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Evening Primrose (1966)

mv5bmtmzmde2ntuzml5bml5banbnxkftztcwndm1mjy4mw-_v1_uy268_cr40182268_al_Evening Primrose is a musical written for the television series ABC Stage 67, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and I am indebted to Realweegiemidget for making me aware of this film. It sounded too quirky to pass up. A sort of grotesque little Romeo and Juliet set in a department store.

Anthony Perkins is Charles Snell, a poet who decides to get away from the world and devote himself to inspiration and poetry by hiding out in a department store. To his surprise, however, the department store is  already inhabited by people, who pose as mannequins during the day and live their lives at night. Almost all of them are elderly. Mrs. Monday (Dorothy Stickney) is the original resident, arriving in the department store before the turn of the century. During various depressions (1921, 1929) more people arrived.

There is one young person there, however. Ella Harkins (Charmian Carr) was left in the department store as a child and now works as a servant to Mrs. Monday, though she is viewed and treated as an outsider. Charles is immediately enchanted with her, but Mrs. Monday and her people have very strict rules. One does not associate with Ella, who is not living there from choice; one cannot ever leave (they are afraid of exposure); and one apparently must do everything Mrs. Monday says, who’s really running a kind of snobby dictatorship. Her will is enforced by “the Dark Men,” mysterious inhabitants of a mortuary who periodically visit to enforce Mrs. Monday’s laws by turning people into mannequins.

It makes one wonder very much how many of the mannequins are really mannequins and how many are simply corpses. Interestingly, all the mannequins are young people. Though one perhaps could make a case that the elderly inhabitants, playing their bridge, dancing their waltzes, are half-mummified, too.

It’s ironic. Charles left the world so he could leave the petty money and social concerns of life and encounters another oppressive society in microcosm in the department store. Ella and Charles have to meet on the sly while he teaches her how to read and do arithmetic. It’s actually very touching, along with Ella’s desire to “see the world,” which she can barely remember. She poignantly sings about her memories in a song that compares things like the sky to various department store items.

It’s a rather romantic film, if ironic and deeply quirky, even horror-ish, and it totally had me going until the end, at which point I was a little horrified. I laughed, and was a bit horrified.

downloadEvening Primrose, as I understand it, is distinctly minor Sondheim, but the songs are rather catchy and poignant, especially “Take Me to Your World. It was televised in color, but only recently did they find and released the black and white copy on DVD. It still looks rather grainy, but the film has a certain atmosphere about it. It made me think of a wax museum.

I must admit to being taken aback to learn that Anthony Perkins did a musical, but he does well. His voice has a somewhat limited range, but it works for the role. Charles Snell is still a little eccentric, but one still feels completely invested in his character.

I can’t help but think of Charmian Carr as Liesl, but it was nice to see in her an another film. Here, she is sad, eager, both brimming for life and longing for it – they are a rather adorable couple. If you like Perkins or Carr, are in the mood for something a little offbeat or are a fan of Stephen Sondheim, it’s definitely worth seeing.

The film can currently be seen on youtube.

 
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Posted by on October 24, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Unknown (1927) – Joan Crawford Blogathon

PosterunknownusxI was going to call The Unknown a horror story, but that doesn’t exactly capture the essence of the film. It is more like a macabre and lurid melodrama.

Alonzo (Lon Chaney) is an armless knife-thrower who is obsessed with Nanon (Joan Crawford), the daughter of the circus owner (Nick De Ruiz). Alonzo is not alone, however, in wanting Nanon. Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry) is the strongman of the circus and is also interested in her.

But Nanon has an extreme phobia of men’s hands. She says they have never done anything but paw her and one wonders very much about her father (who seems like the abusive type). She is attracted to Malabar, but she shrinks from him every time he tries to touch her. The only man she feels safe around is Alonzo.

But Alonzo has a secret. He really has two arms, though he keeps them hidden and strapped down for his act. He is also wanted by the police for theft and murder and would easily be recognized by his two thumbs on one hand. But as Cojo (John George), his assistant, tells him, he could never marry Nanon anyway. On their wedding night she would discover he really has arms and she would hate him.

But as Cojo also knows, Nanon does not look on Alonzo has a potential lover. She views him as a surrogate father, though this seems to have escaped Alonzo. There is one scene in the middle of the film where she leans in to embrace Alonzo and for a moment Cojo (and we the audience) thinks she’s going to kiss him on the lips, but instead she leans against his cheek. Cojo is visibly disappointed because he realizes what it means, but Alonzo is in an ecstasy that she kissed him at all. He’s already left reality and it’s scenes like this that make me love silent film, how they can convey so much without a word.

Alonzo smoking with his feet while Nanon asks him about their future plans now that her father is dead

Alonzo using his foot to hold and smoke his cigarette

Another remarkable scene occurs when he is moodily smoking and thinking about Nanon while Cojo watches in fascination. Alonzo’s arms are not strapped down to his sides, but instead of using his hands to hold his cigarette, habit takes over and he unconsciously uses his feet to light and hold his cigarette, while his arms hang at his side like dead weights. It’s a remarkable physical performance by Chaney (though much of knife-throwing and other stunts involving the use of legs and feet were done by a double, Peter Desmuke, who really was without two arms).

But this lack of dependence on his arms leads Alonzo to a a rather grotesque conclusion. Why not simply remove his arms for real? What’s rather alarming is that given his goals (avoiding the police, winning Nanon), there is a certain logic to this conclusion. He just does not take into account that Nanon does not love him or that Malabar will finally figure out why Nanon shrinks from him (his hands) and work to overcome it.

When Alonzo returns after having his arms removed, and finds that Nanon is cured of her hand phobia, he goes mad in spectacular fashion and the ending is a real killer. The pitch of tension created is almost unbearable.

The film was directed by Tod Browning and it was nice to see some of his silent work and not just think of him as the guy who directed Dracula. This was evidently the sort of story that he excelled at. Unfortunately, the present print of The Unknown seems to be missing some footage and flies by at a breathless pace of 50 minutes! It makes the film feel unnaturally rushed at certain points, as if we’re dashing between plot points.

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Joan Crawford as Nanon

Lon Chaney is, of course, magnificent (he seems to combine subtlety and intensity with over-the-top charisma), but I was really watching the film for Joan Crawford. The most recent Joan Crawford film I saw before The Unknown (1927) was Johnny Guitar (1954) and in The Unknown she is so young that I hardly recognized her as the same woman. She is much looser, more relaxed, almost girlish, but still with the dynamism that would propel her to stardom. I’ve never thought of her as uptight, but after watching how loose she was in The Unknown, I’ve begun to rethink that. Tense? Tightly-coiled in later films? But in The Unknown she’s almost naturalistic.

And maybe it’s partly the absence of her voice. Somehow, while watching The Uknown the voice I was hearing in my head was not Joan Crawford’s voice (whenever I see someone like William Powell in a silent film, I can always hear his voice). It made her seem less tough, more vulnerable.

But she could definitely hold her own against Lon Chaney. She may be playing a somewhat naive, emotionally battered and vulnerable young woman, but she was not overwhelmed by Chaney. I could have actually wished for more at the end, more of a confrontation between them, more time for her character to register the revelation of Alonzo’s real character. I felt rather cheated of a show down between them, though perhaps I was expecting too much. After all, Lon Chaney was a well established star and it’s his movie all the way. But knowing what she’s capable of, I still felt the loss. Though perhaps it was more the fault of the film’s rapid pace and missing footage.

It’s clear that even if sound had not come to the movies, Joan Crawford would have been a star. Although she went through a variety of personas – flapper (Our Dancing Daughters) during the silent era, shop-girl making her way through a tough depression-ridden, male-dominated world – The Unknown felt like a pre-persona role, which might also account for the apparent naturalism. I had to keep reminding myself that I was indeed watching Joan Crawford. Which made the role all the more interesting.

This post is part of the Joan Crawford Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, to whom I am most grateful for hosting this event! For more great posts on Joan Crawford, click here.

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Posted by on July 29, 2016 in Movies

 

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Frankenstein vs. God?

There’s a joke I once heard as a child (paraphrased by me):

The earth had reached a state of perfection where scientists had solved all their problems: war, famine and hunger, global warming, disease – life was now perfect and ideal. So they sent a delegation of scientists to see God and tell him that they no longer required his services. “We can do anything you can do,” they told him. God listened to them politely.

“Name something,” they said. “Name anything and we’ll show you we can do it as well as you.”

“Why don’t you create life,” God said.

“Oh, that’s easy!” one scientist said and bent down to grab a handful of dust. God stopped them.

“Wait a moment,” God said, “Get your own dust!”

UntitledBut in all seriousness, as much as Frankenstein movies warn about trespassing on the realm of God (and if you think about it, Frankenstein’s not even in the ballpark), I never found they made a very convincing case. The pertinent message ends up being more about scientific ethics and the nature of humanity. Though, admittedly, Frankenstein does have a colossal god complex.

But if the movies had really been about trespassing on the realm of God, there shouldn’t have been any careless accidents (like using the wrong brain?). There should have been divine retribution (the proverbial zapped by lightning). Either that or it simply shouldn’t have been possible to create life. Interestingly enough, in the 2015 Victor Frankenstein, that is exactly what happens. Victor Frankenstein creates a being that breathes, but it has no soul and Frankenstein concludes that what he has created is not really life – just a carcass with a heart pumping (or hearts, in this case).

But in the Frankenstein films, an unspoken question is asked – what makes someone alive?

In the original 1931 Frankenstein and the 1957 Hammer Studio The Curse of Frankenstein, they do succeed in creating a living human being. Both “monsters,” played by Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, have damaged brains (caused by careless or bickering scientists and their assistants), but they feel pain, suffering, longing, confusion. But the fact that both “monsters” have damaged brains is something of a side-issue in the films. It wouldn’t have mattered if both of them had been fully functioning, thinking adult creations. Their very appearance and the way in which Frankenstein treats them would have caused problems.

In the original Frankenstein, Colin Clive plays an obsessed scientist – not so much evil as totally consumed by what he is doing. In the 1957 version, Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein is an out-and-out psychopath (like Beauty and the Beast, he’s the real monster in the story). But what they both have in common is a casual attitude towards their creation. In fact, that is part of the problem. They think of the “monster” as their creation – something to experiment upon, study and destroy in a way that wouldn’t be acceptable if their creations were animals. They talk of creating life, but they don’t treat them as life.

this image perfectly illustrates Frankenstein's attitude to his creation

this image pretty much sums up Frankenstein’s attitude to his creation

Actually, it makes me think, of all things, of George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion.” Because Henry Higgins thinks he’s created Eliza Doolittle, the perfect lady, he thinks he can control her and treats her as though she had no feelings. Except in the end she asserts her independence and waltzes out. But she has options in life that aren’t exactly available to Frankenstein’s monster.

So, if they’re not really trying to create life, what are they trying to do? Science for self-aggrandizement and fame – like a Greek hero who wants to be remembered after he has died? To exercise control and power? The thrill of discovery and the challenge? Maybe all these reasons and more? Perhaps they (or at least Colin Clive’s Frankenstein) even once wanted to do good.

But the Frankensteins’ treatment of their creations tends to be little better than their treatment of other people (especially in the case of Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein), who are the little people in their personal drama. Oddly enough, the creation of life ends up resulting in the isolation of the creator (I had to get the theme of loneliness in there somehow!) and a lack of sympathy for those already alive. In Frankenstein, creating life ends up a kind of nihilism.

This is my contribution to the Movie Scientist Blogathon, hosted by myself and Silver Screenings. Follow the links for the rest of the entries: Day 1 was devoted to Good Scientists, Day 2 went to the Mad ones, and Today comprises the Lonely ones.Scientist Blogathon Banners

 
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Posted by on February 21, 2016 in Movies

 

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