Wednesday, November 30, 2011

No One Is Safe From The Cruel Desires Of This Inhuman Fiend!

The Ape Man(1943)
Director: William Beaudine
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Wallace Ford, Louise Currie

Absolutely preposterous movie, and that's saying alot when one considers Lugosi's outout in the 1940s. The Ape Man is a nonsensical and often unintentionally hilarious film that can also be a pretty sad affair for Lugosi fans. The notorious "Monogram nine" that Lugosi made from 1940-1944, range from being alot of fun to being kind of embarrassing. Bela was a consumate professional, though, and always gave it his all even in dreck like this. This is probably not the best way to start off a review, but i've got to be honest, as only diehards and bad movie nuts will check this out.

Bela Lugosi stars as James Brewster, a goofy scientist that decides for no apparent reaso to inject himself with a serum that transforms him into an ape! Actually, he dosen't really look much like an ape, rather he resembles a hunchbacked Abraham Lincoln, instead. He invites his sister, Minerva Urecal, over so she can make florid outdated gestures and feel sympathy for her silly brother, who now sleeps in a cage with the funniest gorilla you've ever seen. Lugosi obviously tries in these scenes, attempting to maintain his dignity and even engaging some audience sympathy, a testament to his professionalism as an actor. However, this is one bad script and it's hard to feel sympathy for a dope who first injects himself with something that turns him into an ape, so he he can kill people for spinal fluid, in an attempt to stand up right.
This plot point recalls the earlier Karloff vehicle, The Ape(1940), a fairly ridiculous film in it's own right, though Karloff's purpose was somewhat more noble(he was trying to cure polio.) Lugosi wanders around with his ape friend and a wise cracking reporter ends up on his trail, portrayed by Wallace Ford, who is also slumming. For some reason, another weirdo follows him about as well, only to look in at Lugosi and giggle during very inappropiate scenes, making me wonder what the intention really was!
Eventually the leading lady, Louise Currie, who is actually a decent actress, gets involved in the shenangians and ends up whipping Lugosi, before he gets his back broken by his ape friend. The ape is subsequently shot and the weird guy that was following Lugosi and Ford around, announces that he wrote the movie!

The Ape Man is a pretty dumb movie, as if one couldn't tell from the synoposis, but one that maintains interest for a variety of reasons. It showcases Lugosi and proves how well the actor could hold his own, even in such dire circumstances. Few actors had such bad luck as Bela, and sadly, this was to be neither his worst movie or worst movie with an ape!(that honor going to 1952's Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla)
There's no question that this is a bad movie, but makes it interesting is trying to find it's purpose. The concept, at it's core, is about dehumanization and the loss of identity, an area explored often in horror films. It's a scary concept, but here is executed in a rather haphazard fashion. Lugosi attempts to gain sympathy, but there is just no reason there for why he did what he did. It's hard to take an actor seriously when he talks to a man in an ape suit or is being heckled by a character within the movie! That entire arc, meant to make a cheap laugh, comes across as inspid and mean spirited and surely will cause many classic horror fans displeasure. The Ape Man has some laughs, but it's still not so fun to see such a classic actor in such grim trappings.
The direction, or lack thereof, from William "One Shot" Beaudine, has little artistry or interest. Beaudine directed more movies than any other filmmaker, but was largely a simple craftsman(though his 1926, Sparrows, with Mary Pickford, would make you think otherwise.) There's just no style here and combined with the dull plot and the general stupidity throughout, the film sinks to a low level. It hardly compares to Lugosi Monograms, such as Invisible Ghost(1941), Bowery at Midnight(1942) and Voodoo Man(1944), which at least offered Lugosi some meat and allowed him to carry the show, script banalities aside. And there is just nothing in here that is so jolly and wild as PRC's The Devil Bat(1940), Lugosi's best indie form the 40s, at least for sheer entertainment value.

If you are a Lugosi completist or the title intrigues you enough that it warrants a viewing, then so be it. The Ape Man is hardly an essential and ranks among the more dreary of the 40s era horror movies, but is interesting for it's quaintness, reflecting an era when such harmless fare littered movie theaters throughout the country. There's an innocence here, call it nostalgia, that makes it more viewable than it has any right to be. Still this is hardly a film for any horror fan to go ape over.

Laurel And Hardy In Toyland

March of the Wooden Soldiers(1934)
Director: Gus Meins, Charley Rogers
Cast: Laurel and Hardy, Henry Brandon, Felix Knight, Charlotte Henry

For decades it was a holiday tradition to find this delightful fantasy on television. It seemed that nearly every Thanksgiving and Christmas this would be making the rounds of the local TV stations, but unfortunately, it has appeared to disappear. Originally called Babes in Toyland, this was later re-titled, March of the Wooden Soldiers, and that's the title that I grew up knowing it as. I adore holiday movies and have always been fond of Laurel and Hardy, and this is one of the best holiday treats to be found.

March of the Wooden Soldiers deviates slightly from the original operetta, focusing on Laurel and Hardy as two toymakers who are trying to save The Old Lady in the shoe(Florence Roberts) from the villainous Barnaby(Henry Brandon) who wishes to foreclose her home, unless he can marry her daughter, Bo Beep(Charlotte Henry) who is already engaged to Tom-Tom(Felix Knight). The boys are able to trick the old skinflint, but complications ensue and soon Barnaby has the monstrous boogeymen unleashed upon Toyland! However, Laurel and Hardy come to the rescue by using an army of life-size wooden soldiers in an unforgettable climax that will be long-remembered.

Laurel and Hardy made quite a few musical comedies over the years and this is easily the best one. The boys fit nicely into the story, offering some hilarious and endearing bits of business. My favorite moments involve Stanley playing with his favorite toy, a "peewee" a wooden thing that he hits with a stick and send through the air. The antics in the toyshop are fun with some good slapstick and the wordplay is cute, particularly a scene involving pork sausage("Barnaby got a hand in that!") and Stan's fake marriage to Barnaby is pretty darn funny as well.

The rest of the cast perform admirably for this type of film, though the standout is 23-year old Henry Brandon as old Barnaby, the wonderful scenery chewing villain who really makes the film come to life. He's one of those great theatrical villains that works so beautifully in such simple melodrama and adds a spark to the production that works well.
The production design is lovely, completely evoking the fairy tales it hopes to emulate and is particularly memorable for imaginative children. This was one of those fantasies from the classic age that wasn't afraid to frighten it's young viewers and the climax with the boogeymen is genuinely frightening and exciting. When the wooden soldiers go and battle them, it makes for one of the coolest climaxes in any classic fantasy made. It's both funny, thrilling and charming. Macabre elements are intersped including a decapitated wooden soldier that keeps on charging towards a retreating boogeyman, though the overall impression is sweet as the soldiers protect the kids and even Mickey Mouse(!) commandeers a small zeppelin and drops tiny bombs on the boogeymen! This is just great fun.

The music is a mixed bag for today's audiences to be sure, but it is in keeping with the original operetta and is period appropiate, rather than focusing on trendy pop music, which is the norm today. I was raised on rock and heavy metal, but it's enjoyable and charming for what it is and if one keeps an open mind , i'm sure you'll think the same.
March of the Wooden Soldiers was a big success for Hal Roach, but the producer never enjoyed the picture, resentful over having his original script vetoed by Stan Laurel. The team were always proud of this film and considered it one of their best, which it is. Stan wanted the picture to originally be presented in color, given the imaginative landscape of the film. The film was finally colorized in the late 80s and unlike many of these colorization jobs, this one is actually fairly impressive and actually adds to the beauty of the picture.
If you haven't seen this one and you are a fan of classic comedy and fantasy, this film makes for a truly lovely escape when the holidays arrive. This is one of my personal favorites.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

How He Came Into The World

The Golem(1920)
Director: Paul Wegener
Cast: Paul Wegener, Albert Steinruck, Ernst Deutsch

One of the most neglected and underutilized of all movie monsters has to be the golem. One of the few horror legends not bred from Christian ideologies, this creation from Jewish mythology has sadly seen very few film adaptions, despite a fascinating plot that predates and parallels Frankenstein. Paul Wegener, the great german actor, was fascinated with the legend of the clay statue that was brought to life by Rabbi Loew to protect the people of Prague. Taking inspiration from Gustav Meynrick's classic 1914 gothic novel, The Golem, as well as the old legends, he produced and starred in three adaptions from 1915 to 1920. Sadly, only one remains today in it's entirety. The Golem(1920) that exists is a film classic and one of the most important in the evolution of the horror film. It's also fascinating because it's actually the first prequel, considering that the 1915 version was set in modern times and involved the golem terrorizing Prague.

The plot revolves around the plight of the jewish city of Prague, and it's ensuing persecution by the Christian emperor, Emperor Luhois(Otto Gebuhr). Rabbi Loew(Albert Steinruck) predicts that destruction will fall upon his people, so he forms a clay man and conjures up spirits to help him bring the statue to life, with a sacred word implanted into a six sided star that is inserted into the creature's chest. The Golem(Paul Wegener) is a fearsome giant, but essentially noble, performing odd labor for the Rabbi, before appearing before the Emperor. The Rabbi is asked to perform magic tricks for his court, including showing visions from his people's history, which the nobles jeer and snicker at, only to have the castle brought down upon them. At the final moment, the Golem saves them all and the people of Prague are spared. However, the Golem has tasted emotion and desires to have his own life and grows hostile. The Rabbi removes the star from his chest and believes all is well. Unfortunately, the Rabbi's servant(Ernst Deutsch) becomes jealous over the attention that the Rabbi's daughter(Lyda Salmonovo) ais paying the Emperor's servant(Max Kronert) and he activates the Golem to drive him away.The Golem proceeds to kill the servant and begins a wave of destruction, setting fire to the ghetto and going on a rampage. In a poignant moment, the Golem encounters some children and picks one of the children up, who unknowingly, removes his lifeforce, saving the people of Prague from destruction.

The Golem is an absolutely extraordinary film. It's not as distorted and unreal like the other expressionist films of the time, relying more on the realm of fantasy and conveying a sense of period. The sest are wondrous as designed by Hans Polezig, architect of much of the bauhaus design later on, and a model for Boris Karloff's character in The Black Cat(1934). The dingy and twisted ancinet homes of Prague create a stark contrast with the opulent castle in which the Emperor resides, and that contrast helps the viewer understand the citizen's plight better.
The Golem is one of the more effects-laden and ambitious of the early German classics, particularly in the terrific and frightening vignette, when the spirits are conured up to give life to the Golem. What's fascinating with this scene is how little in common it has with future Frankenstein creation segments. The use of magic to reanimate the creature is fascinating and it would be intriguing if an adaption of the story would utilize this, considering the vagueness of the Shelley narrative. Most adaptions of that story would borrow from the James Whale 1931 version, which likewise was inspired from this. If the creation scene does not resemble the latter film, then the performance and depiction of the Golem certainly did.
Paul Wegener brings a perfect belend of menace and pathos as the clay giant. His subtle facial reactions as he experiences life, albeit briefly, make for the most memorable moments in the picture. The Golem's reaction at recieving a flower from Nosferatu's Greta Schroder, predates Karloff's Monster's similiar reaction in Frankenstein(1931). Of course, the ending with the little girl, which brings about his destruction, is also reminiscent of the later film, and it becomes clear how impactful this film really was. Monsters were largely depicted as broad villains at this time, with little subtlety or character depth. It was Wegener that brought humanity and complexity to the movie monster and for that we should all be grateful.
If anything can be taken from this film, it's Wegener's performance, which is sadly as neglected as his most famous character.

The Golem is a wonderful gothic fantasy, but has it's share of problems. It does not contain the pace of Murnau's Nosferatu(1922) or the sheer zaniness of design that made The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari(1919) so enjoyable. It will probably appear a much slower film to modern audiences, especially when Wegener is not on screen, but the feel for period and the atmosphere that is evoked is unequatable.
It took me years to track this one down, as it proved much rarer than films like Nosferatu and The Phantom of the Opera. I finally found it one evening on TCM when I was in Junior High, and absolutely loved it! I was always fond of the Frankenstein legend and had read several versions of the Golem growing up, so this was a treat. I now own the excellent Kino DVD and it's great to have this classic in my possession. Despite it's flaws, this is a horror essential and a wonderful addition to cinema's gallery of monsters. I placed this on my list of the top 100 horror films not just for it's impact, which it had plenty, but for it's uniqueness. I'm not really sure why this character has not been resurrected, because he's a great one. He's both noble and frightening, sympathetic and fierce, all qualities that make a great horror character, and that's just what the Golem is.