Sylvia and the Phantom (1945)

SYLVIA AND THE PHANTOM (1945)
Article #715 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 2-28-2003
Posting Date: 7-28-2003
Directed by Claude Autant-Lara
Featuring Odette Joyeux, Jacques Tati, Francois Perier

The father of a young woman who has sworn not to marry due to her love for an ancestral phantom decides to hire an actor to impersonate the phantom at a ball.

This movie is sitting with a low rating on IMDB, and I wonder if it might be due to the fact that Jacques Tati, who is better known for his Monsieur Hulot comedies, appears in it; it is certainly not what a fan of his work might expect. Me, I found the subtitles a little confusing on occasion, and I’m sure that I missed some of the subtleties, but ultimately I was charmed by the whole affair. Much of it has to do with the appealing characters that appear throughout the story, and the fact that the story never quite falls out the way I would expect. It’s a gentle, funny and sad movie, and I found myself totally caught up in it. Nonetheless, the low rating at IMDB does serve as a bit of a warning, and Jacques Tati fans in particular may be disappointed.

Fantasia (1940)

FANTASIA (1940)
Article #714 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 2-27-2003
Posting Date: 7-27-2003
Featuring Leopold Stokowski, Deems Taylor

Several pieces of classical music are presented with accompanying animation.

At least one of my reference books points out that most animated movies would fall under the category of fantastic cinema, what with their obsession with talking animals and the like, but I have covered precious little animation so far, because the books I’ve been using so far for this project omit them on principle. This is one of the exceptions, which may seem odd for what is essentially a series of mood pieces. Nonetheless, it definitely qualifies; fantasy fans can enjoy “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (with Mickey Mouse trying to keep an animated broom under control) and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. The latter features an endless parade of satyrs, centaurs, unicorns and flying horses, all done in Disney’s cutest style, and would win my vote for what is far and away the dullest segment of the movie. Science fiction fans can enjoy the “Rite of Spring” segment, which covers the creation of the world and features extensive dinosaur animation (and not a single dinosaur has a squeaky “land-before-time” kiddie voice, thank goodness), while horror fans can enjoy the demonic and very un-Disneyesque “Night on Bald Mountain” segment; rumors abound that the demon here was drawn around footage of Bela Lugosi. Horror fans will definitely recognize the melody of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, even if it’s played by a full orchestra and not John Carradine at an organ. Nonetheless, my favorite segment is “Dance of the Hours”, a ballet populated by the most singularly ungraceful array of creatures to ever dance their way to your funny bone. Disney had hoped to regularly rerelease the movie with new segments on a regular basis, but that plan was axed when the movie proved to be a monumental flop on its initial release. Time has been more than kind to it.

House of Fear (1939)

HOUSE OF FEAR (1939)
Article #713 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 2-26-2003
Posting Date: 7-26-2003
Directed by Joe May
Featuring Irene Harvey, William Gargan, Alan Dinehart

An actor is murdered during a performance of a play, and his body vanishes soon afterwards. A year later, a policeman tries to solve the mystery by reopening the play in the same theater, now said to be haunted by the actor’s ghost.

Cross your basic “old dark house” movie with “The Phantom of the Opera”, and this is what you get; an “old dark theater” movie. This one is slightly better than average for this kind of thing, with some interesting and surprising plot twists, as well as a fairly entertaining array of characters. The cast also features JUST IMAGINE’s El Brendel as (surprise, surprise) a Scandinavian stagehand. The director’s name also rang a bell with me; Joe May directed a couple of Fritz Lang scripts during the silent years, including THE INDIAN TOMB.

Hellzapoppin’ (1941)

HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941)
Article #712 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 2-25-2003
Posting Date: 7-25-2003
Directed by H. C. Potter
Featuring Ole Olson, Chick Johnson, Martha Raye

If you think a plot description will tell you anything about this movie, you’re on the wrong track.

Having already encountered Olsen and Johnson in GHOST CATCHERS, I was prepared enough not to be blindsided by this one. Any movie this wild is bound to slip over into fantastic cinema territory a few times before it’s all through, so here’s a few of the genre elements: the opening musical number takes place in hell, at one point both Olsen and Johnson become half invisible (one from the waist up, the other from the waist down), and the Frankenstein monster pops in for a cameo at one point. As for the rest, try to imagine Busby Berkeley, Spike Jones and Tex Avery all pooling their talents to put together a live-action movie, and you might have an idea of the mayhem in store. Once again, there are so many gags that the bad ones don’t count, though my favorite is a CITIZEN KANE reference. The actors talk directly to the audience (specifically to the projectionist played by Shemp Howard), run into trouble from the Hays office, encounter talking animals and the world’s fastest quick-change master of disguise, and interrupt a romantic musical number by requesting that Stinky Miller leave the theater and go home. Actually, the big finish where Olsen and Johnson try to wreck a musical revue to save their friend from marrying a (censored) is relatively sedate compared to the first half of the movie, but that’s only because the first half is nearly impossible to beat. Elisha Cook Jr. is on hand. He gets shot several times. I won’t tell you whether he dies or not. I suspect that both Mel Brooks and Zucker-Abraham-Zucker could have been inspired by these guys.

The Garden Murder Case (1936)

THE GARDEN MURDER CASE (1936)
Article #711 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 2-24-2003
Posting Date: 7-24-2003
Directed by Edwin L. Marin
Featuring Edmund Lowe, Gene Lockhart, Virginia Bruce

Philo Vance investigates the suspicious accidental death of a jockey and the murder of a tycoon.

There are a lot of familiar names and faces in this entertaining mystery, though Nat Pendleton steals the proceedings somewhat as one of the dimmest policemen I’ve ever seen. This is the first Philo Vance movie I’ve seen, and if it’s any indication, they should be fairly entertaining. It’s pretty standard, and wouldn’t qualify as fantastic cinema except that a revelation near the end of the movie (which I won’t give away here) does push the movie into marginal horror territory; if you’re on your toes, you should be able to figure out what that revelation will be.

The Florentine Dagger (1935)

THE FLORENTINE DAGGER (1935)
Article #710 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 2-23-2003
Posting Date: 7-23-2003
Directed by Robert Florey
Featuring Donald Woods, Margaret Lindsay, C. Aubrey Smith

A man obsessed with the fact that he is a descendant of the Borgias believes that he may have committed the murder of the father of his bride-to-be.

It may take a little while before you realize you’re watching a murder mystery; the first half of the movie is mostly concerned with an elaborate backstory. Yet, that’s no real problem here; the backstory is unusually interesting, and sets up some interesting obsessions and motifs that carry through the movie as a whole. The story (by Ben Hecht) is interesting in that it could have been done equally well as a horror movie by emphasizing certain aspects and downplaying others; in fact, had it been a horror movie, we would have most likely been allowed to see something in the final reel that in this version is kept under wraps. Overall, a quite entertaining movie, with good performances by all the principals, though Robert Barrat (as the unctuous womanizing Inspector in charge of the investigation) is having entirely too much fun, but after all, he gets all the best lines.

Dirigible (1931)

DIRIGIBLE (1931)
Article #709 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 2-22-2003
Posting Date: 7-22-2003
Directed by Frank Capra
Featuring Jack Holt, Ralph Graves, Fay Wray

An attempt to reach the South Pole by means of a dirigible is made.

This early marginally-science-fictional directorial effort by Frank Capra is quite entertaining, even if the romantic triangle storyline that pervades a good deal of it is hackneyed; he is very good at keeping the story moving and holding your interest. However, it’s the special effects which take center stage here, what with the shots of the dirigibles and the planes flying among them. Unfortunately, for this to have maximum effect, you need something that I don’t have; a good print. Mine is in very bad shape, with the sound inaudible at times and human beings occasionally looking nothing more than amorphous blobs, and I hope someday to be able to upgrade to a better print. It is entertaining nevertheless, especially towards the end when it becomes almost harrowing. I find it not at all surprising that Frank Capra went on to a quite distinguished directorial career after making this one.

The Enchanted Cottage (1945)

THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE (1945)
Article #708 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 2-21-2003
Posting Date: 7-21-2003
Directed by John Cromwell
Featuring Dorothy McGuire, Robert Young, Herbert Marshall

A plain young woman takes a job at an old cottage once set aside for newlyweds, and there encounters a man who is bitter and lonely due to his having been disfigured and maimed in the war.

The fantastic premise in this movie is that the cottage is enchanted by the spirits of all the lovers who have lived there during the years, and at one point in the story it causes transformations in the main characters. It is a movie well-loved by many; as for me, I’ve loathed the movie for many years in my inimitable curmudgeonly fashion, and I looked forward to watching it again as I would look forward to my next root canal. Nevertheless, I have to admit that I didn’t hate it this time; like it or not, it touches a few chords thematically, and it is well acted and has some lovely scenery. But I still do consider it highly problematic; I find it artificial, precious, obvious and contrived, with characters whose functions are so blatantly symbolic that they never take on a life of their own as real living, breathing people. Consequently, I can see the manipulative strings being pulled at every step of the way, and that’s enough to make me keep my distance. I suspect that romantics and love story enthusiasts will find this a lot more compelling than I do; me, I was actually just happy to scratch this one off my list and replace it with a Francis, the talking mule movie.

Dracula (1931) Spanish Version

DRACULA (1931) – Spanish Version
Article #707 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing date: 2-20-2003
Posting date: 7-20-2003
Directed by George Melford
Featuring Carlos Villarias, Lupita Tovar, Barry Norton

Dracula moves to London from Transylvania and sets his sights on the daughter of the doctor of a sanitarium.

Shot at the same time and on the same sets as the Lugosi DRACULA, with the same script, but a different cast and crew and in Spanish, this version of the movie was forgotten for many years. The print does not appear to be in the best of condition, but I’m just glad it’s still around for comparison. Despite having the same script, this version runs almost a full half hour longer than the Browning version; I suspect a lot more was cut out during the editing of the latter. Quite frankly, this one is much better directed, eschewing Browning’s static style and staging many of the sequences in a more interesting fashion, and though it could use some judicious trimming here and there, I didn’t nod off at all on this version. Pablo Alvarez Rubio gives Dwight Frye a run for his money as Renfield, and Eduardo Arozamena as Van Helsing has an insane stare that makes him seem just as crazy. Carlos Villarias is good, but his performance pales next to Lugosi’s star-making turn in the Browning version. I dream of what it would be like to have combined the strengths of each of the two versions and come up with a superior version of the story. Apparently, the director, George Melford, could not speak Spanish and had to work with his cast through translators.

The Vampire (1957)

THE VAMPIRE (1957)
Article #706 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing date: 2-19-2003
Posting date: 7-19-2003
Directed by Paul Landres
Featuring John Beal, Coleen Grey, Kenneth Tobey

A doctor accidentally takes some pills that turn him into a vampiric predator.

Personally, I don’t particularly find the concept of taking a traditional monster and trying to turn him into a science fiction monster to be necessarily interesting, so I didn’t really go into this movie expecting much. However, I ended up really liking this movie; I think it’s very effective, largely because it fleshes out and differentiates the various interesting characters, and the whole thing is quite well acted. In particular, John Beal (in the title role) really projects a sense of the horror of his situation and his desire not to hurt the ones he loves. This compensates a lot for the fact that the monster make-up is pretty lame; fortunately, you really don’t see much of it. The movie doesn’t have much of a reputation; it’s sitting with a 4.1 rating on IMDB, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.