THE ANGEL AND THE BADMAN (1947)
The first film John Wayne produced himself and a surprisingly sensitive, romantic character study. He’s a very tough frontier survivor. At the beginning, he shows up wounded, having survived and ordeal that would have killed a lesser man. Tough but coarse. But now, the west is becoming more civilized with the arrival of farming homesteaders. The daughter of a settler family (Gail Russell) takes him in and nurses him back to health. As he falls in love with her, and comes under her influence, he becomes more refined, learns to be more kindly and socially responsible. Confounding the expectations of the Marshall, played by Wayne’s real-life mentor, Harry Carey.
THE BALCONY (1963)
In a very special brothel known as “The Balcony,” the customers live out their wildest dreams, oblivious to a revolution that is going on outside. Directed by the award-winning Joseph Strick and based on acclaimed French avant-garde dramatist Jean Genet’s play, this star-packed film features Shelley Winters as the brothel’s madam and Peter Falk as her police-chief lover, who enlists her help in halting the revolution.
A young Leonard Nimoy heads the rebels, and Lee Grant is the madam’s executive assistant who longs to return to her former role as just “one of the girls.”
John Carradine excels as the serial strangler of women in old Paris. In this 19th century period piece he plays a sinister puppeteer who operates a diabolical marionette opera. Jeanne Parker is the lady he’s stalking; Nils Asther is the detective who is stalking him. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, who was a genuine German Expressionist, and it shows in this deeply lit and intensely styled low-budget film.
Ulmer was a production designer who worked with Murnau before he came to Hollywood. All his work shows superbly sinister, threatening design and lighting. This film is all atmosphere and suggestion, hardly any violence is shown. When Bluebeard strangles his victims, we see a tight closeup of Carradine’s eyes bulging maniacally! You couldn’t ask for a better homicidal maniac.
COBRA WOMAN (1944)
Here is a South Seas adventure-romance starring Maria Montez twice, as the good sister and the bad sister. Swimming champ Jon Hall rescues good Maria from her evil-queen alter ego on a mysterious tropical island where the cobra is worshipped as a god. Sacrifice victims march into the volcano when “Fire mountain is angry,” and temple worship is composed of Hollywood production numbers. The hero’s sidekick is spunky little Sabu. Lon Chaney, Jr. stalks about as a mute brute with a frozen face and a mysterious mission. Clothing, props and sets borrow from every Asian design style you can imagine. Campy fun for everyone! Montez recalls she had trouble keeping a straight face while dancing before the cobra puppet.
THE DRUM (1938)
Sabu plays a major supporting role with vigor, but Raymond Massey chews up the set as the villain. A timely tale of a plot to wage jihad co-ordinated throughout Asia to overthrow the colonialist infidel. In the tribal areas alongside Afghanistan, where the Great Game is still being played. We’re in the 1930s (“now” to the producer) and the issue at hand is machine guns being smuggled in for the jihadi rebels.
Massey’s a warlord in league with a fanatical mullah, he’s murdered his brother to seize the throne of a British Protectorate and the true heir is 12-year-old Sabu.
An epic tale on a sprawling scale, better than Gunga Din. With Roger Livesy and Valerie Hobson, dir. Zoltan Korda.
FLASH GORDON (1936)
Jump on Dr. Zarkov’s rocket and we’re off to Mongo, the planet of adventure, to battle Ming The Merciless! Meet winged hawkmen and visit their floating sky city. Become a slave shoveling radium into the atom furnaces. Enjoy invisibility, swordplay and ray guns. Rescue Dale from a dire fate! See dinosaurs and monsters, classic heroism and villainy, plus laughably crude special effects. With wonderful music, costumes and props, lots of thrills and action, a silly script, and bad acting. This is the feature cut of the king of serials!
JOE MACBETH (1955)
It took lots of nerve to turn Shakespeare’s Macbeth into a gangster story, and this movie almost succeeds. It’s a bad idea, with a terrible script and second-rate stars struggling to give it their best. But beautiful noir cinematography sort of holds it together. Thick-featured Paul Douglas plays gangster Joe MacBeth, fading B-cutie Ruth Roman talks him into whacking the boss.
But now Joe begins to lose his nerve and thinks everyone is out to get him. He kills his best pal Banky, whose ghost shows up at a banquet later that night. At this, Joe dispenses with Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, shouting “What is this? A gag?” Later, she sits up in bed, screaming “Joe! There’s blood on my hands!” Filmed in England, with a British supporting cast.
THE LOST WORLD (silent, 1926)
This rarely-seen treasure will be run at true silent speed for correct movement! The first film to match stop-motion (tabletop miniature) animation with live action, the public was amazed to see dinosaurs come to life. Wallace Beery is half-mad Professor Challenger, leading an expedition to a Jurassic plateau in Brazil. Based on Conan Doyle’s thrilling story, with special effects by Willis O’Brien. We’ll also see Creation, O’Brien’s test reel for his next feature, King Kong!
LUCKY DEVILS (1933)
Stars William Boyd (later typecast as Hoppy) as the leader of a group of stuntmen. He always tells his men not to fall in love because this will distract their concentration on the job and get them killed. But he doesn’t take his own advice and falls for a woman he saves from suicide. Her visit to a shoot distracts him and a stunt goes horribly wrong. He’s fired, but then his wife needs $100 to get into a hospital, so he volunteers for a stunt so dangerous the others refuse to do it. A fast-moving melodrama that will hold your attention.
Handsome Bill, just 38 but already grey-haired, is very energetic in his role, and the supporting cast is just as impressive. Bruce Cabot and Lon Chaney, Jr. (still using his real name Creighton) are stuntmen, and stuttering fool Roscoe Ates provides comic relief as a stuntman wannabe. The stunt scenes are all very well done and show the production methods in use in a 1930s studio. Directed by Ralph Ince.
M (MURDER) (1931)
With Peter Lorre as the whistling mass murderer of little girls, a character informed by the actor’s previous experience as a student of Freud. His crimes have brought down the heat, and so the underworld is now hunting him in addition to the authorities. Brilliantly directed by German cinema pioneer Fritz Lang, his first sound film and Lorre’s first major role.
MARS ATTACKS THE WORLD (1939)
Also known as Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars. Ming The Merciless has come to Mars and cut a deal with Queen Azura. He’s destroying our atmosphere with the Nitron Lamp, only Flash, Dale and Dr. Zarkov can save us. Meet the Clay Men who come out of the cave walls, are they friend or foe? Cross a chasm on a bridge made of light! Fly a chunky, art-deco Strato-Sled! Learn the secret of the mystic gems, the Black and White Sapphires. Endure the torment of Ming’s deadly Disintegration Chamber! With lots of thrills and action, a silly script, bad acting and crude special effects.
MASTER OF THE WORLD (1961)
A good cast, a good story, excellent design in sets, props and costumes, a solid script and good special effects! Not quite what you expect from a Roger Corman film starring Vincent Price, but this thrilling movie, based on a Jules Verne tale, really delivers the goods.
Usually a ham, Price gives a credible and restrained performance as Robur, the pacifist madman who seeks to end all war by threatening aerial bombardment in the mid-19th Century. Charles Bronson, so young he’s almost cute, is the US agent onboard the amazing airship Albatross. The model, designed by Jim Danforth , is a lovely confection. Its interior design is Victorian eye candy and the crew are togged out in jolly striped uniforms. With Henry Hull, Mary Webster and Philip Evan.
METROPOLIS (Silent, 1927)
Fritz Lang’s ground-breaking 1927 science-fiction masterpiece, inspired by his visit to New York and vision of our skyline. The great city, with skycrapers pierced by highways and topped by landing pads! The horrid underground levels where the workers dwell and toil! Cinema’s first robot, created by a mad scientist! Class war between the workers and the thinkers! One of the greatest silent films, it is wonderfully designed and still exciting.
MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932)
Here’s exciting pulp fiction, shot on the familiar Kong Island set, with the same King Kong director, Ernest Schoedsack, and some of the same stars. Robert Armstrong, Fay Wray and Joel McCrae are pursued through the jungle by Leslie Banks. A cabin cruiser is shipwrecked off the coast of a remote island and the three passengers survive. The island is owned by Mad Count Zaroff, who invites them to stay. But he’s a psycho sadist who enjoys hunting, and he only hunts The Most Dangerous Game — Man!
Leslie Banks hams it up in a very archaic stage-actor’s style, the sort of mugging that was later adopted by Vincent Price in his villainous roles. A very early sound movie, where the actors must stay close to the hidden mics and shout. But action scenes, lacking dialog, are nice and fluid, like the best of late silent cinema. Here is the transition from silent to sound usage. The pre-code Freudian subtext is nice, too, as Zaroff shows the link between passion and murder. Based on Richard Connell’s classic short story.
Early in the War of 1812, Mark Stevens is an American sea captain, commissioned to run the British blockade and fetch an unofficial war loan in gold bars from France. His first mate, Patric Knowles, is a dishonored former British Navy captain. The gun crew, headed by Gene Evans with a hook hand and rowdy Rhys Williams, plot a mutiny to seize the gold. The plot thickens when a femme most fatale, the very young and lovely Angela Lansbury, comes on board. She’s after the gold, too, and doesn’t care who she betrays or kills in order to get it. The climax involves a primitive wooden submersible, a very unreliable kind of early submarine. Edward Dmytryk directs this salty and exciting tale.
OPEN CITY (1945)
Photographed on scraps of film abandoned by German forces as they retreated from Rome toward the end of World War II, Roberto Rossellini’s OPEN CITY was immediately hailed as a masterpiece of realism when it hit screens around the world in the late 1940s. Seen within the context of its time and with reference to the circumstances under which it was made, OPEN CITY is a staggering accomplishment. The great strength of the film is in the direct way Rossellini tells his story of Italian resistance fighters trying to dodge capture by the Nazis in occupied Rome–and in the performances of Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi as two Italians who become increasingly caught up in resistance activities.
PAIN IN THE ASS (L’EMMERDEUR) (1973)
A French comedy with Jaques Brel as a brokenhearted dimwit planning suicide because his wife has dumped him. He checks into a hotel to hang himself and makes a noisy botch of it, disturbing Lino Ventura in the next room. He’s a hitman with a sniper rifle, planning a shot from his hotel window, and he does not want to attract attention. Excellent humor proceeds from this setup, as Brel’s character is completely clueless and Ventura’s character struggles to control his rage. Directed with fine pacing by Edouard Molinaro.
THE PHANTOM CREEPS (1939)
The Phantom Creeps serves up a turkey club with lots of ham and cheez—yum! Bela Lugosi is Doctor Zorka, who plans to rule the world or something. It’s never quite clear what he wants, but who cares when you have an invisiblity belt and a silly-looking robot. A feature mercifully condensed from a rather padded, meandering serial, it plays well and includes all the best bits. The scuttling robot spider carrying a capsule of sleeping gas defies explanation!
PHANTOM EMPIRE (1935)
Singing cowboy Gene Autry became a star with his first appearance in Radio Ranch, a wonderfully silly serial. This feature cut, titled Phantom Empire, is a mix of western action, bad music and science-fiction! Miles beneath Gene’s ranch lies the super-scientific city of Murania, ruled by blonde Queen Tika. Mystery horsemen in Hungarian cavalry capes come up a five-mile elevator to invade. Gene chases them down to their realm and has to deal with clumsy robots, death rays and revolutionaries in funny hats. Will he return to his ranch in time to sing on the radio or will the bad guys take title to the ranch if he fails? High point is the death-ray destruction of Murania, an effect created by melting the film to make the image run!
THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII (1933)
Charles Laughton, directed by Alexander Korda, in a warm semicomic treatment of history. Concerning his various wives, one of whom is played by Laughton’s real wife, Elsa Lanchester. Other wives include Merle Oberon, Binnie Barnes, Wendy Barrie, Everly Gregg. Set almost entirely within the royal castle, it begins just before the death of his second wife (Anne Boleyn) and ends just after his sixth wedding (to Katherine Parr).
First and best version of Shaw’s play in which a Victorian dialect expert bets that he can teach a lower-class girl to speak proper English and thus be taken for a lady. Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller excel. He’s the snobbish & intellectual Professor of languages, Henry Higgins, who bets that he can take a London flower seller, Eliza Doolittle, from the gutters, and pass her off as a society lady. However he discovers that this involves dealing with a human being with ideas of her own. Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard directed.
The powerful drama RAIN shows us a young Joan Crawford at her very best as that classic tramp, Sadie Thompson. She’s trapped by bad circumstances and worse weather on a tropical island, playing with the soldiers stationed there, challenged by a fierce missionary preacher. William Gargan is the sergeant she seduces, and Walter Huston, ever the great character actor, is the outraged reverend who tries to save her.
The production code was not yet in effect, so Crawford is free to portray Sadie as defiant, completely immoral, and hedonistic: “the woman without shame.” Watch her smoke, drink and flirt, oh so shocking to audiences in 1932 and most amusing today. Based on Somerset Maugham’s story, adapted by Maxwell Anderson, beautifully directed by Lewis Milestone, it’s an all-star classic film.
REEFER MADNESS ( 1934)
This exploito-cheapie helped influence public opinion against marijuana, which was outlawed two years later. Visit Jack and Mae’s tea pad, where high school kids come to cop and party. The boys all wear jackets and ties, the girls are all virgins, it’s really another world! The girl who gives it up under the influence of the wicked weed comes to her senses and jumps out the window. The boy who melts his brain with boo goes off to the nut house for keeps. Leave it alone, kid, this stuff will destroy ya! The money scene is Dave O’Brien’s wild-eyed
mad act, puffing away and making his girlfriend play the piano faster, faster, faster!
ROBOT MONSTER (1951)
Shot in four days in a state park on a $20,000 budget by Phil Tucker, this incoherent stinker was originally seen in 3-D (but our print is flat). Ro-Man wears a gorilla suit topped by a diving helmet with a TV antenna. He has exterminated all life on earth except for eight survivors. His lair is a cave filled with bubbles and he calls up his home planet with a war-surplus shortwave on an old kitchen table.
The world is saved when the monster is paralyzed by the sight of the heroine’s cleavage! There’s a Freudean subtext here if you want to find it. Starring muscular George Nader, who was outed by Confidential Magazine as Rock Hudson’s weightlifter pal and was blackballed by Hollywood. Dreadful script, bad acting, compares to the works of Ed Wood.
SAVAGE DRUMS (1951)
Here’s Sabu, the boy from India we all loved in Thief of Bagdad. Now he’s 27 and still a handsome, athletic fellow with a vigorous, active style that is perfect for a pulp-fiction hero. An actor who did his best work without a shirt, we first meet him as he works out with a punching bag. He’s a Pacific-Island Prince come to the US to seek his fortune as a prizefighter. But when his brother the King is killed, he must return to his homeland to fight the Commies in this coldwar B-film. With Lita Baron, Sid Melton and my favorite all-purpose Slavic Villain, Steve Geray, as the scheming Russian agent.
SANTA FE TRAIL (1940)
We’re at West Point in 1854 and look who’s about to graduate! It’s Ronnie Reagan as Custer and Errol Flynn as Jeb Stuart. They’ll soon be facing off in the Civil War. Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis are there, too.
Abolitionist firebrand John Brown (Raymond Massey) is conducting bloody raids all over Kansas! Stuart and Custer are competing for the affections of Kit Carson Holliday (Olivia de Havilland), the daughter of a railroad magnate who hopes to extend the railroad to New Mexico along the Santa Fe Trail.
The future Civil War adversaries fight side by side against Brown, with Massey stealing the acting honors as the slightly mad idealist. Director Michael Curtiz treats us to some excellent action scenes, and there’s plenty of romance!
SQUADRON OF DOOM (1937)
A ripping yarn condensed from a classic action serial about bringing civil aviation to exotic Mongolia. The Dragon doesn’t agree and he’s shooting down planes with his death ray. Spinning prayer wheels deliver his radio messages to his henchmen! Only Ace Drummond can defeat him. There’s a respectful but inaccurate treatment of Lamaist Buddhism. Hero John (Dusty) King, is dull, but supporting cast shines, including heroine Jean Rogers, sidekick Noah Beery, Jr. and villain Lon Chaney, Jr.
STATE DEPARTMENT FILE 649 (1948)
Set in China just after WWII, with lots of local color cut in by way of stock footage, including that good old Chinese acrobat cliche. Warlord Richard Loo will not join up with Chiang to fight Mao. Instead, he wants to be the new Ghengis Khan. He is foiled by our State Department’s heroic Bill Lundigan. As always, Loo is a superb, vicious, snarling villain. His portable headquarters is a trailer pulled by a truck, escorted by cavalry. To foil the dastardly scheme, Lundigan must blow up the trailer with himself inside, he’s our suicide bomber! With Virginia Bruce, Philip Ahn, Victor Sen Yung. A good low-budget thriller, directed by Sam Newfield.
If you enjoyed Maria Montez in Cobra Woman, you’ll like her in this campy romantic adventure set in a kingdom resembling ancient Egypt. She’s a queen deposed and cast into slavery by evil George Zucco. But she’s rescued by Jon Hall and Andy Devine, an endlessly bickering pair of rogues. In the end, she rides off with bandit chieftain Turhan Bey! Look for wonderfully designed sets and costumes.
THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940)
Sabu, the boy from India, in a top-notch color adventure with excellent special effects. He gets turned into a dog by evil magician Conrad Veidt, uncorks the genie bottle, flies to the end of the earth to battle the giant spider, steals the idol’s ruby eye, rides the flying carpet. Rex Ingram is the genie, John Justin and June Duprez are the lovers. A delicious Art-Deco vision of Old Bagdad designed by William Cameron Menzies and Vincent Korda. An all-time family favorite, good entertainment for young and old.
THINGS TO COME (1936)
H.G. Wells’ futurology predicts a world war lasting 20 years, the destruction of civilization and its technocratic rebirth through science and reason. Beautiful design by director William Cameron Menzies, first-rate performances by Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Margaretta Scott, Cedrick Hardwicke. Oh, those lovely planes and tanks! A Jumbotron screen! And that moon-shot cannon!
TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942)
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard (her last), an adultery farce set against the background of the Nazi invasion of Poland. A troupe of Actors set up false scenes to bamboozle the Nazis and it becomes hard to tell reality from fiction. An all-star cast!
The film opens with Jack playing Hamlet. He’s an arrogant stage star who has no idea his wife Lombard is double-timing him with a very young and handsome Robert Stack. The scene in which Jack is required to shave a corpse is just precious, and at one point, “to heil Hitler” is a Nazi agent’s term for sexual climax.
Difficult to make a comedy against so grim a background but Lubitsch sort of gets away with it, though at first release the critics were divided on this point. Today we consider it to be a classic. One of the best films ever made by Jews to heckle Hitler, this one is sure to tweak his nose in hell.
TORPEDO OF DOOM (1938)
This feature cut of the Fighting Devil Dogs serial is packed with nonstop action. The Lightning, a hooded, caped villain resembling Darth Vader, plans to rule the world with his mastery of electricity, throwing deadly lightning-charged torpedoes from his flying-wing aircraft. Olympic champ turned actor-stuntman Herman Brix (later known as Bruce Bennett) is the heroic Marine Officer who must stop him. With chases by car, motorcycle, and speedboat, plus submarine, flying-boat and dirigible action, plus endless well-staged fights, you’ll fight to catch your breath!
THE WAGES OF FEAR (1953)
In the South American jungle supplies of nitroglycerine are needed at a remote oil field. The oil company pays four men to deliver the supplies in two trucks. A tense rivalry develops between the two sets of drivers on the rough remote roads, where the slightest jolt can result in death.
The acting is superb: handsome young Yves Montand’s Mario, a Parisian gangster on the run from who-knows-what, maintains his Gallic savoir-faire. His compatriot, Charles Vanel, is Jo, an older, more burnt-out wiseguy, but still full of macho moxie.
Director Clouzot squeezes unbearable tension out of nearly every scene. The stripped-down existentialism of the characters, the starkness of their shared dilemma, the grim and grimy scenery,
and the superb black-and-white cinematography cannot fail to hold your attention.
WHISPERING SHADOW (1933)
This feature cut of Bela Lugosi’s first serial is a little choppy, but it has such good bits that you won’t care if the story makes sense. Bela is Dr. Strang, mysterious owner of a gruesome wax museum. Is he the villainous Whispering Shadow, who uses television to spy and a death ray to kill? Is his beautiful daughter an accomplice or a victim? Why are truckers dropping dead behind the wheel? What secret treasure is hidden in the big dark warehouse? Bela looks great lurking and slinking around corners with his big hat pulled down, but what is he up to?
Why is an autogiro landing on the roof? Will the hero avenge his brother’s mysterious death? Will all the false leads and dopey clues come together at the end? It’s a mystery and you’ll enjoy it even if you can’t figure it out. With Viva Tattersall, Malcolm McGregor, Henry Walthall, Robert Warwick.
ZOMBIES OF THE STRATOSPHERE (1952)
Evil Martians in hooded catsuits have landed on Earth to work fiendish plan. With the aid of a renegade scientist and hired henchmen in fedoras, they’re building a huge H-bomb to blow the Earth out of its orbit. Then Mars can take its place and enjoy an improved climate. Only Larry Martin, the flying Rocketman, with his jet pack and bullet helmet, can foil this horrid plot. He’s a cross between Howard Hughes and Batman, a super-scientific defense contractor action hero.
When he flies, he’s a dummy on a wire. When he’s not flying, he’s still stiff as a dummy: a weak actor struggling with a bad script. A very young Leonard Nimoy appears as one of the Martians. You’ll recognize his voice as he delivers a dying speech to help save the Earth. Feature cut of serial.