Saturday, May 10, 2014

Number 17

Year 6, Day 130 - 5/10/14 - Movie #1,728

BEFORE: Because this film is so short (just over 1 hour) I'm pulling a double today.  This will not only help reduce my watchlist by 1 (current total: 190) but also, when combined with next Saturday's double-feature, should allow me to reach movie #1,800 just before my annual Comic-Con trip.  I blocked this all out on a calendar in a way which pleases me.  Linking from "East of Shanghai", Percy Marmont was also in a 1930 film titled "The Squeaker" with Anne Grey.

THE PLOT: A gang of thieves gather at a safe house following a robbery, but a detective is on their trail.

AFTER: This is a large leap back to the type of suspenseful intrigue films that Hitchcock was destined to make - after making mediocre sports films, family dramas and romantic comedies.  But he was still working all the bugs out of the process, I think.  There are way too many similarly shady characters here, most of them dress alike and it's hard to keep them all straight.  Maybe they're all part of a criminal gang that agreed to wear fedoras and overcoats, it's tough to say. 

The plan seemed to be for everyone to meet up at this house after a jewel heist, collect the loot and then ride on a freight train to Germany (a convenient wall poster late in the film informs the audience that a service exists where a ferry transports a whole train, rather than the individual freight cars). 

Wouldn't you know it, this turns out to be the exact night that 4 random unconnected strangers also decide to explore that house (No. 17 on the block) to, umm, see if there's anything interesting inside?  Again, Hitchcock seems to be missing motives, there's just no reason given for some of the characters to be there.  OK, one's probably a detective, I'll give you that one, but what about the others?  Yes, the house is for sale, but people rarely come to view a property after midnight - maybe things are done differently in London?

Plus, where did the dead body come from?  And after it disappeared, where did it go?  This is a giant loose end that never got tied up.  I demand an explanation. 

It doesn't help that the set appears to have been very poorly miked.  The sound (or the sound mix) is just horrible.  This adds to the confusion over who everyone is and what they're all doing there.  The middle part of the film is rather repetitive, with people fighting, getting tied up, managing to get loose and then fighting again. 

The climactic chase scene on that freight train heading for the docks picks the film up a little, especially since the detective commandeers a bus and parallel editing informs us that the two vehicles are bound to meet up.  But the train and bus are SO obviously miniature models, it's hard to take this action sequence seriously when they keep cutting to long shots of a little toy train.

Also starring John Stuart, Leon M. Lion, Barry Jones, Garry Marsh, Ann Casson, Henry Caine.
RATING: 4 out of 10 sausages

East of Shanghai

Year 6, Day 130 - 5/10/14 - Movie #1,727

BEFORE: This is the 2nd of the Hitchcock films released under two titles - the IMDB calls this one "East of Shanghai", so that's what I'm calling it.  The original UK title was "Rich and Strange", which comes from a passage from Shakespeare's "The Tempest".  Linking from "The Skin Game", John Longden was also in another Hitchcock film, "Young and Innocent", with Percy Marmont, who appears in this one.  (Hitchcock, however, does not.)

THE PLOT: Believing that an unexpected inheritance will bring them happiness, a married couple instead finds their relationship strained to the breaking point.

AFTER: This seems like Hitch's attempt at a romantic comedy, but I just don't think he had the mental software for it.  The plot concerns a couple who inherit money from a relative who is still alive - I'm not sure why this is mentioned so prominently, the relative never appears so why does it matter if he is deceased or not?  Perhaps because Hitchcock used the "dead relative" gambit in "Juno and the Paycock", and didn't want to repeat himself, but people inherit money from dead relatives all the time, right?  And people inherit money from living relatives, like, almost never.

The couple heads straight for Paris, and are shocked by what they see at the Folies Bergere - my guess is a certain director wanted to see this, too.  Then they decide to take a cruise around the world - Port Said, Jakarta, Colombo and finally somewhere east of Shanghai, I'm guessing.  Emily, the wife, is a typical Hitchcock heroine - meaning that 5 minutes after her husband is laid up in bed with seasickness, she's spending time with another man.  For once, however, a husband is just as unfaithful, for when he recovers from his illness, he falls in love with a princess who happens to be on board.  Because princesses often travel on ships with commoners, they don't have their own ships or anything like that. 

By the time they reach Singapore,  the marriage is essentially dissolved, but one contrivance after another manages to put them together again.  Because the healthiest marriages are formed by two people who have run out of other options.  They're left with only enough money to book passage back to England on a tramp steamer.  This is another ill-fated decision, because the steamer manages to ram into another ship and starts to sink. 

The manner in which they manage to survive and return to London is even more contrived than what has gone before.  Fans of 1970's TV may remember that every episode of "The Love Boat" was legally obliged to carry very small print in the closing credits that read, "based on a film by Alfred Hitchcock".  Same goes for all of those Benny Hill sketches where he was surrounded by beautiful women and kept trying to avoid ending up with the old maid.

Also starring Henry Kendall, Joan Barry (last seen in "Blackmail"), Betty Amann, Elsie Randolph

RATING: 4 out of 10 rickshaws

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Skin Game

Year 6, Day 129 - 5/9/14 - Movie #1,726

BEFORE: Ah, this sounds more promising - skin!  No doubt this is about the seamy underside of 1930's sex clubs, or some early look at striptease artists or burlesque performers, right?  Wait, it's about land rights?  Ugh, this is going to be another tough one.   Linking from "Murder!", Phyllis Konstam carries over.

THE PLOT:  An old traditional family and a modern family battle over land in a small English village and almost destroy each other.

AFTER: I'm now about 1/5 of the way through Hitchcock's filmography, and I can state plainly that this last 10 days has been the toughest stretch I've endured yet, for the reasons I've stated before.  Who knew that Hitch made so many stuffy family dramas about British people, both rich and poor?

In a way, these films defy everything I've been told about the films of the 1930's.  My understanding was that during the Depression, people wanted to escape their troubles, so they would prefer to see films about rich people having a good time - so why did Hitchcock make films that focused on people who were dirt-poor, like in "The Shame of Mary Boyle", and also people who were working-class, like this one?  Did this somehow make regular people feel better, to see characters worse off than themselves?  It just doesn't make sense.

It turns out that a "skin game" is slang for any dishonest business operation, or any swindle or trick.  That would have been nice to know before getting involved with this one.  There's another swindle relating to one of the character's pasts, but it's another one of those things so racy that it can't be discussed within the film - again I had to check a film's Wikipedia page to determine what the dark secret was in a woman's history.  Curses again on the production code.

NITPICK POINT: I've seen enough episodes of "Storage Wars" to understand a bit about how auctions are supposed to work.  When someone bids by silently nodding his head or raising a finger, he's clearly trying to remain anonymous.  When the auctioneer portrayed here thanks each bidder by name, he doesn't seem to understand the procedure.

NITPICK POINT #2: So, if you tell a lie to someone about someone else's lie, instead of telling them a truth that is much worse, that's OK?  And the lie will be discounted, because it's a lie of course, and easily disproven, but you still have not told them the truth!  That's what we call a lie of omission, and it's still a lie.

Also starring Edmund Gwenn, John Longden (last seen in "The Shame of Mary Boyle"), Frank Lawton, C.V. France, Helen Haye, Jill Esmond, R.E. Jeffrey (also last seen in "Murder!"), Edward Chapman (ditto).

RATING:  3 out of 10 headaches

Thursday, May 8, 2014


Year 6, Day 128 - 5/8/14 - Movie #1,725

BEFORE: I'm still waiting for this chain to get really good - I guess the good stuff doesn't kick in until I reach "The 39 Steps" or maybe "The Man Who Knew Too Much".  If I have to wait for "Vertigo" for things to pick up, then I'll be very disappointed.

Linking from "The Shame of Mary Boyle", Edward Chapman carries over.  I swear I didn't know that Hitchcock kept using the same actors again and again - I figured I'd have to link via the director's frequent cameos.

THE PLOT:  A juror in a murder trial, after voting to convict, has second thoughts and begins to investigate on his own before the execution.

AFTER:  I feel like maybe I'm getting close to a real crime story at last - but there are still some serious issues here.  Like the fact that a juror on a case knew one of the defendants - that alone should have been enough to have him eliminated from the jury pool.  Isn't that one of the first questions that an attorney would ask, to make sure that the jurors are not prejudiced?

Then we've got the fact that this juror, who got railroaded, sort of "Twelve Angry Men" style, into declaring the defendant guilty, would then take it upon himself to investigate the crime after the trial.  Especially since he's an actor, not a detective.  But supposedly he understands the world of actors and what goes on behind the scenes, even if he can't talk about it on film.  Damn you, production code!

I've gotten a sampling over the last few days over the sort of things that couldn't be discussed on film, like attempted rape and pregnancy outside of marriage.  Sometimes you could SHOW these things on film, but the characters couldn't talk about it, which is a strange place to draw the line.  Tonight's film is affected by this, because we get a crime without a motive.  Initially the woman accused of murder doesn't remember what took place, then we get a feeling that she might be protecting someone, for a reason that can't be discussed.

Even when it's revealed, I'm not sure I understand it - it's got something to do with racial backgrounds and possibly sexual ambiguity, but no one is able to state it outright.  So, what, cross-dressing?  Homosexuality?  What was going on in that apartment before the murder, and why can't I know about it?

I hate to think of all the criminals who weren't prosecuted in the 1930's because the police were so sensitive to social standings that they didn't feel comfortable asking people questions about their freaky-deaky personal lives.  Maybe I'm just too used to "Law & Order: SVU".

Supposedly this film features the first time on film where you see a character thinking and you hear his thoughts.  Of course, this is a mainstay now - but back then they didn't have post-production dubbing, so the scene had to be shot with a recording of the actor's voice playing on the set.  I guess that's one way to do it.

Also starring Herbert Marshall, Norah Baring, Phyllis Konstam (last seen in "Blackmail"), Esme Percy, Una O'Connor (last seen in "Witness for the Prosecution")

RATING: 4 out of 10 stage cues

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Shame of Mary Boyle

Year 6, Day 127 - 5/7/14 - Movie #1,724

BEFORE:  This is one of three Alfred Hitchcock films that seems to have been released under two different titles.  I'm trying to determine if that was for U.S. vs. foreign release, or what.  In the U.K. this was released as "Juno and the Paycock", since it was based on a famous story of the same name, written by Sean O'Casey.  Perhaps the distributor didn't feel that American audiences would know what a "paycock" was.  I'm not sure I do either, and I remember reading this story in college.  

I'm going to use the title that the IMDB uses - the bad news is that these three Hitchcock films with two titles caused some confusion, but on the upside, hey, that's three fewer films I need to watch. Linking from "Blackmail", Sara Allgood carries over.

During the Irish revolution, a family earns a big inheritance. They start leading a rich life forgetting what the most important values are.

AFTER: Well, I had a major setback tonight in trying to watch this film, and it's all about the thick Irish accents.  Usually with thick British accents I struggle for about 15 minutes, and then my brain somehow adapts and I'm able to understand most of what I hear.  But the really tough Irish brogue?  My brain was never able to adapt, the understanding never kicked in, so most of the time I was left wondering what the heck the characters were saying.  Again I had to watch the film with the Wikipedia plot summary in a browser so I could pick up on the plot points. 

It's odd that shortly after Hitchcock starting making films with sound that he'd make one where so many of the characters are nearly impossible to understand.  This is what I'm able to understand of the plot: a "paycock" is sort of like a peacock, which is what Juno calls her husband because he's vain like one and can't (or won't) work.  Also, collectively a lot of bad stuff happens to Irish people - like they're all out of work or on strike or fighting in a civil war, all at the same time.  

Things get (briefly) better when the family in question gets news of an inheritance from a deceased relative.  So they go on a spending spree, getting all new furniture and a gramaphone, and then throwing a big party - but eventually they learn that there was a mistake made on the will, and as cousins they weren't named directly, so the relative's second and third cousins have all shown up to claim their parts of the inheritance.  Soon the bills on the new furniture will be due and the creditors will start showing up...

Meanwhile the daughter's being courted by one man, but then dumps him for another.  (There's that lack of faithfulness that Hitchcock believed young women always displayed again...)  In a massive contrivance, her new man is also the lawyer who brings the news of the inheritance.  Wouldn't you know she gets pregnant (shades of "The Manxman") and her new lover takes off, and her old lover won't take her back in her new condition.  

Is there a point to all this family struggle and Irish strife, other than to prove that there is no God?  Damn, it's all so depressing, doesn't anything good ever happen to these people?  Are we supposed to take delight in all of their misery, or just be thankful that all this isn't happening to us?

Also starring Barry Fitzgerald (last seen in "Bringing Up Baby"), Kathleen O'Regan, John Laurie, Edward Chapman, Maire O'Neill, Sidney Morgan, John Longden (also last seen in "Blackmail"), Dennis Wyndham.

RATING:  3 out of 10 sausages

Tuesday, May 6, 2014


Year 6, Day 126 - 5/6/14 - Movie #1,723

BEFORE: Linking from "The Manxman", Anny Ondra carries over.

THE PLOT:  Alice White is the daughter of a London shopkeeper. Her boyfriend, Frank Webber, is a Scotland Yard detective who seems more interested in police work than in her. Frank takes Alice out one night, but she has secretly arranged to meet another man.

AFTER: Although it's somewhat fascinating to see the results of the first stabs at using this new "sound" technology, what was created here was something of an anomaly - a film that was created as a silent, but released with sound.  It feels a bit like the technology came into Hitchcock's hands about halfway through, so some scenes have recorded dialogue, and others don't.

Thanks to the dispensing of written dialogue cards, I therefore had to watch the film on a computer, with a browser open to the plot posted on Wikipedia, just so I could keep up with what's going on.  The other result of this "half-talkie" approach is that the story feels sort of half-formed - a couple in a tea house has an argument, and he storms out.  What were they arguing about?  I guess it's not important after all.

The opening scenes, with a Scotland Yard detective arresting a suspect at his home, turn out to be almost completely disconnected from the rest of the plot.  This sequence only serves to introduce the detective character, who is dating a woman who's also dating another man - there's that great Hitchcock portayal of unfaithful women again.

NITPICK POINT: Detectives usually knock on the door quite loudly or perhaps barge in, but I kind of doubt they'd open the door silently and just stand there for a while.  Maybe this is how it was done in London in the 1920's, but I doubt it.

It's good to see Hitchcock turn back to the thriller genre, following up his first attempt with "The Lodger", because he stayed in this groove for most of his career, I believe.  You can see the first appearances here of what (I'm assuming) became Hitchcock mainstays - shady characters, a situation that leads to a murder, the voyeurism of a camera catching a woman undressing.

The subtle message here is that if you're a woman in the 1920's who's dating more than one fellow, you practically deserve to get raped. What's less clear is whether such a woman should be treated worse by society if she gets raped, or if she kills her attacker in self-defense.  Seems like society is going to shun her either way - so women didn't seem to have a whole lot of options.

The key confrontation scene between the detective, the murderer and the blackmailer is full of jump cuts - one can imagine the actors conversationally improvising their way into a corner, and then waiting for some indication from the director how to move forward from the standoff.  Maybe they had to break for lunch while Hitchcock devised the next level of the conflict.

Speaking of blackmail and murder, I've managed to stay current on that new show "Fargo", where Billy Bob Thornton is just killing it, literally and figuratively.  It's got some promise, though some fans of the movie say it just doesn't hold up, I'm enjoying it.  It's clever and twisty and dark and comic all at the same time.

Also starring John Longden, Cyril Ritchard, Donald Calthrop, Sara Allgood, Charles Paton.

RATING:  4 out of 10 Corona cigars

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Manxman

Year 6, Day 125 - 5/5/14 - Movie #1,722

BEFORE: Tonight is the last of Hitch's silent films, and not a moment too soon.  I think the man's entire body of work is important - out of 50 films no less that 17 of them are on that list of "1,001 Movies to See Before You Die", so this chain will represent some great progress on that front.  But man, it has not been easy getting through these early works.

Finally, though, we see some evidence that Hitchcock was years ahead of his time.  In this film (I'm assuming) a man gets bitten by a radioactive Manx, and gains the proportionate speed and agility of a tailless housecat.  What else could it be?

Linking from "Champagne", Gordon Harker was also in "The Ring" with Carl Brisson.  What goes around, comes around.

THE PLOT: A fisherman and a rising young lawyer, who grew up as brothers, fall in love with the same girl.

AFTER: Oopsie, it turns out that a Manxman is just a regular person from the Isle of Man.  It's another relationship film tonight, and another love triangle.  Hitchcock's women just can't seem to stay faithful to one man, can they?  In this case Kate promises herself to Pete, a fisherman, who first must go off to Africa to seek his fortune.  Which seems a little odd, since the film is set in a fishing village - why can't he just work a little harder and make his fortune close to home? 

But let's assume it's one of those "Deadliest Catch" situations, where he has to travel far from home to make the big bucks, but it's also a very dangerous prospect.  In fact Pete is believed dead when his ship goes down, so his girl Kate believes herself free to give her heart (and other body parts) to Philip.  Philip happens to be Pete's best friend, and was entrusted with looking after her in Pete's absence.

This would only be a problem if the news about Pete's death was incorrect, and he survived somehow.  Umm, guess what?  He comes back to marry Kate and neither she nor Philip have the heart to tell him about their relationship.  Besides, Philip is on track to become the island's Deemster, which isn't as strange as it sounds, it's some kind of chief magistrate. 

And about the only thing that could prevent him from obtaining this lofty position would be if a married woman were still in love with him, and there was a possibility that he was the father of her baby, and...well, you get the idea.  This is all pretty standard soap-opera fare nowadays, but I'm guessing that back in 1929 this was a whole lot more scandalous.  Affairs and babies born out of wedlock and paternity tests were all seen as immoralities, and none of this behavior was encouraged in proper society. 

NITPICK POINT: Much is made at the start of the film about the fisherman's petition against steam trawlers.  But this story thread never even gets followed up on.  What's wrong with steam trawlers, why is everyone so upset about them?  Did the petition work or not?  It seems once the film starts to focus on the love triangle, this plotline goes right out the window.   Err, porthole.

Also starring Malcolm Keen (last seen in "The Lodger"), Anny Ondra, Randle Ayrton

RATING: 4 out of 10 powdered wigs

Sunday, May 4, 2014


Year 6, Day 124 - 5/4/14 - Movie #1,721

BEFORE: It's Star Wars Day again, and if you have to ask why it's today, then you just don't get it.  I've got a heavy heart after hearing the news about the direction the franchise is heading in.  You might think I'd be super-stoked about the upcoming Episode Seven - geez, at one point it looked like the perfect way to end this crazy movie-watching process, but now I just don't know.  I've been a consumer of all things Star Wars since I was 9 years old - t-shirts, bedsheets, action figures, comic books, cookie jars, autographs and most recently, collectible flash-drives.  But let's focus on books for a second. 

There's this thing called the "Expanded Universe" - fiction written by other authors, with the consent of Lucasfilm (that bit is important) that takes place before, after, and occasionally even during, the action you see in the movies.  How did the Jedi order start, thousands of years ago?  How did Boba Fett become such a bad-ass bounty hunter?  What did Luke Skywalker do after "Return of the Jedi" to get the Jedi Order going again?  Did Han and Leia ever settle down and raise younglings?   All of these questions and more have been explored by numerous authors in books and comics, and I've bought them all, or as many as I could.  I may be outside the desired demographic now, but I've got disposable income.

Now word comes out from the companies involved that from this point on, the movie stories and the book stories will work together in synergistic fashion.  (Funny, I thought that was the way they were working before...)  When you read between the lines, this means that instead of cherry-picking the best story elements from the Expanded Universe, they're choosing to wipe the slate clean and make sure that the new E.U. is what the new caretakers want it to be - so many of the stories I bought will now no longer have happened.  They're going the way of Spider-Man's marriage and the old Star Trek universe.

To me, this is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  A lot of creative people worked hard on those stories, and a lot of fans worked hard to earn the money to buy them.  Look, it's a big universe - it's even fictional, so it's as big as you want it to be.  And if you didn't want people playing in your sandbox, you should never have given them pails and shovels.  Not only does it show a lack of respect, but it makes it seem like there's no one properly minding the store.  Why couldn't the new films work around the continuity that's already been established?  For the same reason that "Man of Steel" chose to ignore "Superman III", I suppose - but that film sucked, and the Star Wars E.U. is really good!

For further information, I refer you to track #11 on Patton Oswalt's comedy CD "Werewolves and Lollipops", which is titled "At Midnight, I Will Kill George Lucas With a Shovel".  Yes, I know Lucas sold his franchise to Disney, so just replace his name with "J.J. Abrams" and all the times Patton says "prequels" to "Episode 7", and you'll see where my head is at.

These Hitchcock films do have a bit of a "Star Wars" connection - they were filmed at Elstree Studios in London, and every SW fan should know that's where much of the original trilogy was filmed.  Linking from "Easy Virtue", Ian Hunter was also in a 1930 film titled "Escape!" with Gordon Harker (last seen in "The Farmer's Wife")

THE PLOT: A spoiled heiress defies her father by running off to marry her lover. But Daddy has a few tricks up his sleeve.

AFTER: Well, it's clear now that Hitchcock started focusing on the suspense genre after he tried darn near every other possible form of storytelling.  He's still in his romance phase here, and honestly the guy's got about as much right making a romantic comedy as Woody Allen had to make a sci-fi time travel film.

Actually, the Woody Allen comparison is fairly valid, because there's a fair amount of mistaken identity here, such as one might see in, say, "Broadway Danny Rose", it's about the relationships of the idle rich, as seen in films like "Alice" (and, umm, all of them), and it's set in the 1920's, like "Radio Days" and others.  Gee, I wonder if Woody ever was inspired by this film, despite the fact that I can't think of two filmmakers who are more disparate.

This free-thinking flapper girl runs off to be on a cruise with her boyfriend - we don't see it, but she flies in Daddy's plane to crash near the ocean liner, which is not a recommended way to board a ship.  Despite the warnings that the boyfriend is a gold-digger (that's a bit of a switch) she meets up with him anyway, leading her father to pretend to have lost his fortune in the stock market crash.  (Ha! What a wacky mix-up!)

There's also a mystery man on the cruise, and he's still around after the trip is over.  The Girl is forced to sell her jewelry and work in a restaurant before the ruse is uncovered, so I can't imagine why she gets so upset.  Ha ha!  We are still rich, and I made you get a thankless, tiring job just to teach you a lesson!  Isn't it great that we can all laugh about it now?  Um, no. 

NITPICK POINT: The film depicts life on a cruise-ship, and yes, it's usually a few days before the passengers get their "sea legs".  But when the ship leans to the right, the passengers and crew here are depicted leaning further to the right in response.  (This is what they did on the original "Star Trek" when they tilted the camera to make it look like the bridge took a hit...)  However, if people did this on an actual cruise ship, they would fall over.  If a ship leans to the right, the correct human passenger response is to lean to the left, in order to maintain some form of balance.  It's instinctual after a while.

Also starring Betty Balfour, Jean Bradin, Ferdinand von Alten.

RATING:  4 out of 10 handwritten notes