Seven Footsteps to Satan (1929)
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
Seven Footsteps to Satan (1929) is the earliest Thelma Todd film I have found. Indeed, it is so early that it is a silent movie (apparently one of the last silent horror films).

While I found it interesting enough to finish watching and to write about, let me be clear up front: this is not a good movie. Not much plot, unevenly paced, poorly directed. The acting is passable. And, though this is not a fault of the original makers, the existing print that this was restored from is incredibly washed out, lacking nearly all visual detail. The ending is a narrative cheat that is only half a step above “it was all a dream”.

The story begins with a somewhat nebbishy leading man who is practicing marksmanship in his secret lab, so that he will be well prepared to go exploring in “darkest Africa”. Soon, he gets tangled up with robbers and then he and his girlfriend are suddenly kidnapped. So far, so pulp.

But then the film takes a sharp left into dream logic. Our heroes find themselves in a huge mansion that seems not unrelated to Castle Frank-N-Furter. It is packed to the rafters with secret passages, thugs in tuxedos, tortured damsels in distress, mysterious dwarfs, screeching apes, inscrutable Orientals, men with Exceedingly Strange facial hair, femmes fatales, ominous shadows, groping hands, and orgiastic cultists whose cult leader is named Satan. This is not a complete list.

Our hero keeps insisting that he just wants to go home, in the apparent belief that this will have any positive effect. But things keep happening. It’s never really clear why he has been brought there at all, what Satan wants with him, which of the weird characters are actually on his side, or much of anything really. (At least until the last few minutes, whose existence I deny.) It’s very nearly Lynch-ian. If you’re a fan of the surreal, I recommend starting at the 20 minute mark, and turning it off at 1:10 (just as the clapping starts).

Satan Met a Lady (1936)
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
Well, now I have seen all three film versions of The Maltese Falcon. The 1941 is, of course, a classic. The 1931 was, as I posted earlier, good and interesting. The 1936, however, turns out to be nearly a complete waste of time. Bah.

Remember how I said that in the 1931, the lead seemed to think he was in a comedy, despite everyone else being in a crime film? In this version, they have just decided to straight up make it a comedy. I don’t think that this decision was necessarily fatal; one could tell a successful humorous version of this story. But it definitely went poorly for them that they decided to throw away the Gift of Hammett’s timeless dialogue and substitute their own “wit”. Only a few lines are recognizable from the source material, and the replacements are neither funny nor memorable.

I had high hopes for Bette Davis, but she had no real hope of saving the picture. Despite having top billing, her role is relatively small. And really, with this script and this director, no actors could have rescued it.

While the plot is clearly recognizable, they changed all the names and the identity of the MacGuffin. Perhaps Warner Brothers felt a little shame at remaking the film so soon, and sought to make it a little less obvious. But, as much as I like the Matter of France, Roland’s Horn is just not as interesting a MacGuffin as the Falcon. The protagonist’s secretary is ditzy well beyond the point of annoying. There was one change that I thought had a chance of being interesting; the Gutman analogue was a gray-haired, matronly crime boss with a kitten. Sadly, in the execution, she was as dull as the rest.

Strongly dis-recommended. If you want to see an interesting variant, stick with the 1931 version.

Rally to Stand Up For Science
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
I went. Uploaded pictures here: https://www.facebook.com/alexx.kay/media_set?set=a.10210744438900507.1073741849.1035714672&type=3&pnref=story

May post more commentary anon,but now out of spoons...

The Maltese Falcon (1931)
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
This is the FIRST movie version of the Hammett novel, now known basically as a footnote to the legendary classic remake in 1941 starring Humphrey Bogart. I watched it because of a Thelma Todd part, which turned out to be a poor reason, as her part is small and without much scope (Mrs. Archer). On the other hand, as a piece of comparative storytelling it was FASCINATING!

In this case, the interesting comparisons are largely to be found in the acting and direction. Both sets of writers wisely realized that the source material was sufficiently strong that it didn’t so much need to be adapted as transcribed.* The screenplays are not identical, but each of them takes about 90% of their plot, and even dialogue, directly from the novel. With so much the same, the differences are starkly highlighted.

The biggest difference is in the character of Sam Spade himself. While Bogart would focus on a cynical world-weariness, Ricardo Cortez spends more time grinning than not. He seemed to me to be saying, “YOU characters may think you’re in a gritty crime novel, but I’M in a romantic sex comedy!” Emphasis on the sex; this pre-Code Spade is a complete slut. He spends a lot more time getting laid (and thinking about getting laid) then Bogart. Our first view of this Spade is in silhouette, through his office door, smooching a VERY satisfied client; he then returns to his inner office and straightens up the disarranged pillows of his sofa. Bogart may have slept with Mrs. Archer, but he gave the impression that it was under duress; Cortez also breaks off with Mrs. Archer, but only because she has become inconvenient, not because he has any objection whatsoever to sleeping with his partner’s wife. Cortez is certainly capable of being tough or serious; he just does so as little as possible.

This lighter-hearted Spade plays excellently well against Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly (this version dispenses with the multiple aliases of the femme fatale). In fact, Daniels is the one actor who I would say did a distinctly better job than their 1941 counterpart. This is no great surprise, as I think Mary Astor is the weakest element of that version. Daniels is more obvious in her duplicity, but also significantly more vivacious and seductive. Cortez’s Spade knows enough not to trust her from the start, but obviously also thinks that she is sufficiently hot that he is more than willing to go along with her for the time being. It’s tawdry, but it makes obvious sense, something that their relationship in the 1941 movie never did for me.

On its own merits, as a pre-Code proto-noir, this is a fine little film. It’s not an enduring classic like the 1941 version, but you knew that.

Of course, having watched two versions, now I’m going to have to go watch the in-between 1936 version, Satan Met a Lady, starring Bette Davis. No doubt I shall report back…

* Kestrell and I refer to these as “gift stories”. As in, “You were given this as a gift; all you had to do was not throw it away.” I’m not always a purist when it comes to adaptations, but when you’re given perfect source material, have the sense to recognize it. Case in point being Treasure Island, which is been filmed a dozen times at least, but only a couple of them had the sense to just tell the story they were given.

The Secret History of Twin Peaks
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
I finally got around to reading this, some months after its release, but at least before the new season of Twin Peaks itself. Short review: mixed, but indispensable for the serious T P fan.
At more length:Read more...Collapse )

“So you wanna play pirate?” Corsair (1931)
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
My latest kick is the films of Thelma Todd. I first developed a crush on her decades ago from the Marx Brothers films Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. Having been recently reminded that she actually did a huge amount of work (in a tragically short life), I’ve been seeking out more of it. While far from a complete filmography, a surprisingly large amount of her work is available on YouTube. The first two I tried, I didn’t stick with long enough to see her part, but the third was worth completing, and then talking about.

Corsair (1931), directed by Todd’s boyfriend Roland West, was surprising in a number of ways. For a start, the title, combined with an opening shot of a sailing ship, led me to believe I was getting a classic pirate movie. Piracy does eventually feature, but we START with… a contemporary (to 1931) football game?

Chester Morris plays John Hawks, an all American quarterback from the Midwest, and a rising star. He’s planning on a steady job as a football coach, when he has the misfortune of catching the eye of spoiled heiress Allison Corning (Thelma Todd). She knows what she wants, and she usually gets it. Hawks’s resistance to her charms only makes her want him more. (Speaking as a Guy, I feel compelled to note that those charms include a very nice translucent shirt with no bra under it – pre-Code for the win!)

Allison arranges for John to be employed in her father’s Wall Street financial firm. He adapts well at first, but after a year, decides that he can no longer stomach selling junk bonds to widows (literally). Instead, using some contacts he has picked up over that year, he’s going into a much more straightforward profession: piracy on the high seas!

Well, sort of. He’s found out that his former boss, in addition to his other unethical dealings, wholesales a lot of booze from criminals (these are Prohibition times). A rich friend provides a boat, and some criminals on the inside provide information on delivery times. John hijacks the booze, then sells it BACK to Allison’s father for both financial gain and the satisfaction of cheating the old skinflint.

There is an extended subplot involving the two criminals who are working with John, during which the film ventures into what I would have to call proto-noir territory. Lots of sharp shadows and murky morals. The relationship between the two frays under the extreme stress and danger of their doublecross, but even as they cynically snipe, their love for each other shines through. Especially good work here by actress Mayo Methot.

Sadly, once that subplot is over, the film seems to settle in to a fairly conventional final act. The final confrontation between John and the criminals is serviceable, but little more than that. Allison’s father turns out to be slightly less slimy then he looked, and hires John back as a company president.

We end on a kiss between John and Allison, though a somewhat ambiguous one. It is certainly possible to stick with the surface reading that she is renouncing her wild ways for properly meek womanhood and True Love. On the other hand, it seems equally valid to read the scene as Allison using her devious feminine wiles to finally overcome John’s resistance. I expect they will have an interestingly stormy marriage, regardless.

While I can’t recommend it unreservedly, the early scenes with Thelma Todd are great, as are the noir-ish sequences in the middle.

Alexx’s January Patreon Update
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
I spent most of December with a cold, and thus got very little work accomplished. I did watch a large amount of Western movies, leading to significant additional annotations for Cinema Purgatorio number seven (see earlier comments about Art never being finished, only abandoned).

January, thankfully, has been significantly more productive. Notable accomplishments since last time:
• Annotated chapters two through five of Voice of the Fire.
• Helped annotate issue 11 of Providence.

Plus a lot of miscellaneous bits here and there. Still lots more to do, and a new issue of Cinema Purgatorio is due out tomorrow. Thanks for your support!

Still Got It
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
Earlier this evening, I did some public storytelling for the first time in roughly a decade. I was kinda nervous. I was going with my favorite material (Astolfo and Giocondo), which is generally a crowdpleaser – but which is 30 minutes long. A flop at that length is a really big flop.

I am happy to report that I’ve still got what it takes, and I knocked ‘em dead :)

Seems like a fun group of people, and they’ve liked my material so far. I’m definitely going to try and make it to next month’s event also. April, thanks again for letting me know about this. And Doria, thanks even more for making it happen!

March
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
I was at the March yesterday. I posted lots of photos on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/alexx.kay/media_set?set=a.10210486821740239.1073741848.1035714672&type=3), but it occurred to me that I should document it here as well.

I got started a little late, and only arrived downtown around 11:45. From the moment I exited the T, the crowds were impressive, and only became more so as I approached the central location. In fact, I didn’t get all THAT close to the center, as my crowd-phobia kicked in well before that point. There were so many people, I didn’t even get close enough to be able to hear the speakers. But I felt I was still participating by circling around the fringes, offering encouragement, and taking pictures of things I felt were noteworthy.

The March proper started late and was clearly going to go on for a long time, and remain packed throughout. So I didn’t technically march. When my spoons were running low (about 1:45), I headed home. I hadn’t seen anyone I knew in person; unsurprising given the scale of the event.

Surprisingly little in the way of counterprotest. Well, maybe some folks showed up but were intimidated by the crowd size and left without making a fuss. There were a few groups of “orthogonal” protesters (largely for socialist groups), but only one of these appeared to actually have any problems with the March, per se. I saw a grand total of one Trump T-shirt; the young man wearing it had it on over a chain mail tunic, was holding a medieval-style helmet in hand, and had a fake-looking sword stuffed down the back of his shirt. When I spotted him, he was already walking away.

All in all, a hopeful day.

Zoom (2015)
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
What a delightfully odd film! When I first read the Netflix summary, I thought it contained grammar errors. But no, it was merely a case of trying to describe an extremely convoluted structure in a small number of words. Luckily, I have no such space restriction here.Read more...Collapse )
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