Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Fall of the House of Usher

My husband sighs.
"Do you not agree with his approach?" I ask.
"No, he should have a weapon.  And some body armor.  And a gun."
"So he should have a Glock, a riot shield, and a bulletproof vest?"
"He should really have a bear suit.  That's what he needs.  Do you know about those?"
"Not really."
"People go out and get mauled by bears in them and they're fine.  Did he just step on a skeleton?"

No, he did not just step on a skeleton.  But he was wandering around by himself in a ridiculously creepy house during the middle of the night without a weapon. We all know this is a bad move.  Especially when you're in the house of Usher, and it's about to fall.  Literally.

I watched this as a child, but I only remembered two moments from it, so watching it last night was like a totally new experience for me.  I won't tell you what I remember because that would spoil the fun for you.  And let it be know that while I hate modern horror movies and refuse to watch them, old ones are game for me because they were made at a time when directors and screenwriters still had a moral compass, and when the viewing public didn't have the stomach for the gore and violence we see today.

The Basics:
Released in 1960, The Fall of the House of Usher, also promoted as House of Usher, was one of a string of horror movies in which Vincent Price starred as a bone-chilling villain.  The main cast is small, only four people, and Price is the only recognizable name among them.  Mark Damon (no relation to Matt), Myrna Fahey, and Harry Ellerbe are all new to me.  In a way I think that adds to the effect of the film, because when you don't recognize an actor you are better able to be absorbed in the story they are acting out. 

The Plot:
Young Philip Winthrop (Damon) has come to the house of Usher to see his intended, Miss Madeline Usher (Fahey).  He finds himself in a desolate wasteland: black, dead, and deserted.  In the dankness sits the house: vast, gloomy, sinister, and decrepit.  Philip is not welcome at the house of Usher; when he stubbornly insists on being admitted, he is met with strange requests and a hauntingly bizarre situation.  The formerly vibrant Madeline is ill, confined to her bed, and her brother Roderick (Price) maintains that Philip must leave without seeing her, that he must leave forever and forget Madeline.  

When Philip repeatedly refuses to comply, he is drawn deeper and deeper into the dark, dangerous world of the Ushers.  He is made privy to secrets he won't believe and prophesies he won't accept.  It is just he, the butler (Ellerbe), the two remaining Ushers....and the house.  I'll not go into more detail than that, because I think these really are more fun when you haven't heard everything before hand. 
Here is a sample for your perusal.

Highs and Lows:
Like in any good horror movie, the characters in this film do things and behave in ways that are appallingly short-sighted and stupid to the audience.  Why would you, for instance, wander around an impressively creepy house by yourself, without a weapon, during the middle of the night?  When you have decided to escape with your beloved and make a mad, hopeful dash toward the future, why do you go separate ways to pack your bags?  When the evidence of your unwilling host's evil madness and deceit is before your eyes, why do you not look up and see it?  Why do you fall into his trap?  If a chandelier fell from the ceiling and almost landed on you, would you say "I don't know" in response to "what happened?"  

But these are just little things, for overall the lows aren't too bad.  I mean, the aren't too low, and the highs are pretty impressive.
  • The house is creepy.  This is set in the 1800s, and the styling lends itself very well to creepiness.  
  • The music is sufficiently horrible.  I don't mean that the quality or composition of it is horrible, but that it makes you feel horrible.  You should only watch this movie if you want to feel horrible.  
  • This is an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's story of the same name, so the script is pretty fantastic in places.  
  • It was not made in Technicolor, but in just plain color, so it lacks the brightness and punch you see in other films.  This is perfect.
  • Vincent Price was being himself here; he'll give you the willies.  You would never guess that he was from Missouri.  
  • The climax made both my husband and myself brace ourselves and cringe.
-Sidenote- I know many children are desensitized to blood and gore these days, but just the same I wouldn't recommend this for anyone younger than 12 or 13 because of some frightening images. 

Pick a dreary night, preferably a stormy one, and scare it up with this movie.  The trick is to suspend disbelief and let the film carry you along.  Don't be too analytical, don't be underawed by the unadvanced camera techniques and lack of computer effects, just let yourself be freaked out.  I think this is an admirable adaptation of Poe, and therefore I would recommend it to anyone but the very young. 
And, note, if you yell loudly enough at Philip to take the ax with him, he might just do it ;)  

Monday, June 21, 2010

Footsteps in the Dark

Apart from establishing that we should vary genres, I haven't established any rules regarding our movie choices.  When you have four crates of VHS tapes to choose from, it's not very hard to make a decision.  My husband, who has seen a scarce few of these films, pulls out a tape.  "Footsteps in the Dark?"  "Oh, that's a good one.  That has... ah..." I take the tape out of its sleeve.  "Yeah, that has Errol Flynn in it.  I was going to say that but it sounded ridiculous.  Oh, Kisses for Breakfast and Whistling in Dixie, too." (Most tapes have three or four movies on them.)  "That's a really good one."

Footsteps is the first one on the tape, so Footsteps it is.  And the remarkable thing (that had me confused) is that this isn't a swashbuckling adventure, no frigates or sword fights here.  That kind of thing is what we expect from Errol Flynn, and it is what he is most famous for.  Rather, Footsteps in the Dark is one of those mystery/comedies that were so popular in the 30s and early 40s.  The most memorable among those were the Thin Man series, of course.  No film of the kind ever stood up to the sheer radiance that William Powell and Myrna Loy produced in those movies.  But we'll get to them later.  And while Errol Flynn's Francis Warren is no Nick Charles, Footsteps has, like a fingerprint, a charm particular to itself.

The Basics:
Released in March of 1941, Footsteps featured a cast of familiars directed by Lloyd Bacon, if you can believe the name.  Brenda Marshall, only featured in 19 films (some of which were Flynn vehicles), is Warren's wife, Rita.  Alan Hale and William Frawley gallivant as misguided policemen, Ralph Bellamy is a soft-spoken dentist, Lee Patrick is an untalented burlesque dancer, and Roscoe Karns, Allen Jenkins, Lucille Watson, and Grant Mitchell (unfamiliar names with familiar faces) round up the cast of characters quite nicely.  The film runs a short 96 minutes long.

The Plot:
[As it turns out, I remembered almost nothing about the movie correctly.  That makes one feel a little foolish when one has began by saying, "Oh, that's a good one."]

Society gent Francis Warren (Flynn) leads a double life.  Holding down a reputable, boring life as the financial manager of the best portfolios in town by day, Warren entertains his whims by night as F.X. Pettijohn, the amateur sleuth who pesters the police and writes shockingly skewering novels about the high society ladies' clubs to which his wife belongs.  This isn't giving away too much, mind you; the picture opens with Warren entering his own home through via the upstairs bedroom window at 3 o'clock in the morning (this does not wake his wife).

When a jewel smuggler who has knowledge of this double life attempts to blackmail Warren into laundering money and then turns up dead, Warren is drawn into a murder mystery so dramatic it outclasses his penmanship.  The police, as they were often portrayed in film at this time, are inept and stupid, though comically so thanks to Frawley (you may recognize him from I Love Lucy).  Warren and his chauffeur relieve the police of their responsibility and save the day on their own, and Warren almost ends up in divorce court because of it.

Pros and Cons (not Con men):
  • Flynn, a smooth operator as always, is pleasant to watch as he juggles two complicated lives.
  • Frawley is enjoyable as the tough-talking, pudding-brained cop.
  • There funny moments throughout, many coming from unexpectedly amusing dialogue.
  • The film was shot in black and white, which always adds richness to any type of murder mystery caper.
  • The police may have been a little too stupid this time around. (This gets frustrating at the end.)
  • Warren poses as a Texan to gain the affection of the burlesque dancer, Blondie White, pursuant to solving the case.  Now, this in itself is not necessarily a con, but is a gag that was done to much better effect in several other films, notably Pillow Talk and The Awful Truth.  Depending on your mood, Flynn's version of The Texan could try your patience.  If you are a Texan you might be offended.
  • I got confused sometimes.  Granted, that is bound to happen every now and then.  
  • Blondie White frightened me a bit.  I don't know if it's Lee Patrick's fault or the character's.  This could be a pro if you are prepared to laugh about it, and I suppose you would understand the sense in which I use the word "frightened" if you checked it out. 

As I mentioned, many of these cons could turn out to be pros for you depending on how you approach the viewing experience.  If your sense of humor has a hankering for the ridiculous, this could be your summer runaway sensation!

That said, your viewing experience could be totally different from mine.  I think this film is fun and worth the watch.  Like I said above, it does have a charm of its own, which may be due to seeing Flynn do something a little different.  If you've got the time, why not give it the old college try?

Note: I don't have a clip to share with you this time because YouTube doesn't have anything in the way of "Footsteps in the Dark" that comes without electric guitars. Electric guitars are cool, but they're just not relevant right now.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Lullaby of Broadway

I know of no better way to start out on this adventure than with a Doris Day film, and this is one of her most delightful.  So let's get one thing straight right away: I am a Doris Day fan.  I love Doris Day.  She is my favorite.  My absolute favorite.  If you hang with me through my future posts, I guarantee that you will see this enthusiasm coming through on a regular basis.

For our honeymoon my husband and I traveled to Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA, where Doris Day resides with her beloved pets.  We lodged in the Cypress Inn, co-owned by Doris and home to a good deal of memorabilia from her days in Hollywood.

It was a beautiful time in a beautiful place, and when you've grown up admiring Doris Day, there's no better place to be.

And if you're not familiar with America's Sweetheart, Lullaby of Broadway is a good place to jump in.

Made in 1951, Lullaby was a Warner Brothers Technicolor spectacular, and a beautiful one at that.  Starring Gene Nelson alongside Doris Day, with S.Z. Sakall, Billy De Wolfe, Gladys George, and Florence Bates, this film is like a ride on a cloud. It's just that smooth, fluffy, and relaxing.

The Plot:
Silly and oh so fun.  Melinda Howard (Day) is a small-time theatrical performer who has been living overseas.  She is returning to the States to see her mother, Jessica Howard (George), when she meets dancing star Tom Farnham (Nelson) on the boat.  Melinda believes that her mother is a successful Broadway star, the toast-of-the-town, like she was in the old days.  She is unaware that Jessica has fallen onto bad times, hit the bottle, and is now performing at third-rate joints in-between drinks.  This is because Jessica has falsified her correspondence to Melinda, using the address of the finest house in town as her mailing address  because she is in cahoots with the down-and-out acting pair Lefty and Gloria (De Wolfe and Triola) who work there as the butler and maid.  Melinda arrives at the home expecting to be welcomed with open arms by her mother.  Lefty and Gloria hide her in the servant quarters, where she takes up residence unbeknownst to the owners, Mr. and Mrs. Adolph Hubbell (Sakall and Bates).  When Melinda and Adolph collide late that night as Melinda explores the house, Mr. Hubbell is brought into Lefty's confidence and mixed up in the scheme of trying to hide from Melinda her mother's condition and hide Melinda from Mrs. Hubbell.

What follows is zany, if predictable, with Melinda breaking out into show business and landing the leading role in a musical opposite Tom Farnham, with whom she has fallen in love.  Mixed up in the action are allegations of an affair between Melinda and Mr. Hubbell, the comical antics of Lefty and Gloria, and a sweet reunion between Melinda and her mother.  

Two words: music and dancing.  Doris is dancing straight out of the gate, with a top hat and tails version of "Just One of Those Things."  From there the songs keep coming and don't stop 'till end credits:

  • "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me"
  • "Somebody Loves Me"
  • "I Love the Way You Say Goodnight"
  • "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone"
  • "In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town"
  • "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart"
  • "You're Dependable"
  • "We'd Like to Go on a Trip"
  • and of course, "Lullaby of Broadway"
But the dancing is really what sets this film apart.  It is one of the few in which Doris got to exhibit her truly, especially fantastic dancing talent.  For a sample, try this clip of her twitching toes with the enormously skilled Gene Nelson.  The dancing is out of this world.  And those are some great voices, too!

Another huge plus is the supporting cast.  Sakall added a gloriously delightful kick to everything he appeared in, and his mannerisms will have you laughing as he seeks refuge from his battleax wife, the ever-reliable Florence Bates.  Billy De Wolfe also puts in another great performance as a scheming shirker and wins favor through his tender care of Jessica throughout her time of trouble.  Anne Triola is fun as Gloria as well.

"Such a great movie," my husband said.  He doesn't know he's being quoted, so I'll tell you what else he said.  "I haven't seen a Doris Day movie I didn't like. Or a Cuddles [Sakall] movie."  Check this one out and you'll quickly understand why.  


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

I have some 'Splainin' to do!

Thank you for visiting Reel Revival in its infancy. Hopefully, with the nourishment I intend to give it, this brand new blog will grow into your trusted resource for information about the old films you've always loved, and the ones you've never heard of!

A little backstory:
I grew up watching old films. Every Friday throughout grade school I looked forward to settling down in the evening with my parents to take in a movie made decades before I was born, sometimes decades before my parents were born. I met and fell in love with a variety of people so fascinating and enchanting that they seemed to belong to another dimension, perhaps another world. Doris Day, William Powell, Jerry Lewis, Shirley Temple, John Wayne, Bette Davis, Robert Mitchum, W.C. Fields, Mae West, Jimmy Stewart, Ginger Rogers: on and on it goes.

Those experiences were more than time-fillers or mere entertainment for me, they were formative spans in which I learned valuable lessons about what is truly good in the world, what is truly funny, truly sad, and truly awful. My attachment to this glamorous, golden age of the past strengthened as I grew, and modern versions of story-telling paled in comparison to what the glories of the past had to offer. But as I grew I found that very few others my age had discovered that beautiful world alongside me. I undertook in my youth to introduce them to it. I undertake now to spread awareness, to instigate interest, and to cultivate curiosity.

When I married my husband four weeks ago, I brought to our marriage one particular item in abundance: old movies. We have hundreds, and we will be watching them all together, starting now. For each film we watch, I will do my darndest to extend the experience to everyone who reads this blog. I will document our experience in wading through this mountain of movies, and hopefully prompt you to seek them out too. Join us in this journey; there will surely be an extraordinary amount of fun along the way.
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