Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - Will McKinley ""

Friday, January 17, 2014

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - Will McKinley

Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer, video and live event producer, and communications professional. He’s written for PBS and his byline has appeared more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager. Will writes about his adventures as an “Old Movie Weirdo” at his blog:

Director: Paul Leni

Laura La Plante stars as the heir to a dead lunatic’s fortune in this “old dark house” mystery, released by Universal in 1927. The first of three films based on the 1922 stage play by John Willard, Stuttgart-born Paul Leni’s American debut shows all the trademarks of German Expressionism,starting with a spooky shot of a spired castle that’s supposedly on the banks of New York’s Hudson River, and continuing through the dramatic use of lap dissolves and shadow.

Millionaire weirdo Cyrus West dies, with a twist; his will is to be locked in a safe for twenty years after his passing.Two decades later, executor Roger Crosby (Tully Marshall) shows up for the reading, followed by a collection of greedy relatives: smarmy Harry (Arthur Edmund Carew);handsome Charlie (Forrest Stanley); bespectacled Paul (Creighton Hale); spinster Aunt Susan (Flora Finch);flapper Cecily (Gertrude Astor); and beautiful Annabelle(LaPlante) – all under the watchful eye of the unfortunately named, Mrs. Danvers-esque maid Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox). Annabelle inherits the fortune, but there’s a condition: a doctor must prove her mentally fit, otherwise one of the other heirs gets the windfall. And so the efforts to drive Annabelle crazy begin.

Beautifully shot by Gilbert Warrenton, with stylishly creepy inter-titles by Walter Anthony, THE CAT AND THE CANARY deftly teeters between thriller and comedy.But the true joy of this film lies in Leni’s visual style (although LaPlante’s toothy smile is nice, too.)

THE CAT AND THE CANARY is available on DVD from Kino in a beautifully restored version from original nitrate prints, with a delightful score by Neil Brand. That edition is also available streaming on Amazon Instant, free with Prime membership.

Director: Ray Enright

The Pre-Code Era is generally considered to have ended in 1933. But, as classic film fans know, enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines didn’t begin until July of 1934, so a number of films released in the first half of that year snuck in before the killjoys threw a wet blanket on the fun.

One great example is Ray Enright’s I’VE GOT YOUR NUMBER, released by Warner Bros. on February 24, 1934. Terry (Pat O’Brien) and Johnny (Allen Jenkins) are a pair of outer borough New York buddies who make the mundane work of telephone repair look like the stuff of action adventure movies. They crack a faux fortunetelling ring run by “Madame Francis” (Glenda Farrell) and her sidekick Crystal (Louise Beavers), save a rich man (Henry O’Neill) from a downed power line before leaping from a burning building, and make time with various smart-talking damsels, particularly switchboard operator Marie Lawson (Joan Blondell). When Marie gets entangled in a grifting scheme led by smarmy goodfella Nicky (Gordon Westcott), Terry and Johnny save the day – using cutting edge, 1934 telephone technology!

I’VE GOT YOUR NUMBER is not a great film, but it’s certainly fun, with a parade of Warner Bros. contractees in memorable roles, and a last gasp of Pre-Code prurience, including the boys’ encounter with a couple of high priced hookers who want to “lengthen their cord.” O’Brien comes off as a bit of low rent Jimmy Cagney here, but he plays a loveable lout in a way that might have felt forced coming from the slicker, sexier Mr. Cagney.

I’VE GOT YOUR NUMBER is available on DVD from the Warner Archive Collection, on a double feature disc with Enright’s HAVANA WIDOWS (1933).

Director: William Cameron Menzies

Produced by Alexander Korda and written by H.G. Wells’(loosely based on his 1933 book The Shape of Things to Come), William Cameron Menzies’ THINGS TO COME sets out a bleak, but ultimately uplifting, future history of the world from 1940 through 2036.

THINGS TO COME opens in Everytown (an obviousstand-in for London) on Christmas Day in 1940, with a violent attack by an unnamed enemy, clearly implied to be Germany. War breaks out and John Cabal (Raymond Massey) shoots down an enemy bomber. As he cradles the dying pilot in his arms, Cabal laments the absurdity of war, exclaiming, “Why has it come to this? God, why do we have to murder each other?”

War rages for three decades, and Everytown lies in ruins. In 1966, Dr. Harding (Maurice Braddell) and his daughter Mary Gordon (Ann Todd) struggle to find a cure for a plague known as The Wandering Sickness, which hasdecimated society. In 1970, Cabal returns to Everytown as a representative of Wings Over the World, a United Nations-style group based in Basra, Iraq. He’s taken prisoner by a local warlord known as The Boss (Ralph Richardson) and forced, along with Richard Gordon (Derrick de Marney), to fix the rusting planes that haven’t worked for decades. Gordon flies to Basra in the repaired aircraft, alerts Wings Over the World to Cabal’s imprisonment, and a recue mission is launched. But instead of attacking with explosives, Cabal’s army drops Peace Gas bombs on Everytown. Cabal is saved, and The Boss dies by his own hand.

In 2036, Everytown has rebuilt and is now a modern underground city, and Cabal’s great grandson Oswald (again Raymond Massey) is now a scientist and a leader ofthe one-world governmentThe anti-technology opposition,lead by Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke), launches an uprising against a planned space mission to be piloted by Cabal’s daughter, Catherine (Pearl Argyle). The opposition fails, the mission proceeds, and Cabal insists that man must conquer "all the universe or nothing.” As the film closes, he (and an angelic choir) asks the audience, "Which shall it be?" 

I saw THINGS TO COME at Film Forum in New York City this past summer in a sparkling DCP transfer of the 96-minute version (the original cut was 110 minutes). While there were some snickers at the retro spacesuits andthe not-so-special effects, the audience seemed struck by how prescient the film was. Released by United Artists in the U.S. in 1936, Wells’ screenplay predicts the on-set of World War II, 21st century technology like holograms, theiPad and flat screen video monitors, and, arguably, the modern, “know-nothing” strain of the Republican Party.Some of the imagery is truly startling, including the attack on Everytown early in the film and the rebuilding of the city into a modern metropolis (with footage directed byBauhaus pioneer László Moholy-Nagy). The film is a delightful combination of science fiction and social commentary and more likely to please audience members who agree with sentiments like, “If we don’t end war, war will end us!”

THINGS TO COME is available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. Space helmet not included.

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