Tag Archives: Ben Lewis

Mark of the Vampire (1935, Tod Browning)

MGM cut at least twenty-five percent out of Mark of the Vampire, which accounts for some of the plotting problems but still leaves the film a little messy. Ben Lewis’s editing is weak during dialogue exchanges, not just in general. And no amount of studio interference could have changed Browning’s reliance on weak special effects.

There is, however, one special effect sequence of startling mastery. Unfortunately it only lasts six seconds.

Vampire is a mix of Universal horror and MGM character drama. Elizabeth Allan and Henry Wadsworth are the engaged couple, Donald Meek is the comic relief, Lionel Barrymore is the wise old man. It feels very comfortable, but it’s so plot-heavy (it’s impossible to know if Browning intended it to be so) one can’t really enjoy the cast enough. Though Allan’s weak and Wadsworth looks lost in a horror film.

Vampire tries for reality–it has a definite setting, a small town near Prague in 1935–and is partially successful.

Jean Hersholt is fantastic as Allan’s guardian. The film contracts a lot in scope–the studio edits move the halfway point up twenty minutes. But Hersholt keeps it grounded for that first half, before he can pass it over to Barrymore.

Browning too occasionally has a great shot or two (ably assisted by James Wong Howe’s photography) but not enough overall. He usually stumbles during the dramatic scenes.

Vampire should be better. Maybe, before the studio got ahold of it, it was more successful. And maybe not.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Tod Browning; screenplay by Guy Endore and Bernard Schubert, based on a story by Browning; director of photography, James Wong Howe; edited by Ben Lewis; produced by Browning and E.J. Mannix; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Lionel Barrymore (Professor Zelen), Elizabeth Allan (Irena Borotyn), Bela Lugosi (Count Mora), Lionel Atwill (Inspector Neumann), Jean Hersholt (Baron Otto Montay), Henry Wadsworth (Count Fedor Vincenty), Carroll Borland (Luna Mora), Donald Meek (Dr. Doskil), Ivan F. Simpson (Jan), Leila Bennett (Maria) and Holmes Herbert (Sir Karell Borotyn).


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Love Crazy (1941, Jack Conway)

Love Crazy has to be the worst film William Powell and Myrna Loy ever made together. Powell started his career in silents, so it’s possible it’s not his worst film, but I’m pretty sure it’s Loy’s. Love Crazy starts incredibly lazy. It doesn’t bother defining either character–they’re just Powell and Loy playing a couple, Powell’s charming, Loy’s enchanting. They’re playing caricatures, not people–Love Crazy would have been much more amusing if it’d been different actors impersonating Powell and Loy, David Niven and Maggie Smith really should have remade it.

But the script’s weakness doesn’t have much to do with the shallow characters. Like I said, Powell’s charming, Loy’s enchanting, they’re certainly actors one can spend ninety minutes with, even if there’s not much of a story. Love Crazy, unfortunately, has a story–and it’s a bad one. The film’s construction is incompetent. The first forty minutes or so take place over one evening, Powell and Loy’s four-year wedding anniversary. The four-year anniversary, according to Wikipedia, is linen or silk. Neither of these play a part in the film, I just got curious. The tradition–according to the expository dialogue–is for Powell and Loy to walk four miles into the country, get on a boat, then have a late dinner. Powell suggests they do it backwards, which sounds like a diverting enough premise for a picture. But they don’t do any of these backwards activities. Instead, Loy’s mother shows up and the evening goes to pot. While Loy’s off running an errand for her now injured mother–at this point, Love Crazy seems like it could be a mix of The Man Who Came to Dinner and A Midsummer’s Night Dream, told over one evening–Powell all of a sudden decides to skip off with ex-girlfriend Gail Patrick.

Here’s where Love Crazy flushes itself out to sea. Loy thinks Powell’s running around with Patrick, Powell protests his innocence, Loy doesn’t believe him and sets out to divorce him, viewer is supposed to believe Powell–even though the evidence is against him–because he’s William Powell; there must be a reasonable explanation. He and Myrna Loy are movie married after all. What Love Crazy never acknowledges is Powell’s character running out on his ailing mother-in-law (she’s annoying) to hang out with ex-girlfriend Patrick after Loy’s made it clear she doesn’t want him seeing her. It’s such a strange scene where Powell decides to scurry out with Patrick, it’s a ludicrous move just to get something going in the plot. Regardless of Powell’s innocence in terms of fidelity, he’s still a heel who ran out because he was inconvenienced by his mother-in-law. It’s lame.

There’s a lot of slapstick and it’s lame too. A scene where Powell gets his neck stuck in an elevator door implies he might get some brain damage, but it’s never explored. It’d be a far better way for the film to have gone. All of Love Crazy suffers similarly–it always could make a better narrative choice and never does.

Conway’s direction is fine. It’s not his fault. Powell and Loy are both fine. Florence Bates is okay as Loy’s mother. She occasionally overplays the annoying mother-in-law, but not often. She’s usually the good guy compared to Powell. Jack Carson’s good as Loy’s new suitor (a terribly underwritten part, in a film of underwritten parts). Patrick’s bad. Vladimir Sokoloff is awesome in a small role.

It’s a terrible film. I’d never seen it before–Evelyn Prentice instead being the worst Loy and Powell pairing I’d seen–and I wish I never did.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Conway; screenplay by William Ludwig, Charles Lederer and David Hertz, based on a story by Hertz and Ludwig; director of photography, Ray June; edited by Ben Lewis; music by David Snell; produced by Pandro S. Berman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (Steve Ireland), Myrna Loy (Susan Ireland), Gail Patrick (Isobel Kimble Grayson), Jack Carson (Ward Willoughby), Florence Bates (Mrs. Cooper), Sidney Blackmer (Lawyer George Renny), Sig Ruman (Doctor Wuthering), Vladimir Sokoloff (Dr. David Klugle), Donald MacBride (‘Pinky’ Grayson), Sara Haden (Miss Cecilia Landis), Kathleen Lockhart (Mrs. Bristol), Fern Emmett (Martha), Joseph Crehan (Judge), George Meeker (Lawyer DeWest), Clarence Muse (Robert) and Elisha Cook Jr. (Joe).


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Tarzan the Ape Man (1932, W.S. Van Dyke)

It’s hard to believe a movie called Tarzan the Ape Man is going to be boring, but this one drags on and on. After a solid opening twenty minutes, the movie stumbles and never regains its footing. The problem is with Tarzan. Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan obviously doesn’t speak English but he also doesn’t communicate. He makes noises and so on, but there aren’t any conversations between him and the apes. He just runs around, occasionally getting into fights with lions or having to run from crocodiles. The action scenes are all very well done–beautifully edited, seeing as how there’s the shots of the actors cut together with location footage of the animals–but there’s no narrative. Even some of the sequences with Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, while well done (O’Sullivan being fantastic doesn’t hurt), are of little consequence to the actual plot.

The opening’s a different matter, however. It’s a far more literate film than what follows. O’Sullivan arrives in Africa to reunite with father C. Aubrey Smith after a long absence and there’s a great moment with Smith realizing his daughter has become a woman. It’s an entirely unexpected, wonderful scene and it really had me looking forward to the rest of the film.

Then it’s Smith, O’Sullivan and Neil Hamilton into the jungle as they search for a fabled elephant graveyard (for the ivory, of course). There’s some good action scenes as they climb a mountain and then have to get across a river of angry hippopotamuses. These sequences are all good… but immediately following the river traversing, Weissmuller shows up and the good plotting stops.

Hamilton becomes a bad guy, which isn’t unexpected since he plays him as morally ambiguous from the start. What’s strange about the transition is the film doesn’t recognize it. Hamilton’s shooting all over the place, but the movie still treats him like a good guy in the end. It’s inexplicable.

At some point, as the end finally neared, I realized I was going to watch a movie–the earliest where I can remember this scene happening–with the hero versus the impossible adversary. Here it’s Tarzan versus a monstrous ape. The evil dwarf trip keeps him in a pit and dumps tall people in for him to kill. It’s a lot like Return of the Jedi… and then Tarzan’s elephant friends show up and destroy the dwarf village and it’s even more like Return of the Jedi.

What’s also strange about Tarzan is how the film can be so meandering with all its technical glory. It isn’t just that fantastic editing, there’s also wonderful set design and great matte shots. W.S. Van Dyke’s best scenes are probably at the beginning with O’Sullivan arriving, but the rest of the film is good too. The sound design is phenomenal, bringing how must be men in animal costumes to life. It’s just all for naught. The movie fast forwards to its conclusion in four minutes, skipping a lot of important details (like how O’Sullivan decided to stay with Tarzan).

There’s one more interesting thing I don’t want to forget. There’s a knowing fade-out followed by a stunningly obvious postcoital scene; the two never even kiss on screen.

O’Sullivan’s great, which I already said, and Weissmuller’s fine. He has nothing to do. Smith’s good, Hamilton’s also fine–he similarly has a disadvantaged character. Ivory Williams is particularly good as the chief guide.

I’ve been looking forward to seeing Tarzan for over ten years (it never aired on AMC or something). I figured Van Dyke wouldn’t do it wrong… but then, not only does he do it wrong, he does it boring–and I never thought Van Dyke would make a boring film.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; screenplay by Cyril Hume and Ivor Novello, based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs; directors of photography, Clyde De Vinna and Harold Rosson; edited by Tom Held and Ben Lewis; produced by Bernard H. Hyman and Irving Thalberg; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), Neil Hamilton (Harry Holt), Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane Parker), C. Aubrey Smith (James Parker), Doris Lloyd (Mrs. Cutten), Forrester Harvey (Beamish) and Ivory Williams (Riano).


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The Last Hunt (1956, Richard Brooks)

Here’s a strange one. I just had to look to see where it fell in careers, Richard Brooks’s and Robert Taylor’s, because it’s… well, it’s something else. It’s sort of early in Brooks’s directing career, before he took off, and it’s at the very end of Taylor’s MGM contract. Taylor plays a villain in it. And Brooks handles his villainy in a singular way–he never lets anyone get away from it. Some of the scenes play like a hostage situation, but hero Stewart Granger can always leave. Lloyd Nolan and Russ Tamblyn play skinners to Granger and Taylor’s buffalo hunters and they too can leave. Even “Indian girl” (literally, the character has no other name) Debra Paget could, until a point, leave. But no one does. Taylor holds them–and the viewer–captive.

At a certain point–the film gets off to a rocky start, with Brooks having the most trouble establishing the character relationships effectively–it becomes clear it’s not about watching Taylor’s crazed gunslinger turned buffalo hunter (he’s an Indian War veteran, clearly suffering from the experience) redeem himself, but about seeing if the rest of the cast can survive knowing him. And Taylor’s performance might be his best. Once it becomes clear he’s the villain, he’s amazing. Absolutely terrifying, with all the trappings of a tragic character, but he’s so evil, it’s impossible to feel any sympathy.

Brooks juggles two big issues (The Last Hunt certainly signifies, the same year as The Searchers no less, the developing consciousness of the American Western… it also shares a theme with The Searchers, which is a little odd)–buffalo hunting and racism. The two wear heavy on an already somber Granger. Granger, second-billed to Taylor here, gives a great performance too. Brooks doesn’t deal much in subtext here and Granger’s perfect at dealing with conspicuous unrest (even though a lot of his internal turmoil is silent).

The rest of the cast, except Paget, is fantastic. Brooks’s direction is excellent, as is (after the first act) his dialogue. He has some problems with the day-for-night shooting and some rear screen projection, but it’s forgivable. Brooks really makes something great here and it’s a quiet (even though it’s Cinemascope) mid-1950s great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Brooks; screenplay by Brooks, based on the novel by Milton Lott; director of photography, Russell Harlan; edited by Ben Lewis; music by Daniele Amfitheatrof; produced by Dore Schary; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Stewart Granger (Sandy McKenzie), Robert Taylor (Charlie Gilson), Lloyd Nolan (Woodfoot), Debra Paget (Indian girl), Russ Tamblyn (Jimmy O’Brien), Constance Ford (Peg) and Joe De Santis (Ed Black).


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