Adventure

Don't be sad - not everyone is a fit 80 year-old like me

Spencer Tracy, I Presume?

Don't be sad - not everyone is a fit 80 year-old like me

Cedric Harwicke (left) tells Spencer Tracy that life in the African bush isn’t all that bad.

Sometimes we don’t care if a Based-On-A-True-Story movie is actually true.

And if the movie stars Spencer Tracy, Cedric Harwicke, Charles Coburn and Walter Brennan, then we care even less.

The movie in question is Stanley and Livingstone, a film based on the true story of explorer/missionary Dr. David Livingstone who went to Africa and disappeared. Stanley was the American journalist sent to find Livingstone and write the Story Of The Century.

Stanley did locate Livingstone, and tried to persuade him to return to England but Livingstone refused.

This much is true. We’re not sure about the rest.

The movie feels like it could be true. There is Stanley’s journey to Africa, his trek through the bush, and his utter discouragement at being unable to find the elusive Livingstone.

But you know that sooner or later Stanley will find the good doctor, because there’s the one line – the one question – that you’re waiting for: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

(No one knows if Stanley really used this greeting; apparently the description of this encounter was removed from Stanley’s diary.)

Stanley and Livingstone is an odd movie-watching experience. The Hollywood version of this story is fascinating and the cast is top-notch. But you can’t really relax until you know how Spencer Tracy (as Stanley) is going to deliver The Line. You almost have to make yourself forget that it’s coming.

Spencer Tracy does not disappoint. When a weary Tracy sees Harwicke (Livingstone), he swallows the excitement at finally seeing this legend who, we see, is just a man in a cotton shirt with unusual pockets. Tracy asks the question respectfully, if not a little desperately, and it is perfect.

The two men do not become instant friends. Livingstone, well-versed in the practicalities of living in rural Africa, has a way of making Stanley feel small, but not undeservedly so. Also, each is disappointed by the other. Stanley is disappointed Livingstone isn’t leaving with him; Livingstone is disappointed that Stanley didn’t come to help.

There isn’t a lot of action in this movie; there is drudgery. Stanley & Co. march for miles searching for Livingstone then, when they find him, there is even more marching as Livingstone walks throughout an enormous territory to visit and treat people.

We’d imagine that trickiest part of this movie would be depicting a saint. This would be Livingstone, who devotes his life to healing, teaching and exploring. Livingstone could be a dull character, but Harwicke gives him depth and warmth, and you find yourself filled with admiration and respect.

Livingstone’s other passions are to drive away the slave traders and bring people to Africa to help develop her potential. “White men have seen Africa only through the eyes of England,” he says, “which means through the eyes of fear.”

Stanley and Livingstone is a slower-paced movie, but it is absorbing. There is a lot of silly business at the end which is so ridiculous it makes you cringe, but the first three-quarters of the movie are worth it. It makes you think about Africa and how it’s been exploited by other areas around the world. It will also make you want to learn more about two fascinating men who remain legends to this day.

Stanley and Livingstone: starring Spencer Tracy, Walter Brennan, Cedrick Harwicke. Directed by Henry King. Written by Philip Dunne and Julien Josephson. 20th Century Fox, 1939, B&W, 100 mins.

Come to me, my pretty

The Meddlesome Trevor Howard

Come to me, my pretty

Trevor Howard, centre, discovers a statue of a salamander that Changes! His! Life!

It is a dark and stormy night.

No, really! It is a dark and stormy night as archaeologist David Redfern (Trevor Howard) drives across Northern Africa in the 1950 adventure flick, The Golden Salamander. His mission is to retrieve some artifacts that have been stored in a cellar since World War II.

But, on the way, Howard encounters a mud slide and discovers that a mysterious truck has been ditched. Upon closer inspection, he sees the truck is carrying a shipment of guns. Now, Howard is an academic who works for a British museum. He decides that a suspicious truck full of arms is none of his concern.

Yet, when he rummages through the artifacts that he is to catalogue and ship to England, he finds a statue of a salamander – a stout, ugly creature made of pure gold with an inscription: “Not by ignoring evil does one overcome it, but by going to meet it.” Howard then decides to take all gun-related matters into his own hands.

The Golden Salamander has exterior scenes that were actually filmed in Tunisia. Because of this, we are treated to some really interesting landscapes and unusual scenes such as a groom’s wedding processional and a boar hunt. (Who doesn’t love a good boar hunt!)

Howard is terrific, as he always is. He’s believable as a man who’s determined to get the job done, whether it’s packing up artifacts or telling locals they should not be running guns. Still, there is the one scene where Howard runs down a steep hill and we rather thought he moved like a girl. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The big problem with The Golden Salamander is the stupid mistakes the characters make. Plot holes are one thing, but to write sloppy mistakes into the script to advance the story is another. For example, a character has a letter that will help him escape the gun-running biz and flee to France. This letter sticks enticingly out of a coat pocket that is left in a busy cafe. We ask you: If you were fleeing to Paris, would you treat such a letter this carelessly? We didn’t think so.

However, there is a great supporting cast in this movie. Anouk Aimee is a young woman who lives and works at the Cafe des Amis that Howard frequents. Of course she falls in love with Howard, but there is one very satisfying scene where she screams at him to mind his own business and go back to England. As much as we like Howard and his character, we think this outburst was long overdue.

Herbert Lom, best known for his work as Chief Inspector Dreyfus in The Pink Panther movies, is the stereotypical heavy that the movie needs. He’s a menacing character who is capable of anything. However, Lom isn’t given much work with in this script, and his character is so dense at times, you actually smack your forehead.

The best character in this movie is the evil mastermind, played by Walter Rilla. Rilla is a smooth, cocktail-drinking, cigarette-smoking villain in pressed suits and groomed features. We are suspicious of him right from the start. After all, the artifacts were stored in his cellar all those years and he wasn’t curious enough to even look at them. Someone who is not tempted by the prospect of stealing such riches is either a saint, or already has a hefty illegal cash flow.

We think you might enjoy The Golden Salamander if you don’t expect too much. The cast is worth it, as are the scenes of Tunisia. You just have to resolve to not analyze the plot. You’ll only drive yourself crazy.

The Golden Salamander: starring Trevor Howard, Anouk Aimèe, Herbert Lom. Directed by Ronald Neame. Written by Lesley Storm, Victor Canning, Ronald Neame. The J. Arthur Rank Organisation, 1950, B&W, 93 mins.

Sydney Greenstreet: The Urbane Villain

You can trust me - I wear white suits

Sydney Greenstreet (right) impresses his friends with his vocabulary.

In our opinion, the best movie villain is a real smarty pants. There’s nothing worse than a bad guy you can easily outsmart; otherwise, what would be the point of getting out of bed?

This is precisely why we think Sydney Greenstreet is the perfect villain. He narrows his eyes when he scrutinizes you, he laces his capacious vocabulary with dry wit, and he keeps your glass filled with liquor. Plus, he wears those impeccably-tailored white suits that look really expensive.

A perfect example of Greenstreet at work is the adventure-war flick Across the Pacific (1942). Greenstreet is a mysterious passenger on a Japanese freighter in the days preceding America’s active involvement in World War II. He has aligned himself with the Japanese, and is suspiciously keen on gathering information on American military activities in the Panama Canal.

Greenstreet’s fellow passengers include Humphrey Bogart, who plays an army captain freshly discharged for embezzlement, and the delightful Mary Astor, a young woman who claims she’s from Medicine Hat, Canada.

(Digression: What is the deal with Mary Astor’s hair? We are forever distracted by it: How long does it take the hair stylist to prepare it? Why are some parts permed and others not? Why is it so asymmetrical in the back?)

Across the Pacific is one of those movies where everyone lies about their true identity, and for a while you’re scratching your head, wondering who’s a traitor, who’s a spy, and who’s a sucker. It’s also a film where a lot of people end up getting shot.

In addition to that, we the audience are subtly reminded that the Pearl Harbor doomsday clock is ticking. We see cables and other paperwork with dates inching closer to December 7, 1941, which adds another layer of urgency to the plot.

Not surprisingly, this is a film that does not portray the Japanese in a positive way. But at least these characters are given credit for having intelligence and are not reduced to mere caricatures. We love Sen Young’s dynamic performance as a second-generation Japanese-American.

We also love watching Greenstreet and Bogart verbally duke it out on screen. Greenstreet is smooth and urbane, draping complex sentences around the scene like a garland. Bogart is cynical and tenacious, his staccato speech bursting like gunfire. They couldn’t be more dissimilar, and the chemistry couldn’t be better.

Our man Greenstreet had a short but impressive Hollywood career. He made 24 movies in eight years, including The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and the charming Christmas in Connecticut. His career is even more remarkable when you realize that the whole time he was suffering from diabetes and chronic nephritis (Bright’s disease).

Across the Pacific is a good yarn with a clever script and superb direction. It also seems, to us, a plausible scenario in the few short weeks prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

We want to publicly thank our friends at Film Noir Blonde for sending us this terrific DVD. If you’re not already following FNB, well then! Make haste and check it out!

Across the Pacific: starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet. Directed by John Huston and Vincent Sherman. Written by Richard Macaulay. Warner Brothers, 1942, B&W, 95 mins.

Flipper vs. Sharks

You're my best friend, Flipper

Luke Halpin teaches Flipper to become dependent on humans.

Question: Who would win in an epic battle between Flipper the dolphin and two bloodthirsty sharks?

If you’ve seen the 1963 adventure flick Flipper, you know the answer to this question.

Flipper is the story of a boy (Luke Halpin) who befriends a friendly, smart dolphin. This dolphin is so smart, in fact, it can hear and understand conversations taking place above the water. Not only that, this thing can read Halpin’s mind.

Oh dear. We don’t mean to make this sound creepy.

The boy’s fisherman father (Chuck Connors) disapproves of Flipper the dolphin. It’s nothing personal; he disapproves of all dolphins. He tells Halpin that dolphins eat up the fish stocks and wreck fishermen’s nets. But Halpin doesn’t care what the old man says; he and Flipper have a special bond, and trouble ensues when he defies his father’s wishes.

This movie rates pretty high on our Cheese Scale, but there are enough interesting scenes to entice you to stay until the end. For example, the ocean is beautiful, even though the footage is 40 years old. We were also absorbed in the opening scenes of the movie as townsfolk scramble to prepare for a looming hurricane.

Now, we realize that you may have seen the controversial 2009 documentary, The Cove; in which case, you’ll find Flipper a tough watch. We ourselves viewed the movie with a jaundiced eye, carefully studying Flipper (real name: Mitzi) for signs of stress-related illnesses.

We would be remiss if we didn’t include some observations about this movie:

  • Halpin has an impressive fly-away bang hairdo that can withstand both wind and rain.
  • Kathleen Maguire, who plays Halpin’s mother, looks unfailingly fresh in her sensible, ironed 60′s dresses.
  • Connors has an intense listening method: He always leans forward on his right leg to show that he’s Deeply Interested in what The Other Actor Is Saying.

Get this! MGM felt audiences didn’t get enough Flipper in one movie, so they made a sequel in 1964 (Flipper’s New Adventure) which is so awful we’ll pretend it never happened.

Should you make the effort to watch Flipper? If you’re an eight year-old girl, yes. But be warned: if you do watch this movie, the inane theme song will stick in your head for weeks.

Flipper: starring Chuck Connors, Luke Halpin, Kathleen Maguire. Directed by James B. Clark. Written by Arthur Weiss. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1963, Colour, 90 mins.

Adventure in the High Antarctic

We could always hop aboard a penguin sight-seeing cruise

R.F. Scott and the boys, en route to the South Pole.

Have you ever wanted to go on an adventure that tests you so thoroughly you don’t know if you’ll come through it intact?

That type of experience never puts us in a cheery mood. We would much rather watch these types of undertakings from the comfort of our living room.

For example, look at the 1948 British adventure flick, Scott of the Antarctic, a grim re-enactment of Robert Falcon Scott’s 1911-12 expedition to the South Pole. Scott, a former naval officer, is consumed with being the first person to reach the South Pole.

This is a tense, tense film that makes you feel utter despair at times. We’re not joking when we say you’ll be reaching for your sweater when watching this; the sound of the Antarctic wind is that chilling.

As you might imagine, Scott and his team are up against it on all sides. Not only must they contend with the weather and inhospitable landscape, they’re racing against another team! Can you just imagine? You finally raise enough cash to get to the South Pole and suddenly someone else is threatening to beat you to it.

Scott’s competitor is famed Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, a person who is never shown in the film but is an ever-present monkey on Scott’s back.

Much of the movie was filmed outside, in the desolate snow of Norway. The actors pull sleds through deep snow, slide on ice and pour tea inside cramped tents. No scenes shot in front of a green screen here; this film-making is about authentic as it gets.

This is not a movie that spares you any of the savage realities of travelling through the Antarctic in the days before penguin sight-seeing cruises. Prior to embarking on his expedition, Scott is advised to not bring motorized sleds. Dogs are much more useful, he is told, because once “a dog is finished, he is still useful to the other dogs.”

Yikes! Now that we’ve almost frightened you away, let us point out that the acting in the movie is pitch-perfect. Expedition leader Scott is portrayed by the great John Mills who, as it turns out, has a passing resemblance to the real Scott.

Then there’s James Robert Justice, who plays injured team member Evans. In one scene, there is a close-up of Evans against the bitter white snow: his face reveals his determination despite his physical pain; then the realization that he is unable keep up with the others; and, finally, the knowledge that he’s going to die, here, at the bottom of the world.

Plus! We have the legendary Director of Photography, Jack Cardiff. He has captured some amazing images: penguins squirting out of the water and onto the ice; dancing green northern lights; icebergs resting majestically in the ocean; sled dogs breaking out of drifts of snow after a night’s sleep.

Scott of the Antarctic is a haunting, well-acted, superbly filmed movie that was the #4 box-office draw in Britain in 1948. In our opinion, it is one of the best adventure movies made, ever.

If you are looking for a rugged Antarctic adventure, we suggest you first try Scott of the Antarctic. It may save you a bit of plane fare.

Scott of the Antarctic: starring John Mills, Harold Warrender, Diana Churchill. Written by Ivor Montagu, Walter Meade, Mary Haley Bell. Directed by Charles Frend. Ealing Studios, Colour, 1948, 110 mins.

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.

Treasure Island (1934)

Yo ho ho - we'll have a bottle o`rum

These blokes can't wait for the movie to end.

Many things in this movie disturb us.

People being run over by carriages or falling from a ship’s mast are one thing, but who told Lionel Barrymore to sing? Is Wallace Beery‘s hair real? Why does Jackie Cooper talk like Shirley Temple?

And why is this movie so boring?

We know, we know. Treasure Island is considered one of the greatest adventure movies of the 1930s. You probably know hundreds of people who say to you, “Dude, seriously, you gotta see it.”

Never mind the fact that we fell asleep (twice) during this movie. Part of our annoyance is this whole pirates-finding-buried-treasure scenario. Who in their right mind hides valuables in the dirt on the other side of the world? Why not just keep it and live it up? Surely there were people in 18th-century England who could fence hot property!

Okay, we’ll admit there are some interesting things about this film. The sets, for one thing, are terrific. But this is not a surprise considering the famously talented Cedric Gibbons was drafted as art director.

Also, Wallace Beery is superb as the growly-but-not-without-charm Long John Silver. The way he races through the movie on that wooden leg is something to behold. It looks like it could be painful but, if it is, Beery doesn’t let on. Plus, the parrot he schleps around is so utterly cool it makes you want to get one of your own.

Well, you might as well watch it. Just don’t put it on right at bed-time. Or after a glass of warm milk. Or, heaven forbid, both.

Starring Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper and Lionel Barrymore. Written by John Lee Mahin. Directed by Victor Fleming. MGM, 1934, 110 mins.