Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Jason Chirevas ""

Friday, February 20, 2015

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Jason Chirevas

"Unfortunately, I have to say I didn't discover anything this year destined for my top 10 all-time but, in looking over the list, I think I've developed into someone who really appreciates a good second feature and the the pre-code era spans my picks across a few genres, so I think that's interesting too. Anyway, enjoy.
I'm always around on Twitter @JasonChirevas for discussion of this or any topic and, if you're into noir, boxing or, better yet, boxing noir, you might want to check this out.
There might be a sequel involving a girl wrestler, Mexico, money and knives coming later this year, but you didn't here that from me..."
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10. Christmas in Connecticut (1945, screenplay by Lionel Houser and Adele Comandini, directed by Peter Godfrey)
My Christmas movie viewing is pretty limited. A CHRISTMAS STORY, SCROOGED, THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL; you know how it goes. This year, I broadened my horizons a bit. For example, I watched “Christmas Bounty,” a 2013 TV movie with WWE’s Mike “The Miz” Mizanin on NetFlix.
What?
I also watched CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT for the first time and, though I don’t know if it’ll be an annual staple, it was good fun. Barbara Stanwyck plays a lifestyles columnist who, through sitcom-like contrivance, ends up having to host her boss (Sydney Greenstreet) and a war hero (Dennis Morgan) for a bucolic, postage stamp kind of Christmas. The catch? Stanwyck’s character is a complete fraud and everything she needs to host the holiday, from the house, to the food, to the baby, has to be supplied by the supporting cast, which includes the solid gold duo of Una O’Connor and Greenstreet’s fellow CASABLANCA refugee S.Z. Sakall.
I liked CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT, I didn’t love it, but one of the cool things about it is is was one of the movies on this list — there will be another — that introduced me to a lesser star I hadn’t been exposed to before, in this case Dennis Morgan. He’s sincere and winning here and I’ll be on the lookout for him going forward.

9. Wonder Bar (1934, screenplay by Earl Baldwin, directed by Lloyd Bacon)
One thing I really got into last year was Warner Bros. pre-codes, the musicals in particular. FOOTLIGHT PARADE is my favorite of these so far, and I suspect forever, but WONDER BAR comes in as an interesting, fun curio.
Al Jolson plays Al Wonder, the owner of, and performer at, Wonder Bar, Paris’s number one night spot. Patrons flock to Wonder Bar night after night to see the headlining dancing duo Harry and Inez (Ricardo Cortez and Delores Del Rio) perform along the band, which is under the happy direction of Tommy (my hero Dick Powell). Harry and Inez are a couple, of course, but things are rocky. Plus, Tommy loves Inez. So does Al. And Harry’s no cuckold. He’s in love with Liane (Kay Francis) and has plans of his own.
Elsewhere in the bar, two dopey, drunk businessmen (Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert) have come to the bar looking for a wonderful night, but their wives have eyes as wandering as theirs.
With a cast like that and everything happening on one fateful night, Wonder Bar is a lot of fun. It’s also got Busby Berkeley-powered production numbers and some snappy dialog.
But.
The big finale, “Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule,” is 13 minutes of grand Berkeley spectacle…with Jolson and many of the performers in blackface. Be warned if you haven’t had a lot of experience with that particular niche of early 20th century performance. Frankly, be warned if you have; although I’m usually pretty good at placing movies in the context of their time, I admit I was pretty uncomfortable by the time Goin’ to Heaven ended, though it did inspire me to look into Al Jolson a bit more and I learned he was an advocate for getting actual black people access to the mainstream stage.
Still though…
Circling back, Wonder Bar is a lot of pre-code fun and I do recommend it, but with that caveat.

8. Moontrap (1989, screenplay by Tex Ragsdale, directed by Robert Dyke)
If only for the opportunity it gave one of Star Trek’s second tier to play a leading role, MOONTRAP deserves a special place in sci-fi nerd canon. As it turns out, it’s also a pretty good little movie and a great testament to what can be done with next to no money.
Walter Koenig plays Jason Grant, an aging space shuttle pilot who, along with his younger co-pilot Ray Tanner (genre emblem Bruce Campbell), discovers an odd, derelict ship during a routine mission. Needless to say, you should never bring back anything you don’t recognize from space and, when Koenig and Campbell do, things go pear-shaped almost immediately as sentient, mechanized life builds itself out with an eye toward destruction and death. Grant and Tanner track the source of the problem to the moon, where, with Apollo-era equipment and cool, blocky rifles, they set about to see what’s what.
Moontrap worked for me for two reasons. First, the actors play it with such conviction I accepted the premise and, more importantly, the places the movie recreates. I totally bought the scenes that took place on the surface of the moon and, while some of the other effects are of both the era and the budget, the drama and characterizations around them hold the movie together.
MOONTRAP does a lot with a little, deserves its cult status and Koenig does well at the heart of it. Well done to him.

7. 42nd Street (1933, screenplay by Rian James and James Seymour, directed by Lloyd Bacon)
Not much to say here, actually. It’s known as the quintessential backstage musical, and I’d agree with that but, though I liked it, I thought 42ND STREET creaked just a bit, which wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t feel like FOOTLIGHT PARADE, released the same year, is as vibrant and smart as if it was made decades later. Having said that, you should see 42ND STREET if you haven’t; it’s solid and fun.
In a nutshell, director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) wants to stage one last big musical before a disease ushers him from this mortal coil. He’s got a great leading lady in Bebe Daniels, but she’s tangled up with romantic complications in the form of George Brent’s Pat Denning. Meanwhile, perhaps an even brighter star (Ruby Keeler) might be waiting in the wings under everyone’s nose. All except maybe young featured star Billy Lawlor (my hero Dick Powell again) who’s taken a shine to Keeler’s Peggy from the start.
42ND STREET features Busby Berkeley production numbers but, again, for me, not as awesome as those in FOOTLIGHT PARADE — or WONDER BAR, for that matter — so my recommendation is more to see this movie as a way to ground your Warner’s pre-code musical experience.
Two other things. First, let’s hear it for director Lloyd Bacon, who helmed all three Warner musicals I’ve mentioned within two years. Second, 42ND STREET features the wonderfully awesome Ned Sparks as one of the money men. Sparks, who brought sour vigor to everything he did, is the Allen Jenkins to my Warner Archive. Love him.

6. The Marksman (1953, screenplay by Daniel B. Ullman, directed by Lewis D. Collins)
Here we have the second of the lower-tier stars on the list I discovered and fell for this year, Wayne Morris.
After more than a decade of playing small parts and second leads, Morris, a bulky 6’2”, spent the first half of the 50’s as a sort of poor man’s John Wayne in B westerns for studios like Allied Artists. THE MARKSMAN is one these in which Morris plays deputy marshal Mike Martin, who is known for his dead-eye aim with a rifle, but doesn’t get any credit for having the smarts to engage in the more nuanced elements of frontier law enforcement. When the marshal is killed while on the trail of a group of rustlers, it’s up to deputy Martin to go undercover and try to crack the case. Along the way, he meets up with Jane Warren (Elena Verdugo), a novelist from back east who also happens to be the niece of the head rustler, Champ Wylie (Frank Ferguson).
At just 61 minutes, THE MARKSMAN is a fast, fun, solid B western that packs a good amount of story into a little time and wrings a lot of character from Morris’s affably lunkish persona. Definitely see it.

5. Tarzan, The Ape Man/Tarzan and His Mate (1932/1934, screenplay by Cyril Hume and Ivor Novello/James Kevin McGuiness, directed by W.S. Van Dyke/Cedric Gibbons and Jack Conway)
I’ve had the box set of the first six Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies on a stack of to-be-watched DVDs since it came out in 2005. I finally cracked it open this past year and watched the first two films, which were made with MGM gloss and muddy stock footage in nearly equal measure. You know the basic story, so I won’t bother with it here, but one thing worthy of note is the, frankly, brutal level of violence, particularly in the first film. These movies were made more than 80 years ago and I still sat there saying, “jeez,” with some of the things that happen to the poor porters.
Also noteworthy, of course, is the presence of pre-code leading man Neil Hamilton, later Commissioner Gordon to Adam West’s Batman, as Jane’s would-be lover. He’s starchy fun as the sometime ally, sometime antagonist to our heroes in both films.
Both of these movies are solid, you should see them, but neither blew me away as a four-star classic.
Jane swims naked in the second one though…

3. Torchy Blane in Chinatown (1939, screenplay by George Bricker, directed by William Beaudine)
As a newspaperman myself, I have real affinity for the Torchy Blane series of B programmers from Warner Bros. Glenda Farrell’s Torchy is the quintessential fast-talking, relentlessly inquisitive “girl reporter” and the obvious inspiration, along with Katherine Hepburn’s general screen persona, for Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Amy Archer in the Coen brothers’ THE HUDSUCKER PROXY.
Warners released nine quick, punchy Torchy Blane movies from 1936 to 1939 and this entry is meant to stand in for all of them, though …in Chinatown, in which Torchy investigates a series of Asian gang related murders, is one of my favorites as it also involves everything from extortion to a submarine to Patric Knowles.
The series featured a great supporting cast including Barton MacLane as Torchy’s cop fiance Steve McBride in seven of the nine films and Tom Kennedy, who gets to turn pro wrestler in the last one, as MacLane’s poetically dopey driver in all nine. Extra touches like Torchy’s mousey editor Maxie and the dull-witted desk sergeant at Steve’s precinct only add to the fun in this light, fast series of mystery-laced B’s. Seek them out; Warner Archive has them all available in one convenient set.

2. Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, screenplay by Harry Essex and Arthur Ross, directed by Jack Arnold)
Yep, I’d never seen it, though I’ve been through Universal’s DracuSteinMan series of the 30’s and 40’s about a million times. Not going to spend too much time here, except to say the underwater photography is great, Julia Adams is beautiful and the movie has teed me up to explore a lot more 50’s sci-fi and horror in the coming year.

1. The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932, screenplay by Irene Kuhn, Edgar Allan Woolf and John Willard, directed by Charles Brabin)
This movie is full of horrific racism and ethnic cross-casting; it’s basically the INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM of its time and, like that movie, it is loads of pulpy popcorn fun.
Based on the series of books by English novelist Sax Rohmer, the movie sees Commissioner Nayland Smith of the British Secret Service (Lewis Stone) and his group of operatives (including those played by Jean Hersholt and future Durango Kid Charles Starrett) trying to stop evil mastermind Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff) and his daughter (Myrna Loy) from getting their hands on the mask and sword of Genghis Khan — which are buried in the Gobi Desert — and using them and Fu Manchu’s dieselpunky machines to conquer the world.
How fun does that sound?
Just try not to pay much attention to the mostly nude Nubian slaves though, unlike the final number in WONDER BAR, at least they were played by actual black actors.
Wait, that may be worse. Anyway…
Non-Asian actors playing Asian characters, though it simply wouldn’t, couldn’t and shouldn’t be done now, was pretty common in the Hollywood of yesteryear. In fact, this wasn’t the only time Karloff did it; he later starred as detective Mr. Wong for a short series of Monogram B’s. Bela Lugosi played Wong for Monogram too in 1934’s THE MYSTERIOUS MR. WONG.
Then there was Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto; Warner Oland , Sidney Toler and Roland Winters as Charlie Chan…
Amazingly, this kind of casting lasted for decades. Peter Sellers played Charlie Chan parody Sidney Wang in 1976’s MURDER BY DEATH and later played Fu Manchu himself — and Nayland Smith — in a 1980 comic take on the characters called THE FIENDISH PLOT OF DR. FU MANCHU, his final film.
Anyway, put all that aside for the 68 minutes it takes to watch THE MASK OF FU MANCHU. Like I said above, you have to be able to contextualize if you’re going to delve into movie history and this one is wall-to-tomb wall classic boys adventure fun not to be missed by those who thrill to the exploits of Henry Jones, Jr. and The Rocketeer.


1 comment:

Laura said...

Really enjoyed this list!!

I especially recommend Dennis Morgan in THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU with Eleanor Parker and Dane Clark. Hopefully it will be out from the Warner Archive at some point; in the meantime it turns up from time to time on TCM.

Best wishes,
Laura