Sunday, August 28, 2016

Film Review: The Shadow (1940 Serial)

Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men? The Shadow knows!

"The Shadow"
*** (out of ****)

Us old-timers will remember these words, as they were spoken before each episode of the radio program, The Shadow, which debuted in 1937, and for a while was voiced by Orson Welles.

"The Shadow" (1940) is a 15 chapter movie serial starring Victor Jory as the notorious crime fighter and mild mannered criminologist Lamont Cranston. It was the first movie serial devoted to the character after two feature length "B" movies had been made (which is essentially what this movie serial is as well).

For my money this movie serial is one of the definitive screen adaptions of the character despite not featuring many character traits established in the radio show and magazine stories, some of which were included in a 1994 movie starring Alec Baldwin, which is worth watching as well.

In this adventure the Shadow is pitted against a master criminal mind called the Black Tiger (the opening credits do not list the actor portraying the character) he is the head of an organization which aims to gain supreme financial power by threatening all major industrial leaders in an unnamed city. The industrial leaders, along with the police, rely on Lamont Cranston to help them bring down the organization and discover the identity of the Black Tiger, who only appears as a beam of light to the men that work for him. This is a switch for the Shadow as fans will recall it was the Shadow that had the ability to make himself invisible by being able to "cloud men's minds". That ability is not mentioned in this serial.

The first chapter in the serial, The Doomed City, is unlike other serials in that it does not provide the viewer with an origin story regarding the Shadow. Why does Cranston feel the urge to become this character? Instead we are thrown into the thrust of the story with the two forces (the Shadow and the Black Tiger) already battling each other.

"The Shadow", directed by James W. Horne, best known for working with Buster Keaton and Laurel & Hardy, tells its story in a rather straight forward way, not going in for the usual overly dramatic tone sometimes used in serials, although that isn't always the case, especially near the end of certain chapters when the actors ham it up before the ending cliffhanger. Still, "The Shadow" presents its ideas in a matter-of-fact way. Some have suggested because of Mr. Horne's background in comedy, the movie serials he directed ("The Green Archer" (1940) and "Flying G-Men" (1939) among others) were often satirical in nature. That is not my opinion of "The Shadow".

I also wouldn't describe the performance given by Victor Jory as satirical either. It too is done in a matter-of-fact way. I see no difference in Jory's interpretation of the Shadow then in any other actor playing any other crime fighter in any other serial. The only actors giving hammy performances are those of the henchmen that work for the Black Tiger. One scene has a henchmen ask another one to tell him the story of Little Red Ridding Hood, a story he likes very much!

There are also plot flaws in this serial. Two most prominently stand out. One is the lack of exciting cliffhangers. On more than one occasion the Shadow is placed in the middle of an explosion and we are told faces certain death. Yet the result and eventually survival (one didn't think the Shadow would die, did you?) of the character is always the same. This completely eliminates any suspense and wonderment regarding how will the character escape. The writers should have thought up new scenarios.

The second flaw is a lack of understanding the Black Tiger's ultimate goal. What is the end game? Yes, we are told he wants to gain financial power but what exactly does that mean? In several chapters the Black Tiger sets a plan in motion either to destroy one industry (aviation, railroads) or kidnaps the owner of said industry, but a ransom is never asked for. The Black Tiger doesn't seem interested in taking over the industry himself (or herself). So, what is the point? Is the character simply playing mind games? Is the chief objective to cause chaos and uncertainty? If so, how does that provide the Black Tiger with financial power?

One also has to wonder about the social significance of "The Shadow" in 1940s America. War was going on in Europe but the Black Tiger doesn't have a political agenda to be tied to Fascist regimes which were in power during the time. Contrast "The Shadow" to "Batman" (1943), which was a piece of American propaganda during the war. Batman (whom it has been suggested was inspired by the Shadow) fights a Japanese spy. "The Shadow" does however make use of emerging technology of the times, featuring computers and radar guns and mentions television (which had been in the works for decades but not made available to the public in 1940). I suppose America was just always in need for a hero, but, how strange our sympathies should be aligned with corporate entities and protecting their interest, which may be an interesting point in itself.

In the end however "The Shadow" works in keeping us guessing who exactly is the Black Tiger. There is also the possibility the identity of the Shadow will be revealed, as two characters do discover Cranston is the Shadow, but, can Cranston stop them in time before revealing this? At its best "The Shadow" is a well told mystery story. What sets it apart from the 1994 film is this serial is actually a bit more serious. The 1994 film, which naturally has better effects, sometimes better acting, an origin story and nostalgia for a bygone era, throws in a lot of comic relief, not giving the character the Shadow its proper due and illustrating its significance in crime fighter / superhero genre.

If you do not know anything about the character the Shadow, I am not sure this movie serial is the place to start. You should probably listen to the radio program or read some of the magazines. Of course I realize no one reading this will dare listen to a radio drama so I guess I suggest watching the 1994 film first and then watch this serial, so you'll have some understanding who the character is and his origins.

"The Shadow" is a good movie serial, but not one of the great ones and for that matter not one of the most popular. My favorite serial may be "Buck Rogers" (1939), a definite candidate for one of the most popular movie serials of all-time. If you enjoy "The Shadow" though you may also want to watch "The Green Hornet" (1940), "Batman" and "Superman" (1948).

Friday, August 26, 2016

Film Review: Hands Across The Table

"Hands Across The Table"  *** (out of ****)

It's the age old question, for love or money, which should a girl marry for? It is asked and answered in the Carole Lombard / Fred MacMurray romantic-comedy "Hands Across The Table" (1935) directed by Mitchell Leisen.

Ms. Lombard stars as a struggling working class woman, Regi Allen, a manicurist at a swanky New York hotel. Regi has made up her mind. She has no time for love. What will love get you? Can it pay the rent? Buy groceries? Make life easy? Absolutely not. But money can! And that's what Regi is out for, lots of money. She wants to find a rich man and marry him so she'll be able to live a life of comfort. Regi hopes through her job she will find a wealthy, single man staying at the hotel. She'll give the man a manicure, he'll find her attractive, ask her out and bang, a marriage proposal.

The Gods start to smile at Regi when not one but two wealthy men enter her life; Allen Macklyn (Ralph Bellamy), a former pilot, who after an accident is wheel-chair bound and Theodore Drew III (Fred MacMurray), the somewhat eccentric heir to the Drew family fortune. Regi believes Drew is just the man she has been waiting for. Finally a young, wealthy bachelor has fallen into her lap. Things are not what they seem and sadly Regi discovers Drew's family went bankrupt in the stock market crash of 1929. In fact, not only is Drew poor but, like Regi, he too plans to marry for money and is engaged to a very wealthy woman, Vivian Snowden (Astrid Allwyn). The Gods weren't smiling, they were laughing at Regi.

Through a contrived plot twist, Drew ends up missing a train meant to take him on a vacation, as a wedding present from his soon-to-be father-in-law. Drew, who was out the night before with Regi, can't reveal to Vivian why he missed his train and so naturally must stay with Regi and pretend he is on vacation and return to Vivian a week later.

Can Regi and Drew spend a week together and not fall in love? Will Regi marry Allen for his money or will Regi discover there is more to life than money?

"Hands Across The Table" is really a by-the number, formulaic romantic-comedy. Within the first 10 minutes of the movie most people should be able to tell where the movie will go. So, if the movie is so predictable why recommend it? What could the movie possibly have going for it? Well, when you have a movie that is predictable only one thing can make it worthwhile, star power. If you have two likable characters played by two equally likable actors, that have chemistry between them, the audience will watch the movie. It just so happens Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray are two likable actors and are fun to watch on-screen together. That is why you should see "Hands Across The Table".

It is not difficult to understand why depression era audiences liked the movie either. A young working woman can marry a rich man and have her dreams come true. Prosperity is just around the corner. Audiences could relate because they wished for the same thing. People were hurting during the Great Depression and movies were an escape from reality. In movies people could become rich over-night. Your luck could change. And don't kid yourself, audiences still want to watch the same stories today and Hollywood keeps giving them to us.

And "Hands Across The Table" was a hit with audiences. The movie was the first time Ms. Lombard and Mr. MacMurray co-starred together and due to this movie's success they would co-star in three more movies; "The Princess Comes Across" (1936), "True Confession" (1937) and "Swing High, Swing Low" (1937), further cementing each other's status as leading stars. For Ms. Lombard her turning point came a year earlier in the Howard Hawks' comedy "Twentieth Century" (1934) and hit her stride in "My Man Godfrey" (1936) a movie that co-starred her ex-husband, William Powell, and won her an Academy Award nomination. Mr. MacMurray had only been acting for a year prior to this movie, though he did co-star with Katherine Hepburn in "Alice Adams" (1935).

Despite the fine actors, likable characters and at times funny dialogue, "Hands Across The Table" still manages to do a few things wrong which prevents the movie from being better. The movie lacks conflict. In another movie, the more conventional set-up would be to have both Drew and Allen fall in love with Regi, with Regi having feelings for both men forced to chose between them. That is not the case in this movie.

It may not be nice to say or politically correct (or whatever other term liberals prefer) the Allen character is never a serious contender for Regi's affection because he is handicapped. By having the character wheel-chair bound they have emasculated him. Regi, at no point in the movie, shows a romantic interest in Allen. She sees him as nothing more than a friend. Yes Allen is rich and he seems to like Regi and she laughs in his company, but, at no point in the movie does Regi consider marrying him for his money. Although an explanation is never given, we can only assume it is because Allen is handicap. Therefore, the only man realistically capable of winning Regi's affection is Drew. The absence of a romantic competitor, while admittedly cliche, removes an element of conflict from the plot which would help reinforce the movie's central theme.

The movie also engages in gender stereotypes suggesting men are incompetent and can't even iron their own clothes, cook and need to be tucked into bed. Women are shown to be nurturing, mother types, willing to tuck men into bed and tend to their wounds. And it suggest we are all suckers for love and hopeless romantics at heart.

A story about two people not interested in love, only in marrying for money, can be the stuff of great comedy. In the right hands you can have a movie like Ernst Lubitsch's "Trouble in Paradise" (1932), a pre-code gem. Unfortunately "Hands Across The Table" doesn't take that route. It lacks a bit of bite.

But we must come back to the two lead actors. Whatever may be wrong with the movie we simply enjoy watching Ms. Lombard and Mr. MacMurray. The audience wants them to get together because we believe they are perfect for each other.

Of course a better director could have helped things as well. Mitchell Leisen had his name attached to some entertaining movies; "The Lady Is Willing" (1942), also with Mr. MacMurray, "Midnight" (1939), written by Billy Wilder, and "Easy Living" (1937), one of Preston Sturges' earliest screenplays. Mr. Leisen however was not much more than a good studio director in my opinion. He really didn't have a distinctive style, unlike Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges. The movies Mr. Leisen directed were only as good as their screenplays.

"Hands Across The Table" may not do anything original but it is a good example of depression era Hollywood escapism. The movie succeeds on star power, with Ms. Lombard coming out a bit ahead. She always had great screen presence and here we can see the makings of a star.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Third Coast Review: New on Blu-ray Review - The Spiders

Third Coast Review published my review of Fritz Lang's epic action / adventure The Spiders, which will be released on blu-ray tomorrow, Tuesday, August 23. Here is the link to the review:

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Film Review: The Spiders

"The Spiders"
**** (out of ****)

You hear a movie is called "The Spiders" and you may think it is a monster movie with human size spiders attacking people because of some scientific experiment gone wrong. But that is not what Fritz Lang's "The Spiders" (1919) is about. The Spiders is the name of an underground criminal organization.

"The Spiders", which was once believed to be a "lost film", is in many ways the precursor for the action / adventure genre we know today. Considering this German silent film was made in 1919 it is not difficult to see how amazingly influential it has been throughout the history of cinema.

Originally intended to be a four-part movie serial (only two were filmed) the first part, called "The Golden Sea", follows a young, wealthy yacht racing champion, Kay Hoog (Carl de Vogt) who finds a bottle with a message inside it, from a Harvard professor. While in Peru, the professor has found a lost Inca civilization and their hidden treasure. Fearful he will be captured and offered as a human sacrifice, to please the Gods, the professor writes his whereabouts on a map and ask whoever finds his message, inform Harvard of his findings.

Kay is immediately intrigued by this scenario, decides he must go to Peru and find the treasure. He tells his story however at a dinner party where the beautiful (and do I need to mention dangerous) Lio Sha (Ressel Orla) is also in attendance. It is clear from her facial expressions Lio would also like to find the treasure. It is quickly revealed Lio is the leader of "The Spiders" and she and her right hand man, Dr. Telphas (Georg John) will go to Peru in an attempt to beat Kay to the treasure.

 Danger follows Kay wherever he goes; The Spiders break into his home and steal his map, he is chased by a gang and shot it and finds himself in a hidden cave, surrounded by his would-be killers. Without Kay would we have Indiana Jones or Batman? The amateur turned detective or the rich playboy who seeks adventure and still finds time for romance, when saving a lady from a giant python.

We even get the cliche romance of two people, from different worlds, taught to see one another as enemies, who find love. It is a story as old as "Romeo & Juliet" and the basis for so many movie romances, many of which "The Spiders" beat to the punch.

Although movie serials had existed before the release of "The Spiders", we can also see the influence this would have on the once popular form of entertainment, creating cliffhanger after cliffhanger for our hero. "The Spiders" could have been broken down into more than two-parts, which run more than an hour long.


Then there are the massive sets created for the movie, which may not recall Mr. Lang's own films, but instead one of his American contemporary's films, Cecil B. DeMille, with larger than life sets and women in revealing clothing.

The second adventure in the series, called "The Diamond Ship", serves as the basis of every "revenge" movie you have seen, with our hero, Kay attempting to dismantle the Spiders organization and kill Lio. Both Kay and Lio are searching for a special diamond that will allow the holder to rule Asia.

Between the two stories, "The Golden Sea" works slightly better in the way it introduces us to this world and these characters. We are struck with wide-eyed fascination learning about The Spiders and the interaction between Kay and Lio. There is also more for us to root for.

Still, because of the running time, both movies are compact with action and espionage (in fact Mr. Lang would direct a movie called "Spies" (1928), which did much for secret agent movies) so the viewer is never bored. In one sequence in "The Diamond Ship" Kay discovers an underground city, underneath the Chinatown district, and faces the fear of being exposed by someone from The Spiders.

"The Golden Sea" was Mr. Lang's third movie however his first two films are considered lost. These may be the best examples of Mr. Lang's earliest work for audiences to watch in order to see Mr. Lang's emerging style.

Mr. Lang would go on to make some highly influential silent films in Germany; "Metropolis" (1927), "Woman in the Moon" (1929), and "M" (1931) before coming to America, where his style shifted to more psychological film noir. Some of these movies are considered classics today but Mr. Lang never found great success in America as he did in Germany. Because of this, unfortunately, a great many of his films are ignored by movie fans, thus Mr. Lang's name does not live on as strongly as it should have.

"The Spiders" is an excellent example of Mr. Lang's gifts as a visual storyteller. It is one of the highlights of his career. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Third Coast Review: Noir City Film Festival in Chicago

The Music Box Theatre and the Film Noir Foundation will bring to 8th annual Noir City Film Festival to Chicago, starting August 19th.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Film Review: Roseanne For President

"Roseanne For President"
*** (out of ****)

As we are in the midst of a president election year, in which one of the two major political parties has nominated a candidate considered a reality television star, here is a documentary about another celebrity's bid for the presidency.

"Roseanne For President" (2016) follows the famous comedienne Roseanne Barr as she seeks the nomination of the Green Party as their 2012 nominee.

As the revealing documentary begins we hear Ms. Barr give a campaign speech. There are two lines she says which are so striking given the campaign cycle of this election. Ms. Barr declares "I'm not running as a publicity stunt" and " to chose the lesser of two evils is no choice at all". What makes these statements standout is the Republican candidate for president, Donald Trump, began a political campaign widely viewed by the media, and perhaps some in the public, as a publicity stunt. A campaign that was only about him and his ego. The second statement reflects the public, the country's mood about the two major party candidates; Hillary Clinton and Mr. Trump. The majority of voters say they do not like either candidate. Ms. Barr's statement would surely resonate with the public today.

Which leads one to wonder, why was "Roseanne For President" released at this point in time, during a presidential election? Why not release it after the 2012 election? Is the populist appeal for this documentary meant to resonate with voters today? Is "Roseanne For President" meant to give attention to third party candidacies? Perhaps it will shine a light on the Green Party.

It may come as a spoiler to those that don't pay attention to politics but, Ms. Barr did not receive the Green Party's nomination, Dr. Jill Stein did. While the fight for the nomination was seen as nothing more than a novelty in the eyes of the media, for Ms. Barr it was a serious fight. She says repeatedly during the documentary that she cares about the working class people. She also goes on about her celebrity and the success for her show and how with her as the Green Party nominee she was help the party expand, due to her name recognition. As it becomes apparent Dr. Stein will win (she is also this year's Green Party nominee, who hopes the disenfranchised Bernie Sanders voters will join her campaign) Ms. Barr is shocked. How could a woman no one has even heard of (Dr. Stein) be beating Ms. Barr, a famous person!

You may be skeptical but "Roseanne For President" is actually a clever, insightful and humorous look at American politics and our political system. This documentary seems to have foreshadowed where we are today. Though Ms. Barr does not share the views of Mr. Trump, what does it say about Ms. Barr that she felt just because she is a celebrity she deserved the nomination. Does that not sound like Donald Trump? Ms. Barr feels she was the victim of a rigged system. A system filled with out of touch delegates. Ms. Barr even goes as far as saying she will not vote for Dr. Stein.

Who knew Green Party politics could be so nasty!

"Roseanne For President" is also a look into the life of Ms. Barr, showing clips of her early stand-up comic years and clips of her television sitcom. In fact the documentary suggest Ms. Barr's sitcom was ahead of its time. dealing with the working class, race relations and homosexuality, at a time when television shows and network executives considered it risky material. These may account for some of the best moments in the documentary.

The documentary juxtaposes clips from Roseanne's television show with her campaign. In one scene we see all the awards she has won as she is home, making her bed. The message. Ms. Barr is a regular gal, like you and me. And that becomes the ultimate message of the movie. People feel left behind in our political system. There are issues people care about that are not being addressed by our establishment politicians. It is everyday citizens that should run for office. We are the ones that know what is it like to make a living surviving paycheck to paycheck.

How serious was Ms. Barr's candidacy? Who knows. She didn't seem to have much of a platform. But we do learn something about Ms. Barr and politics watching "Roseanne For President" and for that it is worth seeing

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Big Picture: You Said A Mouthful Review

My review of "You Said A Mouthful" (1932) starring Joe E. Brown was published by the on-line film magazine The Big Picture, as part of their Lost Classic series.

Third Coast Review: Silent Summer Film Festival

Third Coast Review published my article on the 16th annual Silent Summer Film Festival in Chicago, hosted by the Silent Film Society of Chicago. Here is a link to the story: