davis (she reads Francois Villon and dreams of seeing Paris) with the eager assistance of lustful pump-jockey Dick Foran, and the interference of grandfather Charles Grapewin, who never stops cadging drinks and telling about the time he met Billy the Kid.

   Then into this mix of flammable futility walks Duke Mantee (Bogart) and his retinue of desperadoes, weary with hunting and fain would lie down. And the rest of the show is the collision of the gangsters’ irresistible force against the all-too-moveable dreams of the others.

   It’s all quite talky and contrived, but I found myself drawn into it anyway. Time and again the aspirations of the ordinary folk get dashed to bits by the bad guys till only Leslie Howard’s doomed romanticism is left to counter Bogart’s lethal fatalism. They spar like gunfighters jockeying for position, edging toward the final shoot-out that must leave one of them dead in the dust, and when it comes, it hits with real intensity.

   The actors carry Sherwood’s ideas with a bluff grace that rises to poesy. I was particularly taken by Dick Foran’s horny has-been football star and Porter Hall’s would-be tough-guy, perfect foils for Howard and Bogart. Davis evokes just the right note of dream-struck, and Grapewin’s old-timer is simply delightful, needy and comic at the same time.

   And then there’s Bogart, splendidly awful in the film that established him in Hollywood.

   Warners bought the play in a package deal with Leslie Howard pre-set to star. They had Cagney and Robinson under contract, but Howard insisted on Bogart, who played Mantee in the stage production. Bogey’s performance is stagey, mannered and over-emphatic, but it’s riveting. The minute he lurches in, arms akimbo, face stamped with the mask of tragedy, it’s as if Frankenstein’s monster had invaded the set. You simply can’t take your eyes off him, bad as he is. And he gets the best line in the whole movie: “You can talk sittin’ down, I heard ya doin’ it.”

   Yes, he’s way too theatrical, but somehow Bogie fits this film as no other actor could have. I’m glad he shed the mannerisms and moved on to become the legend that he was, but I still appreciate this hammy debut into the ranks of the Tough Guys.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

LOVE FROM A STRANGER. United Artists, UK/US, 1937. Also released in the US as A Night of Terror. Ann Harding, Basil Rathbone, Binnie Hale, Bruce Seton, Jean Cadell, Bryan Powley, Joan Hickson. Based on the 1936 play of the same name by Frank Vosper, which in turn was based on the 1924 short story “Philomel Cottage,” written by Agatha Christie. Directed by Rowland V. Lee.

   Basil Rathbone used to turn out a fine line of cold-hearted seducers. As a cad supposedly irresistible to women, he was never completely convincing, but that, oddly, was part of his success: when the naive young heiress or wealthy widow fell for Rathbone’s icy charm, you just knew she was walking into a trap. They never seemed to learn, though, and a succession of films like Kind Lady (1935), Rio (’39) and The Mad Doctor (’41) found a variety of leading ladies suddenly-finding-too-late (or is it?) they were in the clutches of a serial killer murderous con man, or at best an insanely jealous spouse.

   Love from a Stranger is pretty typical of the lot, and fun to look at, with a script incorporating the talents of Agatha Christie (original story) Frank Vosper (stage play) and Francis Marion (screen adaptation.) under the steady hand of Rowland V. Lee. Heroine Anne Harding has barely learned she won the lottery before suave, mysterious Basil Rathbone turns up to sweep her off her feet and into a remote cottage, where he likes to spend hours in the cellar listening to “In the Hall of the Mountain King” on the gramophone while burning pictures of his new bride — a sure sign that this marriage is in trouble. More fruity stuff follows, but it’s played for such full-blooded theatricality as to make it rather enjoyable as the story moves to its predestined climax.

   That climax perhaps betrays a bit too much of the film’s stage origins: at the point to which all these things must come, where the heroine ls alone in the house with a killer and no hope of rescue, we suddenly get an awful lot of dialogue. Without revealing too much of the ending, I may say it goes something like this:

RATHBONE: “Well, my dear, something something something.”

HARDING: “No! Wait!”

RATHBONE: “Why should I?”

HARDING: “Because something something something!”

RATHBONE: “Something something?”

HARDING: “Yes! And something else!”

RATHBQNE: “You expect me to believe that?”

HARDING: “Yes!”

RATHBONE: “But if somethlng something, why not something?”

HARDING: “Because something!”

RATHBONE: ”A very pretty story, my dear, but I happen to know something something.”

HARDING: “I know you knew that. I was only something something until something something else something!”

RATHBONE: “Damn!”

   As you may have noticed, this is an awful lot of plot to carry around just by talking it out, and it gets a bit stagy after the first ten minutes or so. Still fun, though, in its own hammy way, and I have to say I liked this a lot.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #40, September 2005.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

DON JUAN. Vitaphone/Warners, 1926. John Barrymore, Mary Astor, Warner Oland, Estelle Taylor, Montagu Love and Nigel de Brulier. Screenplay by Estelle Taylor. Directed by Alan Crosland.

THE ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN. Warners, 1948. Errol Flynn, Viveca Lindfors, Robert Douglas, Alan Hale, Romney Brent, Robert Warwick, Una O’Connor and Raymond Burr. Screenplay by Herbert Dalmas, George Oppenheimer, William Faulkner, and Robert Florey. Directed by Vincent Sherman.

   Errol Flynn and John Barrymore were close friends and legendary drinking buddies in life, whose paths twice crossed professionally: Flynn’s portrayal of Barrymore in the turgid biopic TOO MUCH, TOO SOON (Warners, 1958) won praise from critics who panned the rest of the film, and he himself said, “I wanted to show a man with a heart, a man eaten up inside — as I knew him to be in those final days when I was close to him.”

   Ten years earlier, when Warners decided to remake Barrymore’s DON JUAN, Flynn was the natural—indeed, the only—choice for the part. Under Vincent Sherman’s workmanlike but uninspired direction, it emerged as a gaudy but oddly lifeless affair, with footage “borrowed” from ROBIN HOOD and THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, and Flynn visibly tired of the whole swashbuckling-lover act. The supporting players do what they can, a phalanx of writers throw in some witty lines, and stuntman Jock Mahoney even recreates Barrymore’s staircase leap from the earlier film, but on the whole the tale of swordplay and palace intrigue seems profoundly shallow.

   In contrast, the original DON JUAN is an altogether more personal and livelier effort. Barrymore’s first appearance as the legendary lover doesn’t come till twenty minutes into the film, after an extended prologue featuring the star as Don Juan’s father, betrayed by his wife, who entombs her lover in a wall, then devotes himself to wine and women till he’s murdered by a discarded mistress and leaves his son with a parting dictum never to give love; only take it.

   Prologue over, Barrymore makes a light-hearted entrance as Don Juan, skillfully manipulating two ladies at his door while a third slips out his bedroom window. Very soon after, he runs afoul of the Borgias: Warner Oland as Cesare (“We Borgia approve of cleverness in our friends – we have no clever enemies!”) and Estelle Taylor as a predatory Lucrezia. It seems the toxic siblings plan to poison Mary Astor’s dad and marry the girl off to barely-civilized Montagu Love, but Juan/John squelches the cyanide, then beats the lustful bridegroom in one of the finest swordfights ever in the Movies: imaginatively conceived and cleverly edited, it ends with an impressive swan dive down a flight of stairs, so good it was repeated in the later film.

   There’s a lot more plot of course, but one aspect of this thing intrigues me. Early on, as I said, Don Juan’s father seals his wife’s lover up in a wall, and sets his son on a path of loveless and rather misogynistic pleasure. Later on, imprisoned by the Borgias, Juan takes down a wall to escape … and on the other side he finds an erstwhile victim: the husband of a woman he seduced, who went mad with jealousy and murdered his wife. In a surprising twist, the madman forgives and helps Juan escape so he can rescue Mary Astor etc. etc.

   Okay, if we can divorce the whole “Wall” thing from the current political climate, it becomes a striking metaphor for our hero’s psyche. The wall his father built entombed a philanderer and became a barrier that kept the legendary lover from actually loving anyone. It is only when he destroys a wall that Don Juan finds forgiveness and becomes capable of love.

   The screenplay never spells this out—Thank Gawd!—but it adds a special depth to DON JUAN that THE ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN never achieved… or even attempted.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

MARY STEWART – The Moon-Spinners. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1962. M. S. Mill Co. & Morrow, US, hardcover, 1963. Crest #R717, US, paperback; 1st printing, May 1964.

THE MOON-SPINNERS. Buena Vista (Walt Disney), 1964. Starring Hayley Mills, Eli Wallach, Joan Greenwood, Peter McEnery, Irene Pappas, Pola Negri, John LeMessurier, Andre Morell. Screenplay: Michael Dyne, based on the book by Mary Stewart. Directed by James Nielson.

   “Even in Crete nobody’s going to murder a visitor.”

   So speaks young Englishwoman Nicola Ferris as she chides the couple that has given her a ride to the remote seaside village of Agios Georgios, St. George, in the shadow of the White Mountains. Nicola works for the British embassy, and for her holidays she is meeting her older cousin Frances Scorby, a naturalist who has written several books on flowers and who hopes to study local wild flowers.

   Frances, who she calls Aunt Frances, raised her.

   It seems a perfect holiday, beautiful setting, fine food, the sea, and a family reunion for the orphan Nicola.

   The best laid plans and all that.

   This being Mary Stewart, the best of the writers of romantic suspense (and as good as any man in the adventure/suspense/adventure genre), you know things won’t be quite that simple, especially when Nicola runs into a strange man while exploring the island, a fugitive being hunted, and finds herself up to her neck in a mystery involving the attractive mysterious Englishman named Mark Langley hiding out on the mountain with a bullet wound and concerned for his younger brother Colin who has been missing since he was wounded.

   Then there is the attractive Tony Gamble who she meets at the hotel where he does the cooking, and the mysterious Stratos whose sister Sofia runs the inn and who only recently arrived from the West and despises the poverty and ignorance of his own people. And why does Sofia look so frightened of Gamble and her brother?

   And what is the mystery of the Bay of Dolphins where the fates, the ones who spin the silver moon from the title, spin a silver full moon so that you might one night see the lost treasure ship at the bottom of the bay? Because treasure is involved, if not the one the Moon-Spinners reveal.

   I strained across the moving whispering darkness. As before, it was full of sounds, far fuller than when, on the ridge, I stood insulated by the air from the subdued and roaring life of the sea.

   Stewart, like Daphne Du Maurier had a genuine talent for the romance of adventure and lonely places, the Stevensonian voice out of Buchan and Geoffrey Household that gives life to the landscape around her heroines.

   Soon enough Nicola finds Colin, held prisoner, and is drawn even deeper into the mystery that ends in a dangerous battle on Stratos caique.

   The Walt Disney film is shot on location, and while it does away with Colin and combines Mark Langely and Tony Gamble into a single character, stays fairly close to the book until midway through when it dissipates some of the suspense by adding some extraneous characters that seem to have wandered in from The 39 Steps, including Pola Negri as a mysterious woman on a yacht and John LeMessurier as a shady British consul with a wife who drinks and talks too much..

   Hayley Mills in an early grown up (sort of — Disney isn’t quite ready for her to be a Hitchcock blonde exactly) role is Nicola, traveling with her Aunt (Joan Greenwood) in Crete to record folk music (an excuse for some musical interludes) who arrives in Agios Georgios and discover the sinister zodiac obsessed Stratos (Eli Wallach) who wants no one at the hotel, especially the Englishman Mark Gamble (Peter McEnery) who is staying there.

   Some of the suspense is lost, and the ending is a bit too neat, but it is gorgeously shot, the music, including the title song “Moon-Spinners” is good, the actors are all far better than the material, and even with the changes something of the suspense and romantic mood is captured.

   Mills is good as the feisty Nicola, and not all that far from Stewart’s heroine if a bit younger, McEnery a decent leading man, and Wallach by turns sinister, threatening, ingratiating, and threatening.

   Irene Pappas hasn’t much to do but is gorgeous, Joan Greenwood gets to be Joan Greenwood, and Pola Negri — well, that part I can’t explain, but someone must of thought it was needed.

   As a Stewart fan, of course, I would much prefer they had filmed the book, and even with Mills in it, I can’t see what the need of all the business with Negri and LeMessurier was, saving someone involved had seen too many Hitchcock films.

   But how exactly anyone would quite capture the quality of Mary Stewart’s writing on film is hard to see.

   …when the big white bird flew up among the glossy leaves and the lemon flowers, and wheeled into the mountain, I followed it. What else is there to do, when such a thing happens on a brilliant April noonday at the foot of the white mountains of Crete; when the road is hot and dusty, but the gorge is green, and full of the sound of water, and the white wings, flying ahead flicker in and out of deep shadow, and the air is full of the scent of lemon blossoms?

   

Next Page »