Movie Review – “Island of Lost Souls” (1932)

 

 

In the context of 1932, “Island of Lost Souls” is a bold, experimental picture. This was before the time of “King Kong”‘s effects and the scope of films like “Gone With the Wind” and “Wizard of Oz,” and the most successful horror films were “Dracula” and “Frankenstein.” And yet, this film features an elaborate yet modern mad scientist with more ambition than he does servants, hell-bent on seeing how far he can take his experiments on animals. The film does its best to adapt H.G. Wells’ novel with the best technology and effects they could produce at the time.

That being said, “Island of Lost Souls” is incredibly dated. The dialogue and audio has that same scratchy, hard-to-understand tone that most films from the early 1930s had, and the makeup and effects on the many creatures Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) has experimented on are clearly just big guys with lots of hair glued on. The story has been simplified to focus on its big male lead Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) and we’re given no reason to sympathize with the mad scientist that should be the focus of the story rather than being the antagonist that has only a few tricks up his sleeve.

 

 

The main reason to watch “Island of Lost Souls” these days is to see Charles Laughton play god in the most sadistic yet quiet way possible. He plays the role as if he were the puppet master, where he feels like he can manipulate everyone around him to his whim, toying with everyone without hardly ever raising his voice above a whisper. It comes across like he has everything calculated and planned, like this is all a game of chess to him and he’s already won. His ambition is as big as his ego, and Laughton plays it with as much charm as we’ve come to expect from him.

Overall, “Island of Lost Souls” is fine if dated picture from the early 1930s that is bolstered by a great performance from Charles Laughton. As far as pre-Hayes Code horror goes, this one is about as grotesque as they could get at the time. At only 71 minutes long, the film flies by at a brisk pace and feels like it tells a two-hour long story in less than half the time. If you’re a fan of 1930s horror or are curious how effects-driven films were done at this time, I’d suggest checking this one out.

Final Grade: C+

 

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Movie Review – “Jezebel” (1939)

 

 

You know, sometimes all you need is one little piece of historical evidence to understand why a film is created. While I watched 1939’s “Jezebel,” I couldn’t understand what this southern belle drama with Bette Davis was trying to achieve until I learned something crucial after watching the movie – “Jezebel” was made entirely from scratch as a way to compensate Bette Davis after she failed to the get the lead role in “Gone with the Wind.”

Now everything makes perfect sense. The time period, the racial tension, the elaborate outfits and gowns, the dramatic almost operatic performances from Davis and Henry Fonda. All of it is a way of trying to give Bette Davis the same experience she would have got from “Gone with the Wind.”

Full disclosure – I’ve never seen “Gone with the Wind.” I realize this probably takes a few points off of my film buff card, considering it is regarded as one of the greatest films of all time and still holds the record for highest grossing film ever when adjusted for inflation. But I am always hesitant to watch any film over three and a half hours long, and this particular film is closer to four hours. At that point, the film is more of a chore to sit through than anything else. I plan to watch the whole film before the end of the year, but I’m in no particular hurry to do so. But my point is that I don’t have a frame of reference to compare “Jezebel” to, other than similar Bette Davis films like “Dark Victory.”

 

 

The film takes place in New Orleans shortly before the start of the civil war, as the spoiled southern belle Julie (Bette Davis) decides to make herself stand out among her fellow socialites in any way she can. This is often met with shock and scorn, much to the dismay of her fiancée Preston (Henry Fonda), who doesn’t want anything to do with her after she wears a red dress to the big ball.

At first I was tempted to write this film off as another melodrama for the sake of melodrama, much like “Dark Victory” or to prove Bette Davis’ acting ability, but there’s a certain sense of charm and class to “Jezebel” that clues you in to why these trivial things were life-or-death matters back in the 1850s. The cold dead stares of everyone at the ball, all of them retreating from the happy couple like they have the plague, casts a bigger cloud over this film than all of the southern accents throughout this film. This really does feel like a world fueled by chivalry and class, and failure to live up to these standards has deadly consequences.

Overall, “Jezebel” is a fine little film that was made as a way to keep Bette Davis happy after not scoring possibly the role of a lifetime. It has that southern charm that only a film set in New Orleans can offer while building a nice world for itself. Davis does a fine job as always, while Fonda seems a bit lost and confused in this performance. Nothing too special about this one, except to see a different type of historical American drama.

Final Grade: C

 

Movie Review – “Captain Blood” (1935)

 

 

Whether you know it or not, most of the lore and well-accepted facts about pirates in film came from Michael Curtiz’s “Captain Blood.” The film is also responsible for launching the career of Errol Flynn, one of the first leading men in Hollywood that was often suave and heroic, but always charismatic, something we see a lot of in todays movies, especially from actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Dwayne Johnson. So basically, everything we love about pirates and blockbusters nowadays started with “Captain Blood.”

Set in 17th century England, the film chronicles the rather unpredictable life of Peter Blood (Flynn), an Irish doctor, who performed his duties during the Monmouth rebellion and was convicted of treason when he helped a rebel heal. Rather than being put to death, Blood and the surviving rebels are instead sent by boat to the West Indies where they are sold as slaves to the local Englishmen. Eventually, Blood organizes as a way to get off their little island the only way that makes sense to him – by becoming pirates.

Most of the mythos about pirates that we all know and love today can be traced back to the joy Errol Flynn and his crew of brothers in arms feel as they loot, fight, drink and sail on the high seas. They immediately set up a code of honor among fellow pirates, splitting all of their earnings amongst each other and giving extra gold to those who lost a limb for the sake of the crew. But at the same time, they all show such delight when torturing others, especially Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill), who had bought most of them as slaves. This is a pirate life built on the highs and lows they all share together.

 

 

Watching “Captain Blood” shows me why I believe we enjoy pirate movies as much as we do, and it is in much the same vein as gangster movies – we’re enraptured by their lust for more power, more wealth, in an attempt to satisfy their insatiable greed. Then again, what are pirates but gangsters of the sea? Except rather than fighting with guns and wise cracks, they fight with swords and witty remarks.

But what makes this film stand out is because of Errol Flynn’s performance, easily able to bounce between dramatic moments of loss and heartbreak and moments of pure joy as he falls in love with the pirate lifestyle, all while feeling like the same caring selfless person he was at the beginning of the movie. Flynn gives this performance his all, always glowing with a radiating energy in his quieter moments with Olivia de Havilland that shows a vulnerable man who wants so much more out of the world. Flynn takes what could have been a simple swash-buckling role and turns it into a flawed man with a large sense of honor that is angry at the world.

Overall, “Captain Blood” is a great time and one of the best action pieces out of the 1930s. It sets the standard by which all other pirate movies are graded on, and still remains a charming Errol Flynn movie. If you’re curious to see where pirates in Hollywood started from, or want to see the evolution of action stars throughout the decades, then this one is right up your alley.

Final Grade: B+

 

Movie Review – “Dark Victory” (1939)

 

 

Before soap operas could be broadcast daily on television, there had to be movies that gave viewers the same impact of a melodrama about eccentric people getting into life-and-death situations. One such film is “Dark Victory,” a 1939 film staring Bette Davis, George Bent, Humphrey Bogart, Ronald Reagan and Henry Travers and its utterly manipulative and forced story, which follows a young selfish socialite (Davis) being diagnosed with a rare brain tumor and that she has only months left to live.

Her doctor (Brent) slowly starts to fall in love with her and believes he shouldn’t have the power to say who lives and who dies, and so he doesn’t tell her that she’s dying, instead letting her lead her hedonistic lifestyle like she always has, without any knowledge that her end is coming very soon.

While this type of story can be quite an emotional rollercoaster, “Dark Victory”‘s execution of this story is more eye-rolling and manipulative than it needed to be. The film is filled to the brim with clichés – her doctor was ten minutes away from retiring from brain surgery before she walked in, she has no regard for human life but loves her horses and dogs to death, and of course the classic doctor falling in love with his patient cliché, even though Davis and Brent’s characters have next to nothing in common. But what really drives it all home is how forced it feels that the doctor has to hide her own faith from her for reasons that don’t even begin to make sense.

 

 

The only reason he doesn’t tell her that she’s dying from the start is because the plot says so. Because they need half an hour of the doctor and her best friend (Geraldine Fitzgerald) hiding the truth from her while pretending like nothing is wrong, and then another half hour of Davis reacting to the truth. The movie would be so simple if she knew what was going to happen, and the last thing this film wants to be is simple.

If there is one positive out of “Dark Victory” it is the acting from everyone in the cast. I was surprised to learn that George Brent, Humphrey Bogart, Ronald Reagan and Henry Travers were all in the same film, but I was even more surprised to see that all of them turned out stellar performances. All of them felt like they were moments away from emotional breakdowns, or in Henry Travers case, breaking into tears.

But the real star of the show was Bette Davis, who sold this entire character and her wide range of character quirks, both subtle and over-the-top. She undergoes one of the most melodramatic metamorphosis’ I’ve ever seen, and she never comes across as anything more than authentic and genuine, all while remaining strong and fiercely independent. She makes the big emotional scenes feel bigger and the sad moments stick in the back of your mind long after you’ve watched the film. Davis owns this role and she makes this a movie worth seeing.

Although, other than a great cast of actors, “Dark Victory” doesn’t have much else going for it. The film feels dated and is more than a little manipulative. There were many times that the film tried to force an emotional response, and it often did not work. If you like cheesy and cliché melodramas that feel like something out of “General Hospital” or “Days of Our Lives,” then you’ll enjoy this one just fine. But besides that, the only reason I’d want to check out “Dark Victory” is because of its surprising amount of great performances.

Final Grade: C

 

Movie Review – “It’s A Gift” (1934)

its a gift

My first introduction to W.C. Fields was through “The Bank Dick,” and I only ever remember Fields being a rambling, aimless Mr. Magoo-like character that left little to no impression on me. It painted my perspective of Fields as an insult comedian on the same level as Grucho Marx or Rodney Dangerfield while still having a slight flare for visual comedy. This perspective changed entirely after I saw another one of Fields’ movies, “It’s a Gift.”

The W.C. Fields in this is film is practically the polar opposite of the Fields I remember from “The Bank Dick” – quiet, low-tempered and rarely feels like the star of the show. While Fields still plays the main character, the middle-aged Harold Bissonette, he basically plays the straight man to an entire world that seems to go out of its way to screw with him. He has a nagging wife that is never satisfied, two kids that do not care about the world around them, he runs a small grocery store that is bombarded with angry or self-destructive customers, and his one employee is as stupid as he is sleepy. Most of this hour-long movie is little comedic vignettes as Harold becomes the center of bad luck and even worse timing.

From trying to shave in the morning at the same time his daughter is trying to put on makeup, to dealing with a blind and mostly-deaf customer while being yelled at by someone demanding something he doesn’t even have, to Harold simply trying to get some sleep, everyone and everything goes out of its way to make Harold’s life nothing but misery. And yet he hardly ever complains. He doesn’t whine or get angry, he merely accepts that this is the way the world works for him. Some of the funnier bits in the film are Field’s nonchalant and accepting reactions to all the chaos that befalls him, like he’s achieved a state of inner peace among the chaos.

its a gift 2

Most of the sequences in “It’s a Gift” are lifted straight from W.C. Fields’ vaudeville routines, but each of them feel wholly unique and contribute to the larger story at play, as Harold trades in his life in the bustling crazy city for a quiet one where he can focus on just growing oranges. These are some of the best visual gags outside of a Charlie Chaplin film I’ve ever seen, and each one provides consistent laughs, with the visual jokes continually building off each other.

There’s a lot of charm and heart in “It’s a Gift” that makes me appreciate W.C. Fields far more than I did. While his visual gags are non-stop and string together nicely, his demeanor and attitude provides a pleasant contrast that never grows tiresome. While the story is bare-bones, the film works best as a series of vignettes tied together by a loose thread. For a film just barely over an hour, it sure manages to pack in a lot of comedy.

Final Grade: B+

Movie Review – “Destry Rides Again” (1939)

 

 

When I first heard that James Stewart was the lead actor in a western in the early part of his career of the 1930s, I was genuinely shocked that the wholesome every-man would play such a rough and tumble role. I was even more surprised to learn that Stewart plays a deputy sheriff who refuses to use his guns and wins the towns people over with law and order instead of barbarianism, despite everyone initially thinking he’s crazy.

In other words, Jimmy Stewart is still playing the wholesome every-man in the unlawful old west. And the strange thing is that he makes it work.

“Destry Rides Again” is set in the old west town of Bottleneck, which is run by a corrupt mayor and a power couple who run the saloon that has a vice grip on the local farmers. The attractive German dance hall queen named Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich) lures in the boys, and her boyfriend Kent (Brian Donlevy) runs a rigged poker game that makes the farmers gamble away their land and property until it all belongs to Kent. The sheriff catches on to their game and gets shot in the back for his troubles. The town elects a new sheriff jokingly, the town drunk Wash Dimsdale (Charles Winninger). But much to the shock of the townsfolk (and me), Wash sets down the bottle and gives a grand speech about how he will clean up Bottleneck and make it a town worth living in.

Wash declares that he’ll do it by bringing in the son of the famous gunslinger, Destry and make him his new deputy. But, as everyone quickly finds out, Destry Jr. (Jimmy Stewart) is not like his father. He’s quiet, reserved and wants to solve every problem peacefully instead of with more violence. He walks around town without wearing any guns on him and tells lots of stories about people he knew and the kind of trouble they got into. But he shares a massive similarity to his father – he’s damn good at his job.

 

 

The more I thought about the setup for “Destry Rides Again,” the more I realize that it has a lot in common with “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” – an official is killed in an unruly region, Jimmy Stewart is praised for being the young up-and-coming and is sent in to replace the official, but his wide-eyed innocence makes everyone see him as little more than a child wearing his dad’s boots. Just replace the Senate from “Mr. Smith” with the old west and you’ve got “Destry Rides Again.” It gets even weirder when you realize both films came out the same year, and the leading female had top billing over Jimmy Stewart in each movie, mostly because Jean Arthur and Marlene Dietrich were bigger stars than Stewart at the time.

Outside of Jimmy Stewart’s lovable performance as Destry Jr., I adore this movies’ charm and atmosphere. It takes the time to flesh out everybody in this town while having a sense of humor about everything. From the odd yet quirky Boris Callahan (Mischa Auer) to the heart-broken and homeless Claggett family, there is no shortage of colorful characters here. Yet even this its great slapstick comedy and wordplay, the film still finds time to have impactful and emotional scenes, the best one being the aforementioned fiery speech from the new sheriff to rile up the townsfolk.

Overall, I was extremely surprised by how much fun I had with “Destry Rides Again.” It is a quirky western that is loaded with outstanding performances and a great atmosphere. Jimmy Stewart is his usual lovable self that never seems to grow old or tiresome and adds a great deal of heart and strength to this movie. I think the similarities to “Mr. Smith” make this film even stronger, making this one of the most memorable westerns I’ve ever seen.

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “White Zombie” (1932)

 

 

Show of hands – Who wants to watch a film about a Haitian voodoo master killing innocent people and then bringing them back to life as mindless zombies who just kind of stand around looking like their dog just walked away and may not be coming back, with almost incomprehensible dialogue and black face? No one? That does not surprise me in the least.

 

“White Zombie” stars Bela Lugosi shortly after he made it big with “Dracula” as the voodoo master with a Satan-like goatee and eye brows that would make Groucho Marx jealous. The best thing about his character is his name – Murder Legendre. More parents need to name their children ‘Murder’ just as a social experiment, especially when you have a last name that sounds like ‘Legendary.’ That is the best ridiculous movie character name I’ve heard since Chiper Rage from “After Earth.”

 

The memorable image of “White Zombie” is of Lugosi’s creepy stare right into the camera. Though the film uses it so often that feels less terrifying and more like Lugosi is giving a weird look to the guy who took the last of the fried rice at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Then there are times where Lugosi has to do this stare for extended periods of time, or has to literally walk into the camera, or has to have the camera zoom in on him for about a minute.

 

 

 

I’m starting to get the impression this movie did not have a whole lot going for it outside of Lugosi’s face.

 

“White Zombie” falls into the same category as obscenely silly horror films like “The Brain the Wouldn’t Die” or movies that you would see on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” It is a harmless movie that is extremely dated and is mostly just good for laughs nowadays. It is the best movie to perfect your Bela Lugosi impression, if you are into that.

 

Final Grade: D+