By Ed Garea
This is Cinema Inhabituel for the week of October 1-7, the collection of films once forgotten now vindicated and those that still have us scratching our heads. It’s a slow week, so there aren’t many entries.
For those of us with DIRECTV there is good news tempered by disappointing news. The good news is the addition to the system of CineMoi, a channel that celebrates French culture and film. The disappointing news is that, outside of Girl on a Motorcycle, I have yet to see a French film on the channel. The website for the channel promises us the world: Films with Moreau, Gabin, Belmondo, Tautou, and directed by Melville, Godard, Truffaut, Tati, and others. Perhaps eventually ... I hope.
4:30 am I Walked With a Zombie (RKO, 1943) – Director: Jacques Tourneur. Starring James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway, James Bell, Theresa Harris, and Sir Lancelot.
The Cahiers crowd advanced the notion that the auteur is the director, but in reality, it is the producer – the money man – that is the real auteur. And there is no better example of this than the persona and films of Val Lewton. As a producer of ‘Bs’ for RKO, Lewton was given little money for his projects. The one thing the studio was not reluctant to give him, however, was the title for each film. In 1942, he was named the head of the horror unit at RKO at the princely sum of $250 per week. His first film, Cat People (1942), was the studio’s biggest moneymaker that year, which resulted in a hands-off policy on the part of the studio, apart from assignment of the sensationalistic titles.
But just because he was stuck with the title didn’t mean that Lewton would actually film the title. He asked his writers to use Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre for the basic story and add in elements from Haitian voodoo. One of the books consulted was Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse, her account of her fieldwork in Jamaica and Haiti studying African and voodoo rituals. The result is a horror film that transcends its genre. Jacques Tourneur does a workmanlike job in translating Lewton’s vision onto celluloid and he is aided by solid performances by Frances Dee, Tom Conway, Teresa Harris, and James Ellison. Take special note of calypso singer Sir Lancelot, whose songs in the film convey much of the plot background and add more than a touch of atmosphere to an already spooky film.
6:00 am Party Girl (MGM, 1958) – Director: Nicholas Ray. Starring Robert Taylor, Cyd Charisse, Lee. J, Cobb, John Ireland, and Kent Smith.
Released to little fanfare in 1958, this movie has since achieved cult status thanks to its director, Nicholas Ray.
It’s a rather unusual mix of noir and musical with Robert Taylor playing a crooked lawyer loosely based on the real life Dixie Davis, who was Dutch Schultz’s mouthpiece and later an informant for D.A. Thomas Dewey. Taylor has become rich springing gangster Lee J. Cobb’s gang out of the hoosegow, using his crippled leg as a way to gain the jury’s sympathy. But behind the scenes he’s trapped in an unhappy marriage with a wife repulsed by him. When he meets showgirl Cyd Charisse they predictably fall in love. She convinces him to go straight, which annoys Cobb no end. He, in turn, kidnaps Charisse and uses her to force Taylor to continue working for his mob.
Although Ray wasn’t allowed to play with the script as he had done in earlier movies, producer Joe Pasternak (also handcuffed by the studio) allowed Ray to contribute flourishes with his camera. Thus we have a movie where what is not spoken is often more important to moving the plot as what is said. Look for these touches throughout the film, especially the scene where Charisse buries her face in a bouquet of flowers, looks up, and we see the droplets of water glistening on her face. Ray was possibly Jean-Luc Godard’s favorite director and his influence can be seen in several of Godard’s early films, especially Breathless and My Life to Live.
9:00 am The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (U.A., 1954) Director: Luis Bunuel. Starring Daniel O’Herlihy, Jaime Fernandez, Felpie de Alba, Chel Lopez, Jose Chavez, and Emilio Garibay.
This is Bunuel’s adaptation of DeFoe’s classic story, made in the days before he became lionized internationally as an auteur.
The film has several Bunuel touches, most notably the focus on Crusoe’s evolution as a human being. The irony of the story is that Crusoe was shipwrecked while on a trip to purchase slaves for South American plantations. His need for companionship is overshadowed by his European attitude of racial and cultural superiority towards the darker-skinned natives, including Friday, whom he has rescued from a group of cannibals. The film’s turning point comes only when Crusoe has experienced an epiphany of moral and human value over social power. Bunuel’s film stands out as a triumph of the human spirit over the conventions that would enslave it.
1:00 am Headin’ Home (Yankee Photo Corp., 1920) Director: Lawrence Windom. Starring Babe Ruth, Ruth Taylor, William Sheer, James A. Marcus, and Margaret Sedden.
Now here’s a real curiosity, and definitely one to see if you’re a baseball fan. It’s the story of a small town boy who fights to become a major league baseball star. And the star is none other than George Herman “Babe” Ruth himself.
The movie was filmed soon after the Red Sox sold Ruth’s contract to the Yankees; before Ruth even took the field for his new team, and certainly before columnist John Kiernan of The New York Times labeled the Bambino as “The Playboy of Baseball.”
Here he’s the epitome of the clean-living, mother-loving American boy – he’s a humble chap living with his mother and sister in the small town of Haverlock; one who uses his spare hours to chop down trees in order to make them into baseball bats. His goal of being a big league star is temporarily derailed when John Tobin (Marcus), the owner of the local team, refuses to let him play. He signs with a rival team and defeats the locals with a home run in the 9th inning, an act that brings cries of treachery from his fellow townsfolk. Taking the hint, Babe heads for New York, signs with the Yankees and returns home a genuine hero for his feats on the diamond. While back in his hometown he finds the time to prevent the local team’s pitching ace, Harry Knight (Sheer), from embezzling bank funds and wins the hand of the bank president’s daughter, Mildred (Taylor). All in a day’s work, it seems.
Yet, this film did not premiere in a New York theater. Boxing promoter Tex Rickard instead premiered it at Madison Square Garden, where it was shown to sell-out crowds from September 19-26, 1920. Rickard paid only $35,000 for the privilege.
2:30 am Vampyr/Not Against the Flesh (Tobis Filmkunst, 1932) Director: Theodor Carl Dreyer. Starring Julian West, Sybille Schmitz, Maurice Schutz, Rena Mandel, and Henriette Gerard.
A critical and financial flop when it premiered, the reputation of both this and its director has risen dramatically since.
The film almost wasn’t made. After the financial failing of Dreyer’s previous effort, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), the studio with whom Dreyer had a contract, The Societe Generale de Films, flatly refused to fund his next project. The studio was tottering on the verge of bankruptcy due to the failure of The Passion and Abel Gance’s Napoleon. Dreyer sued for breach of contract and won in 1931, but the damages weren’t enough to fund the movie. Attempts to find new backing also fell through. Finally, the Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg, a young Dutch nobleman with a passion for movies, agreed to finance the movie and act as producer. There was one hitch – he would also be the star of the film. In no position to argue the point, Dreyer agreed and de Gunzberg starred under the pseudonym “Julian West.”
Vampyr was a true international effort: it took a year to shoot on location at the towns of Senlis and Montargis (outside Paris); it starred a Dutch nobleman; a Dane directed by a Dane; and production work was done at the Tobis-Klangfilm studio in Berlin. Three separate versions – English, German, and French – were made, with the sound being dubbed in at the UFA studios in Berlin.
The film is noted – and rightly so – for its use of light and sound; the sound being remarkable considering that the sound era had just begun. Though it moves at times almost at a snail’s pace, stay with and your patience will be rewarded. The version shown by TCM is the German language version, which was said to be Dreyer’s favorite and which suffered the least amount of butchering upon release for television.