Sunday, October 22, 2017

Dance, Fools, Dance

Film in Focus

By Ed Garea

Dance, Fools, Dance (MGM, 1931) – Director: Harry Beaumont. Writers: Aurania Rouverol (story & dialogue), Richard Schayer (continuity) & Joan Crawford (contributing writer, uncredited). Stars: Joan Crawford, Lester Vail, Cliff Edwards, William Bakewell, Clark Gable, Earle Foxe, Purnell Pratt, Hale Hamilton, William Holden, Natalie Moorhead, Joan Marsh & Russell Hopton. B&W, 80 minutes.

Dance, Fools, Dance is a solid attempt by MGM to move star Joan Crawford from jazz baby to working girl. In the process the writers adapt an Aesop fable to modern times. Sespite the triteness of the plot, director Beaumont keeps things moving, making for a enjoyable and fast 80 minutes.


Bonnie Jordan (Crawford) and her brother, Rodney (Bakewell) are two spoiled, carefree socialites whose father, Stanley (Holden) is a successful businessman. Bonnie and Rodney spend their nights partying and their days resting from their nights. To give us an idea of just how shallow these two are, we’re offered a breakfast scene were Bonnie lights up. When her father asks her if she has to smoke before they eat, she replies, “I must if I want to keep thin, darling.” We’re also given a glimpse of the parties Bonnie holds aboard her yacht, which seems to be her home away from home. There is a scene when everyone strips down to their underwear and dives into the water. Later, Bonnie’s boyfriend, Bob (Vail) goes to her cabin and proposes marriage, but she tells him that “I believe in trying love out – on approval.”

However, the gravy train is about to derail. The stock market crashes and Stanley dies trying to bail out his financial ship. Bonnie and Rodney are flat broke, forced to auction off the contents of the mansion where they grew up. Rodney becomes bitter over the turn of events, whining about the prospect of having to go to work, but Bonnie is made of stronger stuff, telling her brother, “There no use crying about it. Buck up. Put on your spurs and gauntlets and give the world a battle. Swat ‘em in the eye.” MGM’s advice on how to beat the Depression.

Bob (Vail) shows up with a weak marriage proposal that Bonnie turns down, much to Bob’s relief. No, she has to make it on her own. “I’m going out to get myself a man-sized job. I’m not afraid! You’d be surprised to learn what she can earn when a young girl sets her mind to it.” Rodney, on the other hand, is an idler, one for whom work is as four-letter word. His idea of a full day is to begin drinking at breakfast and languish in an alcoholic haze the rest of the day. He is perfectly content to sit back and let Bonnie be the breadwinner.

Dirt poor, but resourceful and full of pluck, Bonnie soon lands a job as a cub reporter on the New York Star. She soon becomes popular for her hard work and good humor. “You don’t know the thrill of making it on your own,” she tells Rodney. “And I don’t mean by trading on your name and running to parties all the time.”

Rodney tells her he has some big deals of his own on the fire, “and I’ll soon have you running around with the old crowd again.” Bonnie declines his invitation. When he asks why, she tells him: “I used to think anything I did was all right. I was Bonnie Jordan – in society. Society! What is it but a lot of people who are for you when you’re on the up and up, but what would one of them do for you the it came to a showdown? Nothing! It isn’t who you are, Rodney, but what you are that counts!”

What Rodney has neglected to tell her is that he’s fallen in with a gang of bootleggers led by Jake Luva (Gable) and using his name with his society friends to peddle Luva’s hooch.

Meanwhile, Bonnie grows to love her work and is befriended by Bert Scranton (Edwards), the paper’s top reporter. Her hard work is rewarded with an assignment to  cover the rackets in a series of stories. 

The film’s second act now begins, as Jake’s gang mow down members of a rival gang in a garage, a clear allusion to the St. Valentine Day’s Massacre of a year ago. The scene of the breaking news at the paper’s headquarters is obviously critical of the media frenzy to sell papers: get big stories along with photos, and the more blood and violence, the better.

Rodney is clearly shaken by the turn of events, for he drove the gang’s getaway car. He never thought it would come to this, and while at Jake’s club he spills his soul to a stranger who turns out to be none other than Bert. When Jake finds out, he’s livid and orders Rodney to kill Bert, which Rodney does clearly in order to save his own life.

The police have now ordered a dragnet to find Bert’s killer, but the paper wants to beat them to the punch. Surmising that Luva is behind the hit, Bonnie’s editor sends her out undercover to infiltrate the gang by becoming a dancer at the club. “Nobody knows the Jordan girl is working on our paper – and they’ll never suspect a girl,” he says.


But complications develop when Jake falls for Bonnie. “You’re going to have a little supper with me tonight – up in my room,” he whispers as they dance. “We’ve got to get better acquainted.” She agrees and they smile knowingly.

When Bob recognizes her at the club she tries to throw him off by telling him that, “I’m just a cheap little dancer in a nightclub.”

When she goes up to Jake’s apartment, hoping to get her story, the phone rings. She answers and recognizes the voice of her brother on the other end. Realizing the extent of Rodney’s involvement she sneaks away from Jake’s and confronts her brother, who admits he murdered Bert. 

In the third act Jake discovers the truth about Bonnie and threatens to kill her and Rodney. When Rodney arrives a shootout takes place that leaves Jake and his minions dead and Rodney dying in Bonnie’s arms. She calls the paper and delivers the story, revealing the truth. The next day her boss and co-workers try to discourage her from quitting, but she feels that she must. As she walks out, Bob finds her and proposes again. She accepts, and as they kiss, some of her friends on the paper capture the moment for the announcement of their marriage on the society pages.

Afterwords

This is Crawford’s movie and she had solo billing above the title. It’s also notable for moving her beyond the persona of the carefree dancing flapper to the noble working girl – a role she would be famous for playing in the following years.

Crawford even helped with the screenplay when writer Aurania Rouverol ran into difficulty transforming her own story into in screenplay because of the rushed production schedule. Crawford offered to help and, in fact, contributed much of the film’s dialogue.

The plot itself is borrowed from Aesop’s “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” Crawford’s character is the ant, diligent and hard-working. Brother Rodney is the grasshopper, idle and willing to let his sister support both of them. When he does decide to make money he does so by trading on his name and his idling eventually leads to murder. 

The film also marked a big step ahead for Gable, and even though he doesn’t appear until 35 minutes into the movie, he received substantial billing. The chemistry between him and Crawford in evident. Watch for the scene in the club where they dance. After Bonnie agrees to visit Jake’s apartment, he goes to kiss her. She turns her face and he kisses her cheek. He tries again with the same result. But the third time he draws her close to him, hip-to-hip, groin-to-groin. It appears that she was not expecting this sort of sexual advance and she tries to conceal a grin of surprise and a look of mild shock. She seems to be glancing toward the director and cameraman, waiting to hear “Cut!” But as nothing was said, when Gable went to plant a big kiss on her she doesn’t turn away.

As with other films about strong women made during this time, having accomplished her goal, Bonnie calls it quits and accepts Bob’s proposal of marriage. A woman can be independent, but not too independent. Ultimately, her place is in the home, raising the children and doing the cooking.

Face it, the story is hokum. But it’s great hokum and there’s not a dull minute to be had, thanks to director Harry Beaumont, who keeps things moving at a lively pace. He even adds a few satirical touches, as in the scene at the stock exchange. As chaos looms all around, Beaumont compares it to a Jazz Age dance sequence. Fools can be found all over. And check out the scene where one of the stocks being pushed is “Consolidated Air.”


Speaking of Jazz Age dancing, the weakest part of the film is where Joan dances in the club. Her dancing is rather klutzy and weak, especially when compared to her earlier silents. She is also learning how to act on film. The film, like other early talkies, is still negotiating the new grammar of sound. There are times when the cast reverted to wild gesturing, but thankfully these are few.   

Both Crawford and Gable used the film to develop their screen personas. For Crawford, this means setting her jaw and, as Jay Carr noted in his essay for TCM, “bravely staring off out of the frame, as if her troubles are too cosmic to bear, but she'll bear them anyway.” Her portrayals of hard-working, hard-driving women paid off with huge popularity among female audiences. 

For his part Gable concentrated on playing Gable. Instead of molding his personality to the character, he molded the character to his personality, so that no matter who he was playing, he was merely playing an extension of himself. While it paid off with most of his roles, it failed miserably when he tried to transcend his bounds with a character like Parnell. There he was left high and dry, hoisted on his own petard.

The supporting cast does well, especially Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards as Bert Scranton. William Bakewell is appropriately spineless as brother Rodney, and Bob Vail is decent in a small role, as is William Holden as the Jordan’s doomed father. 

Those looking for Pre-Code thrills are bound to be disappointed, because, aside from the opening yacht party, there aren’t many to be had, aside from the brief Gable-Crawford dance sequence.


Dance, Fools, Dance cost MGM $744,000. It grossed $848,000 in the US and Canada and $420,000 elsewhere, resulting in a profit of $524,000. Not bad for 1931. Crawford proved herself a bankable star.

Friday, October 20, 2017

TCM TiVo Alert for October 23-31

TCM TiVo ALERT
For
October 23–October 31

DAVID’S BEST BETS:

HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (October 23, 10:15 pm): In this 1986 Woody Allen film, Mia Farrow is Hannah, whose husband (played by Michael Caine), falls in love with one of her sisters, a free-spirit (Barbara Hershey). Woody, as Hannah's ex-husband, steals every scene as a hypochondriac convinced he's going to die. He ends up with Hannah's other sister (Dianne Wiest). The acting is spectacular, with Caine winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and Wiest for Best Supporting Actress, and an all-star cast. 

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (October 26, 2:00 am): It's horrifying in parts, but the story is told so well and the acting is superb. Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is the leader of the Droogs, a gang of thugs who get high on drug-laced milk and then terrorize London with "a little of the old ultraviolence," They brutally beat up, rape and/or kill arbitrary people for kicks (pun intended). The scenes are graphic, but some include a bit of entertainment. You'll never hear the song "Singin' in the Rain" the same way again. Alex is caught by the authorities and agrees to go through a process to remove his violent behavior by being repeatedly exposed to graphically violent scenes. He's then sent out into the world without the ability to defend himself, and payback is a bitch. Director Stanley Kubrick points the finger at people and government for society's violence and its failings. It's very well done, but be warned again, it's deeply disturbing. 

ED’S BEST BETS:

CURSE OF THE DEMON (October 24, midnight): A wonderful old-fashioned horror thriller concerning anthropologist Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) who made his reputation debunking the occult. He is about to meet his match in the persona of one Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), a practitioner of the black arts much in the style of Alistair Crowley. Those who he perceives as a threat are slipped a small parchment and are later visited by one of the scariest and best monsters in the history of film. But this is more than a mere horror film. It’s a wonderful give and take between the skeptical Holden and the sinister Karswell. The audience is sucked right into the film from the beginning when a colleague of Holden’s, Dr. Harrington (Maurice Denham) gets his when the monster drops in on him. And remember, “It’s in the trees! It’s coming!” (Which Kate Bush sampled for her song “The Hounds of Love.”) Don’t miss this one – it’s a genuine classic of the genre.

THE OLD DARK HOUSE (October 31, 8:00 pm): Director James Whale’s dark comedy about a group of travelers (Charles Laughton, Gloria Stuart, Lillian Bond & Melvyn Douglas) who are stranded at the home of the eccentric Femm family (headed by the marvelous Ernest Thesiger) and their butler, Morgan (Boris Karloff), during a storm. As the night progresses the stranded guests are treated to unnerving banter among the Femms, dark family secrets, and several attempted murders. There’s even a psychotic Femm locked upstairs in a room. After a so-so theatrical run the studio shelved the film and over the years it was considered lost. But in 1968 director Curtis Harrington, Whale’s protege, located it and convinced Kodak to restore it to its original form. It is now considered a masterpiece of horror and comedy.

WE DISAGREE ON ... SOYLENT GREEN (October 26, 4:30 am)

ED: B. I like science fiction movies in general, and while I liked Soylent Green, I can’t go higher than a B. The pluses are a solid story and an unforgettable performance by Edward G. Robinson in his last film. On the other hand, there are the minuses. First and foremost is Charlton Heston. If Soylent Green were made from wood, Chuck would have gone under 10 minutes into the movie. Bricks show more emotion. Not that Chuck gets much support. Chuck Connors makes Heston look like De Niro and Leigh Taylor-Young has mastered the craft of Not Acting. Also, the direction is lacking. Richard Fleischer would never be my choice to direct such a film. He’s more comfortable with the likes of MandingoAmityville 3-D, and Red Sonja. And yet another reason for my grade is that the screenplay is on the verge of ridiculous. I agree – most sci-fi scripts are ridiculous: gigantic ants, monsters from the sea, etc., but it’s the logic contained within the script that makes it passable. Soylent Green has a great idea for a plot – it doesn’t get any better than an overpopulated Earth in the future with a food shortage – but the screenplay fails to follow through. Point of basic logic: if the world was that bad in the future, would we see that kind of boom in the population? And this is New York; shouldn’t there be more Asians and Hispanics in the mix. Check out Blade Runner by comparison. One last point: If, at the end, we’re going to raise people for food, what are we going to feed them? It’s an entertaining movie with a terrific performance by Eddie G., but it’s not the stuff of greatness.


DAVID: A+. Charlton Heston was certainly wooden in a number of pictures, but he was the master of the epic – Ben-HurEl Cid and The Ten Commandments – and even better in what I call his "Post-Apocalyptic Trilogy" – Planet of the ApesThe Omega Man, and Soylent Green. In the latter film, Heston plays tough New York City Police Detective Robert Thorn in the year 2022. Something awful has happened that has resulted in almost no fresh food or water (only the very wealthy and/or politically-connected are able to obtain some). There are serious problems with the death of most animals and plant-life, overpopulation, poverty, pollution and people surviving on wafers provided by the Soylent Corp., which comes out with a new "high-energy plankton" called Soylent Green. It's supposed to be better than Soylent Red and Soylent Yellow, though they all look like plastic.(Regarding Ed's questions about overpopulation, one explanation is with everyone poor, out of work and nothing to do, there is one thing you can do for free to pass the time: unprotected sex. And since we don't know what happened to cause famine, it could have been particularly fatal to certain races.) As a cop, Thorn has some perks, primarily a tiny apartment that he shares with Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson), an elderly scholar who remembers what life was like before the environmental disasters (likely caused by mankind). Thorn is investigating the murder of a high-level Soylent executive (Joseph Cotten in a far too small role). Thorn immediately suspects a conspiracy is the cause of the murder. While at the murder scene, an expensive apartment complex, Heston lifts fresh food, including a small steak and some fruit. One of the most joyous moments in the film has Thorn and Roth eating the food with the latter talking about the old days. Eddie G.'s performance, sadly his last, is one of his finest. It's beautifully tragic, and even though I've seen the film a dozen times, the scene in which Eddie G. goes to a place called "Home," a government-assisted suicide facility that looks like Madison Square Garden, always brings tears to my eyes. Heston is outstanding as the tough cop who defies orders from his superiors and fends off attempts to kill him by Soylent assassins in his pursuit of solving the murder. Most of the last 30 minutes of the film contains no dialogue. It goes from Eddie G.'s suicide scene (Heston says he knew his co-star was dying in real life and the reactions he has to the death were also real) to Thorn following Roth's body and others onto a truck heading to a Soylent factory, where the detective finds out how Green is made, to the chase scene that ends up in a church/homeless shelter where an injured and possibly dying Thorn screams, "Soylent Green is people! We gotta stop them somehow!" It's a magnificent film that you can watch over and over again without it losing any of its impact.

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Her Private Affair

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

Her Private Affair (Pathe Exchange, 1929) – Director: Paul L. Stein, Writers: Herman Bernstein (Adaptation & translation), Francis Edward Faragoh (dialogue & s/p), Leo Urvantzov (play). Stars: Ann Harding, Harry Bannister, John Loder, Kay Hammond, Arthur Hoyt, William Orlamond, Lawford Davidson, Elmer Ballard & Frank Reicher. B&W, 72 minutes.

Ann Harding made the jump from Broadway star to film idol immediately with her first picture, Paris Bound in 1929. Immediately following its success at the box office Harding was rushed into production of her second feature, Her Private Affair. Her icy blonde beauty and patrician manner made her attractive to audiences in search of new movie stars. 

Seen today, Her Private Affair is a film that not only creaks technologically, but also in terms of its plot. The old chestnut of the “fallen woman” was already played out by 1929 and this film offers nothing new. Unlike Harding’s first film, which was based on solid material – a play by noted Broadway writer Philip Barry – her material for the follow-up was not so pedigreed, being based on a failed play by Russian author Leo Urvantzov, The Right to Kill. Adapted for American audiences by Herman Bernstein it opened at the Garrick Theatre in New York City, where it lasted for 16 performances before closing. It was placed in the hands of Viennese director Paul L. Stein, who added nothing to it and simply directed the actors through their motions. In exact terms, it is nothing more than a filmed play, stage-bound and talky.


As the film opens we are in Vienna. Vera Kessler (Harding) is wife of respected Viennese judge Richard Kessler (Bannister). Everything seems fine at home until Vera gets a phone call. Immediately after she begins acting in a distracted manner. She tells her husband she is going to the opera, then asks him for money, using a weak excuse. 

At the opera (Carmen, perfect for a fallen woman) she sits alone in her box until the curtain rises and the music begins. She then leaves and catches a cab. Her destination is the apartment of Arnold Hartmann (Davidson). The reason for her visit is that she’s being blackmailed. Hartmann is a professional blackmailer who keeps himself in luxury through the “contributions” of the many worried women with whom he has had affairs. 

Vera is his latest addition to his blackmail list. He met Vera while as he was in Italy, taking a vacation from her marriage. Although it seems that their relationship never got beyond some heavy flirting, she did write him some rather indiscreet letters. Hartmann has those letters, and if she wants them back, she had better pay up, otherwise they will be delivered to Judge Kessler. 

We are given a glimpse into how despicable a character Hartmann is by the way he treats his butler, Grimm (Ballard), who appears to have been his batman during the Great War. There are hints of a homosexual relationship between the two men, but it may also be said that it’s one of a sadist and a reluctant masochist, Hartmann berates his butler to such an extent that Grimm grabs a pistol from Hartmann’s desk and threatens to shoot him. But then he lacks the will to go through with it and places the gun on the desk. 

Vera has brought money, but it wasn’t the amount agreed upon. She tells Hartmann that her husband didn’t have the full amount she asked for, but if Hartmann is patient, he will get the rest in due time.


Hartmann isn’t buying her excuse, and the confrontation grows uglier. “Well, do I get the letters,” Vera asks, “or must I pay cash on delivery?” Hartmann acts like the wounded victim: “You needn’t make me out quite the blackmailer.” He suggests that rest of what she owes him can be taken out in trade as he begins to force himself upon her. Seeing he has blocked her path to the door she reaches around and finds the pistol on his desk. He tells her she doesn’t have the nerve to fire and makes a grab for her. As they struggle the gun goes off and kills Hartmann.

Fearing a scandal, Vera flees the scene undetected, only to learn later that Grimm has been arrested and charged with the murder. When Vera learns of his arrest, she is distraught with guilt. She pleads with her husband’s friend, noted criminal lawyer Carl Weild (Loder), to represent Grimm in court. Weild agrees and gets Grimm acquitted of all charges.

Still, the guilt is so great that Vera leaves the judge. On a New Year’s Eve out at a restaurant with friends, she meets Grimm, who works there as a waiter. Grimm talks about the night of his employer’s death and confides to her that, despite his acquittal, his only chance of vindication – and escaping a creeping insanity – is to be assured that he did not commit the crime of which he was accused. Vera by this time is so guilt ridden that she confesses to Grimm that it was she who shot the blackmailer, and she is paying for it with the loss of her marriage. 

But by sheer chance, Judge Kessler happens to be in the restaurant that evening and is behind a curtain, listening in  on Vera’s conversation. He comes over to her, tells her that he has heard everything, and forgives her. The film ends as they fall into each other’s arms.

Afterwords

Knowing the material was weak, the producers gave the co-starring role of Judge Kessler to Harding’s real-life husband, Harry Bannister. However, Harding is the one to watch here.


As mentioned above, the film is a static affair, with very little movement as the actors huddle around the microphone, hidden in a stage prop. In addition, the dialogue is filled with pauses for emphasis, which makes the actors come across amateurish at times. Blame this, however, on the director and the technology. The pauses are used to make certain the audience hears and understands the line. 

But despite all these problems, Harding manages to come through with flying colors. Mordaunt Hall, reviewing the film for The New York Times, praises Harding as “a sensitive performer (who) possesses a complete and sympathetic understanding of her rôle. Her voice has a vibrant, dramatic quality.” 

That praise can’t be claimed for the rest of the cast, who come off rather badly. Watching the first act, I was actually entertained by its unintentional absurdity and wondering if it could get any worse. However, due to the strength of Harding’s performance the ending comes off well, as everything is satisfactorily resolved.

Harding’s best, if most bizarre, moment comes at a restaurant shortly after the murder. Having learned that Grimm was arrested for the murder, she hears a rumor that a society woman actually did the deed, as Hartmann was known throughout the city as a lowlife extortionist. Her friends down bottles of champagne as they try to guess the identity of the murderer. Having had more than her fill of the bubbly, Vera begins to break down, exclaiming, “Just think! That woman may be anywhere. Anywhere at all. Why, she may even be here!” Her friends, taken aback, look at her incredulously. “Vera, you’re acting so strangely!” On the verge of hysterics, Vera answers “Well, why not? If, as you say, she is a woman of prominence in society, then what could be more natural than that she should the here, tonight? I can almost see her. People come up to her. They greet her. Why, at this very moment she may be discussing the murder!” Harding delivers this is a wonderfully over-the-top manner that gives the scene the impetus to capture the audience right at the moment when the film seems to sinking to a morass of torpor.

From the movie’s solid success at the box office it is obvious that the audience was also satisfied with the resolution. Harding’s cool beauty is emphasized right from the beginning, as we see her reflected in an ornate mirror as she prepares for her night at the opera, and the close-ups she receives later serve to reinforce our first impression. As Hall notes in his review, Harding’s charm enables the audience to ignore the fact that “happenings in the more crucial moments smack too much of improbable coincidence.” 

Harding later signed with Warner Bros. to make The Girl of the Golden West (First National, 1930). She requested Bannister as her co-star, which was readily accommodated by the studio. However, Bannister’s habit of telling directors what to do soured his relationship with both the studio and his wife. The couple divorced in 1932.

Trivia

The earliest documented telecasts of Her Private Affair made it to television in 1948. WLW (Channel 4) in Cincinnati aired it August 7, 1948. In Los Angeles station KFI (Channel 9) aired it February 10, 1949, and in New York City it was featured June 10, 1950, on Night Owl Theatre, WPIX (Channel 11).

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Victoria and Abdul

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Victoria and Abdul (Focus Features, 2017) – Director: Stephen Frears. Writers: Lee Hall (s/p), Shrabani Basu (book). Stars: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Julian Wadham, Robin Soans, Ruth McCabe, Simon Callow, Sukh Ojla & Kemaal Deen-Ellis. Color, Rated PG-13, 112 minutes.

In this film “Based on real-life events (mostly),” it’s 1887 and England has ruled India for 29 years. Twenty-six years ago her beloved Prince Albert died of typhoid fever and Queen Victoria dresses in black ever since.

Abdul Karim (Fazal), a clerk in Agra, India, works keeping a ledger in a prison when he learns that the Queen of England, the Empress of India, has expressed her delight with the beautiful rugs sent to her for her jubilee. He is rightfully proud because he chose the designs. 

Ambassadors from India and England are seeking two tall Indian men to travel to England to offer their thanks and a rare coin. Abdul is tall and good-looking. He is chosen. His countryman, Mohammed (Akhtar) however, is not. The second tall representative fell ill and Mohammed had to take his place.


England is cold compared to India and Mohammed wants to go home from the beginning. Abdul is fascinated and honored by the opportunity. The two are hurriedly briefed on the rules regarding making a presentation to the Queen and are specifically warned not to make eye-contact with her. But while backing out of the dining hall, Abdul’s eyes and Victoria’s (Dench) meet and he smiles.

Victoria immediately makes the two her personal footmen and soon Abdul is assisting her by blotting the ink on her official correspondence. Their conversations lead to Victoria’s interests in India and the next thing her staff hears is Abdul teaching her Urdu. One of the words she learns from Abdul is “Munshi” (teacher) and she designates him her official Munshi and a part of the royal staff. The rest of her staff is horrified. The racism in England at the time is clearly evident in this film even though no disparaging words are used in reference to the two visitors. The worst they are called is “Hindus” while both of them are Muslim.

In the course of her schooling, Victoria becomes attached to Abdul and takes him to outdoor dining at Balmoral Castle in Scotland and to an evening of opera singing by Mr. Puccini (Callow) in Florence, Italy, where Abdul suggests Her Majesty sing a song. The Prince of Wales (Izzard) is mortified when he accompanies her on the piano to Gilbert and Sullivan. She forgets the words halfway through and the whole company break into a somewhat embarrassed applause.

What was meant to be a couple of days turns into a 14-year stay. Victoria is taken aback when he reveals that he’s married and insists he return to India and bring his wife (Ojla) back. He does and brings his mother-in-law as well, with both women swathed from head to toe in black burkas. More culture shock for the royal staff.

Though her advisers constantly counsel against having someone as “low-born” as Abdul in close company, Victoria attempts to solve that problem by announcing that she intends to knight Abdul. The entire staff threatens to quit.

Though Abdul Karim was an actual acquaintance of Queen Victoria, obviously much of the story is embellishment. He did become her Munshi and taught her much about India and he did stay 14 years until she died and Edward VII succeeded her. Abdul and his family returned to India, which as the final credits explain, “…didn’t gain independence until 1947.”

Victoria and Abdul is an excellent film. It has high drama, comedy, controversy, pathos (bring a tissue box), and superb acting, most notably by the ineffable Dame Judi Dench, who is reprising her role from the previous Mrs. Brown (1997)Both she and Ali Fazal deserve Oscar nominations for their incredible acting talents. I was charmed by this window into nineteenth century England as well as alarmed by the overt racism. The tangible affection for each other between Victoria and Abdul was obvious right to the end of the movie as Abdul visits the bronze statue of the Queen in Agra, placed there by Edward VII in 1905 and removed (of course) in 1947. I highly recommend this film to history buffs as well as romantics.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Beautique
8 West 58th Street, New York

Across 58th Street from the Plaza Hotel and next door to the Paris Theater, there’s an unassuming glass entrance to Beautique hidden, for the most part, by ticket lines for the theater. Entrants are led underground via a glitzy mirrored stairway to a set of rooms with crystal chandeliers, dim lighting and smoke-gray velvet seating.

I could smell dishwashers from my table by the door to the kitchen and wondered where I could relocate, but the restaurant was set up for a party of 14 using the remaining single tables. What were left were occupied. Normally, a seat near the kitchen is “Siberia” (where you sit if you want to be ignored) but my server, Luka, made an exception to that rule. Noticing my use of a flashlight to read the menu (small type, low light), he helped with cocktail selection while offering dinner recommendations.

In the absence of Beefeater’s gin I ordered a Tanqueray 10 martini and Luka ensured it was perfect. The other specialty cocktails seemed to be a bit too sweet. The wine list was pricey, but I did find an appropriate accompaniment to my meal in the 2015 Terlato Pinot Grigio “Friuli.” The red wines listed were all too powerful (and expensive) for what I was ordering. This pinot grigio was perfect, with a light golden color, an assertive nose and fresh, crisp, dry taste.


Looking for the unique I started with the duck tacos, served in a white ceramic canoe and bathed in a sesame barbecue sauce, with avocado in wonton shells and topped with shredded carrots. The barbecue sauce reminded me of a cook-out in Kentucky, a sweet, only slightly spicy flavor.

I then selected the kale Caesar salad. It was a nice mound of fresh, crisp, dark green kale with crunchy croutons and shredded parmesan cheese. And…wonder of wonders! It did not need additional garlic in the dressing.


My main course was one of Luka’s choices: The Mahi Mahi on vegetable risotto was much better than I could imagine. The meaty but flaky fish was moist and delicious and the risotto was that sticky, gooey consistency with a medley of diced vegetables mixed in, including carrots, green peppers, yellow squash, lima beans and mushrooms. The sauce was more of an orange color than the usual white resulting from the tomatoes in it.

I think Luka was impressed with my dining style, because when I ordered the Pineapple upside down cake for dessert and finished it, he insisted on treating me to the Molten Chocolate cake right after it. It was excellent as well and I was impressed with the caramelized popcorn garnish. 

I finished with a Double espresso and an after-dinner drink. This time it was a lovely glass of Balvenie 12-year-old Scotch Whisky.

Five years ago Beautique won Best New Restaurant at the James Beard Awards. I told Luka it was well deserved and that the next time I come to Beautique, it will be with friends.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Cinéma Inhabituel for October 16-31

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

In the last column I spoke about B-Westerns. TCM is showing quite a few this month, but they are from RKO. As I love B-Westerns, I have some suggestions: I remember TCM showing a few Westerns from Monogram a while ago starring the Trail Blazers (Ken Maynard and Hoot Gibson). There are also loads of Westerns from PRC and Republic as well. When the Maynard-Gibson oaters were shown I got quite a few e-mails from fellow cinephiles who were delighted the station was showing them. How about a Spotlight featuring such B-Western stars as Monogram’s Range Busters series (Ray “Crash” Corrigan, John “Dusty” King, & Max “Alibi” Terhune); The Rough Riders series (Buck Jones, Tim McCoy & Ray Hatton); Columbia’s The Durango Kid series (Charles Starrett); Republic’s Three Mesquiteers series (Bob Livingston, Crash Corrigan & Sid Saylor); PRC’s Lone Rider series (George Houston, later Bob Livingston); The Texas Rangers series (Jim Newell, Dave O’Brien, Tex Ritter & Guy Owen Wilkerson); The Frontier Marshal series (William Boyd, Art Davis & Lee Powell); The Billy the Kid Series (Bob Steele, later Buster Crabbe, both backed by Al “Fuzzy” St John); Lash La Rue and Fuzzy St. John, & Eddie Dean; and – especially – Hopalong Cassidy (William Boyd), perhaps the quintessential Western hero for Paramount and UA. A lot of Boomers watched these on television as kids and still remember them fondly. There’s a lot to be mined here and TCM should get in on the fun.

ROMY SCHNEIDER

October 18: At 8:00 pm TCM will air a trilogy of films directed by Ernst Marischka about Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Sissi (1955) and its sequels, Sissi: The Young Empress (1956) and Sissi: Fateful Years of an Empress (1957). The films follow the life of Elisabeth of Bavaria, who became Empress of Austria when she married Emperor Franz Josef. Sissi focuses on the fateful meeting of Elisabeth and Franz Josef. When the young emperor met he he instantly fell in love and declared he would marry no one else, For her part Elisabeth was a free spirit who was reluctant to become involved with the responsibility of an empress, yet within the year they married and Sissi learns the duties and responsibilities her position entails.

Sissi: The Young Empress focuses on her life at the royal court and the heartbreak, as Franz is away for long periods and her mother-in-law has decided to take her granddaughter away from the Empress and raise her herself. This marked the beginnings of Elisabeth’s physical and mental health issues, as she becomes unable to endure life at court and starts spending more and more time away from it.

Sissi: Fateful Years of an Empress sees her deteriorate further, becoming so ill that her doctors begin to despair for her life. Help arrives when her mother, Ludovika, arrives and nurses her back to health, Now completely well, she returns to her husband’s side and resumes her duties as Empress.

I have seen only the first of the trilogy. Marischka does a wonderful job of setting the stage, with superb settings and superior camerawork. Schneider brings the empress to life and with her co-star, Karlheinz Bohm, capture the pomp, circumstance and romance of the House of Hapsburg. 

JAPANESE HORRORS


October 22: At the late hour of 3:45 am, TCM is airing the superb Kwaidan. This 1964 production, directed by Masaki Kobayashi, adapts four tales of the supernatural from 19th century writer Lafcadio Hearn’s collection of Japanese folk tales, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, and Shadowings. In the first, The Black Hair, a young, impoverished samurai divorces his wife to marry the daughter of a noble family. But far from finding the expected happiness he is haunted by the image of the wife he abandoned. The second tale, The Woman in the Snow, a woodcutter named Minokichi and his mentor Mosaku take refuge during a snowstorm. A female snow spirit kills Mosaku, but spares Minokichi because of his youth, warning him never to speak of what he has witnessed or she will kill him. In the third tale, Hoichi the Earless, a blind musician agrees to sing for a royal family unaware of the fact they are ghosts. Finally, In a Cup of Tea, a writer awaiting a visit from the publisher writes a story about a samurai who is disturbed by the recurring image of a strange man in a cup of tea.

October 29: Ugetsu, director Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 tale of the supernatural, airs at 4:15 am. This is a masterful tale of two poor villagers who seek to profit from a shortage of pottery during a civil war in 16th century Japan. Though they make a fortune, they pay later for their misdeeds as do their wives. Mizoguchi’s film is beautifully filmed and realized, merging reality with fantasy in a supernatural tapestry of the price paid for war, avarice, dishonesty and lust. 

DRACULA

October 22: It’s a Hammer Studios Dracula double feature, with Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1965) at 8:00 pm, followed by 1968’s Dracula Has Risen From the Grave. Both star Christopher Lee as the famous vampire. 

October 29: The Hammer Draculas continue with another double feature: Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) at 8:00 pm, and Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) at 10:00 pm. Again, both star Lee as Dracula. Read our essay on the latter film here. One thing I’ve noticed about the Hammer Dracula sequels is that the vampire has become reduced to having mortals not only doing his dirty work, but also tending to his person. 

CLASSIC HORROR


October 17: TCM airs an evening of horror classics, Hammer Style, beginning at 8:00 pm with The Devil’s Bride (1968), with Christopher Lee battling Satanist Charles Grey for the soul of Patrick Mower. At 9:45 pm Peter Cushing and Lee star in The Curse of Frankenstein (1956). Lee is Kharis the Mummy in The Mummy (1959) at 11:15 pm, threatening a group of archaeologists (led by Peter Cushing) who defiled his tomb. Then, at 1 am, Oliver Reed suffers from The Curse of the Werewolf (1961). Andre Morell does battle with an evil landowner (John Carson) who uses zombies to work his mines in Plague of the Zombies (1966), airing at 2:45 am. Finally, at 4:30 am, Indian snake worshippers turn explorer Noel Willman’s daughter (Jacqueline Pearce) into a monster in The Reptile (1966). Yes, they get sillier as time goes on.

October 24: More classic horror, highlighted by The Innocents (1961) at 8:00 pm, the excellent and underrated Curse of the Demon (1957) at midnight, and the thoroughly unsettling Carnival of Souls (1962) following at 2:00 am. 

October 31: More classics, led by James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) at 8:00 pm, 1963’s The Haunting at 9:30, William Castle’s classic schlock House on Haunted Hill (1958) at 11:30, Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard in Paramount’s remake of The Cat and the Canary (1939) at 1:15 am, and Vincent Price and Agnes Moorhead in 1959’s The Bat at 4:30 am.

OTHER PSYCHOTRONICA

October 19: Wounded mobster James Fox gets more than he bargained for when he takes refuge at the mansion of reclusive rock star Mick Jagger in Performance (1970) at 4:00 am.

October 21: Bruce Davison and friends take revenge on his tormenting boss, Ernest Borgnine in Willard (1971) at 2:00 am. Problem is that his friends are all rats. Sort of like a psychotronic pied piper. The sequel, Ben (1972) follows at 3:45 am. 


October 28: Catherine Deneuve goes slowly and tormentingly mad in Roman Polanski’s 1965 horror classic, Repulsion (3:45 am).

October 31: Panned when released, White Zombie (1932) is regarded as a classic. Starring the great Bela Lugosi, it can be seen at 8:30 am.

PRE-CODE

October 16: At 8:00 pm comes the chance to see a rarely shown film from none other than Cecil B. DeMille, Filmdom’s most overrated director. One might think from the title that Madam Satan is a horror picture. It isn’t, though it is a horror of another kind. This 1930 effort from DeMille is so bizarre that we guarantee you’ll never forget it, and when you do remember it, you’ll naturally cringe a bit. It stars Kay Johnson as Angela, a wife tired of husband’s (Reginald Denny) infidelity. She decides to win him back by disguising herself as an alluring masked guest at a masquerade ball. Naturally Bob goes ga-ga over her, and gets the shock of his life when she reveals her identity. This leads him to declare that “I’ve been such a fool.” Also along for the ride are Lillian Roth as Trixie, Bob’s tasty bit on the side, and Roland Young as Bob’s BFF, Jimmy. 

It’s a variation on his silent sex comedies such as Old Wives for New (1918) and Don't Change Your Husband (1919), where husbands and wives flirt with infidelity before reuniting in a good old-fashioned moralistic ending. When DeMille made this film, MGM was already doing a better job with Robert Montgomery and Norma Shearer. The first half-hour moves at a pace so slow that you may be tempted to catch something else. But hang around, for the last part of the movie is pure camp, as the masquerade ball is held aboard Jimmy’s zeppelin. You read that right – zeppelin. The ball is highlighted by outlandish ballet led by The Spirit of Electricity and his ballet troupe in a scene seemingly right out of Metropolis and Dante’s Inferno, with bizarre costumes and little motor cars driven by waitresses. When a storm arises and rips the zeppelin from its moorings everyone aboard simply parachutes out to safety(!). The sheer audacity of the ending makes the slogging through the first 30-plus minutes bearable. Costing over $1 million, Madam Satan lost a ton of money at the box office. Critic Mordaunt Hall, in The New York Times, hit it on the head when he noted that “it is an inept story with touches of comedy that are more tedious than laughable.” At any rate, it’s not to be missed.

October 19: Paramount sent two of its best newsreel photographers, Willard Van der Veer and Joseph Rucker, to the South Pole to capture history in the pioneering documentary With Byrd At The South Pole (1930). It airs at 8:00 am.

October 21: Gangster Dave the Dude (Warren William) helps apple vendor May Robson impersonate a society woman to impress her visiting daughter in Frank Capra’s 1933 comedy, Lady For a Day at 6:00 am. It’s followed at 8:00 am by John Barrymore as a man who deserted his daughter long ago, but must now help her out of a jam in Long Lost Father (1934). Helen Chandler co-stars. Ironically, both Barrymore and Chandler later drank themselves to death.

October 22: Katharine Hepburn won the Oscar as a stage struck young actress determined to make in on Broadway in Morning Glory (1933) at 7:00 am.

October 26: Dashing Russian nobleman Douglas Fairbanks Jr, is forced to flee the Russian Revolution with former servant Nancy Carroll in Scarlet Dawn (1932) at Noon. 

BAD MOVIE ALERT!

October 19: At 5:15 pm it’s the howlingly bad docudrama Adventure Girl (1934). Billed as the true adventures of self-styled explorer Joan Lowell, it recounts her journey to the wilds of Guatemala. The movie’s forward tells you all you need to know: 

A year ago Joan Lowell returned from a trip to the vastnesses of Central America, with a tale of well-nigh incredible adventures. So lurid and exciting was the story of her exploits that she was persuaded to duplicate them – only this time with a motion picture camera. "ADVENTURE GIRL" is a re-enactment of Miss Lowell's fantastic journyings (sic) and depicts her experiences in this tropical land noted for its bewildering equatorial beauty.


Or so she’d have us believe. In search of pirate treasure in a lost city Joan sails off with crewmen Bill and Otto. A gale catches their sailboat and blows off a mast. Bill is blown overboard, and Joan dives in to save him. Meanwhile, the sailboat, caught in the gale, speeds away without them and Joan and Bill are forced to tread water in the Gulf of Mexico for two hours. However, the camera is right in there with them, recording their travails to the sound of Joan’s hysterically loud narration. Eventually our three intrepid explorers are in Guatemala, looking to steal a fabled emerald that's in the eye socket of a Mayan idol. They are captured by natives, who make plans to roast Joan at the stake. It’s a scene that must be seen to be believed, as the “natives” stare into the camera and giggle embarrassedly while chanting goona-goona curses at Joan. We can’t help but be aware of the camera and the cameraman behind it filming away while Joan is in desperate need of immediate aid. Later Joan gets into a bitch-slapping cat fight with a Guatemalan woman, Princess Maya, who looks suspiciously like a caucasian made up as a native. What makes this such a howler is that the proceedings are presented with the utmost solemnity. Yet, we can easily see it’s faked so badly that it’s laugh-out-loud. Joan’s hilarious overacting in the film is accompanied by some of the most outrageous narration this side of Criswell and Ed Wood. If you can, hold on until the climax of the film, where Joan is comically chased downriver by boats of savages. Joan and Bill dump gasoline into the water and set it on fire, but end up encircling themselves. In the end Joan confesses her greed and vows never to be tempted by material wealth again. Not to be missed. So low budget that even its distributor, RKO, had to make a profit. By the way, the screenplay is based on Joan’s autobiography, The Cradle of the Deep. It was even a Book-of-the-Month selection when published in 1929, but was later found to be a work of fiction.