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Monday, July 12, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #21: The Wolf Man, 1941

"Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright."
Curt Siodmak, Screenwriter


The Wolf Man1941

Director: George Waggner
Writers: Curt Siodmak
Cinematographer: Joseph Valentine
Produced by: George Waggner and Jack J. Gross for Universal Studios
Starring: Claude Rains, Warren William, Evelyn Ankers, Maria Ouspenskaya, Lon Chaney Jr., Ralph Bellamy, Patric Knowles

Why I chose it
This blog series has made it through 20 years of cinema without a legitimate horror film...and there were plenty during those early years. Further, Universal Studios was lauded at that time for its output of classic 'monster' films, including Dracula, the Frankenstein series, The Invisible Man, and this one. I had not had the chance to see this one until now. Validating my choice were the voters in my Twitter poll, who chose it over It Started With Eve, Suspicion, and Swamp Water.

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returns to his family estate in England after growing up in the U.S., and finds his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), grieved over the death of his eldest son so he decides to stay on a while. Larry meets and quickly becomes enamored of Gwen, who works at the antique shop in the small town. Unfortunately, things go downhill quickly. A friendly visit to a small contingent of gypsies in the country bordering the town turns to disaster when Gwen's friend Jenny is pursued and killed by a werewolf, who only minutes before was the fortune teller Bela (Bela Lugosi). Larry jumps to the rescue and kills the wolf (and also Bela) with his special silver wolf-headed cane he had just bought. Having barely escaped this incident, and with a pentagon-shaped wolf bite to prove it, Larry becomes terrified by the idea of becoming a werewolf, which he indeed does. Struggling with trying to get appropriate help from the coterie of his father's friends, who are largely in denial about what is happening, he fears that his happily-ever-after with Gwen is in serious jeopardy.

Production Background 
Classic film enthusiasts and scholars generally regard Universal Studios' monster films among the most compelling and trend-sitting in cinema. After a string of these in the 1930s, including the werewolf movie Werewolf of London (1935), output was spotty in the 1940s, with the production of lower-budget sequels and send-ups of the genre like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Occasionally a seminal picture like The Wolf Man sneaked out of the studio with a top cast and production values. 

English actor Claude Rains, so impactful in classics such as Now, Voyager and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, was no stranger to horror films: he made The Invisible Man in 1933 and Phantom of the Opera in 1941, both for Universal. Apparently, he won the lead role over Lon Chaney, Jr. in Phantom, but here supports Chaney, the son of the famous 'Man of A Thousand Faces' (see my write-up on He Who Gets Slapped here). Chaney got his first role in horror with this but had a second one the same year with director George Waggner. Dracula star Bela Lugosi had also hoped to play the lead, but was relegated to the small role of the gypsy/werewolf.

According to TCM, Chaney was not the most popular man on set, as he complained about his heavy 'wolf' make-up, but also played practical jokes on co-star Evelyn Ankers, until she was completely fed up. The entire cast struggled with the noxious fog fumes in the outdoor scenes, and Ankers passed out at one point. 

Some other notable film-related events in 1941 (from Filmsite.org):

  • 24-year-old Orson Welles, called America's "boy wonder" or wunderkind, directed and acted in Citizen Kane (1941), a movie about a powerful newspaper publisher named Charles Foster Kane (modeled after William Randolph Hearst). "Boy genius" Welles was the first to ever receive simultaneous nominations in four categories: as producer, actor, director, and writer. 
  • Reclusive Swedish actress Greta Garbo retired early at age 36, after the release of her disastrous comedy, the box-office flop Two-Faced Woman (1941). She announced that she was quitting the film business, left Hollywood, and remained out of the spotlight until her death of natural causes in 1990.
  • Approximately 500 animators and artists at the Walt Disney Studios conducted a five-week strike backed by the Screen Cartoonists' Guild, during the making of the animated film Dumbo (1941). The Disney workers demanded pay raises and the right to unionize, which they won when the strike was settled by federal mediation. 
  • The first, generally acknowledged film noir was released, John Huston's directorial debut film The Maltese Falcon (1941). It was the first detective film to use the shadowy, nihilistic noir style in a definitive way. The mystery classic was the pivotal work of novice director John Huston, and also starred former screen heavy Humphrey Bogart. 

My Random Observations

  • It's always a pleasure to learn that a film you plan to watch is, well, short. This one clocks in at 70 minutes and covers a lot of ground in that time. Kudos to Universal Studios and the production machine. 
  • The opening credits introduce all the main characters in short clips in pre-code Warner Bros. fashion! There is no mystery here about who is going to end up terrorizing the locals (see Screenshots section below). I have to remember, though, that in 80 years since this film was made, the general public has reaped the benefit of decades of 'Wolf Man' and 'Werewolf' movies and programs; I expect film-goers in 1941 found perhaps a bit more suspense in their experience watching this. For me, it was beautiful to watch but not the least bit suspenseful. 
  • I had to google "lycanthropy" -- the term introduced in the movie as related to Werewolfism (is that a word?). The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as follows:
    • 1: a delusion that one has become a wolf
    • 2: the assumption of the form and characteristics of a wolf held to be possible by witchcraft or magic. 
            My goal will be to use it in a sentence this week.
  • It seems that Lon Chaney, Jr. is not thought of as the film's best actor by reviewers. He loves to grin widely, as seen in the early part of the movie before his fate encroaches. I found him more convincing when he was distraught over his transformation into a killer. As the real tragedy of the story is a young man's life being torn from him and he having no power to take the necessary control, I felt Chaney conveyed this tragedy through his face and body.
  • Of course, the fact that two innocents lost their lives bears mentioning here. I couldn't help but think of the infamous Star Trek "red shirts" - those peripheral characters that appeared in an episode only to serve the function of meeting a brutal end, after which our main characters would need to jump into action.
  • Meme from screenrant.com here.
  • The rest of the male cast is populated with A-listers: Claude Rains, of course, and the always interesting Warren William, to start. I had to read up on Evelyn Ankers, as she was new to me. Not surprising, because she made her primary career in 1940s Univeral horror films (a segment I haven't explored yet).

Screenshots
This is the friendliest-looking werewolf I've ever seen.

The Talbot estate looks like nothing Larry had seen in the U.S.!

Larry (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains) negotiate
 the terms of their relationship.

Larry inadvertently becomes a peeping Tom when he
catches sight of Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) using his Dad's telescope.

Larry is thrilled with his new silver-wolf-head cane
he bought from Gwen.
Gypsy fortune teller (Bela) prepares to entertain his 
client Jenny (Fay Helm), before he bites her.

If the English countryside is enshrouded in fog, beware!

Dr. Lloyd (Warren William) and family lawyer Colonel Montford
(Ralph Bellamy) discuss what to do about the problem that is Larry Talbot.

A country show adds a bit of fun before the unrelenting
doom to come.

Gypsy Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) warns Larry he has a 99.9%
chance of becoming a werewolf.

Extra hair begins to grow on poor Larry's ankles -- and this 
is just the start!

Werewolf seeks his prey in (where else?) the fog.

Suspicious townspeople rotate their heads to watch
Larry Talbot enter Sunday services.

I swear there were wolf paws in this trap just a moment ago!

Larry warns Gwen that both of them may be in
serious trouble.

Somehow I doubt that those straps will keep Wolf Man
from escaping when he gets hungry.

"What have I done? Why do I have this cane in my hand?"
-Sir John Talbot

Where to Watch
The film can be streamed from archive.org here, and also is available on DVD in several collections.

Further Reading
The excellent blogger and fellow CMBA member Aurora posted a piece on the film here. And in case you missed the link above, a useful production summary piece is on TCM's website here.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #20: Escape, 1940

"This is far and away the most dramatic and hair-raising picture yet made on the sinister subject of persecution in a totalitarian land, and the suspense which it manages to compress in its moments of greatest intensity would almost seem enough to blow sizable holes in the screen." (from the 1940 NY Times review by Bosley Crowther.)

Escape1940

Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Writers: Arch Oboler and Marguerite Roberts, from a novel by Grace Zaring Stone
Cinematographer: Robert H. Planck
Produced by: Mervyn LeRoy and Lawrence Weingarten for MGM
Starring: Norma Shearer, Robert Taylor, Conrad Veidt, Nazimova, Felix Bressart, Albert Bassermann, Philip Dorn, Bonita Granville

Why I chose it
This one was recommended by two film friends. It was a tough choice, but I was in the mood for an MGM film with one of the "Queens" of MGM, Norma Shearer. Considering WWII was underway in Europe and looming for the US in 1940, it seemed appropriate to pick a war-themed adventure.

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
Mark Preysing (Robert Taylor) is an American who travels to Bavaria in 1936 to meet up with his actress mother Emmy Ritter (Nazimova), who as a German citizen had come back several years before to settle her husband's estate. What Mark learns, after considerable trouble, is that his mother has been captured by the Nazis and placed in a concentration camp because of perceived financial irregularities. He enlists the aid of a friendly doctor and local friends, along with the Countess von Treck, formerly an American, to navigate the hostile regime, personified by the Countess's boyfriend General von Kolb (Conrad Veidt), to get his mother out of Germany before she is executed for her "crimes." With the help of the doctor, they induce a death-like coma to try to smuggle Emmy out in a coffin. Complications ensue.

Production Background 
This film was the second of the year MGM star Robert Taylor made with director LeRoy; the first was the fan favorite Waterloo Bridge, another war-themed drama, with the emphasis on the romance. His romantic partner here, MGM queen Norma Shearer, was looking to end her acting career and was just finishing out her contract. Filling out the cast were several actors who had recently fled Germany: Conrad Veidt, whom LeRoy had pursued vigorously for the role of the General; Albert Bassermann, who made his Hollywood debut in 1940 and was cast in six films, including Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent also in 1940; Felix Bressart, a reliable character actor playing parts calling for a European; and Philip Dorn, who worked in Germany but was originally from the Netherlands. Hitler banned the movie for its antagonistic stance towards his regime, and later banned all MGM films.

Some other notable film-related events in 1940 (from Filmsite.org):

  • Disney's groundbreaking Fantasia (1940), an outgrowth of the "Silly Symphony" series, was comprised of classical music pieces and matching animation. The film received a special certificate at the 1941 Academy Awards for its revolutionary Fantasound (early stereo or 'surround-sound').
  • Vaudeville and radio stars Abbott and Costello made their big-screen film debut in One Night in the Tropics (1940). However, the two comics were not the major stars of the film, but just minor contract players (they reprised some of their famous stage acts, including a rudimentary "Who's on First"). 
  • Actor/director/producer/writer/composer Charlie Chaplin released his first "all-talking, all-sound" feature film, The Great Dictator (1940). Charlie Chaplin was the first to ever receive three simultaneous nominations, as producer, actor, and screenwriter for the film. 
  • Walter Brennan became the first performer to win three Academy Awards for acting with his win in 1940. He won Best Supporting Actor for his performances in alternating years, for Come and Get It (1936), Kentucky (1938), and The Westerner (1940).
  • The musical Down Argentine Way (1940) featured the first starring role for Betty Grable. It also featured Don Ameche and Carmen Miranda in her US film debut.

My Random Observations

  • Escape grabbed my interest from the opening, in which we see Nazimova as Emmy Ritter prostrate in the hospital ward of a concentration camp. She's desperate but indignant and not afraid to mock her captors. Her heartreading emoting sets the tone for the film. 
  • Norma Shearer played her usual heroine combining elegance and pathos, but she seemed especially subtle here, especially when dealing with her Nazi lover (Veidt). I was delighted to find this tidbit: in his book The American Cinema, critic and writer Andrew Sarris briefly analyzes and categorizes the work of directors during the Golden Age, and places Mervyn LeRoy in the "lightly likeable" category. While he mostly points out his perceived flaws, Sarris singles out LeRoy's direction of Norma Shearer and Conrad Veidt's scenes together as a career high point. 
  • Is our hero Mark Preysing's naivete typical of the American public at the time? His mother is German, and yet he seems shocked everytime he faces examples of the totalitarianism and threats of the Nazi regime. I found it a stretch that it took him so long to realize he was facing tall odds to break his death-row Mom free. Of course, my twenty-first century perspective may warp my expectations of how characters behave in these situations. 
  • I need to see more of Philip Dorn's work; as the sympathetic doctor he was quietly charismatic. Despite his soft, friendly features, you never were sure he could be trusted. 
  • Overall, a compelling film, that despite some implausible plot developments and coincidences, captures the ominessness of the Nazi regime on the verge of the U.S. entry into WWII. I'm rather surprised it isn't better known. It's not a classic like Casablanca, but it's aided by innovative visuals and the committed performances of the leads and the European emigres.
Screenshots

The doctor (Philip Dorn) tells captured Emmy Ritter (Nazimova)
that he may be able to help get a message to her son.

Preysing (Robert Taylor) encounters his first unfriendly Nazi.

Dr. Henning (Albert Bassermann) struggles to tell Preysing
he needs to abandon the search for his mother.

Preysing walks into a Nazi minefield looking for his mother.

I love the position of the Nazi symbol here.

A winter scene in small-town Bavaria: Preysing meets the 
Countess.

The General holds his teenage girl audience captive with
his charm and storytelling skills.

The Countess and the General in a relationship reckoning.

You know it's love when the Countess blows off the town 
parade to have tea with Mark Preysing in an empty cafe.

An awkward situation at the opera when your American escort is 
under suspicion by the Gestapo and you have to introduce him around.

The Doctor has an unusual interest in Preysing's business,
but all can be settled over a couple of beers.

Old friend Fritz Keller (Felix Bressart) tries to talk 
sense into Preysing.

Preysing plays solitaire to calm his nerves when the Nazi guards
at the next table decide he needs their company.

Let's make sure that Emmy Ritter is really in that coffin!

Bonita Granville (right) plays her usual venomous teen role
while the Countess tries to be nonchalant.

The General grills Preysing while a concerned Countess
contemplates how she'll get out of this jam.

Mother and son together--things are looking up.

Where to Watch
The film isn't available on any of the usual streaming services, but is released on DVD in the Warner Bros. Archive line. I borrowed a copy from a friend.

Further Reading
Read the TCM article here, full of production tidbits as usual.
The full text of Bosley Crowther's NY Times review is here.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #19: The Rains Came, 1939

"Who is the pale copper Apollo?"
(Myrna Loy, meet Tyrone Power).

The Rains Came, 1939

Director: Clarence Brown
Writer: Phillip Dunne and Julien Josephson, from the novel by Louis Bromfield
Cinematographer: Arthur C. Miller
Produced by: Darryl F. Zanuck and Harry Joe Brown for 20th Century Fox Studios
Starring: Myrna Loy, Tyrone Power, George Brent, Brenda Joyce, Nigel Bruce, Maria Ouspenskaya, Joseph Schildkraut

Why I chose it
My Twitter polls have been slowly adding votes with every new poll, and this had a total of 15. This film won appxoimately 2:1 over the next two runners-up (Midnight and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes). As I had no other criteria to choose this time, I was pleased to follow the wishes of my voters and watch this star-studded disaster/melodrama.

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
In a fictional small town in India called Ranchipur, a motley group of natives and foreigners, the latter being mostly English and Americans, get caught in a series of natural disasters that devastate the town: an earthquake followed by a tsunami and then a breakout of the plague. The main characters are Tom Ransome (George Brent), a cynical womanizer who is pursued by Fern (Brenda Joyce), the ingenue daughter of the local American missionaries; we learn Ransome has history with newly arrived Lady Edwina Esketh (Myrna Loy). Lady Esketh, for her part, married for money (we think?) to a much older Lord (Nigel Bruce) and continues her man-eating ways by pursuing the stoic, dedicated local 'high caste' doctor, Major Rama Safti (Tyrone Power). When she joins up to help the Major as a hospital volunteer working with the sick and dying plague patients, she's faced with a difficult decision when the Major can be appointed Maharaja only if he gives her up.

Production Background 
This film was Fox head Darryl Zanuck's moment in the sun. He bought the rights to the Louis Bromfield novel and went about putting his dream team together in 1939 style. He borrowed Myrna Loy and director Brown from MGM, and Brent from Warner Bros. Apparently no one was to his liking for the ingenue role, Fern, so he recruited a college student, Brenda Joyce (who went on to have a successful, if not exceptional, career in front of the camera). The fantastic scenes of torrential rains and flooding dominated the picture and the set. Credit special effects man Fred Sersen, who with his department won the first-ever special effects Oscar for his work. Apparently Brown loved his time at Fox, stating that the departments worked well together, unlike at MGM where feuds and one-upmanship were the norm. Upon release the film garnered lukewarm reviews, but it did well at the box office; however, the expenses were only recouped years later on re-release. 

Some other notable film-related events in 1939 (from Filmsite.org):

  • Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman made her American film debut (and English-speaking debut) as piano teacher/concert pianist Anita Hoffman in Intermezzo: A Love Story
  • The California Child Actor's Bill, better known as the Coogan Law, was enacted. The child labor reform act took place after 24-year-old Jackie Coogan, who had starred in The Kid (1921) opposite Charlie Chaplin, sued his parents (mother and stepfather) in 1938 for mismanaging and exploiting his career and spending his acquired fortune as a young star. 
  • The future rival to film -- television -- was formally introduced at the New York World's Fair in Queens. The Radio Corporation of America (RCA) unveiled a display of its first TV sets for sale to the American public.
  • British actor Basil Rathbone, as Sherlock Holmes - with an Inverness cape and curved-stem pipe, was accompanied by dull-witted, pipe-smoking Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, in their first appearance together as the crime-fighting duo, in 20th Century Fox's The Hound of the Baskervilles

My Random Observations

  • I must have reached the level of film fan who can instinctively associate stars and directors with particular studios; it's for that reason that the mixing of Brent, Loy, and Power had me doing double-takes at the screen watching this film. Sort of a patchwork quilt of a production!
  • While I absolutely adore black and white films, I feel this one may have been more impactful on viewers if in color, especially during the year that produced The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind at competing studios. (Yes, I know other great pictures that year, like Stagecoach and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, were filmed in B&W).
  • At times I felt that Alfred Newman's score was overbearing and distracted from the dialogue or action. I loved the Indian music interludes, but the European orchestral part of the score could have been dialed back (as I write this, I recognize a parallel between the use of music in this film and the Western influence in Indian culture especially during the colonial era).
  • I have a totally new appreciation for George Brent. Before, whenever he showed up in a movie, I would wince or sigh in resignation. I realize that is largely my prejudice. But here, he astonished me. His character may have been the best written, with the roguish and generous elements in his personality dueling at times, and Brent knew exactly how to play it. His performance was, in my opinion, the best of the entire cast. Even with Tyrone Power at his peak of handsomeness, I couldn't take my eyes off of him.
  • I was having a sense of deja vu and realized it was because of the similar themes and plot points of The Painted Veil, the Somerset Maugham novel that was filmed in 1934 and 2006. In that novel, a young wife, who is superficial and selfish, follows her physician husband to Hong Kong, takes up with a handsome colonial official, but ultimately finds purpose and true love by working alongside her husband to curb a deadly outbreak of cholera in China.

Screenshots
The opening titles appear to wash away, one after another.

Ransome (George Brent) is content to sling pebbles at monkeys
outside his patio.

Elegant Tyrone Power dons brownface and a turban here
as Major Rama Safti.

Jane Darwell and Henry Travers run the American
Missionary School, and allow Ransome a respite from the
pretentious Mission owners next door.


Ransome not sure which part of his nature should win
when it comes to young Fern (Brenda Joyce).

H. B. Warner and Maria Ouspenskaya as Ranchipur's
Maharaja and Maharani.

Not a glimpse of a happy marriage (Loy and Bruce).

Ransome has his eye on the clouds as he takes a moment
to reflect on his past with Lady Esketh.

An unexpected romance begins to take root.

Lord Esketh's diary of his wife's dalliances.

During the floods, Fern comes to rescue Ransome and prepares
for a rest afterward.

Tom Ransome clings to the top of the statue of Queen 
Victoria, now mostly immersed in the rushing tsunami.
Symbolism, anyone?

Major Safti attends to the dying Maharajah.

Lady Esketh ponders her next move--in cards and in life.

Lady Esketh, masked against the plague, tends to a critically 
ill patient.

Major Safti's heart is pierced by the newly selfless Edwina.

Tom confronts Safti on his career choices.

Safti dressed for success, admired by the Maharani.

Where to Watch: I found a somewhat inferior print on YouTube here, and would instead recommend checking the DVD ("Studio Classics" line) out of your local library.

Further Reading
A major source for me was Mark Vieira's book Majestic Hollywood, The Greatest Films of 1939 (2013).
I also recommend Jeremy Arnold's article for TCM on the film with many juicy production tidbits, including Myrna Loy's relationships with others on the set and the tricks used by cinematographer Miller.