Tuesday, August 14, 2018

"Dog" Days

This is my entry for the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old days of Hollywood

H. C. McNeile, who wrote much of his writings under the pen-name of "Sapper",  was the creator of Capt. Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond.  Like many of his antecedents, Bulldog was an amateur sleuth, a man from a wealthy family who, tired of his dilettante status as a member of the elite, delved into crime as a pastime.  Bulldog was always at odds with the police, especially in the person of Col. Nielson, the head of the police department at Scotland Yard.  McNeile wrote several Drummond novels beginning in 1920 until his death in 1937, after which several other writers took up the mantle.

Several attempts at stage and radio tried to bring Bulldog to life, but his best portrayals were done in a series of movies.  John Howard played him the most and, although the Col. Nielsen character was played by different actors over the Howard era,  John Barrymore lent his skills to the character in three films in the period from 1937-38.

While the Bulldog Drummond series of movies are not the action packed mysteries that they could potentially have been, they do not suffer from incompetent acting, at least.  Reginald Denny, who appears as Bulldog's best friend, Algy, is a hoot.  E. E. Clive, an ubiquitous character actor from the era, is pretty good too as Tenny, Drummond's valet and frequent stooge in his adventures.  Not quite sure about Louise Campbell who appears in these three as Phyllis, Drummond's soon-to-be wife.  I have read elsewhere that Heather Angel (who took over the role after this series) was better.  Although she is instrumental in the first entry, Bulldog Drummond Comes Back, she just seems to be additional padding for the other two entries, and I didn't warm up to her. 

 In Bulldog Drummond Comes Back (1937), Drummond is harassed by the wife, Erana Soldanis (Helen Freeman),  of a man whom Drummond was instrumental in seeing sent to the gallows.  She is assisted by the brother of the dead man, played by J. Carroll Naish.  The pair want to exact revenge on Drummond, but like that classic cliche, they're going to kill him slow.

So they kidnap his fiancee Phyllis (Louise Campbell).  Then they give him the runaround with a series of cryptic clues which sends him chasing all over London and the surrounding area for the next clue.  I tell you it's a pretty lame plot, and without the addition of Barrymore, as Nielson.  adopting a couple of disguises so he can surreptitiously follow  Drummond, this entry would have been dreary.  Even J. Carroll Naish, who usually appeals to me even when he is playing a stereotype of a foreigner lacks the zing that he gives in other movies.

The next entry in the series, Bulldog Drummond's Revenge (1937) featured our hero, still not married, but getting ever closer.  He is at his friend Col. Nielson's office when he learns of the plans to transfer a new explosive from it's inventor's lab.  Although Col. Neilson wants to have the professor sent with an armed guard, he rashly insists on flying only with his manservant.

Of course, this is a mistake because the manservant, Nogals (Frank Puglia) has plans to betray the inventor, and steal the explosive.  He manufactures a crash and ditches the plane with the explosive.  Conveniently (or maybe not so conveniently) Drummond and pals come across the explosive, which was parachuted separately, and take it.  But the bad guys know who has it.  So plans are hatched to get it back.  Then Drummond has to retrieve the explosive again for the good of King and country.

This one is, by far, the best of the three that I watched for this blogathon.  Although it suffers slightly for the lack of one particular thread that remains a mystery even at the end (who exactly is the mysterious Japanese man, Sumio Kanda (Miki Morita).  I get the feeling he was supposed to be more instrumental in the plot, but other than a brief encounter between our main bad guy and him on the train, there is no real indication of whom he is.

The final entry that had Barrymore and Howard together was Bulldog Drummond's Peril (1938). Once again, Bulldog is on the verge of following through with his marriage to Phyllis.  He is in Switzerland, at the home of Phyllis' aunt, where wedding gifts are pouring in from everywhere.  One of the gifts turns out to be a synthetic diamond.  One that is so good that, apparently, it could potentially cause the value of real diamonds to drop dramatically if the synthetic diamond became public.

Of course, the fake diamond is stolen, and a Swiss guard who was hired to watch the valuable wedding gifts is killed.  This leads to Drummond going on a chase after the culprit.  Despite the fact that Phyllis, exasperated by her husband-to-be's adventurous nature wants to call off the wedding.  (This a theme running throughout the series.  Phyllis wants her fiancee to settle down and be a stick-in-the-mud, so to speak, but Bulldog keeps getting caught up in adventures.)  

As it turns out, there are two scientists who, independently. are working on an idea to make the synthetic diamond.  The one who sent the present is the one who has better success, but the other may or may not be jealous of his rival.  There is also the guy who stole the diamond to begin with. 

All three of these entries only run about an hour each, which makes them easy to binge watch in one afternoon.  For you Barrymore fans, it may be a little bit of not enough, but when he does show up, his gruff demeanor as Col. Nielson is enough to make it worthwhile.

Drive home safely, folks.  And keep an eye out for Bulldog because he drives pretty erratically...


Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Closet Cases

Angelman (Chris) of Angelman's Place and I are doing a blogathon The Gender-Bending the Rules Blogathon in September.  The impetus of the blogathon stems from having just recently reviewed the 1982 film Victor/Victoria, and being inspired to look into the history of how gays and lesbians have been presented in film over the years.  (I was a history major in college, so any history intrigues me, but especially cultural history).

I read (and recently reviewed for this blog) the rather intriguing book The Lavender Screen, which delves into the story of homosexuals in film.  After finishing it, I donated it to my local library and mentioned to the director that I'd be interested in seeing The Celluloid Closet.  Apparently it had once been a part of the library shelves but had since gone missing and had not been replaced.  The director told me he would get it replaced forthwith, and sure enough it only took about a week or so.

First; a personal history:  I was born in 1961, and raised in rural Texas, which means I was privy to some of the racism that inhibited the South, if not in my hometown (which never had a black family living there until after I left town to go to college), at least on TV.  But I was raised to treat all people the same, regardless of race or color.  Which I still retain  the effects of that upbringing today.  But since my parents were fundamentalist Christians (Southern Baptists to be exact), I doubt they would approve of my extending that respect to members of the LGBT community.  But I do.  No one deserves to be second-class citizens in my America.  Which is why I call myself a Libertarian politically.  And it is also why I don't care whether my choices of movies garner approval from my family or my friends.  I watch anything that might have some appeal or at least something that would satisfy my curiosity in cultures that are otherwise alien to me.

The Celluloid Closet (1995):

From the very beginning of film there have been homosexuals.  How they were portrayed depended on the times.  This film includes a lot of clips that, apparently, had been part of the archives of Vito Russo, a man who made part of his living by touring the country delivering lectures on the history of how homosexuals were presented in the movies.  One of the earliest clips is from the files of Thomas Edison who basically invented the motion picture.  It is one of two men dancing.  (Note:  I'm not entirely sure that the two men are supposed to be gay.  Personally, I just think they were brought together to make the film.  Even though the title of the piece is supposed to be "The Gay Brothers"...)

But in it's earliest forms, the movies presented gay men as "sissies".  In silent films, this meant they used exaggerated pantomime to prance around, an admittedly prejudiced example of the homosexual as perceived by the straight audience. Interviews with various celebrities include both playwright Arthur Laurents who compares the sissy to the stereotype of the black characters in old movies who were portrayed as Stepin Fetchit types.  On the other hand, Harvey Fierstein claims he likes the sissy character, mainly because at least gays were on screen, even if they were rude stereotypes.

As we progress through the film, we become attuned to the goals of the Hays Code and its allies who sought to remove objectionable material from the movies.  As a result the homosexual went "underground", so to speak.  There were still gays in the movies, only no one admitted that the character was gay, only subtle and not so subtle hints even gave any indication of it.  Two films which I have previously reviewed, Dracula's Daughter, in which the main character is presented as (possibly) a lesbian as well as her position as a vampire, as well  as The Maltese Falcon, in which Peter Lorre's Joel Cairo is probably gay.  The character, as written in the original Dashiell Hammett novel is definitely a "fairy", but the movie had to make it something of a secret.

As the Code relaxed it's rules, there were many movies that had some gay characters, but because of the still in place restrictions, the characters often had to come to drastic ends (such as suicide or other forms of death).  Only after the Stonewall riot in 1969 did gays start getting more sympathetic treatment.  The film spends a portion of the movie discussing The Boys in the Band, which is noted in the film as the first movie in which none of the gay characters came to an untimely end.

No documentary of gays in film would be complete without addressing the issue of AIDS.  Fortunately this film appeared shortly after the movie Philadelphia, so it includes a discussion of that film as well as the lesser-well-known film Longtime Companion, a movie which addressed how a band of gay friends dealt with the AIDS crisis from it's first discovery to the untimely end of some of the characters over a period of a few years.

The sometimes not so subtle hints an inside jokes that were a part of the movies are covered in the documentary too.  One focus was on Rock Hudson, an actor who was known to be gay in Hollywood but was only "outed" after his death.  In Pillow Talk, Hudson plays a straight man who is acting gay to get inside Doris Day's panties.  It is commented on how Hudson must have felt in the role, himself being a gay man who tried to keep up a straight front on screen.  Another clip, from the movie Red River, features Montgomery Clift and John Ireland discussing pistols.  Montgomery Clift was well known as a gay man in Hollywood so the following quote has some subtle humor to it, even though the character he played was not necessarily gay:
"There are only two things more beautiful than a good gun...a Swiss watch, or a woman from anywhere...you ever had a Swiss watch?"

The film itself, unfortunately, came out after the death of the author, Vito Russo, on whose book it was based.  It would have been nice to have some commentary on it by him, but my copy does have a recording of one of his lectures.  Lily Tomlin narrates the film, and it is filled with interviews with various Hollywood people, including the aforementioned Fierstein and Laurents, but also Armistead Maupin, Tony Curtis, Gore Vidal, Whoopi Goldberg, and Tom Hanks.

As a history lesson, I found the film to be extremely entertaining.  After 20 years or so since the film first came out, the depiction of gays in films has progressed, although not always in a positive manner, at least it has been an improvement from what the studios did in the first 50 to 60 years.


Thursday, August 2, 2018

Is That A Ray Gun in Your Pocket or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

This is my entry in the Rule Brittania Film Blogathon hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts

War of the Worlds and Independence Day posit an invasion by truly evil and intelligent aliens.  The Day the Earth Stood Still and Close Encounters of the Third Kind presented benevolent aliens who come to Earth in peace and harmony.  But in most alien movies, whether they are evil or good, the predominant characteristic of them is they have intelligence.  After all, it takes some pretty smart species to create a vehicle that can travel the interstellar frontier to arrive to this little insignificant planet.

But what if some enterprising species had created a vehicle that Joe Average and his buddies could acquire and go on a jaunt?  Any idiot on Earth can learn to drive a car (and trust me, most of them are driving on the same freeway I am).  So why couldn't some shmo and his friends get one of these spaceships and take it on a joyride?

That seems to be the only explanation why the characters in this movie are in the vicinity of Earth.  Mike Hodges, the director of Flash Gordon, a favorite of your humble blogger, as well as The Terminal Man, Get Carter and Pulp, was behind the helm for this movie which skewers how the public views fame as well as satirizes the then fairly new theme of benevolent aliens.

Morons from Outer Space (1985):

There are aliens and then there are these guys.  A crew of 4 nitwits who somehow got a hold of a spaceship have a breakdown in outer space.  The most intelligent of the crew (which is a stretch, since he only has four marbles compared to the rest of the crew who may have 3 marbles to share among them), Bernard (Mel Smith) tries to get the vehicle in operating power, but has very little success.  So he takes off to the game room (essentially a trailer that the ship is dragging behind it.

Meanwhile, Desmond (Jimmy Nail) thinks he's the be all and end all mechanic and starts futzing with the spaceship.  And somehow gets it going.  Leaving Bernard behind, stranded in the game room/trailer.  Dez, along with his wife, Sandra (Joanne Pearce) and Julian (Paul Bown) take off in a vehicle none of them have any idea how to control.  They end up crash landing on a nearby planet, which just happens to be Earth.

Unable to control they ship, they end up on the M1 in England.  Causing havoc with the normal human traffic.  (Remember the idiots I encounter on the freeway when I drive?  These guys are exactly like them.)  One motorist, after crashing his car comments that the drivers in the spaceship "must have been Belgian".

Of course, after coming to a halt, both British and American soldiers descend upon the ship and the occupants are taken to a place where they can be questioned.  The three are obviously imbrciles, but one gung-ho American officer insists it's all a put on and that they are the advance force of an invasion.  He wants the trio killed forthwith.

Graham (Griff Rhys Jones), a flunky for a TV news station who just happens to be on the scene (while the top news-casting bigwigs are out of the office) rescues the trio.  And soon the trio, rather than being executed for reasons of world security, become celebrities.  The movie segues into a jaunt in which the three are musical stars (even though none of them can sing worth a flip).  They gradually become the egocentric parody of big time rock stars.  And they become internationally famous, with crowds of people straining to touch them wherever they go.

Meanwhile, Bernard (remember Bernard?) has managed to find another way to get to Earth.  But since he didn't crash land in a huge spaceship (instead he just got ejected from a passing spaceship that had picked him up), he becomes just another loser on life's highway.  Unable to get anybody to believe he is an alien (rather he is put in a mental institution at one point, because that's where all people who think they are space aliens are sent), he tries to figure out where he is and where his traveling companions are.

Since he ended up in rural United States, he has several things going against him.  When he finally catches a broadcast showing the popularity of his three fellow aliens in England, he tries his best to get to them.  Fortunately for him, since his position in the current society would not make it easy to get to England, the trio are due to do a one-night stand in New York.  Reunion is imminent.  But maybe, just maybe, his old friends don't want the intrusion of a newcomer.

This movie did not really fare well when released.  According to wikipedia, it made a paltry $17,000 in the US, and only got back a third of it's budget in the UK.  One reviewer in The Observer said it was "so unfunny I felt like crawling under my seat".  I personally don't think it's a great comedy, but it does have some pretty funny moments.

In one scene, the three aliens and Graham are watching a live broadcast of a riot occurring right outside the apartment they are in, and one comments "Look! That man is going to throw something!"  At which point a brick comes through the window and hits Graham in the head. "Looks like some sort of brick or something.."  "That could be dangerous."

OK, so this isn't "Blazing Saddles", but it is rather funny. In a dry British sort of way.

Well folks, time to fire up the old Plymouth and head home.  I hope the idiots I encounter on the freeway are only from this planet.  Drive home safely, folks.