Thursday, January 12, 2023

Come to the Stable

Come to the Stable (Dir: Henry Koster, 1949).

It’s a case of ‘And Then There Were Nuns’ as a superfluity
 of sisters descend upon the small town of Bethlehem, New England in this lightly comic drama from 20th Century Fox. 

Hailing from France, the nuns, lead by Sister Margaret (Loretta Young) and Sister Scholastica  (Celeste Holm) arrive in the USA intent on building a children’s hospital. But without the land or the cash it proves an uphill battle. Through dogged determination, luck and perhaps a little divine intervention, they slowly begin to realise their dream… 

An appealing cast heads Come to the Stable with Young and Holm registering strong performances in the leads. Stand outs in support are the wonderful Elsa Lanchester as the kooky artist who provides shelter for the sisters and Dooley Wilson, always a treat, here as a sort of porter cum oddjobs man.  

Faith movies were something of a specialty of director Henry Koster, with The Bishop's Wife (H. Koster, 1947), The Robe (H. Koster, 1953), The Story of Ruth (H. Koster, 1960) and The Singing Nun (H. Koster, 1966) among his more notable features films. While Come to the Stable doesn't hit the heavenly highs of Christmas classic The Bishop's Wife, it is more entertaining than the reverential, yet slightly dull spectacle of The Robe. Happily, the schmaltz is largely kept at bay in what is a potentially stickily sweet subject. That is until the climax, when a detractor to the sisters’ plan is struck with a sudden attack of piety! 

Astonishingly, Come to the Stable was nominated for 7 Academy Awards. Whilst it didn’t find itself on the winner’s podium, it is still a remarkable achievement. There is a good deal of whimsy to wallow through but, if I’m honest with you, it was a far more entertaining movie than I expected. A highly contrived confection for which a strong constitution is needed for the finale. Still, if nuns are your thing you will love it! 

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Dir: David Hand, 1937).

As the current Disney regime continues to remake and rehash past glories, it is easy to forget that the studio was built on originality and innovation. This fully animated, fantasy musical was the first of it’s kind and was, on release, the most ambitious movie yet produced in Hollywood.

With its roots in the Brothers Grimm's Germanic folktale; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs tells the well known story of the young princess (voiced with charming naivety by young soprano Adriana Caselotti) whose beauty so enrages her wicked stepmother she sentences her to death by huntsman. Unable to do the deed the huntsman substitutes the heart of a pig for that of Snow White's. But the Queen soon learns of Miss White's existence in the protection of seven little men in a forest dwelling. Angered, she transforms herself into an old hag and hotfoots it to the Dwarfs' dwelling with a poisoned apple. SPOILER ALERT: one bite of the forbidden fruit sends Snow White into a 'sleeping death'. Fashioning a glass coffin, the diminutive dudes lay Snow White to rest in a forest glade where she lay awaiting her prince to come, someday. 

Derogatorily nicknamed ‘Disney’s Folly’ by the press and expected to bomb so hard as to ruin its creator, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs did the exact opposite in spectacular fashion. Not only did it emerge as the biggest box office success of 1938, it would become one the most successful feature films of all time; not to mention one the most critically acclaimed. 85 years later it has lost none of its appeal, is loved by millions worldwide and has entered the public consciousness in a way few other movies have. If all this sounds somewhat sycophantic, I make no apologies; Snow While and the Seven Dwarfs really is that good. 

Contrary to his detractors, who speculated a 90 minute cartoon would hurt audiences eyes, Walt Disney and his team of animators instead crafted a motion picture of which each individual frame is a work of art. Expressionistic use of light and shadow displays the influence of European cinema evident in Walt's early work, whilst the animation carries a delicate grace that would be never really be replicated outside the early Disney features. 

In Snow White, The Prince and The Queen the Disney animators achieved a realism of the human form never before seen in a cartoon; an achievement even more amazing when one considers Mickey Mouse's rubber-hose limb debut in Steamboat Willie (Walt Disney & Ub Iwerks, 1928) was less than a decade earlier! It is pretty safe to suggest that no other artform ever advanced with the rapidity of animation in the 1930s.

Providing some much needed levity in the surprisingly macabre tale are the Dwarfs: Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy and Dopey. Bringing to life seven similar characters, each imbued with distinct personalities, was an impressive feat in it itself and expands upon Disney's similar achievement in the short subject Three Little Pigs (Burt Gillett, 1933).

Accompanying the animated antics is an equally groundbreaking musical score. Frank Churchill and Larry Morey's score was notably the first example of an integrated musical - one in which the songs help further the plot - a full decade and a half before Rodgers and Hammerstein pioneered the 'book musical' with their 1943 opus Oklahoma!  Songs, such as I'm Wishing, Whistle While You Work, Heigh-Ho and Someday My Prince Will Come would become instant standards and are still among the most recognisable tunes in the vast Disney music catalogue. 

The word masterpiece is overused, yet few words are better suited to describe Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It is a genuinely original and innovative piece of filmmaking, the like of which will probably never be seen again. In terms of entertainment and innovation, it would’ve been fair to assume that the Disney Studio would never manage to top Snow White..., yet arguably they did just that three years later with their next feature Pinocchio (Ben Sharpsteen & Hamilton Luske, 1940).


Friday, August 26, 2022

Big Red (1962)

 Big Red (Dir: Norman Tokar, 1962).

Rather than a movie about a popular brand of cinnamon flavour chewing gum, Big Red is a doggy drama in the classic Walt Disney tradition of live-action animal adventures. 

Based upon the novel by James Kjelgaard, Big Red relates the story of crusty hunter and dog trainer James Haggis (Walter Pidgeon), who pays a hefty sum for Red, an Irish Setter with potential as a champion show dog. Out of the woods and into their lives wanders Rene (Gilles Payant), a French speaking orphaned lad who loves animals and needs a job. Employing Rene to care for his hounds, the boy soon bonds with Red; something which proves detrimental to the Setter’s training. Excitement with injured dog, runaway boys and menacing mountain lions follows, before the forgone happy conclusion. 

Produced by Disney’s True Life Adventures stalwart Winston Hibler and directed by studio regular Norman Tokar, Big Red is a sturdy, old fashioned yet handsomely mounted outdoors adventure; one of a trio of French Canadian dramas produced by Disney in the 1960s alongside Nikki, Wild Dog of the North (Don Haldane and Jack Couffer, 1961) and The Incredible Journey (Fletcher Markel, 1963). As with those movies, the animal actors here are arguably more engaging than their human co-stars. Emile Genest, as a live-in ranch hand, shares some tender scenes with youngster Payant, while Pidgeon puts in a solid performance as Haggis. However, the real star is the gorgeous Irish Setter of the title. 

The story itself offers few surprises, but is engagingly told and, save for a scene with a comic moose, is happily free from the kind of slapstick which sometimes marred Disney’s live action productions. With its gentle sentimentality and a somewhat languid pace, it may be a hard sell for modern family audiences and is notable by its omission from the Disney+ streaming service. However, Disney fans of a certain age will certainly get nostalgic pangs for the days when a charming, effects free dog and boy bonding tale passed muster as matinee entertainment. 

Following the critical and commercial success of Old Yeller (Robert Stevenson, 1957), boy and dog movies became a staple of the Disney Studios' output for the next two decades. While Big Red doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from the pack, its combination of beautiful scenery and cute canines, not to mention a couple of tuneful numbers from Mary Poppins composers Richard and Robert Sherman ensure a product of significant pedigree. While it is perhaps not best of breed, Big Red is a good dog tale nonetheless and will undoubtedly strike a chord with anybody who has ever loved a pet. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

High Flying Spy (1972)

High Flying Spy (Dir: Vincent McEveety, 1972).

Originally broadcast in three parts on NBC's weekly The Wonderful World of Disney TV series. High Flying Spy is a Civil War adventure based upon Robert Edmond Alter's historical novel High Spy.

Rival hot air balloonists Thaddeus Lowe (Stuart Whitman) and John Jay Forrest (Darren McGavin) are drawn into the Civil War as Union spies as part of President Lincoln's newly formed Areonautic Corps. Joining them is spirited Davey Stevens (Vincent Van Patten), a juvenile telegraph operator who has lied about his age in order to serve his county. Captured by the Confederate army the three must use their wiles to escape the enemy.

The practice of editing multiple TV episodes into a single feature film was a longstanding practice at the Disney Studios, beginning with the cultural phenomenon Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (Norman Foster, 1955). Usually, the movies were distributed as support features in international markets. Not so with High Flying Spy which was stitched together for home video release at some point in the 1980s.

Directed by Disney stalwart Vincent McEveety, the movie is not exactly action packed, although is engaging enough in its storytelling not to outstay its 2 hours+ runtime. Younger viewers may squirm a little at the length and in three segments, as originally broadcast, may be preferable viewing for some. Although divided into three parts of roughly 45 minutes a piece, High Flying Spy never feels cobbled together, and if you watch with no prior knowledge of this you may not notice. Neither does the feature particularly belie its TV origins; it is a handsome outdoors adventure largely shot on Disney's Golden Oak movie ranch. Some obvious use of back projection if forgivable in the pre-ditgal age and doesn't otherwise detract from a quality production. 

A prestigious cast also helps lift the movie above standard TV fare. Both Stuart Whitman and Darren McGavin impress in their roles, McGavin, in particular, bringing an avuncular roguishness to his role as a bluff balloonist who ultimately proves himself heroic. Vincent Van Patten (son of Disney regular Dick Van Patten) contributes a pleasing, natural performance as the obligatory blonde haired youngster. 

Sadly, if you wish to watch High Flying Spy, it is one of many titles kept under lock and key in the Disney vault. The Disney+ streaming service would be an ideal platform to release the hundreds of hours of quality live action product from the 1950s through 1980s that the company seems loath to release. Us Disney geeks of a certain age would love the chance to revisit their childhoods just as much as 90s and 00s kids. Yet, almost three years after the platform launch, 70s and 80s Disney fans remain not especially well catered for in terms of older content. 

As such, High Flying Spy is a difficult to view in any format today. However, it is well worth watching if you can find a copy. Entertaining viewing, regardless of age, this is the kind of family friendly movie upon which the Walt Disney Studios were founded and which the current regime have seemingly abandoned. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989)

All Dogs Go to Heaven (Dir: Don Bluth, 1989). 

The fourth feature film from former Disney animator Don Bluth. Animated in Ireland at the director's Sullivan Bluth Studios, with financial support from Goldcrest Films.

All Dogs Go to Heaven relates the life and death and life again story of Charlie B. Barkin, a likeable rogue of a German shepherd (voiced by Burt Reynolds) murdered by former partner and gambling kingpin Carface (Vic Tayback). Resisting the heavenly appeal of the afterlife, Charlie makes a break from the pearly gates to return to the living and seek vengeance on his killer. Earthbound, Charlie reunites with sausage dog pal Itchy whom he engages to wreak revenge. Held captive in Carface's basement is orphaned girl Anne-Marie who the pair rescue with the ulterior motive of using her animal communication skills (stay with me) to secure big wins at the racetrack. Promising to find her a family, Anne-Marie’s realisation that the shepherd has used her for his own ill gains impels her escape. Regretting his selfish deed, Charlie sets out to rescue the girl, signalling an all action climax and final confrontation with dirty dog Carface. 

While a visually appealing movie, All Dogs Go to Heaven does feel a little derivative of earlier features. Notably, with its mix of animals, orphans and a Louisiana bayou setting, Disney's The Rescuers (Wolfgang Reitherman, John Lounsbery and Art Stevens, 1977); a movie on which Bluth served as animator. The backstreets canine capers also recalls Disney's Oliver and Company (George Scribner, 1988), the movie which bested Bluth's The Land Before Time (D Bluth, 1988) at the box office a year earlier. The bad guy returning from heaven to find redemption plot is a chestnut older than Hollywood itself, although I am not aware of it appearing in an animated feature before. It also suffers from a convoluted, disjointed narrative. Indeed, when a giant singing alligator appeared I fear both I and the filmmakers had kind of lost the plot! Add to this some forgettable songs by Charles Strouse and T. J. Kuenster and it is not difficult to appreciate why All Dogs... underwhelmed at the box office. 

On the plus side is Bluth's distinctive design and some appealing character animation. The starry cast is attractive too. Aside from Reynolds are Loni Anderson as a down on her luck collie and Bluth regular Dom DeLuise as Charlie's flea infested comic cohort Itchy the dachshund. Special mention must also be given to Judith Barsi; the talented youngster's cute vocal performance as Anne-Marie would sadly be her last. 

While the movie eventually turned a profit in the home market, it initially had the misfortune of sharing its release date with Disney's The Little Mermaid (John Musker and Ron Clements, 1989). The blockbuster fairytale cemented Walt Disney Animation Studios' artistic and financial renaissance; in direct competition Bluth's movie was deemed a disappointment, although by no means a disaster.

With its themes of gambling, death and a fairly intense depiction of the underworld, some parents may consider All Dogs Go to Heaven a little unsuitable for younger viewers. More likely, most adults will probably find it a bit weird; something which kids are certain to be less bothered about! Ultimately this  shaggy dog story is a little dogeared but it does have a peculiar charm all of its own. Children, in particular, are sure to overlook its shortcomings and should find much to enjoy in an appealing mutt of a movie.

Monday, January 3, 2022

Platinum Blonde (1931)

 Platinum Blonde (Dir: Frank Capra, 1931).

Released by Columbia Pictures, Platinum Blonde is a pre-code, early screwball comedy from legendary director Frank Capra. 

When newspaper hack “Stew” Smith (Robert Williams) investigates the latest scandal involving the son of society Schuyler family he, instead, finds himself falling for their daughter Ann (Jean Harlow); outraging the family, who brand him a Cinderella man, with their subsequent romance and marriage. Finding the rich life harder to stomach than anticipated he frequently turns to ever patient gal pal Gallagher (Loretta Young) for support, unaware of the torch she is carrying for him. 

With situations and character tropes which would become Capra staples, Platinum Blonde is both pre-cursor to the director’s future whimsical comedies such as It Happened One Night (F Capra, 1934) and You Can’t Take it With You (F Capra, 1938) and something of a proto-screwball comedy; a genre Capra would practically invent with It Happened One Night. Regular collaborator Robert Riskin was responsible for the movie’s dialogue which, while not quite as rapid fire as the great comedies of the latter part of the decade, is still fast paced, charming and witty. 

Third billed, Harlow shines in the role of Long Island debutante Ann. Her charismatic and subtlety sensual performance giving a good indication of things to come from the then ascendant star. Williams is immensely likeable as the charmingly cynical newspaper man who bristles under the restraints of a society husband. However the real standout here is Loretta Young. Her role as the tough talking reporter, one of the boys but decidedly female in maters of romance, is one more readily associated with the likes of Jean Arthur or Katherine Hepburn. Yet Young proves the equal of her acting peers, displaying a deftness for comedy sadly underused by Hollywood. 

Both Harlow and Williams succumbed to ill health and died tragically young; Harlow in 1937 at age 26 and Williams at age 37 just three days after the Platinum Blonde premiere. While Harlow is rightly remembered as one of Hollywood’s brightest stars, Williams early passing robed him of the chance to build upon this, his only leading role. 

While perhaps not quite the equal of later Capra classics such as Mr Deeds Goes to Town (F Capra, 1936) or It's a Wonderful Life (F Capra,1946), even second tier Capra is better than most directors’ best work. Duly, Platinum Blonde is an excellently crafted comedy gem. 

With a master director and legendary stars near the peak of their powers, it stands as a prime example of classic Hollywood rom com at it formation. A smart, pacy comedy from the Golden Age that holds its own 9 decades after it originally graced the silver screen. 

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Father is a Bachelor (1950)

Father is a Bachelor (Dir: Norman Foster & Abby Berlin, 1950).

William Holden stars in this lightweight family comedy from Columbia Pictures. 
Father is a Bachelor unfortunately and inauspiciously begins with Holden blacked up giving a rendition of  period ditty Wait 'til the Sun Shines, Nellie. Not the best. But let's remember that in 1950 this was an acceptable form of entertainment and was not intended to cause upset or controversy. Still, myself, and I would presume most modern viewers, could do without it. However I am no advocate for censoring old movies and if Columbia wished to slap a cautionary note at the top of the movie I would applaud them for it. On with the show...

Self-confessed loafer Johnny Rutledge (William Holden) becomes unwitting foster father to five river bottom orphaned waifs. Meanwhile he becomes romantically involved with judge's daughter Prudence Millett (Coleen Gray) who, with the kids, transforms him from medicine show shyster to attentive family man. 

Any movie that opens with an outdated and cringe-worthy blackface song and dance number can only improve as it goes on, right? Wrong! While the remaining 80 minutes of the feature are nowhere near as offensive as the first 5, its sickly sweet combination of saccharine sitcom and tow haired orphans may prove too much for the weak stomached.

William Holden is miscast and appears uninterested in a role too trivial for the rapidly rising star, and it is to Columbia Pictures' detriment that they continued to cast him in such undemanding fluff at this stage of his career. As Holden's love interest, little is required of Coleen Gray other than look pretty while gazing coyly upon him. This she does proficiently but the romance is so insipid you could mistake it for a casual acquaintance. The kids, with the cutesy names of Jan, Feb, March - you get the idea - are Hollywood kids of the most cloying kind. Of no help to the cast is the cornball dialogue and obvious plotting of Aleen Leslie and James Edward Grant flimsy screenplay. Precious little actually happens in the movie; what slight story there is a stretched out to an agonising 85 minutes which tested both my attention span and my sitting still skills. 

While not strictly speaking a musical, the movie does feature a brace of folksy musical intervals with perhaps the most unconvincing vocal dubbing of a Hollywood star. While a seemingly bored Holden is just about believable as the shiftless drifter who finds redemption, his silky baritone singing voice is about as far removed from the actor's distinctive speaking voice as is possible. 

Astonishingly it took not one but two directors to bring this tripe to the big screen. Norman Foster would later make a useful contribution to Walt Disney Productions' live-action division with frontier actioner Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (N Foster, 1955) and multiply episodes of the Zorro (1957-1959) TV series. Abby Berlin, meanwhile, was nearing the end of a movie career consisting mostly of Blondie and Dagwood B-movie comedies but would continue as director for hire on numerous TV productions. Neither bring any discernible style to proceeding here. 

Father is a Bachelor marks a definite low point in Mr Holden's career; surprisingly released the same year and just prior to his triumphant turns in classics Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) and Born Yesterday (George Cukor, 1950). While Holden was never less than watchable, this must rank as one of his worst pictures. If, like myself, you are an admirer of his work. then by all means give the movie watch as he is really the only interesting thing about it. Otherwise you are well advised to give this barely palatable picture a wide berth. 

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Framed (1947)

Framed aka Paula (Dir: Richard Wallis, 1947).

Glenn Ford gets mixed up with a deadly dame and a shady banker in this taut film noir from Columbia Pictures. 

Out of work and out of luck mining engineer Mike Lambert (Ford) lands in a heap of trouble when he crashes his truck into a small mining town on the outskirts of the Arizona desert. Bailed out on a trumped up charge of reckless driving by barroom waitress Paula (Janis Carter), lonely Mike finally thinks he has found an ally in the beautiful blonde. Unbeknownst to Mike, Paula is in cahoots with Vice President of the Empire Trust and Savings Bank, Steve Price (Barry Sullivan). Having embezzled $250,000 of the bank's money, Paula and Steve plan to murder Mike, faking the banker's own death in the process and absconding with the cash. Framed for murder is Mike's only friend and prospective employer Jeff (Edgar Buchanan).

One of many B-movie crime thrillers released by Columbia Pictures in the 1940/50s. What distinguishes Framed from the other second features is a decent production which belies its low budget and some terrific performances from its principle players. 

Ford is great as the taciturn Mike, one of his many portrayals of weak willed, easily manipulated manhood. Janice Carter, as archetypal femme fatale Paula, makes the part of the sultry blonde her own. Whether welding a wrench with or lacing a beverage with poison, she does so with sadistic glee and a malevolent glint in her eye. Carter showed great promise as a leading lady and it is to Columbia's detriment that they kept her in B pictures. Rounding out the decent cast is top character actor Edgar Buchanan. The role of Jeff doesn't exactly stretch his acting talents, but he is a welcome presence who benefits any movie he appears in. 

With its themes of suburban adulatory and felony, Framed is somewhat reminiscent of James M Cain's novel and subsequent movie adaptation Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944). Richard Wallis directs at a rattling pace; from the opening shot of Mike's truck careening down a mountain path and through busy small town Main Street, the audience is at the heart of the action. The movie then breathlessly races to its climax a brief 80 minutes later. 

Despite its obvious qualities and the presence of Glenn Ford, Columbia seems to have had little faith in the movie, renaming it Paula in an attempt to cash-in on Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946), the studio's hit from a year earlier which also starred Ford. While the movie isn't quite in the same league as that classic, it is an entertaining, exciting feature in its own right. If you are a fan of film noir you will find much to enjoy in this cracking crime flick.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940)

Broadway Melody of 1940 (Dir: Norman Taurog, 1940).

Fred Astaire is in tiptop form in this MGM song and dance spectacular from the golden age of movie musicals. 

The fourth and final entry in the narratively unrelated Broadway Melody series; this one concerns struggling dancer Johnny Brett (Fred Astaire) accidentally passed over in a lead dancing role for his less talented partner King Shaw (George Murphy). The rose between two thorns is Shaw's new partner Clare Bennett (Eleanor Powell) who quickly realises the wrong half of the double act has been engaged as her new collaborator. Hot headed, party loving Shaw is soon spending more time nursing his hangovers than practicing his routines, so Fred steps up and - Okay, no spoilers, although it is pretty obvious in which direction the plot is heading and who is gonna get the girl come curtain call. But with the wonderful stars and a clutch of top songs by Cole Porter, who really cares about the plot? What we are here for is the dancing and in this department Broadway Melody of 1940 doesn't disappoint.

Astaire was rarely more suave, more elegant or more engaging as he is here. His solo number I've Got My Eyes on You is an obvious highlight. But Fred is not the only hoofer present. George Murphy had considerable talent as a song and dance man. He doesn't quite possess the grace and poise of Astaire, but honestly, who else does? As Fred's first onscreen male dancing partner he particularly shines in the opener Please Don't Monkey with Broadway, the first of the film's numerous standout routines. Matching Fred toe to toe is the wonderful Eleanor Powell; possibly Astaire’s most talented dance partner and one of the finest dancers to grace the silver screen. Powell's athletic style - part tap, part gymnastics - is used to great effect in the jaw-dropping All Ashore, a Navy themed number with perhaps the highest high kicks ever filmed! 

There is genuine movie magic in the outstanding finale which finds Powell and Astaire dressed head to toe in white on a black set with a mirrored floor. The pair are the epitome of class as the shimmy across the screen to Porter's classic Begin the Beguine. The routine ranks among the the greatest dance numbers ever committed to celluloid. Little else like it has been seen in Hollywood for 80 years and alone makes the movie worth watching.  

A couple of novelty acts feel a little shoehorned in and while they undoubtedly have a curiosity value, they do nothing to further the plot. Their placement within an otherwise conventional narrative structure seems frankly odd and mean that Broadway Melody of 1940 cannot quite be considered among the top tier of MGM's output. But it comes pretty darned close. 

While it may lack a little polish in the story department, this final Broadway Melody is, nonetheless, a sparking diamond among movie musicals and the best of the popular series. An absolute gem well worth making a song and dance about.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Underground (1928)

Underground (Dir: Anthony Asquith, 1928).

Rightly regarded as a milestone in British cinema, Anthony Asquith's silent romantic drama Underground offers a fascinating view of the London Underground almost a century ago. 

Detailing the lives of four metropolitans whose lives and loves intertwine on the sublevel transportation network; clean-cut porter Bill (Brian Aherne) and creepy power station employee Bert (Cyril McLaglen) are rivals for the affection of shop assistant Nell (Elissa Landi). After their 'meet cute' over a lost pair of gloves on the steps of a station elevator, Nell, of course, succumbs to the charms of Bill rather than the unwanted attentions of brash Burt, and for 20 odd minutes viewers would be forgiven for thinking they were engaging in a lighthearted romcom. However, a marked shift in tone occurs with the introduction of Kate (Norah Baring), a lovelorn seamstress in a dead-end relationships with Burt. Desperate to win the hand of Nell, Burt coerces Kate with the promise of marriage into blackening Bill's reputation. What follows is a dark, yet engrossing thriller of sexual obsession and embittered revenge; culminating in an exciting climax which takes us from the rooftop of the Lots Road power station before descending into the darkness of the Northern Line.

While early experiments in sound cinema are often marred by static camera work, this movie from the tail-end of the silent era has no such limitations. From the opening driver's eye view of a tube train emerging from the dark of the tunnel to a crowded platform - a scene mirrored in the film's closing - Underground has a visceral modernity, thanks to the tight direction of Anthony Asquith and the artful cinematography of Stanley Rodwell. 

Asquith was to become a key figure in British filmmaking, later helming classics such as Pygmalion (A Asquith, 1938) and The Way to the Stars (A Asquith, 1945). Astonishingly, Underground was only his second directorial credit. The movie is expertly crafted, displaying the influence of German Expressionism and Soviet Montage cinema, evidenced vividly in a rapidly edited pub punch-up culminating with the distorted reflection of the perpetrators in the broken barroom mirror. There is palpable sense of the bustling metropolis in scenes of claustrophobic cramped carriages and crowded platforms, familiar to anyone who has ever experienced the Tube at rush hour. 

Silent cinema is often associated with over-expressive performances, yet, as an early example of British cinema's long association with realism, the actors are suitably naturalistic. With only four main characters, the movie is particularly dependent upon the cast and all acquit themselves well, especially Norah Baring, who lends a particularly affecting vulnerability to the role of unlucky in love Kate. 


Almost a century after release, Underground the movie is as sleek and stylish as the famed Edward Johnson designed London Underground roundel. The movie is as equally impressive as its more acclaimed contemporary talkie Blackmail (Alfred Hitchcock, 1929), with Asquith proving as adept in his knowledge of the language of cinema as Hitchcock himself. With fascinating footage of the Tube, public transport freaks and British movie geeks alike will find much to enjoy in this hugely entertaining and highly recommended classic. 

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Angels in the Endzone (1997)

Angels in the Endzone (Dir: Gary Nadeau, 1997).

More spiritual shenanigans with the heavenly bodies last seen in Angels in the Outfield (William Dear, 1994); on hand here to help out failing football team the Westfield Angels. Unlike its predecessor this, the first of two sequels to Walt Disney Pictures' modest box office hit, bypassed cinemas; instead premiering on ABC's The Wonderful World of Disney TV series in autumn 1994. 

Following the untimely death of his father, promising player Jesse (Matthew Lawrence) quits his high school football team to hang with a bad crowd. Little brother Kevin (David Gallagher) prays to the heavenly angels to aid the ailing Westfield Angels, in the hope that their success will inspire Jess to return to the team. Industrial strength schmaltz is applied liberally to a predictable plot in which the only real surprise was that I made it to the end credits. 

Perhaps I am being a little harsh on Angels in the Endzone. The lazy cultural stereotypes, forced slapstick and stodgy sentiment is something that will likely bother its intended young audience far less than it does a jaded, so-called movie reviewer like myself. It is by no means difficult to watch, but I do find the mix of saccharin and spiritualism a bit of an acquired taste. 

In its favour is a likeable cast. Returning from the first movie is Christopher Lloyd as head angel Al, doing his lovable eccentric bit as a kind of divine Doc Brown. It is certainly no stretch for the star but he makes more of an impression here than in ...Outfield and shares some nice scenes with youngster David Gallagher. Veteran Paul Dooley also impresses as weather beaten Coach Buck; so good is his performance that it is a shame it is not in a better movie. As it is, Dooley and Lloyd are easily the best reason for watching. 

To say Angels in the Endzone is a better movie than the first is not saying much. But a less cloying concept, thankfully free of orphans, and a darker second half ultimately makes for  more palatable viewing than its predecessor. Following the same narrative beats as Angels in the Outfield, it is fair to assume that if you liked that movie you will enjoy this one too. Angels were definitely smiling on fans of the franchise as a third movie Angels in the Infield (Robert King, 2000) inexplicably followed. None of the series is, as yet, available on the Disney+ streaming service, perhaps giving some indication of their limited appeal. By all means give them a look if you stumble upon them but I wouldn't necessarily recommend tracking them down.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Angels in the Outfield (1994)

Angels in the Outfield (Dir: William Dear, 1994).

Walt Disney animation was enjoying a long awaited renaissance in the 1990s, with features such as Beauty and the Beast (Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise, 1991) and Aladdin (Ron Clements & John Musker, 1993) achieving popular and critical success on a scale little seen since the golden age of the 1930s/40s. Over at Disney's live-action department it was a different story. Formulaic comedy and kid's sports movies dominated a release schedule only occasionally punctuated by big hits such as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (Joe Johnston, 1989) and Cool Runnings (Jon Turteltaub, 1993). Fantasy baseball movie Angels in the Outfield was the studios' attempt to hit a home run in the busy summer blockbuster season of 1994. 

With his mother dead, young Roger (Joseph Gorden Levitt) is already residing in a foster care home when estranged dad (Dermot Mulroney) tells the boy they will only be a family again when no-hoper baseball team the Angels win the pennant. Roger's prayers are answered when a group of angels, lead by Christopher Lloyd, intervene to secure the team their most successful season. Team manager George Knox (Danny Glover), while skeptical about the heavenly help, befriends the kid, becoming a surrogate father of sorts to the abandoned boy. No spoilers are necessary in this review, as the movie's outcome is obvious long before the final inning.   

A remake of a vintage MGM production, also titled Angels in the Outfield (Clarence Brown, 1951), Disney's take adds kid appeal by way of an extra dollop of saccharine, making an already sticky concept even gooier. Indeed, the combination of angels, orphans and cloying sentiment is a little hard to swallow and may leave a lump in your throat for the wrong reasons. The cliches come quicker than a fastball in a movie photographed through a soft-lens golden hue as if it were perpetual sundown, while some laboured comedy and a predictable plot would have seemed out of date when the original version was released. 

What makes the picture watchable is the surprisingly starry cast. Pre-stardom Joseph Gordon Levitt, Adrien Brody and Matthew McConaughey appear alongside veterans Danny Glover, Brenda Fricker, Christopher Lloyd and Ben Johnson. TV sitcom star Tony Danza contributes a sensitive performance as a washed-up ballplayer while, as the beleaguered boss, Glover invests an earnestness into his performance that the picture really doesn't deserve.  

The fantasy baseball movie had become something a sub-genre of its own by the mid '90s; in the previous decade both The Natural (Barry Levinson, 1984) and Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson, 1989) achieved considerable artistic and commercial success. While a moderate box office hit, Angels in the Outfield was almost universally panned by critics and three decades later is an almost entirely forgotten entry in the Walt Disney Pictures canon. It did, however, spawn a mini-franchise of sorts, with sequels Angles in the Endzone (Gary Nadeau, 1997) and Angles in the Infield (Robert King, 2000) debuting on ABC's The Wonderful World of Disney television series. 

With an unexpected subject matter from a company that largely avoids spiritual symbolism in its product, the movie is, perhaps tellingly, one of only a few 90's Disney movies yet to make it to the Disney+ streaming service.  Its talented cast means that Angels... is not entirely unwatchable and it has a undeniable weird appeal. Check it out if you must, but be wary that a strong stomach is needed to digest all that sugary sentiment.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Battleship Potemkin (Dir: S M Eisenstein, 1925).

A hack like me is nowhere near good enough a writer to properly do justice to Sergei Eisenstein's epic of silent cinema, 
Battleship Potemkin. Besides which, so much has already been written on the subject that it would be virtually impossible to bring anything new to the discussion. However, since I proclaim to be a movie reviewer, I would be failing my own craft not to at least give it a go. 

Battleship Potemkin is a dramatic reconstruction of the mutiny of the Imperial Russian Navy ship Potemkin and events surrounding the 1905 Russian Revolution. Commissioned by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the incident, the movie is an early example of film as political propaganda. So powerful was director Eisenstein's film that it was banned by governments, including the UK, in fear of evoking similar protests among the proletariat. 

To claim Battleship Potemkin is possibly the most influential movie of all time is no exaggeration. Through use of dramatic editing, Eisenstein pioneered the technique of montage most notable in the scenes of maggoty meat, the much imitated Odessa steps sequence and, my personal favourite, the symbolic awakening stone lion. 

Almost a century after its initial release, Battleship Potemkin is still an incredibly powerful piece of movie making. The juxtaposing of images to create dramatic tension feels palpably modernist and literally changed film editing forever. Pioneering the docu-drama before the term 'documentary' had been coined; its influence on the British film industry and the subsequent realist movement is immeasurable. 

Battleship Potemkin arguably rivals the likes of Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) and Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) for the title of Greatest Movie Ever Made. It is a monumental motion picture that should be cornerstone viewing for those with even the slightest interest in film. If you have seen it, you know what I am talking about. If you haven't I recommend you cancel all further engagements and watch it immediately. Once you have done that I suggest you seek out the writings of a proper film historian who can offer an appropriate appraisal of this masterpiece.