Release Date: December 15th, 1939 (Atlanta premiere) Directed by: Victor Fleming Written by: Sidney Howard Based on:Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell Music by: Max Steiner Cast: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, George Reeves, Hattie McDaniel, Oscar Polk, Butterfly McQueen
“No, I don’t think I will kiss you, although you need kissing, badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed and often, and by someone who knows how.” – Rhett Butler
Gone With the Wind is considered one of the all-time greatest motion pictures ever made. However, everyone should already know that.
It also came under fire last year when it was announced that it would be featured on HBO Max. Why did it come under fire? Well, because people these days are offended by the art people made generations ago. In regards to this film, it had to due with racial stereotypes and how the black characters were used. I wrote about this retro-censorship crap back in July, though. That article can be found here, so I won’t harp on it too much again while reviewing this classic.
When it comes to this film, it is as good as people have made it out to be for over 80 years. In fact, it may be even better.
Sure, it’s a long, slow, very drawn out story but it covers a lot of ground and it certainly has a lot to say.
Women, historically, have loved the film because of its romantic side and how it doesn’t follow the beats of a stereotypical “happily ever after” story, which was definitely rare for its time.
Men seem to love it because of the war related parts of the film. Mainly, this picture focuses on a few key characters but it really showcases what life was like for those on the losing side of the American Civil War. Regardless of what the war was or was about, the message here is eternal, as it really gives the viewer a true understanding of the actual devastation of war, specifically after the fighting is over.
Beyond the great story, the movie has stunning and legendary performances throughout and it may be the best acted film up to its release. Clark Gable is an absolute man’s man and Vivien Leigh was absolutely incredible. The range of these two just in this film is fantastic and impressive.
The film is also superbly directed by Victor Fleming, who pulled these performances out of his cast while also displaying his phenomenal level of cinematic craftsmanship. Some of the shots in this are breathtaking and still hold up marvelously, all these years later. A lot of credit also has to go to the cinematographer, Ernest Haller.
Going back to Fleming, though, it’s hard to believe that he released both The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind in the same year! That has to be the greatest single year of work by any director. Sadly, though, he only made five more films after this and died ten years later.
It’s hard to really put into words how majestic and epic this film is. It really should be seen by all lovers of film. I can get why it might not appeal to many in the 2020s and because it’s so damn long but it’s hard to really experience the best that the art of motion pictures has to offer if you haven’t seen this.
It deserves its status and from a visual and storytelling standpoint, it still has a lot to teach future filmmakers and lovers of the artistic medium.
Release Date: February 2nd, 1939 Directed by: John Ford Written by: Dudley Nichols Based on:The Stage to Lordsburg by Ernest Haycox Music by: Louis Gruenberg, Richard Hageman, W. Franke Harling, John Leipold, Leo Shuken Cast: Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine, Andy Devine, George Bancroft
Walter Wanger Productions, United Artists, 96 Minutes
“Well, there are some things a man just can’t run away from.” – Henry, the Ringo Kid
Stagecoach is a massively beloved western classic that went on to win Academy Awards and catapulted the career of John Wayne and his long partnership with director John Ford. While it isn’t my favorite western or Wayne film, it deserves its status, as it truly birthed what we know as westerns today.
When John Ford started making this picture, his colleagues warned him against it and said that making a western would be career suicide. If Ford hadn’t followed his gut and caved to the naysayers, the western genre, John Wayne and pop culture might not exist in quite the same way. This picture opened the floodgates for the genre and without it, kids might have never played cowboys and Indians and probably would’ve just stuck to cops and robbers or turned to something totally lame.
For modern audiences, this is a film full of genre cliches and it might be hard to see why it was such a great picture for its time. Everything you know about westerns, really started with Stagecoach. Every major trope you can think of is in this picture and compared to the films that came after it, there isn’t a whole lot that makes this feel original. But honestly, that is just a testament to how impactful this picture was. It set the stage for everything else to come.
It’s not super exciting and all the characters seem like cliches themselves but their differences serve the narrative well and the tension and conflict does effectively drive the plot. The action is just okay but there wasn’t a lot of great action in this era. Stuntmen existed, as John Wayne was one of them, but it obviously isn’t anything as over the top or exciting as what would come later in motion pictures.
John Wayne really carries the film with some help from leading lady Claire Trevor and the horror icon John Carradine. While Wayne does shine, he is not the lead and there isn’t as much meat in this role as he would later get to chew on.
Stagecoach is still a better than decent picture when compared to the genre, which flourished because of it. While I would recommend a slew of other westerns, the significance of this film cannot be denied.
Release Date: January 7th, 1939 (first chapter) Directed by: Ford Beebe, Saul A. Goodkind Written by: Willis Cooper, George Plympton, Basil Dickey, Mildred Barish Music by: Charles Previn Cast: Bela Lugosi, Dorothy Arnold, Robert Kent
Universal Pictures, 265 Minutes total (12 chapters)
The Phantom Creeps is the last serial Bela Lugosi did in his career. Unfortunately, even for a serial, it isn’t very good. It was, however, made by Universal Studios, a place where he found stardom in their 1931 adaptation of Dracula, as well as several other horror films that they produced.
Lugosi plays a scientist that goes mad. Initially, he was creating wacky inventions that could be used for evil but instead of selling them to the highest bidder, he decided to take over the world himself.
One of the inventions was an eight foot tall robot. Another invention is an invisibility belt. He was also able to overcome his enemies with mechanical spiders that would hold them in a sort of suspended animation. The secret to the power of Lugosi’s Dr. Zorka is that it comes from a mysterious meteorite.
Rightfully, the serial was lampooned in a few episodes of the second season of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
The Phantom Creeps is a serial that is beyond cheesy. It feels dated, even for 1939. The special effects are awful and the plot is mostly a nonsensical mess. Also, it uses a lot of stock footage that just doesn’t flow with the scenes that are shot. At least the giant robot was kind of cool.
George Lucas may have been inspired by this serial though, as it is not only called The Phantom Creeps but its first episode is called The Menacing Power. The Phantom Menace, anyone? Additionally, Universal wanted to get rid of the recap segments that started their serials, so this one features a text crawl introduction that is very similar to what George Lucas used to start all of his Star Wars films.
The Phantom Creeps also had some influence on musician and filmmaker Rob Zombie, whose song “Meet the Creeper” is based on the film. Also, he has used several different robots and props, designed as homages to this film, in multiple music videos and live shows. In his animated film, The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, the character of Murray the Robot is also based on Lugosi’s robot.
While The Phantom Creeps is far from great, it has left a lasting legacy throughout pop culture.
I decided to rewatch all of the old Universal Monsters films. I wanted to rank them all for a list (which I already posted) but while I was watching them, I figured that I’d review them too.
The Frankenstein series is the first one I have watched this go around and it starts with two films that are arguably the best out of all the Universal Monsters films.
Well, let me just get into the reviews.
Release Date: November 21st, 1931 Directed by: James Whale Written by: Francis Edward Faragoh, Garrett Fort, Peggy Webling, John L. Balderston, Robert Florey, John Russell Based on:Frankenstein by Mary Shelley Music by: Bernard Kaun Cast: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Boris Karloff, Dwight Frye
Universal Pictures, 71 Minutes
Frankenstein is pretty damned close to a masterpiece. It was directed by James Whale, who was a legend most known for this film and its first sequel but had a catalog that reached outside of horror and encompassed many styles and genres. Unfortunately, most of his work is unknown today and has fallen into obscurity, but I was lucky enough to have a friend that showed me some of his other work.
This film also introduced us to Boris Karloff and his interpretation of the monster, which has gone on to become the definitive version of the character, as people today are still most familiar with Karloff’s makeup and overall visual style and behavior.
The film sets the tone that would be well represented and maintained throughout the other Frankenstein films. It borrows heavily in style from the silent German Expressionist films of the early 1920s – most notably F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) as well as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Granted, this was a bit of a modernization and a more realistic interpretation of that style, but it does carry that same sort of German Expressionist vibe into a new decade and presents it to a new audience on another continent.
The acting by Boris Karloff as the monster is spectacular. The real gems of this film however are Colin Clive as Dr. Henry Frankenstein and his sidekick Fritz played by horror icon Dwight Frye (who also played Renfield in Universal’s 1931 Dracula film).
This film is perfection for its time but it was eclipsed by its first sequel, which I will review now.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935):
Release Date: April 22nd, 1935 (Los Angeles Premiere) Directed by: James Whale Written by: William Hurlbut, John L. Balderston Based on:Frankenstein by Mary Shelley Music by: Franz Waxman Cast: Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Colin Clive, Dwight Frye, Ernest Thesiger
Universal Pictures, 75 Minutes
How do you take a legendary film, which was already legendary just four years after its release, and attempt to top it? Well, you stick to the formula and style that made the original successful and you up the ante without compromising the original vision. Bride of Frankenstein is a great answer to the popular question, “Name one sequel better than the original.”
First of all, Boris Karloff and Colin Clive are back. The film is missing Dwight Frye as Fritz (he plays a less dynamic character in this one) but it gains much more with the additions of Ernest Thesiger as the villainous Dr. Pretorious and Elsa Lanchester as the title character of the film. Lanchester does double duty however, as she also portrays original Frankenstein author Mary Shelley in the opening scene of the film.
This movie takes the tone and style of the original and magnifies it. James Whale created a beautiful world in his original film and expands on its magnificence in this chapter. Bride of Frankenstein should be required viewing for any film studies class, as well as any real art class (in addition to some of the German Expressionist films it is certainly an homage to).
This film is unique, especially for its time, in that it is a true sequel that goes beyond just the material it is based on. It revisits Shelley’s concept in a new way and expands on it. While purists may not consider it true to the nature, tone and overall point of Shelley’s original Frankenstein novel, it explores uncharted territory nonetheless and does so with gusto and style and although being limited in scope and the production value of the era it was created in, it is a near flawless companion piece to the ideas of the original tale – one of the greatest novels ever written.
Son of Frankenstein (1939):
Release Date: January 13th, 1939 Directed by: Rowland V. Lee Written by: Wyllis Cooper Based on:Frankenstein by Mary Shelley Music by: Frank Skinner Cast: Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi
Universal Pictures, 99 Minutes
So what do you do when you lose Colin Clive, Dwight Frye and the awesome additions of Ernest Thesiger and Elsa Lanchester? Well, you bring back Boris Karloff as the monster and you bring in horror legends Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone. And being frank, this is one of my favorite Basil Rathbone performances of all-time.
Now this film is the start of the decline in the series but it doesn’t mean that this film and the ones after it were crap. Quite the contrary, these films are still great and play well today as classic horror masterpieces. The problem is that after the James Whale films, it was hard for Universal to replicate his quality and ability to weave a timeless tale visually – conveying emotion through the sets, the lighting, the make-up and the subtle nuances he brought forth in directing such an elite group of talent in those first two films.
Basil Rathbone owns the screen in this film as the very likable son of Henry Frankenstein named Baron Wolf von Frankenstein. Bela Lugosi is beyond fantastic as the now iconic Ygor, who wants nothing more than to control the monster in an effort to exact revenge on the townsfolk who wronged him.
I really loved the set design in this film. The use of lights and shadow brought me back to the old German Expressionist vibe even more so than James Whale’s application of the style. The style was done in a more primal and straightforward way here, which lost the lushness and complexity of Whale’s films but gained in the more obscure and supernatural atmosphere that they created. The Frankenstein house, through lighting techniques on the set was able to be inviting and haunting all at the same time. The strange non-symmetrical architecture inside, especially the staircase and its ominous shadows, were a sight to behold. You never feel quite safe or comfortable with these sets. While I prefer Whale’s refined style, this film is visually more unsettling.
Ultimately, this film is also another gem in Universal’s Monster catalog. Then again, this is from an era where they had to try really hard to produce a bad film.
The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942):
Release Date: March 13th, 1942 Directed by: Erle C. Kenton Written by: Scott Darling, Eric Taylor Based on:Frankenstein by Mary Shelley Music by: Hans J. Salter Cast: Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., Cedric Hardwicke, Ralph Bellamy, Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers
Universal Pictures, 67 Minutes
Boris Karloff sat this one out. So who did Universal get to play the monster? Well, they went to Lon Chaney Jr., son of Lon Chaney – the man who starred in several classic Universal horror films of the 1920s. Chaney Jr. had also already played the title character in Universal’s The Wolf Man, which was released just before this film. This movie also reunited Chaney Jr. with Bela Lugosi, who also had a part in The Wolf Man. Lugosi again played Ygor, whose streak of sinister villainy was not yet over.
This film introduces us to another Frankenstein son, this time Ludwig Frankenstein – played by Cedric Hardwicke. This film also gives us the uber-talented Ralph Bellamy.
I find this film to be the weakest of the series. I still love it but it seems to be more of a rehash of the previous film with a few minor changes. The most interesting thing really is that Ygor controls the monster with a special horn he plays.
The style is still consistent but at this point it is also becoming a bit of a caricature to itself and maybe a detriment. Either that or the formula and this franchise has ran its course regardless of this still being an enjoyable piece of film history. You definitely get the vibe that this is where the franchise was just being used to milk money from pockets instead of being more concentrated on making great films like the ones that preceded it.
House of Frankenstein (1944):
Release Date: December 15th, 1944 (New York City Premiere) Directed by: Erle C. Kenton Written by: Edward T. Lowe Jr., Curt Siodmak Based on:Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Dracula by Bram Stoker Music by: Hans J. Salter, Paul Dessau Cast: Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, J. Carrol Naish, Glenn Strange
Universal Pictures, 71 Minutes
How does one jump the shark before that was even a term Hollywood knew anything about? Well, you jam pack as many monsters and stars into one film as you possibly can because if you own the rights to a bunch of monsters, why not have them duke it out in a free-for-all? And honestly, at this point in the Universal Monsters timeline, across all their multiple horror franchises, this pretty much had to happen in order to keep things fresh and interesting.
Boris Karloff returns but this time he is a mad scientist with a hunchback assistant played by J. Carrol Naish, who is brilliant in this film, as you really pull for him and then find yourself somewhat distraught after he goes over the edge in the end.
Lon Chaney Jr. shows up as the Wolf Man, John Carradine shows up as Count Dracula (a role he would also play in House of Dracula a year later).
This film plays like an anthology piece, where the first half of the film follows the Dracula story and the second half follows the Wolf Man story while Frankenstein is mostly on a table the whole film and doesn’t do much. It isn’t as epic as the Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man confrontation between the two characters, which was released the year prior to this (and will be reviewed when I cover The Wolf Man series of films in an upcoming post).
I like this film, even though this is where things just got silly.
More Universal Monsters reviews are coming. Next up will be the Dracula series.