Friday, August 31, 2012

Cinéma Inhabituel for September 1-7

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

Below is a guide for the rare and the unusual movies shown on TCM for the week of September 1 to 7. Some are chosen for what might be called their “uniqueness.” Others are chosen because they rarely appear on the channel, and when they do, they are stuck in the late-night or early-morning slots, when no one is watching save our DVRs. As we expand in the future, offerings on other channels will be noted. But for now we will focus on TCM.

September 1 

7:45 am The Black Cat (Universal, 1934) – Director: Edgar G. Ulmer. Starring: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, David Manners, Jacqueline Wells. 

Besides being the directorial debut of Edgar G. Ulmer, this is the first film to team Lugosi and Karloff. (At this time Boris was still being billed as simply “Karloff”). The screenplay by Peter Ruric bears absolutely no resemblance to the Edgar Allen Poe story, but rather with a pair of newlyweds on their way through the Hungarian countryside. After their taxi crashes, they make their way to the castle of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), and become pawns in a weird game between the Satanist Poelzig and Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), whose wife and daughter Poelzig has stolen and who is out for revenge. Watch it for the bizarre sets and the way Ulmer handles such material as Satanism, sadism and necrophilia. Made before the Code was enforced, it moves at a crisp 65 minutes with no dull patches. Also look for Universal regular Harry Cording as Thamal, Poelzig’s manservant.

9:00 am Thunderbirds Are Go (U.A., 1968) – Director: David Lane. Featuring the voices of Sylvia Anderson, Ray Barrett, Alexander Davion, and Peter Dyneley.

Remember those great Thunderbird movies where puppets saved the world from various enemies? Based on a 1964 Saturday morning kiddie show called Thunderbirds, the film was released at the height of the James Bond craze and became a huge hit, spawning several sequels. In the film, the Hood, who is the Thunderbirds’ arch nemesis, attempts to destroy the Zero-X, the new Mars explorer craft, but fails. The rest of the film is concerned with the Tracy family’s exploration of Mars, where they encounter some goofy looking rock monsters (Shades of Missile to the Moon!), and help people in trouble. Whether it’s delivering the antidote for a deadly disease or simply retrieving a pair of eyeglasses from a fish tank, no job is too big or too small for the Thunderbirds. It was still popular enough to spawn a 2004 parody from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park. Titled Team America: World Police, it was a wonderful parody of the Thunderbirds and actually demonstrated the naughty bits between the puppets we all imagined while watching the chemistry between the Thunderbirds characters.

12:00 pm Jungle Jim (Columbia, 1948) – Director: William Berke. Starring: Johnny Weissmuller, Virginia Grey, George Reeves, and Lita Baron. 

Think of Tarzan in khakis with a pith helmet and more to say and you have Jungle Jim. Weissmuller made 16 of these low-budget films based on the comic strip from 1948 to 1955, followed by a short-lived television series. The initial film is rather a muted affair with Jim helping Virginia Grey, a scientist seeking a drug to cure polio. Future Superman George Reeves plays well as the villain. Jim has a pet crow named Caw-Caw and a dog by the name of Skipper. He traded them in at the pet shop the first chance he got for a familiar chimp.

September 2

9:45 pm The Beast With Five Fingers (WB, 1947)  Director: Robert Florey. Starring: Robert Alda, Andrea King, Peter Lorre, J. Carroll Naish, and Victor Francen.

Lorre is great in this screenplay from Curt Siodmak as the secretary to wheelchair-bound pianist Victor Francen, who has the use of only one hand. When Francen dies mysteriously in a fall down the stairs, his will stipulates that his estate is to be given to his nurse, Andrea King. Murders suddenly begin to take place and an inspection of Francen’s body shows that his good hand has been severed and in missing. More murders and near murders take place and the severed hand appears to be the main suspect. Lorre is also a suspect and the scene where the hand strangles him and him nailing the hand to a board are the highlights of this strange and wonderful film. Trouble is always telegraphed when we hear the hand playing the Bach Chaconne in D minor and Lorre’s descent into madness is riveting.

2:45 am Spirits of the Dead  (Cocinor/AIP, 1969)  Directors: Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini. Starring: Vincent Price, Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, Philippe Lemaire, Alain Delon, Terence Stamp, and Brigitte Bardot.

Hiring three great European directors to each bring a Poe story to the screen is a great idea, even if the results are less than sparkling. The best segment of the three is Fellini’s “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” with Terence Stamp as a cynical alcoholic star actor lured to Rome to make a film with the promise of a Maserati automobile. Fellini populates the segment with his usual grotesque characters and his black sense of humor as Stamp’s character meets his doom while attempting to jump his new car over a ruined bridge. Malle’s segment is based on Poe’s “William Wilson” and is a haunting tale of a sadistic Austrian student (Delon) with an exact double whom he later kills. He also does such things as place a schoolmate in a tub of rats, operate on an unwilling young girl, and flog his partner (Bardot) after losing a card game. Vadim’s segment, “Metzengerstein,” is the weakest. Jane Fonda is a countess who loves to stage orgies. When her cousin/neighbor (Peter Fonda) resists her advances, she burns his stable down and kills him, but he lives on spiritually as a wild black stallion with which Jane becomes obsessed. Jane’s costumes make this segment worth watching. Vincent Price narrates all three segments.

September 3

4:30 am Orlando (Sony Pictures Classics, 1992) – Director: Sally Potter. Starring: Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane, Lothaire Bluteau, John Wood, and Quentin Crisp.

Tilda Swinton is one of the busiest and most recognizable actresses in movies. Working mainly in television and on stage, this was her first big break and she made the most of it. Based on Virginia Wolff’s novel about changing genders, Swinton plays Orlando, born as a boy into an Elizabethan aristocratic family. As a young man, Queen Elizabeth I (played by Quentin Crisp!) takes a shine to young Orlando and bequeaths him a large estate and a generous monetary gift. He can keep the estate forever, but only if he remains young. He becomes an ambassador to Constantinople and is almost killed in a dispute. 

Waking the next morning, he discovers that he has become a woman overnight. He also gets the wish to be forever young and immortal. But now his life now radically changes, as he no longer enjoys the freedoms and privileges he had enjoyed as a male. Being a woman, he no longer has a right to any portion of his estate and royal inheritance. As she travels through the centuries the film makes several observations about life and the changing roles of gender in society. It can be difficult to keep up with at times, but director Potter does a good job of keeping the viewer in the story.

September 4

9:00 am Behind the Rising Sun (RKO, 1943) – Director: Edward Dmytryk. Starring: Margo, Tom Neal, J. Carroll Naish, Robert Ryan, Mike Mazurki, and Gloria Holden.

Now here’s a strange gem indeed. After making the lurid and hugely profitable Hitler’s Children, director Dmytryk and writer Emmet Lavery made this follow-up of sorts about the enemy on the other side of the Pacific.

It’s the tale of a Japanese newspaper publisher (Naish) and his Cornell-educated son (Neal). Dad forces sonny boy to join the Japanese army against his will and the experience both changes and hardens both men. The film shows the terrible atrocities committed by the Japanese against Chinese civilians and Americans. Look for the fight scene between American boxer Ryan (who was a real-life boxing champion at Dartmouth College) and Japanese judoka Mazurki. It’s based on a real life pre-war incident where the boxer won. Also note that none of the major Asian roles are played by actual Asians, typical of Hollywood.

September 5

6:00 am Pressure Point (U.A., 1962) – Director: Hubert Cornfield. Starring: Sidney Poitier, Bobby Darin, Peter Falk, and Carl Benton Reid.

It’s the ‘60s and liberal sentiments are seeped deep into Hollywood, especially concerning race relations. It must have seemed daring at the time to cast Poitier as a prison psychiatrist who agrees to treat a young racist Nazi-supporting Bobby Darin, who’s looking to excise the demons that keep him awake at night.

It doesn’t take Poitier long to get at the root of Darin’s problems: a weak victimized mother and a brutal, distant butcher father. Darin’s feelings of powerlessness manifest themselves in hatred of Jews and minorities. Though we can see every plot point coming from a mile away, there are still some powerful scenes, thanks to a terrific performance by Darin as the young Hitler wanna-be. For instance, the scene where Darin and several construction workers under his sway and vandalize a bar: the fashion in which they terrorize the bar owner and his wife is still enough to make the viewer very uneasy, and Darin’s performance here is riveting. Later, is if we didn’t already get the analogy, Darin and his followers trash a kosher butcher shop and throw a carcass into the street. (So there, Dad!)

It’s dated today, but watchable because of the subject matter. The film cannot be done today outside of a television movie because the subject matter is too profound for today’s young audiences. (Hey, there’s no car crashes.) So watch it as a relic from a bygone era.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

TCM TiVo Alert for Sept. 1-7

September 1 – September 7


KEY LARGO (September 5, 2:00 am): This is easily one of my all-time Top 10 films starring three of my favorites: Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and Lionel Barrymore. It's the best performances by each of these screen legends as well as Lauren Bacall and Claire Trevor. It’s a classic film noir – arguably the best film noir ever – with Bogart playing ex-Major Frank McCloud, who checks into the Hotel Largo in Key Largo, Florida. This occurs during hurricane season, but the real storm hits when gangster Johnny Rocco (played brilliantly by Eddie G., who was Hollywood's greatest gangster actor) comes down the hotel's stairs. The action is intense, the acting is incredibly strong, and the use of the storm to parallel what's happening to the film’s characters is perfect.

(September 7, 8:00 pm): There are few actors who had the presence of Burt Lancaster - that voice, the athletic build and his ability to become one with the character he portrayed. In this 1962 film, he plays Robert Stroud, a murderer, who from all accounts was not a nice guy. In the film, Stroud has a dark side, but comes across overall as a decent person. While in solitary confinement, Stroud adopts and trains a sparrow. After a while, he's got an entire bird collection and inspires other inmates to get birds. When some of the birds get sick, Stroud discovers ways to cure them, and becomes an expert on bird diseases. The concept may sound boring, but the screenplay is outstanding and the acting is first-rate. Besides Lancaster, the cast includes Telly Savalas as a fellow prisoner, Thelma Ritter in the performance of her career as Stroud's mother, and Karl Malden as the warden at Leavenworth. Most of the film - and the book of which it is based - takes place at Leavenworth. Stroud does serve some time at Alcatraz, where he isn't permitted to have birds making the title. As an aside, this was the first of four consecutive great films directed by John Frankenheimer. Later in 1962, he directed The Manchurian Candidate, and two in 1964: Seven Days in May and The Train. Lancaster also starred in the two 1964 films.

BONUS: MY LIFE TO LIVE (September 3, 2:15 pm): Read my review of My Life To Live here as part of "Three from Godard." 


NIGHT MUST FALL (September 2, 6:00 am): A really creepy motion picture, thanks in large part to the performance of Robert Montgomery, whose performance of a fellow more than a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic makes one think he’s to the manner born. Montgomery plays a deceptively charming psychopath taken in by Dame May Whitty and whose easy-going manner fools everyone except Rosalind Russell (who shines in an early performance). And what’s in that hatbox he carries? It’s shown at an ungodly hour, but – after all – that’s what recorders are for, and you’ll be glad you recorded this one.

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (September 7, 4:00 am): This William Castle opus has long been one of my favorites. I first saw it with my cousin at about the age of 10, when it was playing with To Russia With Love. The film had everything a kid like me (who had practically a lifetime subscription to Famous Monsters of Filmland) could love: skeletons, old hags on roller skates, hanging corpses, blood dripping from the ceiling, a dark, foreboding cellar, and, of course, Vincent Price as our host, as it were. Price is an eccentric millionaire who offers some desperate folks $10,000 each to spend the night with him and comely wife Carol Ohmart in a house that has known mass murder and then some. It has all the touches William Castle is known for and is a real hoot to watch, especially if you have kids. For those who remember it from their childhoods, it’s a Must-See-Again.

WE DISAGREE ON . . . SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (September 5, 2:00 pm)

ED: A+. This is a groundbreaking film in the fight against censorship. Gore Vidal took a one-act play by Tennessee Williams and enlarged it into a full-length picture without bowdlerizing it in the least. All the themes are carefully preserved: homosexuality, incest, lobotomy, and even cannibalism. Katherine Hepburn is Violet Vennable, a woman with a lot to hide concerning her late son Sebastian, and is more than willing to use her wealth and influence to silence the only witness to Sebastian's death – her neice Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor). Montgomery Clift, in real life nearly in a catatonic state from drug and alcohol abuse, gives a bravura performance as the director of the sanitarium to which Violet has banished Catherine for purposes of a lobotomy that would impair her memory forever. And the off-scene dramatics were nearly as powerful as those on-screen. Hepburn was severely annoyed with being away from an extremely ill Spencer Tracy and was further annoyed with what she saw as director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's favoritism toward Taylor. And both Taylor and Hepburn were outraged at what they saw as the director's ambivalent attitude towards an obviously seriously ill Clift. Add to this cauldron Tennessee Williams, who turned the play over to Vidal with a laugh; he hated the play and thought Vidal's efforts would amount to nothing. When Williams got a look at the magic Vidal was creating through the addition of character-defining monologues and such, he pitched a serious bitch not only to be given credit for the story, but also co-credit on the screenplay. When future generations look back on this film they will recognize it for what it truly is – a groundbreaking epic in the war for cinema freedom and an example of how to do so intelligently.
DAVID: C-. This film deals with very interesting subjects – a homosexual brutally murdered while looking to pick up young men for sex during a European vacation, an effort to give a woman who witnessed the attack a lobotomy, and a likely incestuous relationship. But the film itself is a colossal failure. It's Over-Acting 101 with Katherine Hepburn as the mother of the dead character Sebastian, and Elizabeth Taylor as Holly, Sebastian's cousin, who witnesses the murder, but initially can't remember the details. The final scene is so over-the-top and ridiculous with the two spending what seems like an eternity mugging for the camera. Hep gets the advantage by a bit delivering absurd lines when her character falls apart as the truth comes out. The change in her character is silly and not at all convincing. But Hepburn is the most overrated actress in the history of film so it came as no surprise to me. As I mentioned, it's close. Liz's performance as she recalls her time with Sebastian on the European vacation, told in flashback after she is given "truth serum," is also laughable. Montgomery Clift, who was a splendid actor (think James Dean only with a lot of talent), plays a surgeon who is asked to perform a lobotomy on Liz. He's so-so at best in this film. If someone had performed a lobotomy on this film, we all would be better off. In the years after this 1959 film was released, several of the key people involved in it were critical. That includes Tennessee Williams, who wrote the play on which the film is based; Gore Vidal, who wrote the movie's screenplay; and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who directed it.

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

Monday, August 27, 2012

ParaNorman in 3D

Dinner and a Movie

ParaNorman and the Copper Chimney

By Steve Herte

ParaNorman in 3D (2012) 

Welcome to the town of Blithe Hollow where we meet Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit­ McPhee) – the only person in town who can see and speak to the dead and zombies, and who sports a hairdo where every hair stands straight up as in fright (even when he combs it). His room decor is horror and creatures of the night. His mother, Sandra (Leslie Mann), is the ever-tolerant type who hopes he'll grow out of it, while his father, Perry (Jeff Garlin), would prefer it if he'd give it up and be a normal child. Norman has regular conversations with his grandma (Elaine Stritch), much to the dismay of his father and the embarrassment of his sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick). Norman is repeatedly bullied at school because of this gift by Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and his schoolmates, whose idea of fun is to write "Freak" on his locker. His one friend is Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), the "fat kid" who also gets bullied constantly. His big brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) is a ripped vacant-headed body-builder, football-star guy and the object of Courtney's (Anna Kendrick) affection.

Blithe Hollow is a town that feeds off the tourism from the "Witch's Curse" and all the businesses have some form of creepy title (sort of a spoof on Salem, Massachusetts). What the townspeople don't know is that the witch's curse is real and if not for the efforts of Norman's Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman), she would come back and raise the seven who condemned her as a witch back in Pilgrim days from the dead as zombies and create all sorts of havoc. In a very funny scene, Uncle Prenderghast dies (twice) and he appears to Norman in a stall of the boys’ restroom at his school. He tells Norman he has to keep the witch at bay by reading from the book his dead body is holding (another very funny scene) over the witch's grave. Apparently it puts her to sleep.

Norman doesn't know where the witch is buried, so he reads the book in the wrong place. The sun then sets and the dead are raised as zombies. He eventually finds the witch's grave (there's a tornado of fire rising from it - "Do you think that's it?" says his mother) and speaks to her. He convinces her that there are people who love her as well as people who were afraid of her and that he and she share that. She once again becomes the scared little Agatha Prenderghast (Jodelle Ferland), falls peacefully asleep on Norman's shoulder, and she and the zombies are released from this existence.

ParaNorman is a moral story of people who want to kill what they don't understand or fear (as the townspeople of Blithe Hollow try to do with Norman). It's also a tale of forgive and forget rather than taking vengeance. The animation is excellent; the voice characterizations are beautifully appropriate to the cast. The musical score accents the story without taking over and the 3D effects are controlled and not over the top. The only reason the movie did not get the fifth martini is that there is no way to rate the acting.

One last thing, a Cosby kid, Tempestt Bledsoe makes her voice heard as the big-bootied Sheriff Hooper and is hilarious. (Rating: 4 out of 5 martini glasses)
Copper Chimney
126 East 28th Street (Between Lexington and Park), New York City

After eating at more than 120 Indian restaurants, I thought I'd found them all until I received an e-mail from and read about the Copper Chimney. Being right in the heart of the Gramercy Park area abutting Kip's Bay, it was ideal for arranging my evening of movie and dinner. It's a simple storefront with a pink flag with white letters announcing its presence.

Inside, all is understated - cream walls with straw-colored cloth-covered sconces, dark­ wood-topped tables and chairs with steel legs and cream-colored banquettes. Aside from the Indian music softly piped through the place, there is no decoration to indicate its ethnicity. From the cocktail menu I selected "Liquid Copper" a surprisingly spicy drink made with mango-flavored rum, mango juice and spice (I couldn't isolate which, but it had a kick).

There were several dishes I have never seen on an Indian menu so I started with Tava Crab - a "House recommended!" dish of fresh flaked crab meat cooked with curry leaves, onions, tomato and ginger - served in a square bowl and looks like colorful confetti. It was wonderful and only slightly spicy. Next was the Mulligatawny Soup - described only as a soup made from lentils, "India's national soup" - it was different from every recipe I have had thus far. It wasn't as thick as some, wasn't served with a slice of lemon, but was a little spicier than most and had decent pieces of vegetables. It was served at the same time as the crab, but both dishes remained hot long enough for me to finish both and note that the spice factor from the two was cumulative, but pleasant.

I had advised my waiter that I intended to have a feast, so my main dish was Jardaloo Ma Gosht - lamb cooked with apricots in a saffron sauce and garnished with straw potatoes, a "Parsi specialty" - it was fabulous (and again, new to me). Fragrant Steamed Basmati Rice came with it. I ordered a side of Raita - cucumbers, onions and tomato in cold yoghurt - a good glass of Cabemet-Sauvignon, Onion Kulcha and cilantro-flavored flat bread. Everything was delicious.

There were only 13 tables (I guess the Indians are not superstitious about that number) so I got to meet some other diners. The couple across from me demurred at the waiter's offer of Indian Ice Cream until I explained to them that it contains neither ice nor cream and is not fattening. It should remain with the Indian name Kulfi.

I ordered my favorite, Gulab Jamun - malted milk dumplings in a honey and rose water syrup. They were hot and sweet, just as they should be. Now even though the menu states they serve tea, when I asked for Masala Chai (literally Spiced Tea - so Chai Tea is redundant, like Mount Fujiyama), the waiter told me they have no tea. An Indian restaurant without tea? What is this world coming to? No coffee either. I had to drink water with my dessert - the only disappointment. Otherwise, Copper Chimney was delightful.

For the Dinner and a Movie Archive, please click here.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan at RKO, Part 1

By Ed Garea

Tarzan films are one of those pleasant memories from childhood. I would camp myself in front of the television armed with a bag of Fritos and a glass of milk, oblivious to the world around for an hour or more, depending on how many films were being shown. When I see them as an adult after what seems like an eternity, my reaction is either one of delightful nostalgia for good times past or I look at it and say to myself, “I used to watch this?” (Sort of like pro wrestling.)

But back in the days when MGM was calling the production shots, the Tarzan movies were well-made excursions into the world of fantasy, where Tarzan and Jane could have a Cape-Cod-style tree house, no means of income but plenty of goodies lying around the pad, and a kid without actually having sex (they found him). And it is a further tribute to the genius of MGM (and in particular Irving Thalberg) that Johnny Weissmuller, a former Olympic swimming star with almost no clue as to what acting was, could star in a series of box-office bonanzas. By simply adhering to a strict formula and taking care with the production, MGM could crank out a Tarzan film about once every other year to long lines at the box office.

At first, the stories were taken seriously, but after a while they began to run out of plots. Beginning with Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942), logic began to creep out of the plots, replaced with what later became known as “Camp.” Maureen O’Sullivan was tired of traipsing about in a loincloth, Weissmuller was getting a bit long in the tooth, and the producers at MGM saw the handwriting on the wall. More importantly, however, the advent of World War II cost MGM half of its foreign markets, and it was these markets that provided the profit to the expensively-made adventures. Tarzan’s New York Adventure was the sixth – and last – entry in the MGM series.

While the Tarzan pictures were finished at MGM, they were still judged as a viable franchise for the right studio. Sol Lesser was a producer at RKO who began his career as an exhibitor with a chain of theaters and later sold them off to focus exclusively on independent production, mainly churning out a series of B-Westerns. In the early ‘30s, as the first MGM Tarzan was about to be shot, Lesser announced that he had purchased an option on the property for five films. MGM persuaded him to hold off for a couple of years by purchasing three of the optioned films. (The two films Lesser did produce were 1933’s Tarzan the Fearless with Olympic swimming champion Buster Crabbe, and 1935’s The New Adventures of Tarzan with Herman Brix, aka Bruce Bennett, donning the loincloth. Both were made on miniscule budgets and further played to miniscule crowds due to the pressure MGM put upon exhibitors to bypass the films.)

But Lesser never lost his interest in the Jungle King, and so the next year he imported Weissmuller, Cheetah and Boy to RKO, where the series continued. Never was a producer so aptly named. Everything about Sol’s production was “lesser:” lesser budgets, lesser scripts, and lesser actors. But this was RKO, which along with Universal, was the bottom of the barrel among the major studios.

The RKO films differed from their MGM predecessors in several ways. Because of the restricted budgets, characterization was dropped in favor of more and more action. The RKO Tarzans had more of the feel of a Saturday afternoon serial with no stop to the action and little time given for character development. Filmgoers didn’t need to know the inner workings of the bad guys; it was enough to know they were bad because Tarzan opposed them.

Because O’Sullivan was under contract to MGM and had zero interest in ever playing Jane again, a search was conducted for an actress to take her place. Because of the war, Lesser figured the series could get by without Jane for a couple of films, which would give him time to find someone for the role. Thus audiences didn’t see Jane again until 1945 and the third film in the RKO series, Tarzan and the Amazons, when B-starlet Brenda Joyce took on the role. Joyce worked the final three Weissmuller films and the first with Weissmuller’s successor, Lex (Alexander) Barker. 

Joyce’s casting underlined another difference between the MGM and RKO product: the diminishing role of Jane. In the MGM films, Jane’s relation to Tarzan took time out from the action to focus on their characters. With the new emphasis instead on action, the roles of Boy and Cheetah were expanded at Jane’s expense. Cheetah’s comic relief bits were enlarged and Boy’s main task became to either get Tarzan in the soup or turn up the heat if he was already there.

Further, the decision was made to step up the pace of releases. While MGM had released a new Tarzan every two years or so, Lesser reasoned that with Weissmuller aging, he should strike while the iron was hot. Weissmuller would make an additional six films for Lesser, but while his timeline for the first six with MGM was from 1932 to 1942, his output with RKO lasted half that time, from 1943 to 1948.

So let us travel to the back lots of RKO, where lost kingdoms abounded, jungle girls in alluring tights ran and hid and were chased by the bad guys, themselves unrelentingly evil. Plus, for the first two entries in the series, Nazis! It doesn’t get any better than that, although we shall see that it certainly does get worse. The following are the first two of the six movies Weissmuller made for Sol Lesser and RKO.

TARZAN TRIUMPHS (1943): Johnny Weissmuller, Johnny Sheffield, Frances Gifford, Stanley Ridges, Sig Ruman, Philip Van Zandt, Rex Williams, Stanley Brown, and Pedro de Cordoba. Screenplay: Roy Chanslor and Carroll Young. Director: William (Wilhelm) Thiele.

This is the best of the bunch for Weissmuller. After this, it was straight downhill. In case no one noticed, World War II was raging at the time and Tarzan would prove to be no exception. As the film opens, Tarz is living large, enjoying the bachelor life happily with Boy and Cheetah while Jane is in England visiting her family. During one of his mindless excursions Boy is trapped on a rocky ledge. Zandra (Gifford), whom we learn later is the daughter of the ruler of the lost kingdom of Pallandria, tries to rescue Boy but only succeeds in getting them both in danger and in need of rescue by Tarzan.

Later, in the comfort of their tree condo, Boy is reading a letter from Jane about the Nazi threat when a plane crashes. Tarz saves the pilot, Lt. Schmidt (Williams), from a hungry rubber crocodile and takes him back to Treehouse Central to heal his wounds. Schmidt pretends to be British with an act that could only fool Tarzan, but he’s really a nasty and thoroughly naughty Nazi. Meanwhile Zandra, her father (de Cordoba), and her brother, Arghmet (Brown), welcome other Nazis, led by Colonel Von Reichart (Ridges) to Pallandria. The Germans proceed to take over the town and enslave the inhabitants, forcing them to dig for minerals vital for the German war effort. (Sig Ruman is here in a minor role as a German sergeant, foreshadowing his later role as Sergeant Schultz in Stalag 17.)

The Colonel lusts after Zandra and wants to make her his personal love slave, but she escapes his clutches and runs to Tarzan, begging for help. Tarz, however, is an isolationist: “Nazi leave me alone, Tarzan leave them alone.” He soon changes his mind, however, when the Nazis kidnap Boy, seeking to learn the whereabouts of a coil needed for their radio – a coil Cheetah swiped and without which the Nazis cannot contact Berlin for reinforcements. Now the Nazis have really done it – they went and made the Big Guy mad: “Now Tarzan make war!” And he does, with a verve and elan that would have done Ah-nuld and Stallone proud. The Nazis are dispatched in interesting and gruesome ways – eaten by carnivorous fish, pushed off a cliff by Cheetah, and knifed and speared in various ways by Tarzan. Even Boy knocks off a few for good measure. Finally the evil Colonel is led by Tarzan into a trap with a man-eating lion and becomes the lion’s main course. In the end, the coil is reattached, and when Berlin HQ answers the call, they mistake Cheetah’s chattering for Hitler.

TARZAN’S DESERT MYSTERY (1943): Johnny Weissmuller, Johnny Sheffield, Nancy Kelly, Otto Kruger, Joe Sawyer, Lloyd Corrigan, Robert Lowery, and Frank Puglia. SP: Edward T. Lowe, Jr. D: William (Wilhelm) Thiele.

Jane is still missing and we learn that she is doing her patriotic duty as a nurse in a London hospital. She is in desperate need of “fever” medicine and turns to Tarzan as her favorite pharmacist, telling him in a letter to get off his duff and get her the medicine. Tarzan takes Boy and Cheetah with him across the desert to the other side of the jungle where the fever medicine plant conveniently grows. On the way, Tarz sees a group of men (later exposed to us as Nazi spies) led by Karl Straeder (Sawyer) and Paul Hendrix (Kruger) beating the hell out of a striped wild stallion. (Those rascals!) Tarzan makes them free the horse, and in gratitude, the stallion allows Boy to ride her to the local oasis.

Arriving at the oasis they run into Connie Bryce (Kelly), a magician from America who is stranded from a USO tour and is amusing herself by allowing the locals to saw her in half. Tarz, however, coming upon the scene in mid-performance, thinks they’re attacking Connie and chases them away – along with Connie’s horse. Discovering his mistake he offers to escort Connie to the capital city of Bir Herari, which is where they were both headed. The naughty Nazi spies beat Tarzan there and accuse the big guy of horse jacking. Hendrix then presents the horse as a gift to Sheik Abdul El Khim (Corrigan), the local Bigwig of the area, for the necessary Brownie points while Tarzan is thrown into the hoosegow, entrusting Boy to Connie’s care. (We’ll overlook the possible consequences of leaving a young adult whose hormones are probably raging with a luscious babe.)

The Sheik’s son, Prince Selim (Lowery), smells a big Nazi rat and warns Dad about accepting gift horses from Nazis. Later that night, while Cheetah wows the crowd with his high-wire act (no, we’re not making this up), Connie meets with the Prince, bringing him a bracelet containing a message from his old college chum, Prince Ameer. The message warns Selim that Hendrix and his pals are Nazi spies arming the locals for a revolt, as if the locals were not already revolting enough on their own. While the Prince is busy reading the message the Nazis are watching and send the Prince to meet his maker.

Unfortunately, before they can retrieve the bracelet, Cheetah makes off with it. (It always amazes me that a smart-ass chimp flummoxes these supposedly ingenious spies.) The Nazis pin the blame for the Prince’s death on Connie, who is jailed awaiting the hangman’s noose. What to do? Boy and Cheetah free Tarzan and Tarz in turns crashes Connie out. They head towards the unknown jungle for the fever medicine plants, pursued at a distance by the Nazi spies.

Losing their pursuers during a sandstorm, the foursome takes refuge in a camel driver’s hut (played by an unbilled Sid Saylor). Tarz leaves the other three behind and sets out for the jungle. There he braves giant rear-projected lizards while harvesting the medicinal plants. Meanwhile, Connie, Boy and Cheetah spot the Nazis catching up with them and decide to hide in the jungle. Straeder follows and is mauled by a lion and shortly afterward becomes a lizard’s lunch. Boy wanders into a cave and is caught in a giant spider’s web (obviously made from rope) manned by the slowest and phoniest spider in Hollywood history. Tarzan arrives in the nick of time, rescuing Boy and chucking Kruger to the spider. They get the plant, Jane gets her medicine, the spider gets fed, and everyone goes home happy.

This is probably my favorite Weissmuller RKO feature because of its sheer inanity. It plays more like a Saturday serial than a movie, containing several plot holes that only a kid could overlook, being more impressed with the lizards and the spider. The casting is hilarious, with Brooklyn-type Joe Sawyer playing a German spy and the smooth and urbane Otto Kruger as his sidekick, probably because of his last name. But the biggest casting faux pas was in assigning the role of the Sheik to Lloyd Corrigan, an actor best known for playing Boston Blackie’s fey buddy Arthur Manleder. As a sheik he comes off completely preposterous, but totally entertaining in a strange way, if one likes bad movie casting.

In Part Two, Tarzan goes from bad to worse as the war ends and we run out of Nazi baddies.

Edited by Steve Herte

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Flying Monsters in IMAX

Dinner and a Movie

Flying Monsters Over New York Call Marcony

By Steve Herte

Flying Monsters in IMAX (2012) 

Now playing at the American Museum of Natural History in the Lefrak Auditorium in Manhattan is one of the most visually stunning documentaries I have ever seen. Narrated by Sir David Attenborough (who actually appears from time to time looking a little like a male Julia Child), it tells the story of the evolution of flying reptiles over a 150-million-year time period. The movie starts with a speculation of why reptiles even needed flight and gave two reasons:

1. Their favorite food – insects – could fly and in order to catch their food efficiently, they would need to fly as well.

2. Larger dinosaurs that would like to have them as their dinner would not catch them as easily if they flew. The question was how?

Using the modern flying lizard Draco as an example, the concept of an easy glide from tree to tree was possible, but powered flight requires specialized bones, muscles and body configuration. These creatures evolved the hollow bones and fibrous material strengthening their skin enough to become wings. Through the magic of digital computer simulation we see living, and believable pterodactyls from Dimorphodon to Darwinopterus to Pteranodon to the immense Quetzelcoatlus with a 50-foot wing span. The visualization is so convincing, the audience has no problem with these giant creatures flying alongside a modern glider (with Sir David in it) as a comparison. The sounds they might have made, the colors of their skin and proto-feathers, along with their seamless movement added an intense realism to the film. The prehistoric settings are beautifully rendered. There’s even a scene that takes the audience on a flight inside the upper arm bone of Quetzelcoatlus to further explain how such a large creature became airborne.

I love dinosaurs and have seen just about every movie depicting them and Flying Monsters clearly demonstrates how far we’ve come cinematographically from the stop-action clay models that jerkily lumbered across the big screen to these graceful soaring creature – an excellent film for the whole family. 

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

New York Story (2012)

The New York Historical Society has finished their renovations and reopened with a bang. This historical short film (under half an hour) relates the history of New York City from pre-colonial days right up to the present, including 9/11. It touches on the native Lenape Indians, New Amsterdam as a Dutch settlement, the English take-over and re-naming, the city’s role in the commerce of slaves (even after slavery was abolished), the draft riots, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the development of slums, the many growth spurts, nothing is left out. But it’s never boring. 

The eight screens used to tell the story of New York are cleverly combined, split up and re-combined until the end when they form the widest screen I’ve ever seen and take the audience on an aerial flight over modern Manhattan. The musical accompaniment is a dynamic soul-stirrer that pulls one emotionally into the experience. This is my first time at the New York Historical Society and it makes me want to return often. 

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

184 Lexington Avenue (32nd Street), New York City

White lettering on a Mediterranean blue awning invite you to dine at Marcony. The few small tables of the sidewalk café are charming but do not prepare you for the ambience inside. The blue and white theme continues with the white walls with glass “bubbles” suspended by nylon threads from the sconces. Above is a fabulous blown glass sculpture masquerading as a chandelier in many shades of blue and white glass. It is lit from ceiling spots shining on it. The tables have white cloths and the chairs and banquettes are upholstered in deep blue. I just happened to be wearing an all blue outfit and matched the décor perfectly.

My Serbian waitress brought me a Beefeater martini and impressed me with her incredible memory while reciting the daily specials, three appetizers, two salads, three pastas, three fish dishes, two meat dishes and two chicken dishes. I wanted to applaud. An amuse-bouche arrived, a fried rice ball in a tomato sauce – very nice. After my waitress’ presentation, nothing on the menu sounded quite as good as what she offered, so I started with Stuffed Black Figs wrapped in prosciutto and filled with a combination of ricotta and fontina cheeses – delicious enough to be dangerous. I chose a 2009 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo to go with all my courses and it did so famously. 

When my waitress assured me I could have a half-order of pasta I chose the Cannelloni stuffed with ground veal and served in a creamy, cheesy white sauce. I loved it, and thank goodness the bread came out – I left not one drop of that sauce. Then the real love affair began. The Pecan Crusted Halibut on a bed of Gnocchi and Porcini Mushrooms was a dish that made love to me while I was eating it. The halibut was light and flakey, the crust was crispy and nutty, the gnocchi were tender and obviously home-made and the porcini added a sexy kiss to the meal. It might have been banned in Boston.

How far could one go from there? When I heard the word Zabaglione, I was hooked. The fluffy egg white and Marsala wine whip was wearing a crown of strawberry slices on top, a layer of plump blueberries beneath that and raspberries on the bottom – a perfect dessert. That, and a double espresso, and two glasses of Grappa (the manager saw me enjoying everything so much he insisted on treating me to a second) in beautiful, delicate stemmed thistle glasses and I was no longer in New York. I was in Montecasino, Italy. Marcony will definitely see me again but I wonder what I will have, maybe daily specials again? The Lobster Salad sounded really good.

For the Dinner and a Movie Archive, please click here.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


The Celluloid Club has a Facebook page. Check it out here and "like" us to stay up-to-date.

TCM TiVo Alert for Aug. 23-31

August 23 – August 31


WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (August 25, 2:30 am): This 1957 film, directed by Billy Wilder, is one of the absolute best suspense movies you'll ever see. The story takes many interesting twists and the acting is outstanding, particularly Charles Laughton as an ill, but still brilliant, barrister who takes the case of a man, played by Tyrone Power in his last role, charged with murder. All of the evidence points to Power's character, Leonard Vole, as the killer, but Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Laughton) can't resist defending him. Things take a turn for the worse - or maybe it doesn't - when Vole's wife, played by Marlene Dietrich, is called as a witness for the prosecution. The ending is so unexpected and executed exceptionally well by all parties involved in the film. It is a shock - heightened by the closing credits asking moviegoers to not reveal the ending to anyone who hasn't seen it. 

BALL OF FIRE (August 26, 8:00 pm): Think of this film as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs if Snow White was a hot nightclub performer, played by Barbara Stanwyck, hiding from the police and her mob boyfriend, and the dwarfs were brilliant but eccentric professors putting together an encyclopedia about everything. Director Howard Hawks - with the assistance of Billy Wilder, who co-wrote the screenplay from a short story he wrote - does a great job blending the two worlds together to make an outstanding romantic comedy. The main professor, Bertram Potts (played by Gary Cooper), is focusing his work on American slang. The slang of 1941 is dated, but the scenes that have Potts learning the slang words of the day from Stanwyck's character, Sugarpuss, are hysterical with Cooper doing an excellent job as the straight man. Also of note are the wonderful acting performances of the other professors, all who are considerably older than Potts. It's a funny, entertaining film that leaves the viewer with a smile on his/her face for most of the movie. After the first time I saw it, I thought to myself, "That was great." It still is.


HITLER’S MADMAN (August 28, 6:00 am): This is being shown on the day devoted to the films of Ava Gardner, and looking at the time it’s airing, one can safely say that it’s not one of Gardner’s more sterling outings. Actually, it was made during her early days in Hollywood when MGM loaned her out to get experience. She made this film for Poverty Row studio PRC, which, except for Sam Katzman’s Banner Pictures, was the bottom of the Hollywood barrel. This is the story of the assassination of Nazi Chief Reinhard Heydrich by Czech freedom fighters, but a number of things raise it from the usual level of PRC product. One is that it was the first directorial effort by German expatriate Douglas Sirk, who imbues it with a polish not seen in PRC films. Two, it contains an outstanding performance by John Carradine as Heydrich. And finally, the film is not only enjoyably watchable as such, but it’s actually good. So good, in fact, that PRC sold it to MGM for distribution. I recommend this not only on its virtues, but also as an example that Poverty Row surroundings do not necessarily have to result in a Poverty Row product. Sure, it looks cheap, but watch it and feel yourself become entranced by the production.

THREE ON A MATCH (August 30, 1:00 p.m.): It’s Warren William Day on TMC and there is no film he made during the ‘30s that’s more powerful or shocking than this Pre-Code effort. It’s the story of three childhood friends (Joan Blondell, Bette Davis, and Ann Dvorak) and the progress of their lives. Dvorak’s character turns out the best financially, but then her luck suddenly turns and she sinks into a live of debauchery, drink and drugs. The movie is startlingly frank and Dvorak wakes up too late to save herself but sacrifices herself for her child in a most dramatic way. Look for Humphrey Bogart in a small role as a thug.

WE DISAGREE ON ...  ROLLERBALL (August 31, 8:00 pm)

DAVID: B+. I admit it - I'm a sucker for early to mid-1970s futuristic dystopian films such as The Omega ManLogan's Run and Rollerball. The latter, from 1975, is about the not-to-distant future of 2018 in which corporations control the world. They certainly got that one correct. In 2018, Rollerball, a version of roller derby with considerably more violence, is the king of sports. It's also society's replacement for war - a nice gesture. The biggest problem is it's also replaced individualism. And that's the problem facing Jonathan E (played by James Caan). He is the greatest Rollerball player of all-time with fans chanting his name. To corporate executives (the key executive is magnificently played by John Houseman), this is a huge problem as the game is designed to stifle individualism (do I sound like Ayn Rand?), and Jonathan is making that difficult. Jonathan won't retire so the corporations make the game more violent, including having the title game be a battle to the death. The action in the film is top-notch, particularly the championship match. Rollerball is much more than a futuristic action film. It's a movie that captures the challenges of being your own person in a structured world that frowns on standing out, especially if it upsets or disturbs society and its norms.

ED: CI remember seeing this in the theater, being sucked in by the terrific commercials. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered this "action" film actually moved at a snail's pace with its sub-plot of corporate totalitarianism. What it really needed to be was just a simple film about how one man rebels against the corporate status quo. What we get instead is a ponderous, pretentious attempt at a "thinking man's film" without much thinking going into it, the rest being covered with heavy-handed symbolism. James Caan delivers "impassioned" lines as if he was hit over the head with a mallet, and Maud Adams sounds if she studied at the school of cardboard acting. The movie needs an impassioned hero, someone like Mel Gibson or Al Pacino. What it gets is an actor who is best suited to a supporting role and needs to be killed off halfway through the picture. John Houseman is . . .well, John Houseman, and he is the only good things about the film besides the game of Rollerball itself, which is a great concept, but poorly executed. And that is precisely the problem with this film: it's one thing to let your audience figure out the plot from clues and actions, but quite another to present a half-baked story that in the end really doesn't make any sense. Finally, the movie doesn't age well. We're supposed to think it's 2018, but everything in the film screams 1975. Along with Logan's Run, it's the worst of the 70's sci-fi movies.

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