Scrooge (1936)

SCROOGE (1936)
Article #1404 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-17-2005
Posting Date: 2-16-2005
Directed by Henry Edwards
Featuring Seymour Hicks, Donald Calthrop, Robert Cochrane

Scrooge is visited by ghosts on Christmas Eve who teach him the true meaning of Christmas.

In some ways, I can’t really fault this adaptation of Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol”. It has a good deal of atmosphere, and with one exception (Mary Glynne overacts a bit in her scene with Scrooge), the acting is fine. However, on the whole, this adaptation leaves me unsatisfied. For me, the problem is with the middle section of the story involving the ghosts. With the exception of the Ghost of Christmas Present, I find the ghosts to be extremely disappointing; the Ghost of Christmas Future is a shadow on the wall, and the Ghost of Christmas Past is blurry figure of light. It also doesn’t help that the section involving the Ghost of Christmas Past only touches upon one single event in Scrooge’s past life, which seems a lot stingier than is necessary. For me, though, the worst problem is the portrayal of Marley; after a nice buildup to his appearance, I was deeply disappointed that instead of the lockbox-laden figure of the story, we get nothing more than a disembodied voice. In fact, whoever plays Marley isn’t even given a credit. This may not matter to some people, but for me, the visual presence of Marley is very important to the story, and this movie leaves me feeling cheated. The movie isn’t a disaster, but this is a long ways from the best version of the story out there.

Blake of Scotland Yard (1937)

Article #1403 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-16-2005
Posting Date: 2-15-2005
Directed by Robert F. Hill
Featuring Ralph Byrd, Herbert Rawlinson, Joan Barclay

A super death-ray has been invented that will guarantee world peace (or so the plot claims), and it is up to Blake of Scotland Yard to make sure that the weapon doesn’t fall into the claws – er, hands of that master criminal, the Scorpion.

Some thoughts on BLAKE OF SCOTLAND YARD.

1) There was a 1927 serial of the same name as this one. I don’t know if this is a remake of that one, but I do know they were both directed by the same man. I also know this; one advantage that the silent serial had was that, being silent, it didn’t have to contend with the obstacle of having to deal with the British accent, whereas the sound version doesn’t have that privilege. However, this being a serial, it probably didn’t have a wide stable of actors to choose from at casting time. The upshot of this is that, with the exception of Dickie Jones (who plays the child), none of the actors even attempts a British accent. The serial tries to compensate for this problem by having someone say “Righto” every once in a while. It doesn’t work.

2) The lack of British accents does create one bizarre little phenomenon. When you hear the phrase “take them to the yard” said with a British accent, you know they mean Scotland Yard. When you hear it with an American accent, you think they’re being taken to the grassy area behind the house. I have visions of all the criminals in this serial handcuffed to a swingset.

3) One odd thing about this serial is that the title character is the grey-haired older man (Herbert Rawlinson), and the inventor of the death ray is the young, virile serial-hero type (Ralph “Dick Tracy” Byrd). This is a switch from the usual serial casting. Still, that doesn’t prevent Byrd from getting better billing than Rawlinson.

4) Actually, the grey-haired old men here do their share of the fighting, which is a bit of a novelty. On the down side, the fighting is pretty bad. I’m sure I see some examples of what I call “arm fighting”, in which characters fight each other not with their fists (someone might get hurt) but with the insides of their arms. This style is about as convincing as the movie’s British atmosphere.

5) During the opening credits, Joan Barclay has a surprisingly snooty expression on her face (though not in her performance). I wonder if this is another attempt to add to the British atmosphere. It doesn’t work.

6) Back when I covered PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE, I posed the question about the existence of a French dance where the male violently throws the female to the floor. This is the other place where I’ve seen that dance; chapter three of this serial features a dance in a French cafe where a man in in a striped shirt slaps around his female partner and repeatedly throws her to the floor, to the polite applause of the onlookers. In POTRM, this action took place in a wild dance hall and looked choreographed, so I didn’t find it very offensive. Here it looks unchoreographed and comes off as mean and sadistic, with the audience applause only making it seem that much uglier. Quite frankly, this was the most unpleasant scene I’ve ever seen in any serial, and I don’t recommend it. (And thanks to all who identified the dancing in question as “Apache Dancing”).

7) The Scorpion wears a black cloak, a black hat, a mask, and claw shaped glove. Why does he wear the latter when it obviously impedes his ability to use his hands efficiently? My only answer is that it must have been the trend; since three other people impersonate the Scorpion during the length of the serial, I can only come to the conclusion that the Scorpion costume must have been an easy commodity to come by, and it just wouldn’t have seemed complete without the claw.

8) If you pay attention to the opening credits, you’ll notice that five characters are listed. Four of them take active and prominent roles in fighting the Scorpion throughout the serial. The fifth is a secondary character who doesn’t really appear to be taking a major role in the proceedings. So why does he get a prominent credit? If you think about this for more than two minutes, you’ll figure out something that you’re not supposed to know until the final episode.

9) All right, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief long enough to believe that there is an elaborate network of underground passages that link the villains’ hideout with the basement of the home of Inspector Blake. I just want to know who decided that this secret network of underground passages needed to be furnished.

10) Actually, this is one of the weaker serials I’ve seen in some time. My worst problem with it is the editing; it’s so badly constructed that I have a difficult time figuring out what’s going on from one moment to the next. It’s not the worst offender I’ve seen in that regard, which is my way of saying that at least this serial is better than THE CLUTCHING HAND, if for no other reason that at least with this one, I have some vague idea of what is generally going on.

The Scarlet Clue (1945)

Article #1402 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-15-2005
Posting Date: 6-14-2005
Directed by Phil Rosen
Featuring Sidney Toler, Mantan Moreland, Virginia Brissac

Charlie Chan tries to discover the identity of a suspect he had been tailing. His main clue is a blood-soaked footprint.

While watching this one, I found myself wondering whether it had been really intended for the Charlie Chan series or not. For one thing, almost all of Chan’s dialogue is written in straightforward English, rather than the aphoristic style usually used by the character. Unfortunately, this dialogue is at odds with the stilted voice pattern Sidney Toler uses for the role; it makes him sound as if he can’t remember his lines. To compensate for this, the movie uses Mantan Moreland a lot, and even if too many of the gags involve him being scared, he’s still the best thing here. His best scene, though, is with actor/musician Ben Carter; they have an extended conversation where they repeatedly pick up cues from each others uncompleted sentences and understanding each other completely while leaving Benson Fong totally confused.

The fantastic content is slight; there’s a bit of science fiction involving plans for radar, and a slight horror element with the killer walking around at one point in a scary mask and costume. However, one of the most interesting touches is the presence of a character named Horace Karlos, a Shakespearian actor who now specializes in playing monsters. Given that his name rhymes with Boris Karloff, I think we’re seeing another tribute to that actor. You could probably do a whole night of movies which feature characters whose names are modeled after Karloff.

Santo vs. the King of Crime (1962)

Article #1401 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-14-2005
Posting Date: 6-13-2005
Directed by Federico Curiel
Featuring Santo, Fernando Casanova, Ana Berthe Lepe

Santo takes on a crime syndicate that is making money off of sporting events.

Now we move on from Santa to Santo. Unfortunately, we’re also moving on from English to unsubtitled Spanish, as that was the only copy I could find of this one. It’s a bit of a shame; like SANTO EN EL HOTEL DE MUERTE, there are some very interesting elements of the story. In particular, the opening sequence is about a young boy who gets into a fight with several other children, and then returns home and has a long talk with his father (in the presence of another man who I believe may be a butler), who reveals he has the mask of Santo hidden in his library. The next scene has a man (whose face we never see) talking with the butler above, and then donning the Santo mask, and making his way down to a secret lab underneath the library. I can’t help but wonder whether I’m watching the mythic origins of Santo or not.

This one seems quite well made, and has an interesting use of double exposure at one point in the proceedings. The fantastic elements are slight here; the villain is in no way supernatural that I can tell (unlike many of Santo’s foes), and there is really no horror atmosphere to speak of. It does have slight science fiction elements, though; the lab itself is one of them, and one of the gizmos on hand is combination wristwatch / walkie talkie of some sort.

There are two types of sporting events that take place in this film. One is wrestling (of course), and for fans of this, the wrestling scenes are quite good. The other has me puzzled. It looks like some variation of racquetball, only it involves teams, and the players wear these long hard curved appendages strapped to their hands (they look vaguely like tentacles) with which they must catch the balls and throw them. I have no idea what this sport is. Initially, I thought it might have been lacrosse, a sport which I’ve never seen in action. However, I have seen lacrosse rackets, and they don’t look anything like the appendages here, so I’m at a loss. This is one of the downsides of watching movies in other languages.

UPDATE: Thanks to Jolyon at the SciFilm board, I now know the name of the sport. It’s called pelota, and he described it as one of the most lethal sports on earth.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Article #1400 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-13-2005
Posting Date: 6-12-2005
Directed by Nicholas Webster
Featuring John Call, Leonard Hicks, Vincent Beck

Martians decide to kidnap Santa Claus in order to fight a wave of despondency amongst the Martian children.

Nothing is harder than to review a movie whose reputation precedes it, especially when the reputation is largely justified. It’s even harder when the movie has been adaquately covered elsewhere and you’re in the position of trying to find something new to say. Still, you’ve got to make the best of it, so here goes.

Is this the worst movie ever made? No, it isn’t; in fact, it’s not even the worst Christmas movie ever made. It is the one, however, which most blatantly calls attention to itself by dint of its title. Yet, I don’t have any real problem with the central concept; it’s jarring at first, but a movie about Santa Claus or Martians requires a suspension of disbelief anyway. If you buy one, it’s not too tough to buy the other.

I honestly like two touches in this film. The initial confusion of the Martians about the plethora of Santas on earth is clever and amusing, and giving the Martians a form of affectionate greeting (they touch foreheads) shows more creativity than you might expect.

Still, even if it isn’t the worst Christmas movie ever made, it’s not for lack of trying. Here are my choices for the ten worst things about this movie.

1) The Martian makeup isn’t fun. It’s ugly, greasy and too dark.

2) The musical soundtrack. Especially the blaring horns that try to punctuate certain scenes.

3) The incessant use of stock footage during the first half of the movie. This movie actually moves at a fairly decent pace, but the stock footage always grinds things to a complete halt.

4) The fight scenes. This movie may have the single worst fight scenes of any that I’ve seen. In particular, the fight scene between Voldar and Kimar in the spaceship is truly embarassing.

5) The polar bear costume. The less said about this, the better.

6) The performances of the child actors. Yes, Pia Zadora plays the little Martian girl, but she comes off better than either of the two kids who play the earth children. There are times where I can practically see the cue cards the boy is reading from.

7. The comic relief. Yes, it’s easy to target Dropo, but his comic relief character comes with the territory, and he does at least show the ability to fade in the background when he’s not supposed to be the center of attention. No, the worst offender here is the accomplice of Voldar’s that looks like Jamie Farr. His mugging is incessant even in scenes where he’s not supposed to be the focus of attention, an act which is known as upstaging. No wonder Voldar deals him some otherwise unprovoked blows to the head; he was probably getting on his nerves.

8. The scene where Santa turns Torg into a toy. I’m not sure how this scene was supposed to work, but I do know that it doesn’t.

9) The ski in the storage room. This prop seems so out of place in its environment that it calls an inordinate amount of attention to itself even before it is used by one character to disarm another.

10) And finally, Santa’s laugh. John Call actually doesn’t give a bad performance of Santa, but his laugh really needed work. It’s not jovial; it’s just plain creepy.

So, what is the worst Christmas movie ever? Believe me, friends, we don’t want to go there.

Inspirational Quote: “My finger isn’t tired.”

Road to Morocco (1942)

Article #1399 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-12-2005
Posting Date: 6-11-2005
Directed by David Butler
Featuring Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour

Plot: Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour appear in a road picture. Actually, that’s as good a plot description as any…

Believe it or not, I will be covering all the Road pictures as part of this series. Though this may be surprising, it’s not totally unexpected. If there’s anything innovative about these movies, I’d say it was that they took not taking themselves seriously to a new level. Consequently, anything could really happen, and some of what happens falls into the realm of the fantastic. In this movie, there are at least three fantastic elements; Bing and Bob are haunted by the ghost of their Aunt Lucy (Bob Hope in drag), a ring that grants three wishes appears at one point, and we have talking camels (but no appearance of Humpy, the Educated Camel).

I’m not a particular fan of either Hope or Crosby, but I find myself inordinately fond of the Road movies. They’re anarchic, but casual instead of frantic, and the humor never feels forced or strained. It makes no attempt whatsoever to convince you it’s really happening. Some of the exteriors in this movie are so obviously interiors that it would destroy any sense of reality, but since the movie never aspires to reality, you recognize it for what it is — part of the joke. I love the charm of the joke and admire the chutzpah used in putting it over.

The Great Impersonation (1935)

Article #1398 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-11-2005
Posting Date: 6-10-2005
Directed by Alan Crosland
Featuring Edmund Lowe, Valerie Hobson, Wera Engels

In 1914, a banished Baron decides to make a fortune by becoming an undercover agent for a munitions company intent on making a big profit from the coming war. He uses his uncanny resemblance to a British lord who he has betrayed and left for dead.

Whatever faults this movie has, predictability isn’t one of them. In fact, I’m not even quite sure what this movie is. It starts out as a jungle movie, turns into a movie about political intrigue, and then rapidly flirts with any number of genres, including soap opera, old dark house movie, ghost story and gothic romance. It all leads up to a twist that I feel I should have seen coming, but since I was never quite sure what this movie was, I was never sure where it would go. Still, there are some plot holes here that will manifest themselves without even thinking too hard. The movie is enhanced by an entertaining cast of familiar faces, but Dwight Frye is wasted (and uncredited) as a madman who is more talked about than seen. This is definitely one of the stranger movies to pop up in some time.

The Stepford Wives (1975)

Article #1397 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-10-2005
Posting Date: 6-9-2005
Directed by Bryan Forbes
Featuring Katharine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Peter Masterson

A woman moves to a new town with her husband and children, but feels out of place. Almost all the other women in town seem to be obsessed with homemaking and satisfying their husbands, and little else. She begins to suspect that there is something very wrong here.

Sometimes you have to give credit where credit is due; whatever its flaws, THE STEPFORD WIVES has filtered itself deeply in the public consciousness, and has become a part of our culture. Obviously, the movie touches a nerve or two, and all in all the movie is good enough to get by. Still, I’ve never quite warmed up to the movie. Part of the reason is that at almost two hours, I think it’s too long; certain scenes drag on forever, and others fail to cover any new ground. I also think it’s too narrow; despite the fact that it subtly hints that this may not be quite the paradise it seems for the men, ultimately it chooses to be little more than a woman’s nightmare.

I also never quite believe the movie. Personally, I find the town of Stepford as dull as dishwater, and not the paradise of my dreams. I also find it hard to believe that my sexual ego would really be bolstered by the compliments of a robot who I know had been programmed to say those things. Furthermore, the movie never develops the children as characters, but only as plot devices; wouldn’t a child be one of the first to know that mommy has changed? (For comparison, consider the opening scenes in the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS). And finally, I really find it hard to believe that the women have really been programmed by men; sure, they dress sexy, but not quite in the way that corresponds to any male fantasies I know of. At any rate, I don’t think all the men would have picked out those big white floppy hats that all the wives wear in the final scene. All in all, I think the movie falls short of what it could have been.

Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954)

Article #1396 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-9-2005
Posting Date: 6-8-2005
Directed by Roy Del Ruth
Featuring Karl Malden, Claude Dauphin, Patricia Medina

A student is the prime suspect in a series of brutal murders that take place in apartments in the Rue Morgue in Paris.

I didn’t go into this adaptation of the classic Poe story with high expectations; the title made me suspect that it was going to be one of those adaptations where the original story was going to be thrown out in its entirety. Actually, they use quite a bit of the original Poe story (though once again the character of Dupin has been highly compromised), and I feel they do a better job of working it into the story than the 1932 version with Bela Lugosi does. Despite certain similarities, I don’t see this as a remake of the earlier movie; if anything, I see it as an attempt to repeat the success of last year’s HOUSE OF WAX. Like that movie, this one is in color and was shot in 3D, and I’m willing to bet that the story was chosen because of its period Parisian setting, so they could borrow that as well (I guess they really wanted more Can-Can dancing). There’s a bit too much screaming in this one, but I like Karl Malden’s performance as Marais, and I always like to see Charles Gemora in action; apparently, the latter suffered a heart attack during the filming of this one and was replaced by a stunt double in certain scenes. This is also one of the bloodiest Hollywood movies I’ve seen up to this point of time; it even approaches the level that would be common in the Hammer films to come in a few years.

One question: Do the French really have this dance where the male partners violently throw their female partners to the floor? I’ve seen it pop up a couple of times already. Sometimes I wonder…

Return of the Frog (1938)

(a.k.a. NOBODY’S HOME)
Article #1395 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-8-2005
Posting Date: 6-7-2005
Directed by Maurice Elvey
Featuring Gordon Harker, Hartley Power, Rene Ray

Inspector Elk from Scotland Yard is called back from a fishing trip to investigate reports of further crimes being perpetrated by criminal known as the Frog.

When a title has the word “return” in it, you’re most likely watching a sequel of some other movie. That’s the case with this one; it’s a sequel to a 1936 movie called THE FROG, which wasn’t listed in the reference work where I came up with this title. I suspect that the earlier movie has no fantastic content, which wouldn’t surprise me, as the fantastic content in this one (science fiction content involving an early form of television, and very meager horror content with the concept of a criminal cult of sorts) is slight. On the plus side, this movie is well-acted, is full of amusing one-liners, and features Una O’Connor. On the minus side, the plot is confusing and it feels alternately rushed and dull. I get the feeling they were trying to shoehorn too much story into its 73 minute running time, and as a result, it feels cramped and doesn’t flow well. It’s based on a story by Edgar Wallace, and would be remade in the early sixties as THE INN ON THE RIVER.