Murderous mystery menaces the moors


Released 31 March 1939, the 20th Century Fox adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous novel The Hound of the Baskervilles (published August 1901–April 1902) is widely regarded as one of the best of the many film versions. This was the dozenth time the story was brought to the silver screen (ninth if one counts the four-part 1914 German serial as one).

This, the third sound version of the tale, was the first of fourteen Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock and Watson, respectively. Since the studio wasn’t sure how well people would receive a Sherlock Holmes film, they gave top billing to matinée idol Richard Greene (Sir Henry Baskerville).

The film is also notable as one of the first Sherlock Holmes films to feature an authentic Victorian setting. All previous known screen adaptations updated their settings to contemporary times. Unfortunately, after Universal Studios acquired the rights in 1942, the stories were moved to the current era and became little more than loose adaptations.

The murderous mystery starts when Sir Charles Baskerville runs away from a demonic hound in terror and drops dead of a supposed heart attack on the moor. He’s pursued by someone who looks like a loonybin escapee. After Sir Charles deceases himself, the madman steals his pocketwatch and runs away.

Sir Charles’s friend Dr. James Mortimer testifies before authorities that this was a heart attack, without any evidence of assault. This pleases all the locals except curmudgeonly conspiracy theorist Mr. Frankland, who’s convinced Sir Charles was murdered.

Dr. Mortimer visits Sherlock and Watson prior to Sir Henry’s arrival in London, very worried about what might befall Sir Henry at Baskerville Hall. He confesses there’s a family curse, and reads an old story about Sir Hugo Baskerville to prove it. Ever since that ill-fated patriarch met his end in 1650, all Baskervilles have been killed by demonic hounds.

Sherlock thinks this is a load of superstitious nonsense, but Dr. Mortimer continues with the bold claim that Sir Charles was murdered. He didn’t voice these suspicions at the medical inquiry because he was afraid of the consequences. Though Sir Charles technically did die of heart failure, his face was contorted in terror. There were also the footprints of a huge hound and a second person nearby.

Sir Henry insists on going to Baskerville Hall despite the warning, though not before several suspicious happenings in London. One of his new boots goes missing when he leaves it outside his hotel door for buffing, and then someone in a carriage tries to shoot him at night. Back at the hotel, Henry’s boot reappears, but now another boot is missing.

None of this deters Sir Henry from claiming his ancestral estate, not even the ransom note that’s thrown through his carriage window. To keep an eye on the situation, Watson accompanies him. Sherlock claims he’s too busy to assist in the investigation.

The moor is alive with creepiness and mysterious events, each more spine-chilling than the last—strange disappearing lights, eerie howling, fog, quicksand, rocks, odd characters, people falling to their deaths. Throughout it all, Sir Henry maintains his composure and doesn’t seem cognizant of the danger he may be in.

Predictably, Sir Henry falls in instalove with the first young woman he meets, Beryl Stapleton (Wendy Barrie), the stepsister of his neighbour Jack. In the blink of an eye, they’re engaged.

The longer Sir Henry stays at Baskerville Hall, the creepier and more menacing the situation becomes, and everyone seems like a suspect. The plot thickens when Sherlock reveals himself to Watson and says he’s been in the area the whole time.

Based on his investigation, Sherlock believes murder is about to be committed, but he’s not sure who either the victim or murderer will be. Solving this terrifying mystery before another body turns up will be a very dangerous game.

And all the while, that mysterious howling stalks the moor.

The Wizard of Oz at 80, Part III (Reception and legacy)


Though The Wizard of Oz was very popular and successful upon its August 1939 release, it nevertheless only earned $3,017,000 ($55,688,827 today) on a $2,777,000 budget ($51,258,824 today) which didn’t include promotional costs. That added up to a loss of $1,145,000. The film didn’t make a profit for MGM till its 1949 rerelease, when it earned $1.5 million ($16 million today).

Prior to the 25 August 1939 general release, it had a sneak preview in San Bernardino, California, followed by test market previews in Dennis, Massachusetts (where I’ve visited many times) and Kenosha, Wisconsin on 11 August and Oconomowoc, Wisconsin on 12 August. Its Hollywood première was at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on 15 August. The NYC première followed on 17 August at Loew’s Capitol Theatre.

Critical reviews were overwhelmingly glowing, though there were some naysayers. Russell Maloney of The New Yorker lambasted it as “a stinkeroo,” and Otis Ferguson of The New Republic said “it weighs like a pound of fruitcake soaking wet.” Some moviegoers also thought 16-year-old Judy Garland was a bit too old to convincingly play Dorothy.

Regardless of these minority opinions, The Wizard of Oz came in seventh on Film Daily‘s nationwide year-end poll of 542 critics.

The film was nominated for six Academies, and won for its score and the song “Over the Rainbow.” Judy Garland won an honorary Academy Juvenile Award.

On 3 November 1956, The Wizard of Oz became the first Hollywood film shown without commercial breaks in prime time on a national U.S. TV network, as part of the last program in the about-to-be-cancelled series Ford Star Jubilee on CBS. Most people in that era only had B&W televisions, however, so they were unable to see the film as it was intended.

CBS earned $225,000 for the broadcast, which was a big success. When they showed it again on 13 December 1959, even more people tuned in. From then on, it became an annual tradition.

The Wizard of Oz is possibly the most famous and beloved film to be regularly shown on U.S. television.

The film was one of the 25 inaugural inductees to the National Film Registry in 1989, and is one of only a dozen films on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.

The Wizard of Oz has had many theatrical rereleases since its first triumphant one in 1949, and has always been among the very first films on various home media formats (VHS, DVD, laserdisc, CED, Blu-ray, 8 mm film).

Over the last eighty years, countless critics have continued lauding the film, and it always shows up on those incessant best-of lists. Salman Rushdie cites it as his inspiration for becoming a writer. Innumerable TV shows, films, cartoons, books, songs, and music videos have referenced it.

One of the film’s most famous icons, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, were silver in the book, but MGM changed them for the sake of making more impact in Technicolor. The studio’s chief costume designer, Adrian, created their final form.

The Wizard of Oz at 80, Part II (Behind the scenes)


MGM bought film rights to L. Frank Baum’s very popular 1900 children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in January 1938, after seeing the stunning success of Snow White. Some people had assumed films based on fairytales and kids’ stories were no longer salable, but Snow White showed that was far from accurate.

Several different writers were brought on board before the final polished product was approved. In William H. Cannon’s initial 4-page outline, the fantasy elements were significantly toned down in response to fantasy films not being popular lately. His version strongly resembled Larry Semon‘s hideous 1925 version, without any magic.

Multiple other writers simultaneously wrote their own independent scripts, which was common practice at the time. After countless rewrites, it was finally finished on 8 October 1938. The majority of people who’d worked on the script got no screen credit.

According to an oft-repeated story, Shirley Temple was considered for the part of Dorothy. What a radically different film this would’ve been had she and not Judy Garland gotten the part! The film probably would’ve been a lot cutesier and not have aged so well. Deanna Durbin was also considered for the part.

Ray Bolger was cast as the Tin Man and Buddy Ebsen as the Scarecrow, but Bolger most wanted to play the Scarecrow because his childhood idol, Fred Stone, had played that role onstage in 1902 and inspired him to enter vaudeville. Producer Mervyn LeRoy amiably agreed to let them switch roles.

Sadly, Ebsen had to leave production because he had severe allergic reactions to the aluminum dust in his makeup, resulting in a long hospital stay. Typical of the era, he was forced to keep working through this serious health crisis. TPTB didn’t believe he was ill until an irate nurse interceded when Ebsen was forced back to work.

When Jack Haley took over the Tin Man role, the makeup changed to aluminum paste. Ebsen suffered breathing problems for the rest of his life.

W.C. Fields was originally slated to play the Wizard, but studio execs lost patience negotiating his salary. Wallace Beery then requested the role, but the studio refused to let him take so much time off from making other films. Frank Morgan was finally chosen for the part.

Gale Sondergaard was the original Wicked Witch of the West, but was displeased when the character took a turn from sly and glamorous to the typical ugly hag. Her replacement, Margaret Hamilton, suffered from more than just ugly makeup. During the second take of her departure from Munchkinland in a column of fire, she suffered second-degree burns on her face and third-degree burns on her hand.

She was in hospital and recuperating at home for six weeks. After her return, she refused to do any other scenes with fire.

During her recuperation, her stunt double and stand-in, Betty Danko, had another fiery accident. A smoking pipe meant to resemble a broomstick exploded during the third take. She spent eleven days in hospital, and her legs were permanently injured. When studio execs called, her doctor gave them a piece of his mind and said if she were smart, she wouldn’t return to work for them.

Aline Goodwin, the next stand-in, completed that scene.

Remarkably, the song “Over the Rainbow” was almost one of the many things which was cut. MGM thought the Kansas portion was already too long and not so geared towards kids, their target audience. They also thought it degrading for Judy Garland to sing in a barnyard.

The song later won Academy Award for Best Song of the Year.

One song that was deleted was “The Jitterbug,” where Dorothy has a sing-off against an Oz princess (intended to be played by Betty Jaynes) who’s outlawed all forms of music. To cut the running time, this scene and song were left on the cutting room floor, never making it to the camera.

Another never-filmed scene featured Dorothy promising Kansan Hunk (the Scarecrow) she’ll write to him while he’s away at agricultural college. This was meant to explain why Dorothy’s more partial to the Scarecrow than her other two friends.

Given all the problems plaguing production, and how long it took to hammer out the final script, it’s a wonder this film went on to such massive success!

The Wizard of Oz at 80, Part I (General overview)


Released 25 August 1939, The Wizard of Oz is almost universally considered one of the greatest films of all time. Has anyone not seen this film at least once?! Giving a plot summary seems almost pointless, since everyone’s familiar with it! The Library of Congress says it’s the most-viewed film in history.

The film came out in what many historians and laypeople alike consider Hollywood’s all-time greatest year. So many classic films débuted in 1939. I’d rate 1927 as the next-greatest year for film.

L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been adapted to the silver screen 23 times since 1908, including films about side characters, parodies, sequels, cartoons, and loose adaptations. The most famous is the seventh version discussed here.

The film is famous for starting in black and white, shifting to Technicolor, and ending in B&W. It shows the two artistic modes of filmmaking can exist side-by-side harmoniously, just as many films in the late Twenties (and in some countries into the Thirties) wonderfully blended both silent and sound storytelling.

Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) and her little dog Toto (a female Cairn Terrier named Terry) live in rural Kansas with Dorothy’s Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. Trouble starts when busybody neighbour Almira Gulch complains Toto bit her and gets an order from the sheriff to have Toto euthanised.

Dorothy, bound and determined to protect her furry buddy, bicycles away with Toto, but he jumps out of the basket and runs back to the farm. Dorothy then decides they’ll run away. While on the run, she meets Prof. Marvel, a fortuneteller who shows her a crystal ball image of Aunt Em dying of heartache.

Dorothy, plagued by guilt, bicycles home just as a tornado hits. The storm cellar is inaccessible, so she runs to her room. Dorothy falls unconscious before the house is lifted up and starts spinning in the air.

Dorothy lands in Munchkinland, an area in the magical Land of Oz. The Munchkins and Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, greet her as a grand conquering hero, since the house landed on the Wicked Witch of the East and killed her. All that can be seen of her are her legs poking out from under the house.

The Wicked Witch of the West presently arrives to claim her sister’s ruby slippers, which Glinda magically transfers onto Dorothy’s feet. Before the Wicked Witch of the West departs in a column of fire, she furiously swears she’ll capture Dorothy, Toto, and the slippers.

Glinda tells Dorothy to follow the yellow brick road which leads to Emerald City, where she can ask the great, mighty, and powerful Wizard of Oz for help in going home.

Along the way, Dorothy meets the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), who longs for a brain; the Tin Woodsman (Jack Haley), who wants a heart; and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), who desires courage. Dorothy invites them to come with her to Emerald City so they can have their own wishes fulfilled.

Along the way, the Wicked Witch of the West puts many obstacles in their way, but their progress is never thwarted. When they finally arrive, the Wizard of Oz, who appears as a floating head surrounded by smoke and fire, promises to help them if they bring back the witch’s broomstick.

The danger intensifies when they reach the witch’s castle.

This film has more than earned its reputation as one of the greatest of all time. It’s aged so well, and can be enjoyed by people of all ages, on different levels. I also highly recommend seeing it on the big screen if you can. I saw it at a local indie theatre in March 2017.

Zhang Shichuan


My Masquerade post is here.

Zhang Shichuan (né Zhang Weitong) (1 January 1889 or 1890–8 July 1953 or 1954) was born in Ningbo’s Beilun District, Zhejiang Province. His dad, Zhang Heju, was a silkworm dealer.

Zhang was forced to leave school at sixteen when his dad passed away. He went to live with his maternal uncle, comprador Jing Runsan, in Shanghai. Owing to his uncle’s business, Zhang got a job at the American company Huayang. He studied English at night.

In 1913, Yashell and Suffert, Americans who’d taken over the Asia Film Company, asked Zhang to be their consultant. Though he hadn’t any filmmaking experience, he gamely rose to the challenge.

Zhang enlisted the help of famed playwright Zheng Zhengqiu, with whom he founded the new film company Xinmin. That same year, they produced China’s first feature, The Difficult Couple.

WWI forced Xinmin into bankruptcy, and Zhang’s aunt, newly widowed, asked him to run their family’s New World amusement park.

Zhang didn’t stay away from filmmaking for long. In 1916, when American films came to Shanghai, he founded the Huanxian company.

His new venture quickly closed, and he returned to running the amusement park. That didn’t last long either, as the park sold in 1920.

In 1922, Zhang, his old partner Zheng, and three other people founded Mingxing. From the jump, he and Zheng had quite disparate aims. Zhang wanted to make money from movies, while Zheng saw film as a catalyst for moral improvement and social reform.

Zhang (left) and Zheng (right)

Despite their juxtaposing views on the purpose of film, Mingxing films were very popular through the Twenties. Mingxing became China’s largest film company. After the 1931 invasion of Manchuria and 1932 Battle of Shanghai, Mingxing brought leftist screenwriters on board to keep up with the times.

Troubles increased when Japan occupied Shanghai (barring foreign concessions) in 1937. Mingxing was destroyed by bombs, though Zhang was able to rescue some equipment and material before relocating to the Guohua company.

The noose tightened in 1941, when Japan occupied the Shanghai International Settlement, previously under British and U.S. control, and melded Shanghai’s remaining film companies into China United. Zhang decided to work for them as a director and branch manager.

1930s entrance to Mingxing, known in English as Star Motion Picture Company

After the war ended, Zhang was accused of treason for cooperating with the Japanese occupiers. He was able to find work at Hong Kong’s Great China Film Company and Shanghai’s Datong Film Company, but his reputation never recovered.

Zhang directed about 150 films over the course of his long career, including China’s first talkie, Sing-Song Girl Red Peony (1931); the first martial arts film, The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple (1928); the oldest known Chinese film surviving in entirety, Laborer’s Love (1922); one of China’s first box office smashes, Orphan Rescues Grandfather (1923); and China’s first feature, The Difficult Couple (1913).