Month: May 2012

A Mexican Cheese-Fest

You're not having me for dinner

William Lundigan, Peggie Castle and Armando Silvestre try to reason with an Aztec official.

Sometimes a girl can’t catch a break.

Look at poor Peggie Castle in the 1954 adventure flick, The White Orchid. Castle plays photographer Kathryn Williams, a can-do gal who flies to Mexico to take photos of Robert Burton’s (William Lundigan) one-man archaeological expedition.

She arrives on location at an Aztec temple, in a smashing grey suit and heels, but Lundigan’s character is rude and unimpressed. He had specifically requested a male photographer for this expedition because women are too cumbersome.

Lundigan continues to chide her when they reach their hotel in a nearby Mexican town. He suggests women are inferior photographers and tells her not to get in his way.

Ouch!! At least Castle has terrific hair, no matter what misfortune befalls her. (Old-time Hollywood was merciful that way, wasn’t it? If you were having a bad time of it, at least you had the hope that your hair could get you through.)

Okay, we know we’re setting up The White Orchid as really cheesy (which it is) but there are some interesting tidbits in this film. A few of the scenes look like they were actually filmed in Mexico, and director Reginald Le Borg has captured some fascinating footage of traditional cultural celebrations.

We’re also treated to some vanilla bean facts. We see the tall vanilla stalks blooming with white orchids that are pollinated by hand in order to produce the beans. Whether or not vanilla beans are really harvested this way does not matter. We appreciate the work the set and props people put into this scene.

Even though nothing goes especially well for Castle’s character there is a positive, if you want to call it that. The immediate hostility between Castle and Lundigan means they’ll end up falling in love. This is only positive, however, if you want to end up with a judgmental, arrogant Dweeb.

The other positive is that she meets the dashing Juan Cervantes (Armando Silvestre), a Mexican daredevil and plantation owner who speaks flawless English. Silvestre comes in handy because Castle can use him to make The Dweeb jealous.

Castle persuades Silvestre to take her and The Dweeb deep into the Mexican wilderness, where they can find a primitive tribe that is directly descended from the Aztecs. Castle hatches this nifty scheme so she can impress The Dweeb and he can become famous by being one of the few white men to visit the legendary tribe.

You have to walk a long way to take a look at the Aztec people, and the journey is filled with peril. Before long, our heroes run into a sandstorm where the water and the food and the burros are lost. Then Silvestre develops real feelings for Castle, who is fretting because she hasn’t yet made The Dweeb sufficiently jealous. But he is perturbed enough to be mean and snippy towards Silvestre, which always makes for a fun time.

Then, the worst thing that can possibly happen, happens, and it’s something that not even terrific hair can fix.

Castle inadvertently causes an Aztec man to be killed.

The tribe is angry and they want revenge. They capture our heroes and truss Castle for a human sacrifice. (Gentle Reader, we hope that no journey you’ve ever taken was equal to this desperate and tricky situation.)

Although The White Orchid is something of a cheese-fest, it is a fast-paced and entertaining film that shows us something of another culture and another country. Really, is there anything more we need ask of a movie?

The White Orchid: starring William Lundigan, Peggie Castle, Armando Silvestre. Written by David Duncan and Reginald Le Borg. Directed by Reginald Le Borg. United Artists, Colour, 1954, 80 mins.

How a Racehorse Restored Shirley Temple’s Soul

Adolphe Menjou gives Shirley Temple an interim pony.

It’s hard to believe that any character played by Shirley Temple would be in danger of losing her soul.

But, in the 1934 comedy, Little Miss Marker, Temple’s sunny character slowly grows cynical and bitter. As a squeaky six year-old with a dark side, Temple is tremendous fun to watch.

The movie opens at a racetrack, where Temple and her father have gone to place a $20 bet on a horse that is favoured to win. But, sadly, the race is rigged. Temple’s father loses the bet, and he leaves the girl at bookie Adolphe Menjou’s office as a marker. (A marker is an I.O.U.)

Menjou is a tight-fisted bookie who doesn’t spend a cent unless he absolutely has to, darn it! He wears a rumpled, ill-fitting suit and is forever hiking up his pants. He and Temple have terrific chemistry: Wee Temple tells Menjou that he is afraid (Afraid!) of her. He laughs, but in doing so, he admits it’s true.

When Temple’s father fails to return for her, and later turns up as a suicide victim, Menjou sees an opportunity. He decides to become Temple’s unofficial guardian; that way he can temporarily transfer ownership of the racehorse to her and keep the animal out of reach of suspicious authorities.

When Temple meets the horse, she immediately falls in love with him. He’s the most beautiful horse she’s ever seen! She’s the luckiest girl in the world!

Meanwhile, Menjou has relocated Temple to his stingy apartment and, to his chagrin, realizes he now has to clothe and feed and, well, care for her. These two are not ideal roommates. Temple insists he read her favourite bedtime story, The Knights of the Round Table. Menjou doesn’t know or care about this story; he reads her the racing form instead.

Now, the movie is a parallel between the Knights of the Round Table and Menjou’s bookie associates. A nightclub is the castle where these knights/bookies spend their evenings. It’s Camelot for gamblers!

There are so many enjoyable aspects of this film, which is based on a short story by famed chronicler of the New York underbelly, Damon Runyon. The dialogue, for example, is a real treat:

Temple: (crying)

Menjou: Why are you crying?

Temple: You don’t like me.

Menjou: Do you always cry when someone doesn’t like you?

Temple: Yes.

Menjou: Well, you’d better get used to it.

Things don’t stay rosy for long. Because Temple can’t see her horse often enough (due to his being on the lam), and because she’s hanging around a criminal element, her character begins to change. She starts misbehaving and using slang, and she becomes critical of anything good or noble. She’s turned into a miniature, 42-pound mug.

The resident nightclub singer (Dorothy Dell, in a wardrobe that makes her torso look distractingly wide) persuades the bookies that Temple’s soul can be restored if they have Knights-of-the-Round-Table party. They need to re-introduce Temple to the racehorse. The bookies grumble about it but they give in, because who on earth can refuse Shirley Temple?

At first, Temple is unimpressed with the party the adults have organized for her at the nightclub. She scoffs at the costumes and the big castle-shaped cake. She snickers and asks why the Knight-guards are dressed up in “ash cans”.

Then the horse arrives, dressed in Medieval finery, and immediately Temple forgives all. Here is her horse! She can hardly believe it! Menjou places her on the horse and the kid glows like a 100-watt bulb. The horse gamely takes a walk around the bar, like he’s been milling about nightclubs all his life. Temple is happy, Menjou is happy, the horse is happy. Temple’s soul, and the universe, have been restored.

If you’ve never seen a Shirley Temple movie, we recommend Little Miss Marker. It’s a faintly edgy film with a lot of heart and, yes, soul.

Damon Runyan’s Little Miss Marker: starring Shirley Temple, Adolph Menjou, Dorothy Dell. Written by William Lipman, Sam Hellman and Gladys Lehman. Directed by Alexander Hall. Universal Studios, B&W, 1934, 80 mins.

This blog is part of the Horseathon, which looks at horses in classic film. It’s hosted by My Love of Old Hollywood, and it runs from May 25-28. Giddy up!

Charlie Chaplin: Parenting 101

Who's your daddy?

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan are livin’ the American dream.

You knew this day would come.

You knew, deep down, that one day we would try to sell you on a silent film.

The movie we’re thinking of is The Kid, the 1921 comedy-drama that helped make Charlie Chaplin a superstar. Yes, this is a silent film, an old silent film, without talking or explosions or colour. But hear us out.

Chaplin is the famous mustachioed tramp, with his crazy spun-out hair and floppy feet. He chances upon an abandoned baby boy whom he takes home and decides to raise as his own.

The boy is Jackie Coogan, the most adorable thing you’ve seen on film. He has sweet soulful eyes and a serious expression, and when the authorities take him away from Chaplin, he tears your heart in two.

That apprehension scene is possibly one of the most celebrated in classic film. Here is Coogan, in his large, natty sweater and grimy over-sized trousers, standing in the back of a truck with arms outstretched, tears streaking his cheeks, pleading to go back to his father. (Oh dear – we need a tissue.)

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The movie opens with a despondent young woman (Edna Purviance), who has just given birth to a baby boy. She has been abandoned by a cold-hearted man, who has left her poor and alone. She feels she has no choice but to give up her son in the hopes that someone else can give the poor lil’ guy a real shot in life.

Fast-forward five years. Purviance is now a rich and famous actress, but she also loves to do charity work in the slums where Chaplin lives. (We are not sure what social workers today would think of her charity efforts – e.g. holding a baby for 23 seconds before handing it back to its mother – but it is evident she truly loves these woe-begotten children. Plus, she has a fabulous beaded handbag that looks really smart with every outfit.)

Then she discovers that one of the slum children is her long-lost son. She offers a reward of $1,000 for his return, which is a lot of money to every single character in this film. This is where things start to get a little frantic.

Forget that there is no sound, except an exquisitely restored musical score by Timothy Brock. The Kid is gorgeously filmed with clever special effects. (Yes, special effects! In 1921! We couldn’t believe it either!)

Now, this movie is only 60 minutes long and when it’s finished you can’t believe it’s over so soon. We’re serious! The plight of the abandoned young mother and Chaplin’s endearing character suck you in at the beginning; the chemistry between Chaplin and Coogan entertain for the duration. When film concludes, you’ll say, “What? Over already?”

If you have an hour and want to see why Charlie Chaplin became a legend, watch The Kid. It will change the way you think about silent movies.

The Kid: starring Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan Edna Purviance. Written and directed by Charlie Chaplin. Associated First National Pictures, B&W, 1921, 60 mins.

Questions about (another) Trial of the Century

This hurts us more than it hurts you

Clinton Rosemond is told he’s the fall-back accused.

Gentle Reader, we have done you a disservice.

We screened the 1937 drama They Won’t Forget but, oddly, we have formed no insightful opinions. We have nothing but questions.

First: Why are the opening credits so creepy? Look:

Don’t stare at it for too long. It’ll make you go cross-eyed.

Next: What happened in this movie?

Here’s what we do know. In a small southern town, a business college student (a pre-blonde Lana Turner in one of her first movie roles) is murdered on Confederate Memorial Day. But why was she killed? Did she have unsavoury information about someone? Was she a secret agent, or a visitor from another planet? The answer is never given.

We know that the African-American janitor of the school (Clinton Rosemond) finds the body and calls police. Of course he is arrested, and it’s because he’s a plausible suspect, right? Not because, as an African American, he’s handy for police to nab?

(Sub-Question #1: Why isn’t Rosemond, as an actor, allowed to give his character any dignity? He relegated to playing the character like a hysterical child who weeps over and over, “I didn’t do it!”)

Meanwhile, the district attorney (Claude Rains) discovers that an instructor (Edward Norris) was in the building when the student was murdered. The college instructor is arrested and promoted to Prime Suspect.

We as viewers are forced to face a difficult revelation: Rains (upon whom we – as in yours truly – thinks the sun rises and sets) is unable to do a convincing southern accent. We are not a little disappointed by this; however, Rains still gives an entertaining performance of a man determined to see justice done – not because he cares about justice, but because it would help his political career.

Back to the Questions! A trial date is arranged for the college instructor; but why is there no mention of a trial for the janitor, who is still in jail? Not only that, he is told that if the college instructor is found innocent he (the janitor) will be put to death.

(Sub-Question #2: This is a realistic depiction of the American justice system? Seriously? In the event one man is found innocent, there’s an accused-in-waiting who can be called up to death row? Without trial?)

This is a film about prejudice, as we are continually reminded. The college instructor is a northerner who feels uneasy about southern sentiments towards him. As this particular Trial Of The Century gears up (yes, another TOTC), the South feels slighted by the North’s newspapers. We suppose this is prejudice of a sort, but why does it feel more like unfinished Civil War business?

And why would this kind of prejudice be more important than a man languishing in prison without rights or a proper attorney?

(Sub-Question #3: Gloria Dickson, who plays the wife of the accused college instructor, is utterly fabulous. Why didn’t they write more lines for her, for Pete’s sake?)

Dear Reader, we are loathe to present you with such a noncommittal appraisal. We are truly unable to figure out if we liked this movie or not. If you see it, please let us know what you decide.

They Won’t Forget: starring Claude Rains, Gloria Dickson, Edward Norris. Written by Robert Rossen and Aben Kandel. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Warner Bros. Pictures, B&W, 1937, 90 mins.

Hitchcock’s Dark, Twisted London

Look at my creepy, creepy eyebrows

Oscar Homolka is a man of secrets.

*Spoiler alert!

Who isn’t a sucker for a world that never existed?

For instance, look at the London in the opening scenes of Sabotage (1936), a tense thriller from Alfred Hitchcock‘s pre-Hollywood period. This London so well-behaved that a bobby reprimands a green grocer for dropping a piece of lettuce because someone could step on it and “break ‘is leg.”

Break ‘is leg, indeed! Imagine a law enforcement officer with enough time on his hands to make a fuss about lettuce! It’s ridiculous!

Yes, it would seem like a simpler life, in a simpler time, unless you’re stressed-out Sylvia Sidney and married to creepy Oscar Homolka.

Homolka is Mr. Verloc, a slightly odd man who owns the Bijou Cinema. He has a thick accent and sinister eyebrows, and is inexplicably married to a much-younger, beautiful British woman (Sidney). Sidney’s character, in between running the theatre and fixing gourmet meals, looks after her kid brother (Desmond Tester).

Unbeknownst to everyone, Homolka’s character moonlights as a saboteur. In the film’s opening, he puts sand in an electrical generator which causes a power outage. But this does not satisfy his sabotage superiors, and they ask him to do something more sinister, such as planting an explosive device in a cloakroom in Piccadilly Circus.

It is remarkable that, in this movie, people are not naturally suspicious of Homolka. He is a menacing character who always looks like he’s trying not to strangle you. It is only when evidence against Homolka begins to mount, that the police come sniffing around the theatre. The grocer next store (he of the dropped lettuce) quizzes Homolka. “You must’ve been showing some funny sort of films,” he says accusingly. “You know, perhaps a bit too odd.”

Homolka is told to plant the device early on a Saturday afternoon; it is timed to go off at 1:45 pm. However, because the police are watching him and his house, Homolka cannot leave. He has the bomb but there is no way to dispose of it.

However, he realizes the boy, his wife’s beloved kid brother, could transport the bomb without arousing suspicion. Yes, of course! The bomb could be disguised as film reels that need to be returned to Picadilly Circus! The boy need never know the truth because surely he could deliver the package in time!

This is where Hitchcock toys with his audience. Turns out the kid brother doesn’t walk, he meanders. He becomes distracted by a street performer who demonstrates personal grooming products. Then he stops to watch a parade. Finally, realizing the time, he decides to take a bus, even though the flammable film reels (not to mention EXPLOSIVES) are not allowed on public transport.

Hitchcock never fails to remind us of the time of day; he keeps showing clocks that are counting down. It’s 1:30, and the boy is still on the bus, innocently clutching the explosives. It’s 1:35; now 1:40! The bus is stalled in gridlock traffic! It’s 1:43! 1:44!

Well, the boy comes to a bad end and at that moment you are filled with rage and disbelief. Suddenly, this is no longer genteel London where bobbies fuss over dropped lettuce. This is a dark, twisted London where saboteurs kill innocent children and shrug it off as the price of doing business.

Some movie scenes will always stay with you. You may forget the actors, or the title, or details of the plot, but there are certain things that will never be erased from your memory. If you watch Hitchcock’s Sabotage, we guarantee the scene in Piccadilly Circus is one you won’t easily forget.

Sabotage: starring Sylvia Sidney, Oscar Homolka, Desmond Tester. Written by Charles Bennett. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Gaumont-British Picture Corp., B&W, 1936, 75 mins.

This blog is in support of the Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted by This Island RodFerdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren. Click HERE to donate to the National Film Preservation Foundation.