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Jack Nicholson in The Raven (1963)

Bizarrely enough, I had never before seen Jack Nicholson in a movie until he unexpectedly walked through the door in a 1963 comic B horror movie, The Raven, directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre. I never associated Jack Nicholson with comedy, but the kicker is that in this comedic story with Price, Karloff and Lorre hamming it up for all they are worth, Nicholson is actually pretty funny.

The film opens with Vincent Price, as Dr. Erasmus Craven, quoting Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” Dr. Craven is a sensitive soul, a vegetarian and sorcerer who “prefers to practice [his] magic quietly at home” and is still mourning the death of his second wife, Lenore. But into his misanthropic musings comes a real raven, who turns out to be the rather ineffectual Dr. Bedlo (Peter Lorre), transformed into a raven by the magic of Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff), the evil grandmaster of the Brotherhood of Magicians. When Dr. Craven hears from Dr. Bedlo that he thought he saw Lenore (Hazel Court) alive at the castle of Dr. Scarabus, the two set out to investigate.

However, on this dangerous mission they somehow end up bringing the whole family: Craven’s daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess) and Bedlo’s son, Rexford (Jack Nicholson), who fall in love while their parents deal with Scarabus. They arrive at the castle and are met by Scarabus, dripping false benevolence as only Boris Karloff can.

Entering Scarabus’ Domain

The idea of Jack Nicholson as Peter Lorre’s son is pretty funny in itself. As Scarabus says after mistaking Rexford for Craven’s son and being set right, “The resemblance is quite uncanny.” Even Craven asks Bedlo if Rexford favors his mother. Bedlo’s gloomy reply is that “she favors him.”

While the Price, Karloff and Lorre ham it up for all their worth (delightfully), Jack Nicholson steps into the story with perfect earnestness and sincerity, speaking in a kind of deadpan, flat tone. He was originally sent by his mother to find his father and is always trying to take care of him, remonstrate with him, prevent him from drinking too much wine or challenge Scarabus to yet another duel. It’s all the more amusing for his seeming unaware of all the jokes going on around him.

The special effects are hopelessly cheesy, but the cast pretty much knows it and seem to all be having a grand time. Scarabus wants Craven’s secret for magic by hand gestures and the two of them have a magic face-off, rather in the mold of Gandalf and Saruman in The Fellowship of the Rings, only the participants seem to be having more fun in The Raven.

Evidently, Jack Nicholson made his start in B films and appeared in a number of movies directed by Roger Corman. He had all good memories of working with the cast of The Raven, though he didn’t care for the actual raven, who had an inconvenient habit of relieving himself on people. The script is entirely un-serious. Matheson felt that was the only way to adapt a poem to screen. It seems like there are far worse B movies to make at the beginning of a career…and far worse actors to work with.

This post was written as part of the “Here’s Jack Blogathon,” hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews. Be sure to check out more posts about Jack Nicholson for Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3!

 
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Posted by on April 23, 2017 in Movies

 

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Happiness Ahead (1934)

Dick Powell must have accomplished one of the more remarkable mid-career transformations of any actor from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I still experience a sense of cognitive dissonance whenever I try to think of the boyish, endearing, and dulcet tenor as the wry cynic of hard-boiled noir. He’s convincing in both manifestations, but it’s hard to think of him as the same person.

Happiness Ahead is squarely in the boyish tenor mode of his early years at Warner Bros. The film was released in 1934, around the time the Production Code was more strongly enforced, so there is little to set this film apart as a pre-code film, but it is simple, unpretentious fun.

Joan Bradford (Josephine Hutchinson) is the rich daughter of a wall street tycoon who is bored with her stuffy life and the financial pragmatism of her mother. Her father (John Halliday), however, is sympathetic to her feelings, especially since he worked his way up from newsboy. Her mother wants her to marry an equally rich man, but Joan rebels and goes out on the town to mingle with the masses.

At a Chinese nightclub, she meets Bob Lane (Dick Powell), office manager at a window washing firm and they are instantly attracted to each other. Bob and his party of friends think she’s poor and out of work (the women of the group even offer to help her find a job), so Joan decides to set up an apartment and pretend to be a working class girl like them, fearing knowledge of her wealth would change how they interact with her.

In a way, she’s trying to have the best of both worlds. The camaraderie and unaffected  pleasures of the working classes (roller skating rather than opera and polo) with the wealth to be able to afford to do and live however she chooses (she even rents a piano in her apartment so she can have her new friends over for a party). However, she doesn’t know exactly how to live as a working class girl. She forgets to turn off the lights in her apartment when she leaves (something no person counting their pennies would do) and is nonchalant when one friend breaks the window in her apartment kitchen. In various ways, the film contrasts the way the rich and the poor live, though it seems to want to have it both ways, too. The film ends up like a reverse Cinderella tale for Dick Powell’s Bob.

He works in the office, as well as a window washer (trying to inspire the men, who are being threatened by a rival window washing company – a side-plot that hovers on the periphery of the film). He has a scheme to go into business for himself and he has his sales pitch down pat. And once the misunderstandings that naturally arise when Joan’s deception is discovered are cleared up, you know that his association with her father will bring him unexpected wealth.

The film is a musical, with all the songs sung by Dick Powell (with one duet with Frank McHugh). None of the songs are especially memorable or became standards, but they are pleasant and were composed by Allie Wrubel (who is best remembered for composing the music for “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”).

The film also has Warner Brothers’ usual array of character actors: Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Allen Jenkins, Jane Darwell. I was a little surprised to see Jane Darwell’s name at the bottom of the cast list, but I don’t think she really achieved wide recognition until she played Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. I’ve seen her play a motherly sort so often, it was interesting to see her play the sour and irascible landlady in Happiness Ahead.

 
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Posted by on April 19, 2017 in Movies

 

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The Seventh Veil (1945)

The Seventh Veil is an excellent British psychological melodrama with a dreadful ending. Not quite on par with the ending of Suspicion, but pretty bad nonetheless. Though The Seventh Veil is actually in the top ten highest grossing films of all time in Britain (adjusting for inflation), so perhaps I am in the minority. Or perhaps the ending is simply overlooked for the sake of a fascinating film, and it is a very fascinating film.

The film begins with psychologist Dr. Larsen (Herbert Lom) treating a concert pianist, Francesca (Ann Todd), who is suicidal and has a fixation about her hands, convinced that she can no longer play the piano.

Dr. Larsen’s contention is that psychology is like surgery, you must unclothe the mind in order to operate. He says the mind has seven veils – like the notorious “Dance of the Seven Veils” in the opera Salome (though I’ve read that some sopranos like to do the dance of the eight or nine veils, just so they can leave a veil or two on). Employing narcosis, he induces Francesca to tell him about her past, which the movie reveals in a series of flashbacks.

As an orphan of fourteen, Francesca was sent to live with her distant cousin Nicholas (James Mason), a brooding, wealthy, sophisticated and rather sinister woman-hater with a limp who has little use for a child in his house (but he likes cats!). However, when he discovers that she loves music and can play the piano, he sets out to transform her into a concert pianist, teaching her himself for hours a day. The film follows his oppressive hold over her and her many attempts to break free of his influence, all the while indeed becoming the great pianist that he dreamed she would be.

In some ways, it makes me think of Red Shoes. Francesca can’t live without her music any more than Vicky Page can live without ballet. And they both have a Svengali-like controlling influence hovering over them, who are necessary to their success.

James Mason as Nicholas is, of course, perfect. Nobody can brood better than Mason, or be suavely sinister and yet intense at the same time in the way he can. He absolutely dominates her life…almost living musically through her, like she’s possessed by him.

Ann Todd and James Mason

And Ann Todd’s cool reserve as an actress actually enhances this, because although we know she cannot live without the piano, she rarely seems to take much pleasure in it. Her oppressive fear of Nicholas and of injury to her hands (going back to a childhood caning that destroyed her chance of a music scholarship, later exacerbated by Nicholas’s constant focus on her hands) seems to sap all the transcendent joy of playing. She’s like a zombie at times.

The film is highly claustrophobic, echoing Francesca’s sense of being trapped in a small world of Nicholas and her music. And who knew a piano concert could be so tense? At her debut, where she plays Edvard Grieg’s piano concerto, her psychosomatic fear of her hands swelling makes one honestly wonder if she will make it through the concert.

Ann Todd also does an excellent job of “playing” the piano. Pianist Eileen Joyce taught Todd how to move her hands and arms and look convincing as a pianist and it is clear Todd must have worked very hard at it, though any close-ups of her hands at the piano were done by Joyce. But the film by no means shies away from showing Todd at the piano and the result is very convincing.

(Plot Spoilers) But that ending! The film has its share of a melodrama’s improbabilities (the psychological angle makes for great cinema, but is hardly realistic, and Ann Todd is not even remotely convincing as a fourteen year old child in the beginning), but I confess that it is the ending that irked me. Though there are two other men who Francesca loves at different times in the story, by the end she is rescued from her suicidal thoughts by Dr. Larsen and realizes that her true love is…Nicholas! Abusive, controlling Nicholas.

Ann Todd, Herbert Lom, and a nurse

It’s the inverse of Red Shoes. Instead of killing herself because she cannot have both love and her piano, she sidesteps that issue by centering both her love and music on Nicholas. But I have a hard time believing that she could love him. She spends the entire film clearly resenting and fearing his control, unless we are to mistrust her flashback memories (which would ironically give the lie to Dr. Larsen’s idea that he can strip away all the veils). It seems inconsistent, and Nicholas far too sinister, for it to be a satisfactory resolution to the story. It would be like Trilby marrying Svengali and the author expecting his readers to rejoice. Or perhaps we are supposed to be made uneasy by the end?

But apart from the ending, it is a compelling movie that is well worth watching, especially for those who like James Mason or British cinema. The film fits squarely in that time period when Hollywood was also obsessed with psychology. The Seventh Veil was even released before Alfred Hitchcock released Spellbound. It’s well-acted (Herbert Lom is also excellent as the kindly Svengali-like psychologist), very much of its time, and has great music. It is also currently available on youtube.

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2017 in Movies

 

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