Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Blondie! (1938)

You know, it's always nice to watch a film that you haven't seen in years.  Blondie! is definitely one of those films.  I had forgotten how great the cast was and how well they worked together.  Released by Columbia Pictures and directed by Frank R. Strayer, Blondie! is the first of almost thirty "episodes" in the comedy series and it is hilarious from start to finish.

Dagwood (Arthur Lake) has cosigned a note for one of his coworkers named Elsie and now owes the loan company a grand total of $563.80.  What makes matters worse is that his fifth wedding anniversary is rapidly approaching and Blondie (Penny Singleton) has bought new furniture that he hasn't found out about yet.  The only way out of this jam is for Dagwood to get land developer C.P. Hazlip (Gene Lockhart) to sign a contract with his employer Mr. Dithers (Jonathan Hale), who in turn promises Dagwood a raise and a bonus that would cover what Dagwood owes.  Not as easy as it sounds because Hazlip is known for avoiding salesman and just not being an easy person to see in general.

In one of the funniest scenes in the film Dagwood sits next to a stranger in the hotel lobby waiting for Hazlip to show up, unknown to Dagwood that the stranger is Hazlip, the two observe a hotel porter (Willie Best) tinkering with a vacuum cleaner.  The two men sneak the vacuum cleaner up to Hazlip's room to try to fix it when Hazlip's daughter Elsie (Ann Doran) shows up and Dagwood finds out who his new friend really is.  Blondie finds out that Dagwood is at the hotel and mistakes Elsie Hazlip for the Elsie that Dagwood cosigned the note for and thinks that he's having an affair.  All this is complicated even further by the arrival of one of Blondie's old flames (Gordon Oliver), her mother (Gene's wife Kathleen Lockhart), and her sister Dot (Dorothy Moore).  The film gets more chaotic and more entertaining as things progress. 

Baby Dumpling (Larry Simms) is great in every scene he's in, whether it's delivering his little one line zingers or his antics with his neighbor Alvin (Danny Mummert).  Gene Lockhart is one of those actors that's great in every part he plays and seems to do it without effort.  Penny Singleton is uber perky and perfectly cast as Blondie, and Arthur Lake is the quintessential Dagwood.  Oh, I almost forgot, Daisy is just adorable. 

Bottom line, this is a really funny film and no matter what age group you fall into you'll enjoy some very entertaining moments and maybe it'll bring back some fond memories.  And at about 70 minutes the laughs come at you pretty quick.  So if no one minds, I think I'll go watch another one.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sherlock Holmes in "Pearl of Death" (1944)

I have to say this is one of my favorite films of the series and is based on the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons".  Pearl of Death begins on board a ship with the theft of an expensive jewel, the Borgia Pearl.  The pearl is stolen by a member of a gang of international jewel thieves, Naomi Drake (Evelyn Ankers).  Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) then cleverly acquires possession of the pearl from the thief only to have it stolen again, due to Holmes's carelessness, by another member of the gang Giles Conover (Miles Mander) as it is being displayed at the Royal Regent Museum. 

As Holmes begins to collect evidence and clues as to the whereabouts of the criminals he also connects a string of murders, with smashed china and bric-a-brac at the scenes, to the disappearance of the jewel getting Holmes, Watson (Nigel Bruce), and Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey) closer to solving the mystery. 

As the investigation progresses Holmes finds that he is also up against another Scotland Yard foe the Hoxton Creeper (Rondo Hatton), whose signature method of killing is breaking people's backs.  According to MPI's promotional info, Hatton didn't have to spend much time in Universal makeup master Jack Pierce's chair for this film.  That time was reserved for Rathbone who uses two disguises, Mander who also dons two different disguises, and Ankers who sports three different disguises throughout the film, making her a bit more deceptive than our beloved Holmes. 

This was the seventh Sherlock Holmes film released by Universal, but the ninth film in the series, the first two The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) being released by Twentieth Century Fox.  Nigel Bruce is at his grumbling best as Dr John Watson and cleverly, but respectfully, exchanges barbs and wisecracks with Holmes and Lestrade throughout the film to lighten the mood a bit.  In one scene he tests his powers of deduction when he tries to locate a newspaper clipping that mysteriously disappears.  Hatton is as creepy as ever as the Creeper, or as Lestrade calls him "the 'Oxton 'Orror".  Miles Mander appeared in another Holmes film, The Scarlet Claw (1944) as one of the victims "Judge Brisson", as well as other films including Wuthering Heights (1939), Phantom of the Opera (1943), and Murder, My Sweet (1944). 

This film was a bit of a change for Ankers who usually played the victim rather than the villain.  Earlier in 1944 Ankers appeared in one of Universal's Inner Sanctum Thrillers, The Weird Woman, as well as in The Invisible Man's Revenge, and of course The Wolfman in (1941).  She also appeared as Kitty in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942).  Roy William Neill directed The Pearl of Death along with several other films in the series including Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear (1945), Sherlock Holmes in Terror by Night (1946), and Sherlock Holmes in Dressed to Kill (1946).

Great film, one of the best of the series.  A must see for any Sherlock Holmes fan.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Batman (1943)

Lewis Wilson stars as Batman in the caped crusader's first big screen appearance.  Along with his trusted sidekick, "Robin the Boy Wonder" (Douglas Croft), they fight to protect Gotham City, and the world, from the clutches of the evil Dr. Tito Daka (J. Carrol Naish), his "Radium Powered Ray Gun" and his "Zombie Machine".  The 15 episode serial was released by Columbia Pictures and I have to admit it sounds promising, but doesn't deliver.  The serial plays up Batman's alter ego "Bruce Wayne" as extremely lazy and untrustworthy, rather than suave and sophisticated, as he keeps his girlfriend "Linda Page" (Shirley Patterson) in the dark about his identity.  I can see where he would want to hide his Batman identity but I think they go a little overboard. 

The Dynamic Duo work as government agents attempting to uncover Axis plots instead of acting  as vigilantes which is truer to the comic origin.  The air is thick with anti-Japanese slurs, especially with the serial being released after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II.  Anyone easily offended might take exception to some of the dialogue.  But, like other films and serials from that era, they have to be viewed in the context of the times. 

The chemistry just doesn't seem to click between the main characters causing the serial to fall a little flat.  Most of the bad guys I recognized as some of the Columbia contracted  "mugs and thugs" that appear in other Columbia shorts and serials.  Naish does a good job as usual, and Charles Middleton appears in a few episodes as a prospector with a Radium mine, and the bad guys are after him for a change, he usually plays the villain.

There are a few good stunts, mostly car crashes etc., but a lot of the action that goes on might cause the viewer to just shake their head and chuckle.  In one scene Batman gets thrown down an elevator shaft and hits the bottom in a puff of dust like "Wile E. Coyote" in a "Road Runner" cartoon, only to get up in the next scene saying "that was a close one ".  In another scene Batman and Robin try to gain access to one of the crook's hideouts when Batman remarks about how "well guarded the place is", then they simply just climb over the high iron fence and onto the property without being noticed. 

The punches fly like a windmill in a hurricane, but everyone just keeps getting right up for more punishment.  The character "Alfred" (William Austin) is too bumbling, unlike the aristocratic and polished character played by Alan Napier in the Batman film and television series of the 60's.
The "Bat's Cave" is a cave with a desk, a telephone, and a couple of chairs in it.  There's no "Batmobile", just a Cadillac convertible with a large backseat where most of the Bruce Wayne to Batman / Dick Grayson to Robin and vice versa transformations take place.  Columbia was obviously on a limited budget judging by the repeated use of sets and locations used for filming.  And the "bat ears" on Batman's cowl look more like devil horns.

I hope I don't sound like I'm totally trashing the serial, it has it's moments, but I think only true Batman and serial fans will really appreciate it.