Film Review: The Plough and the Stars (1936)

Release Date: December 26th, 1936
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Dudley Nichols, Sean O’Casey
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Preston Foster, Barry Fitzgerald

RKO Radio Pictures, 72 Minutes

Review:

“The spring of 1916 found a divided Ireland, torn by conflicting Loyalties. Thousands of her sons were at the front fighting the cause of England in the World War. Other thousands remained home planning another fight—a fight, under the flag of the Plough and the Stars, to free their country so that Ireland could take its place among the nations of the world.” – Opening credits prologue

John Ford is considered one of the top directors of his era. Before watching this, I had only ever seen his westerns. So I figured I’d venture out and see some of his other work. And since this had Barbara Stanwyck in it, I gave it a go.

This didn’t really do much for me though. And that’s not to take anything away from the picture, as the acting, especially from Stanwyck was damn good. However, it just seemed to move really slow and only really grabbed me in two scenes.

The first was in the beginning when Stanwyck’s Nora was confronted about not giving letters to her husband in regards to his military career. The second was the finale that saw some action but only enough to wake me up from my slumber for a few seconds.

I found it odd that this was a film that took place in Ireland and dealt specifically with Irish issues but the main cast was mostly American and didn’t even attempt Irish accents. So when real Irish people came into scenes with their authentic accents, it got really weird.

Also, the script wasn’t well written and seemed to be rushed through. That could be due to the short running time and maybe this adaptation of a play, wasn’t seamlessly adapted.

Out of the Ford pictures I have seen, this is the worst and the dullest.

But Stanwyck was actually dynamite and at least gave this dud some life.

Rating: 5.25/10
Pairs well with: Four Men and a Prayer, So Big and Woman In Red.

Film Review: Modern Times (1936)

Also known as: The Masses (working title)
Release Date: February 5th, 1936 (Rivoli Theatre, New York City premiere)
Directed by: Charlie Chaplin
Written by: Charlie Chaplin
Music by: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford, Chester Conklin

United Artists, 87 Minutes

Review:

“[from the Telescreen in the restroom to the factory worker] Hey! Quit stalling, get back to work! Go on!” – President of the Electro Steel Corp.

I’m going to start this by saying that Modern Times is one of my two favorite Charlie Chaplin films. The other is City Lights and it’s hard to put one of these over the other. But this may have a bit of an edge, as I think the factory worker sequences are Chaplin’s best.

This film covers a lot of ground, narratively speaking, for something that’s less than 90 minutes. But in the time that this came out, it’s much longer than most of the Chaplin films before it.

It starts with the Tramp character working in a factory, as the film rolls on, we see him start to break down and eventually go a bit crazy. He’s institutionalized, gets cured and then hits the streets trying to rebuild his life. Along the way, he meets Paulette Goodard’s Ellen, a bit of a troublemaker but her shenanigans are because she’s trying to feed her hungry siblings.

A romance develops and the chemistry between Chaplin and Goddard is pretty natural but maybe we were seeing them actually fall in love, as the two were married for a few years after this picture.

Chaplin really does give one of his best performances here and the stunts were some of the most creative and impressive. While it seems to be going for more of a straight comedy route with the gags than trying to wow us with Chaplin’s resilient physicality, it doesn’t feel like that stuff is lacking. And his routines here are still impressive.

For instance, the balcony roller skating scene is more nerve wracking than physically impressive. But stuff like this isn’t less effective or more effective than Chaplin’s more physical slapstick. I guess that he proved that he didn’t need to beat himself up to still get audiences to love him. Plus, by 1936, that stuff may have been taking a real toll on his body.

Modern Times is a sweet movie that features one of the most beloved film characters of all-time. What’s not to love? This is one of Chaplin’s greatest films and for good reason.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: Chaplin’s greatest works: City LightsThe Great Dictator and A King In New York.

Film Review: Bluebeard (1936)

Also known as: Barbe-Bleue (original French title)
Release Date: December 31st, 1936 (France)
Directed by: René Bertrand, Jean Painlevé
Written by: Charles Perrault
Music by: Jean Vincent-Bréchignac

13 Minutes

Review:

Barbe-Bleue or Bluebeard is an animated short film from France that uses claymation to tell its story.

It’s not an exciting story and it is told more like a musical than a regular dramatic film but it is at least pleasant to look at. The art is beautiful, the colors are very vibrant and vivid. I’m assuming though that the original version of the film was done in black and white and the colorized versions was made later.

The stop motion is well executed and everything looks as smooth as it can for being made in the 1930s.

This is subtitled, as it is French, but with just about all of the dialogue coming through in song form, it almost even isn’t necessary to need the translation. Plus, the emotions and actions that are referenced in the music are pretty apparent on screen.

This isn’t an easy to track down short. I luckily found it on FIlmStruck and gave it a watch there, as I was looking for something short to kill 15 minutes or so. This did the trick.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: Other shorts by Jean Painlevé: Le VampireSea UrchinsLiquid Crystals and The Fourth Dimension.

*Sadly, no trailer or other videos I can post for this.

Film Serial Review: Undersea Kingdom (1936)

Release Date: May 30th, 1936 (first chapter)
Directed by: B. Reeves Eason, Joseph Kane
Written by: Tracy Knight, John Rathmell, Maurice Geraghty, Oliver Drake
Music by: Harry Grey
Cast: Ray “Crash” Corrigan, Lois Wilde, Monte Blue, William Farnum

Republic Pictures, 226 Minutes total (12 episodes), 100 Minutes (TV)

Review:

Undersea Kingdom, on its surface, should be pretty cool. However, it is an underwhelming dud. It was featured sparingly on Mystery Science Theater 3000 when they needed some shorts. But that program never played the serial in its entirety.

This was made in response to Universal’s hit serial Flash Gordon, but it pales in comparison and certainly isn’t as remembered. Honestly, other than popping up a few times on MST3K, this serial is forgettable.

In this epic, there is a suspicious earthquake. A professor leads an expedition in a super submarine to what is believed to be the location of Atlantis. The heroes arrive at the mystical continent and find themselves in a civil war between Sharad, who leads the White Robes, and Unga Khan, who leads the Black Robes. It is obvious who the bad guys are because this was the 1930s and shit was simpler back then. Unga Khan has a superweapon, the Disintegrator, which he plans to use to destroy the world with earthquakes unless he is made the ruler of Earth.

“Crash” was added to Ray Corrigan’s name in an effort to sound close to “Flash”. Frankly, this attempt at a ripoff was pretty damn blatant about it. He would continue to use this name in other serials he filmed after this one.

The only cool thing about this serial is Unga Khan’s Volkites. They were metallic warriors that looked like very primitive versions of the classic Cybermen from Doctor Who. Granted, they look more like Cybermen trying to wear Dalek armor over their heads and torsos.

Undersea Kingdom is kind of fun but that fun runs out quickly, as the serial is bogged down with retreading familiar territory and for utilizing tropes that were probably already played out in 1936.

I like stories about Atlantis and I love classic serials like this. Unfortunately, the two weren’t a perfect marriage or even a good one.

So does this deserve to be run through the trusty Cinespiria Shitometer? It certainly does! The results read, “Type 2 Stool: Sausage-shaped but lumpy.”

Film Serial Review: Flash Gordon (1936)

Release Date: April 6th, 1936 (first chapter)
Directed by: Frederick Stephani, Ray Taylor (uncredited)
Written by: Basil Dickey, Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Frederick Stephani
Based on: Flash Gordon comic strip by Alex Raymond
Music by: Clifford Vaughan
Cast: Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers, Charles B. Middleton, Priscilla Lawson, Frank Shannon

Universal Pictures, 245 Minutes total (13 chapters)

Review:

Flash Gordon is a character that has lived on in American culture for decades. This 1936 serial by Universal Pictures is the first time that the famous comic strip hero was presented in a live-action format. Needless to say, it was a hugely popular serial for Universal and spawned a franchise that still has life all these years later.

The serial stars Buster Crabbe, who is the only actor to play the top three syndicated comic strip heroes of the 1930s: Tarzan (Tarzan the Fearless), Buck Rogers (Buck Rogers) and Flash Gordon (Flash GordonFlash Gordon’s Trip to Mars and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe).

Having dark hair, Crabbe had to bleach his hair blonde to play Flash Gordon, which he was very self-conscious about. He’d actually wear a hat whenever he wasn’t filming.

Co-star Jean Rogers, who played Dale Arden, also went blonde even though her character was a brunette. This was supposedly done to capitalize on the popularity of “platinum blonde” Jean Harlow, another actress.

Charles B. Middleton played the infamous villain Ming the Merciless. This was also where Ming got the look of a Fu Manchu type character.

There was a claim that Flash Gordon had a budget of over a million dollars, which was absurd for the time. Supposedly, the real budget was $350,000 and Universal Pictures recycled a lot of their elements and props from other films. Most notably the use of the watchtower sets from 1931’s Frankenstein, a statue from 1932’s The Mummy, lab equipment from 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein and other sci-fi and horror classics. The serial also recycles musical scores from The Bride of FrankensteinThe Invisible Man and other productions.

From a style standpoint, it should be obvious that this had a similar vibe to the classic Universal Monsters franchise of films.

Overall, Flash Gordon is fairly exciting with decent cliffhangers and twists. It has better acting than most serials and the action is top notch for this style of production.

The serial ended up being Universal’s second highest grossing release of 1936, behind the film Three Smart Girls. Some people were critical of the “revealing” costumes of the woman characters and future Flash Gordon serials had to dress women more modestly.

This is one of my favorite serials and my favorite of the Flash Gordon series. Crabbe would play Gordon two more times.

Film Review: Universal Monsters, Part II – The Dracula Series (1931-1945)

I recently reviewed the classic Frankenstein film series by Universal and am continuing on in my quest to cover all their old school horror franchises. This round, I am reviewing the Dracula series.

Dracula (1931):

Release Date: February 12th, 1931 (New York Premiere)
Directed by: Tod Browning, Karl Freund (uncredited)
Written by: Garrett Fort
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan

Universal Pictures, 85 Minutes 

dracula1931Review:

Dracula was released the same year as Frankenstein and both of these films started what became the Universal Monsters franchise, which also encompassed a film series for The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man and The Creature From the Black Lagoon. By the end of the franchise’s run, these monsters started crossing over into each other’s films. In the beginning however, they were focused on one monster and on creating a terrifying piece of film art. Dracula in many ways is a masterpiece.

Starring the iconic and legendary Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, the first film in the series was eerie, chilling and an incredibly fantastic adaptation for the resources of the time. It was directed by Tod Browning and Karl Freud (who was uncredited). Browning was also known for directing the infamous film Freaks, a year later. Regardless of which director was responsible for what, the end result was a film that still holds a place in the upper echelon of great horror films. Historically, it is still one of the top five Dracula films ever made.

This movie made Bela Lugosi a household name. He is still the most recognized version of Dracula in human history. In fact, just about every Dracula since has tried to emulate what Lugosi did in this film. He made the role his and this is one of the most iconic performances in cinema history.

Apart from the mesmerizing performance of Bela Lugosi, I have to point to Dwight Frye. Frye gave us the best version of Renfield that has ever appeared on film, even to this day – 83 years later.

Additionally, Dracula is gothic horror perfection, visually speaking. There are very few films that have been able to emulate the ambiance of this picture. Although, hundreds have tried.

If you are ever going to give a course on the history of horror movies, this, along with Universal’s Frankenstein, must be showcased.

Dracula – The Spanish Version (1931):

Release Date: March 11th, 1931 (Havana Premiere)
Directed by: George Melford
Written by: Baltasar Fernández Cué, Hamilton Deane, John L. Balderston
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Cast: Carlos Villarías, Lupita Tovar, Barry Norton, Pablo Álvarez Rubio, Eduardo Arozamena

Universal Pictures, 104 Minutes 

draculaspanishReview:

The Spanish language version of Dracula is pretty unique. It was filmed alongside the Bela Lugosi film using the same sets. The English version filmed during the day and the Spanish version filmed at night. Both movies had two entirely different casts and the Spanish cast and crew had the benefit of watching the English version being made, which gave them an edge when they went on to film the same scenes. The Spanish cast and crew wanted to make the superior version and according to many historians and critics, they did.

Conde Dracula was played by the very talented Carlos Villarías, who may not have been as iconic as Bela Lugosi in the role but wasn’t too far behind him either. Villarías was legitimately scary and acted with his facial expressions much more than Lugosi.

A notable difference with this film is that the girls were able to show a bit more skin. The dresses were different even though the wardrobe for the male stars was generally the same.

Also, some of the scenes played out longer, giving the film a slower pace. Actually, the film is about a half hour longer than the English version.

While I prefer the English version, the Spanish film is a solid piece of work and worth a watch by classic horror aficionados.

Dracula’s Daughter (1936):

Release Date: May 11th, 1936
Directed by: Lambert Hillyer
Written by: Garrett Fort
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Music by:
 Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Otto Kruger, Gloria Holden, Marguerite Churchill

Universal Pictures, 71 Minutes 

draculas_daughterReview:

Dracula’s Daughter was the first sequel to the Bela Lugosi classic. Unfortunately, Lugosi would never reprise the role of Dracula (for fear of being typecast) but Universal wanted to capitalize on the character after the success of Bride of Frankenstein.

This film follows a completely new character, Countess Marya Zaleska played by Gloria Holden. Zaleska is the daughter of Dracula and she shows up after her father’s death to properly dispose of his corpse in an effort to free herself from vampiric urges. One thing leads to another and eventually, the urges take over.

Holden’s performance as Zaleska was pretty enthralling and the premise was interesting enough but I feel like this film was a pretty weak sequel, especially after how well Bride of Frankenstein followed Frankenstein.

This film wasn’t as huge of a hit as Dracula but it did go on to spawn more sequels in the franchise.

Son of Dracula (1943):

Release Date: November 5th, 1943
Directed by: Robert Siodmak
Written by: Curtis Siodmak, Eric Taylor
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Music by:
 Hans J. Salter
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Robert Paige, Louise Allbritton, Evelyn Ankers

Universal Pictures, 80 Minutes 

son-of-draculaReview:

How do you get things rolling again after a seven year hiatus in the Dracula series? Well, you hire Lon Chaney Jr. to play the son of Dracula. In this film, Dracula’s offspring uses the name Count Alucard (Dracula spelled in reverse). While that has been done in other Dracula tales, I believe that this was where it originated.

This chapter is also unique in that it takes place in and around New Orleans, which is a place that would become synonymous with vampire-lore after Anne Rice penned Interview With A Vampire decades later.

I prefer this film to the previous one and it is the best of the Dracula sequels. Chaney does a great job as the antagonist and even if he is villainous, he feels like a tragic character in the same fashion that he does when he plays the Wolf Man.

House of Dracula (1945):

Release Date: December 7th, 1945
Directed by: Erle C. Kenton
Written by: Edward T. Lowe Jr., Dwight V. Babcock, George Bricker
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Music by: William Lava (uncredited)
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Martha O’Driscoll, John Carradine, Lionel Atwill

Universal Pictures, 67 Minutes 

house-of-draculaReview:

This is the film where all of the classic monsters ended their run. There was one other film that featured them Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein but that was more of a parody than anything.

Like House of Frankenstein, the year before it, this film featured Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man. It also had a mad scientist and a hunchback character – this time a female. I’m not quite sure why they never threw the Mummy or the Invisible Man into these crossover pictures and the Gillman from The Creature From the Black Lagoon is excluded because his first film actually came out nine years later.

This film features John Carradine returning as Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr. returning as the Wolf Man and Glenn Strange returning as Frankenstein’s monster. This film would’ve benefited from the inclusion of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone but that much star power may have caused the Earth’s magnetic poles to reverse.

This film is entertaining and it is a proper goodbye to these beloved characters. While I have no problem with Carradine as Dracula and Strange as Frankenstein’s monster, it would have been nice to see these characters go out with the original actors back in these parts. The amazing believably that Lon Chaney Jr. can bring to any role actually propelled this film forward and once again showed how talented he was as he stole the scene every time he walked on screen.

More Universal Monsters reviews are coming as soon as I rewatch them. Next up will be the Mummy series.