Tag Archives: RKO Radio Pictures

Experiment Perilous (1944, Jacques Tourneur)

Experiment Perilous is a strange film. Not the plot–well, some of how the plot is handled–but the strangeness comes from the result of how the film is executed. It’s a Gothic family drama set in twentieth century New York City without a lot of the family. There’s a flashback sequence, but Perilous is rather modestly budgeted so the flashbacks are pragmatically executed, not abundantly. The family at the center of Perilous is background to the adventure of amiable city doctor George Brent. With a couple of late exceptions, the scenes are always from his perspective.

And, from his perspective (and some of director Tourneur’s perspective), Brent is in a thriller. Rich guy Paul Lukas is mentally torturing his much younger wife Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr is top-billed, but the film puts off bringing her in, treating her as a prize, which is only appropriate because she’s shockingly objectified in every one of her scenes. That objectification is also part of the plot. Screenwriter and producer Warren Duff seems to miss the connection, partially because his script denies Lamarr characterization whenever possible–something Tourneur doesn’t encourage but does utilize to further the thriller vibe at times. Again, Experiment Perilous is a strange film. The way everything comes together but never synthesizes. Despite a thoroughly competent execution, the film just doesn’t have the scale to succeed. Separate from Lamarr’s problematic part is the budget. The film aims for Gothic melodrama and concludes as one, much to the determent of its cast.

So the film opens with Brent meeting scared old lady Olive Blakeney on the train back to New York. There’s a terrible storm, there might be danger. Brent comforts her. It’s good stuff and Brent and Blakeney are both extremely likable. They soon work up a nice rapport, even if the parts are a little thin. She’s sister to Lukas, on her way home for the first time in five years. Brent hears a little about the family, doesn’t think much of it, but takes note of it. Brent’s observant. Unless he’s throwing over de facto fiancée Stephanie Bachelor for Lamarr.

After they get to New York, they go their separate ways. Blakeney off to see Lukas and Lamarr (who haven’t appeared on screen yet), Brent to hang out with Bachelor and drunken sculptor pal Albert Dekker. Experiment Perilous is a Gothic melodrama where the hero’s circle of friends consists of independently wealthy dilletante artists. In 1903 New York. It’s weird. Though there’s some decent foreshadowing from a Medusa sculpture, even if Duff didn’t get it or wanted to avoid it.

Dekker knows Lucas–really, really, really well as it turns out, so well it’s unbelievable Brent could have avoided getting stuck meeting him–and also crushes on Lamarr. All men crush on Lamarr. Young men like independently wealthy poet and magazine writer George N. Neise, old men like Lukas. Men in the middle like Dekker and, eventually, Brent. About twenty percent of Lamarr’s performance consists of listening to men praise her appearance.

Then another five percent for her internal wonderfulness.

It’s not much of a part for Lamarr, except when it’s in the flashback and she gets to enjoy life and not think she’s being tormented by Lukas. See, Lukas is very passive aggressive in his torturing of his wife. He brings in Brent to observe the effects of his abuse on Lamarr. Brent’s supposed to then convince Lamarr she’s unstable. There’s a lot to it. And Experiment Perilous doesn’t get into much of it, because immediately after Brent meets Lamarr a second time, his whole arc is about being in love with her. Only Brent doesn’t play the mad love arc with any more intensity than he played the inquisitive doctor arc, so it doesn’t come off. It also couldn’t come off because of budget and run time and script. But it’s like Brent knows it’s not worth it and doesn’t make the effort.

Because Lamarr’s not really in mad love with Brent. Or Lukas. Or anyone. Because Lukas groomed Lamarr–in the flashback–presumably when she was in her late teens. Even if it’s Lamarr and Lukas playing the characters in the flashback, with no attempt at making them appear younger (again, sometimes just a strange movie because of how things come together). Lukas only sort of weirds Lamarr out–he did keep his hands off for the two years he paid a fortune to turn her into a Parisian society woman in after all–and things are good until they get back to New York. Presumably, there’s a big skip ahead in the flashback.

And then we discover Lukas likes showing off Lamarr and then getting pissed at her for the male attention he invited. Some guys get more serious than most. Though when Lukas lashes out at any of them–we learn in later dialogue–it’s the only time Lamarr finds him desirable.

Lot of depth. But in a throwaway line like Duff didn’t realize what was in it.

Now what’s going to happen with Brent snooping into the family’s secrets, not to mention falling for Lamarr….

There are some surprises, there’s a good fight scene (way too short, but good), there’s not much for the actors. But it’s an engaging film throughout. The parts are thin. Lukas probably makes the most of it, albeit with multiple qualifications. Brent’s a great lead. Lamarr does really well sometimes, kind of flat other times. Tourneur doesn’t do much directing on the actors and Duff’s script doesn’t do much characterizing so it’s a really rough part for Lamarr. She gets her good moments when the movie forgets it’s supposed to be reducing her to a prize.

Blakeney’s awesome. Dekker improves somewhat throughout. Bachelor’s fun.

Decent score from Roy Webb. Decent cinematography from Tony Gaudio. It’s not noir, it’s not a thriller, it’s a Gothic melodrama period piece so the lighting doesn’t add much mood. Similarly, Tourneur doesn’t have any grand thriller sequences. He’s got some effective thriller transition stuff occasionally and his direction is fine. Ralph Dawson’s editing leaves a lot to be desired, however. But it’s not all him. Tourneur’s not comfortable with his actors acting very much in close-up.

Perilous is a strange picture. Not neccesarily successful but far from a failure. It’s always engaging and its cast does put in the work, just within some rather harsh constraints.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Tourneur; screenplay by Warren Duff, based on the novel by Margaret Carpenter; director of photography, Tony Gaudio; edited by Ralph Dawson; music by Roy Webb; produced by Duff; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring George Brent (Dr. Huntington Bailey), Hedy Lamarr (Allida Bederaux), Paul Lukas (Nick Bederaux), Albert Dekker (Clag), Stephanie Bachelor (Elaine), Carl Esmond (Maitland), and Olive Blakeney (Cissie).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR BLOGATHON HOSTED BY SAMANTHA OF MUSINGS OF A CLASSIC FILM ADDICT.


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Vivacious Lady (1938, George Stevens)

Vivacious Lady strengths easily outweigh its weaknesses, but those weaknesses have a way of compounding on each other as the film moves to its conclusion. The most obvious–and usually forgiveable–problem is how the film can’t decide what to do with Ginger Rogers, the Vivacious Lady. Not the film, sorry, the script. Director Stevens, photographer Robert De Grasse, costume designer Irene, Rogers’s costars, they can all work with Rogers to great success. The script just can’t figure out how to make her “vivacious” and sweet simultaneously. Unless it’s opposite leading man James Stewart, because the film is able to sail over any troubled scenes on their chemistry alone. It’s how the rest of the world treats Rogers where there are problems. Read: how the script has the rest of the world treat her.

And it’s not Code consideration because Vivacious Lady establishes very clearly early on Rogers and Stewart are anxious get a bed of their own. It’s the film’s most vibrant theme, no less.

The film starts with New England college professor–associate professor–Stewart in New York City trying to collect his ne’er-do-well, womanizing cousin, James Ellison. Ellison has fallen in love with nightclub performer Rogers, though she hasn’t fallen for him. One look into her eyes and Stewart falls for her too. Turns out the feelings mutual and after spending the night out on the town, they elope and head back to Stewart’s home town.

Only he hasn’t told his overbearing father (and boss) Charles Coburn about it. College president Coburn’s got big plans for Stewart, so long as he stays in line, which means marrying harpy blueblood Frances Mercer. When they arrive in town, Ellison–very affable for a jilted suitor–entertains Rogers while Stewart tries to figure out how to tell dad Coburn and mom Beulah Bondi about the marriage. And to break off his existing engagement to Mercer (who he forgot to tell Rogers about).

Vivacious Lady runs ninety minutes. It takes about twenty minutes to get Rogers, Stewart, and Ellison from New York to the town–Old Sharon. The next half hour is gentle screwball comedy of errors with Stewart trying to tell his parents, but Mercer screws it up or Coburn is such a verbally abusive blowhard–aggrevating Bondi into heart problems–it just never happens. It culminates in Rogers and Mercer getting into a fight. Those thirty or so minutes, ending in the fight, all happen in the first day.

I think the movie takes place over three days. Maybe three and a half.

Anyway. The next portion of the film has Rogers pretending to be a college student so she can spend time with Stewart, who’s now not telling Coburn about their marriage because of the fight. Stewart’s always got some reason for not telling Coburn–a couple times it’s Bondi’s heart condition–it’s mostly just contrived fear of Coburn. Only there’s no way for Stewart and Rogers not to moon at one another, beautifully lighted by De Grasse; their scenes are the best in the film, they radiate infectous chemistry.

But everyone else just whistles at Rogers (she’s vivacious after all), which just draws attention to how little character development she’s had around Stewart. She has more character development with Ellison, Mercer, and Bondi throughout the film than with Stewart. Even during their whirlwind courtship, as Stewart–the film points out–never shuts up about himself. That radiant infectous chemistry covers up for a lot of it, but it’s still a major script deficit.

The other major problems in the script are structure and Coburn’s character. P.J. Wolfson and Ernest Pagano’s script frontloads one supporting cast member and shortchanges another, only to flip their positions in the last third. Wouldn’t be a problem if the movie’s conclusion didn’t rely on that character with the increased presence so much. It works out–pretty well–because the cast’s great, the direction’s great, and the script is (scene by scene) excellent. But the narrative structure is disjointed.

And Coburn. Coburn’s an unlovable bastard. He’s such an unlovable bastard you forget he’s Charles Coburn and he’s (probably) secretly going to turn out to be a lovable bastard. But he’s a bad guy, who gets worse–the script doesn’t imagine anything about these characters before the first scene–and no one seems to acknowledge the level of internal disfunction. And it’d definitely have external effects.

Stewart would be so browbeaten he couldn’t order a meal without consulting Coburn, much less be sent to New York to fetch Ellison; Coburn wouldn’t trust him to do it.

So problems. The film has some big problems. And they’re script problems (though Stevens also produced so he’s not off the hook). But Vivacious Lady is still an outstanding romantic comedy. Rogers and Stewart are glorious together. Separate, Rogers is better. She gets good material on her own. Stewart doesn’t. He’s still funny and charming, but the material’s nothing special. Rogers’s material–whether it’s showing down with Mercer or teaching Bondi to dance–is dynamic.

Ellison’s the film’s secret weapon. He’s a little annoying at the start, but once Vivacious Lady is in its second act and Stewart abandons Rogers for mean Coburn and Mercer (and suffering Bondi), it’s Ellison who provides the picture its affability. The script shortchanges him, but it shortchanges everyone at one point or another.

Bondi’s phenomenal. As wondrous as Rogers and Stewart’s chemistry is onscreen, when Bondi and Rogers get a scene together here and there, they’re able to do so much with the material. Their performances compliment each other beautifully.

Mercer’s fine. It’s a lousy part. Ditto Coburn. He’s a caricature of himself playing a caricature of himself.

Some good comedic bit parts–Phyllis Kennedy as the maid, Franklin Pangborn as an apartment manager. Willie Best is good as the Pullman porter, but the part is gross.

Vivacious Lady is a definite success. However, Rogers, Stewart, Bondi, and Ellison deserve to be a resounding one.

It almost recoups all (or most all) with the final gag. Then tries to one up itself and loses that ground. It’s particularly frustrating.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by George Stevens; screenplay by P.J. Wolfson and Ernest Pagano, based on a story I.A.R. Wylie; director of photography, Robert De Grasse; edited by Henry Berman; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Ginger Rogers (Francey Brent), James Stewart (Peter Morgan Jr.), Charles Coburn (Peter Morgan Sr.), James Ellison (Keith Morgan), Frances Mercer (Helen), Beulah Bondi (Martha Morgan), Phyllis Kennedy (Jenny), Franklin Pangborn (Apartment Manager), Willie Best (Train Porter), and Grady Sutton (Culpepper).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE FRED ASTAIRE AND GINGER ROGERS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY MICHAELA FROM LOVE LETTERS TO OLD HOLLYWOOD AND CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Flying Padre (1951, Stanley Kubrick)

Flying Padre has three types of impressive shots. The first two types involve an airplane. The short is about a New Mexico priest who flies around his 4,000-square mile parish. There are interior and exterior shots of the plane and director Kubrick gets some fantastic shots from inside out. He’s also got some great shots of the plane from the ground, though they’re occasionally a little jerky. Given how smooth the camera movements tend to be in Padre, the jerks have got to be unintentional.

Then there are the close-ups. Kubrick gets these great shots of the priest’s parishioners when he’s performing services. Sometimes there are great shots involving the priest himself, but more often it’s when Kubrick can get a shot of the ostensibly enraptured parishioners.

The shots with the priest tend to involve action, not reflection. Flying Padre is–in its nine minutes–a bit of an adventure story. The priest, Father Stadtmueller, goes from funeral to children’s counselor to erstwhile ambulance driver. I suppose the funeral’s real? Though it seems a little macabre either way. Because the children’s counselor bit–and then the ambulance flier bit–those two are definitely staged. They might be based on real events, but they’re dramatized for Flying Padre.

The short’s got no natural sound. There are occasional diegetic sounds, like the bullied child knocking on the priest’s door or the priest’s birds chirping, but they didn’t record any sound during filming. Or, if they did, they didn’t use it, which is too bad because Father Stadtmueller is frequently talking. There’s constant narration to explain what’s going on.

The narration also establishes the narrative distance, something Kubrick relies on once the staging is obvious. When Father Stadtmueller has to fly a mother and her sick baby to a medical services, there are shots of the mother talking to the Father. While they’re on the plane. And it’s obvious there’s no way they both could’ve fit in the plane with a camera.

Kubrick even pokes fun at the priest at one point, when the narration describes him as a crack shot with a rifle and then Father Stadtmueller misses not just the bullseye but the any of the target’s rings.

There are some excellent shots and some great location shooting to get Padre through.

Flying Padre’s interesting but disposable. Kubrick’s got some ambitious filmmaking but no ambitions for the short itself.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Photographed and directed by Stanley Kubrick; edited by Isaac Kleinerman; music by Nathaniel Shilkret; produced by Benjamin Burton; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Fred Stadtmueller; narrated by Bob Hite.


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Chicken in the Rough (1951, Jack Hannah)

Chicken in the Rough is constantly charming. It feels incomplete, but it’s still constantly charming.

Chip ‘n’ Dale are collecting nuts near a farm. On that farm, the rooster is waiting for a hen’s eggs to hatch. Anthropomorphizing roosters and hens is one heck of a thing, incidentally. Just the relationship and the implied expectant mother and father. So Dale, being an idiot, mistakes the soon-to-hatch eggs for walnuts and gets curious. Chip tries to correct him, but fails (and then disappears, another reason the cartoon feels incomplete); basically, it ends up with Dale pretending to be a chick to try to fool the rooster, who’s thrilled he’s a new daddy.

And the hen just assumes Dale is one of her chicks. Even after all the other chicks are born.

It’s a short cartoon, with Dale trying to get away from the rooster–who’s simultaneously wise to the chipmunk not being a chick and yet still hopeful he’s wrong and Dale is his newborn (it’s weird and cute). There’s a great sequence where Dale has to pretend to eat a bug. And Dale trying to convince the actual chick to stick around is excellent too.

Most of the action takes place inside the expecting hen’s hen house (separate from the other hens) and the animation’s good.

It’s too short and doesn’t have anything approaching an ending, but Chicken in the Rough’s many charms–particularly the voice acting (even the hen gets some “lines”)–make up for the cartoon’s foibles.

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Hannah; written by Nick George and Bill Berg; animated by Bob Carlson, Bill Justice, and Judge Whitaker; music by Joseph Dubin; produced by Walt Disney; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Dessie Flynn (Dale), James MacDonald (Chip), and Florence Gill (hen).


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