Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2015 - Spenser Hoyt ""

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Film Discoveries of 2015 - Spenser Hoyt

Spenser Hoyt was involved with some very cool stuff (The Grand Illusion Cinema, Scarecrow Video, Destroy All Movies!!!). His mom still thinks he’s cool and he still watches a lot of movies.
1. Weird Westerns
In the fifteens I watched a few really good creepy cowboy pictures from the thirties. Here are three of the best:
Smoking Guns (1934) Ken Maynard effectively ended his stint at Universal with this nightmare disguised as a western. Maynard was one of the first singing cowboys but sabotaged his career with too much temper and drink. Many regard Smoking Guns as one of his worst pictures but not me! You’ll have to suspend your disbelief more than once, treat the story’s twists as dream logic and just enjoy the ride.
Big Calibre (1935) Bob Steele stars as Bob O’Neill. Bob’s movie dad was killed by a crazy chemist whose weapon of choice is deadly gas bombs. Out looking to avenge his old man’s murder Bob ends up in a small town where the chemist (now disguised with big buck teeth and goofy glasses) is planning his next murder. Bob made a ton of B westerns. Big Calibre is the strangest and, therefore, best.
Mystery Ranch (1932) George O’Brien got his start in early John Ford films, starred in Murnau’s Sunrise and, with the advent of talkies, became a busy B movie cowboy in oaters like this. But the real reason to watch this slightly more typical western is the performance of Charles “Ming the Merciless” Middleton as a villainous piano playing rancher.

2. Wheeler and Woolsey
If you are like me you’ve watched the hell out of The Marx Brothers and still want more. Out of desperation I recently stuck my beak into the films of Wheeler and Woolsey. They don’t hit the high standards of other thirties comedy acts but still supply plenty of burlesque/vaudeville style laughs. Here’s three I watched this year:
Hold ‘Em Jail (1932) This is W&W’s football comedy. It is also their prison comedy. It was co-written by S.J. Perelman (and Walter DeLeon). There are no songs (yes!). The supporting cast features the great Edna May Oliver and the also great Edgar Kennedy.
Cracked Nuts (1931) Directed by the prolific (and underrated) Eddie Cline and co-written by Al Boasberg. The plot centers on a revolution in a Latin American country and the film ends with bombs being dropped on Woolsey by Ben Turpin. Boris Karloff and Edna May Oliver are in the film but don’t have enough to do. I think this is the first film appearance of a “Who's on First” type routine. In this case it is a variation about towns with confusing names.
Kentucky Kernels (1934) Almost great-- The screenplay is by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. Wheeler and Woolsey are bickering out of work magicians. Spanky McFarland makes his film debut as an orphan who likes to break glass. Margaret Dumont has a small role. The song is actually kind of funny (Woolsey sings to a donkey). isn’t great-- Badly aged southern racial humor and an underused cast spoil the fun.

3. Women on the Warpath
2015 was the year I realized one of my favorite film genres is the “Crusading Woman.” I’m not sure what the official term is, but I’m talking movies like Silkwood, Norma Rae and Erin Brokovich. It all came together for me while watching Marie: A True Story (1985) on New Year’s Eve. This one stars Sissy Spacek as a Tennessee parole board employee who uncovers the governor’s dirty deeds. It’s directed by Roger Donaldson who downplays most of the film’s more sensational elements. For example, Marie’s big confrontation with an angry Jeff Daniels is done over the phone and we only see her reaction to Daniels’ muffled dialogue. Also just as much suspense is generated by Marie’s challenges as a single parent as her work as a whistleblower. While not quite as good as her Crusading Women counterparts, I’d always admired Marie’s oversized VHS box and was glad I finally looked at what was inside.

4. Kids and Crime
I happened to catch a couple of “kid noirs” on cable this summer. The Window (1949) is a tight thriller based on a Cornell Woolrich story. Poor Bobby Driscoll witnesses a crime but nobody (except the criminals) believe him. I guess Howard Hughes hated this movie because he hated kids and held it back at RKO but when it was finally released it was a big hit. Its popularity may have led to Shadow on the Wall (1950) which isn’t a very good movie but it does feature a vengeful Ann Sothern and was offbeat enough to keep me watching.
5. Summer of ‘42 (1971)
This film was a sensation when first released but it is underrated these days. I assumed I’d seen it but I may have been thinking of the Mad Magazine parody or one of the many films it influenced. Everyone seems to know the story...teenage boy romances older woman...but don’t skip watching the film.
6. Wild Guitar (1962)
Why the hell have I never watched this movie? It’s Ray Dennis Steckler’s first opus and is a semi-fictional account of Arch Hall Jr.’s rise to fame. There’s guitars, motorcycles, beach dancing, ice skating, sleazy promoters, and Arch’s awesome pompadour. The Sadist is still my favorite Hall movie but this one is a blast from start to finish.
7. Middle of Nowhere (2012)
Ava DuVernay is now mostly known for directing 2014’s Selma but she has been around and working hard in Hollywood for quite a while. This is a restrained character study about a wife dealing with life while her husband is in prison. It’s basically the opposite of most prison dramas. The acting is nicely restrained plus the film’s big dramatic emotions are conveyed by subtle physical movements rather than shouting or swelling music. If more indie dramas were like Middle of Nowhere, the term wouldn’t have developed such a negative connotation.
8. The Tall Target (1951)
Like in Reign of Terror (1949) Anthony Mann uses a historical setting to stage a conspiracy thriller. This one is also a train mystery! I love train mysteries!! The plot deals with an assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln by somebody not named John Wilkes Booth so you know the plan isn’t a success but Mann still keeps the proceedings wound up tight.
9. Riff-Raff (1947)
Ted Tetzlaff is my 2015 pick for underrated director (he also directed The Window- see #4). Riff-Raff is primo Central American noir starring Pat O’Brien as an expatriate living in Panama who works as a private-eye/problem solving gringo. He is unaware that he is in possession of a valuable map that is of interest to the titular riff-raff. The picture starts with an amazing, almost 10 minute dialogue-free scene and the whole film is peppered with odd touches and unexpected details.

RUNNER UPS - glad I saw ‘em but didn’t love ‘em:
Amazing Mr. X (1948)

Mystery Street (1950)

The Last of Sheila (1973)

1 comment:

Jerry Entract said...

Some great and very unusual chiices here! Ken Maynard and Bob Steele - a quirky but nice choice. And 'THE WINDOW' and 'MYSTERY STREET' - you had some real treats this year....