Posted in 1900s, Movies, Silent film

A voyage into the Sun

Released 29 October 1904, Le Voyage à Travers l’Impossible (Voyage Through the Impossible) is a sequel of sorts to director Georges Méliès’s 1902 classic Le Voyage dans la Lune. This time, the intrepid explorers and their mad scientist leader travel to the Sun. Like the former, it satirizes scientific exploration.

As some might surmise from the title, it’s partly based on Jules Verne’s 1882 fantasy play Journey Through the Impossible. Méliès loosely interpreted the concept, however, seeing as the explorers in Verne’s story travel to the centre of the Earth, a distant planet, and the bottom of the sea, not the Sun.

At 374 meters, this was Méliès’s longest film to date. Le Voyage à Travers l’Impossible was one of the most popular films in the early years of the twentieth century.

Like many other Méliès films, this too was hand-coloured. Unlike other Méliès films, however, this one appears to have no spoken narration which goes along with it. The summary is derived from his own description.

The Institute of Incoherent Geography wants to embark upon a world tour like no other, one which shall “surpass in conception and invention all previous expeditions undertaken by the learned world.” Prof. Daredevil speaks first, but his plan is soundly rejected as out of date.

Next to speak is mad engineer Mabouloff (Méliès) (called Crazyloff in English-language materials, seeing as maboul means “crackpot” and “crazy” in French). He proposes an impossible voyage taking advantage of “all the known means of locomotion—railroads, automobiles, dirigible balloons, submarine boats…”

His proposal is met with most enthusiastic approval, and the society immediately begins preparing for this crazy voyage.

The voyagers and their required equipment take a train to the Swiss Alps, where the adventure truly begins. The first proper leg of the journey transpires in Auto-Mabouloff (which kind of resembles a golf cart), which takes them through the Alps.

Sadly, the car crashes while trying to cross the summit of the Rigi. Mountaineers come to their rescue and rush them to hospital.

Upon recovering, our intrepid travellers take a train which attempts to climb a second Alpine summit, the Jungfrau. This time, they’re successful, thanks to dirigible balloons tied to the train. Their journey takes them all the way into space and eventually the Sun, where they crash-land.

The intense heat is too much to bear, and the travellers climb into an icebox they conveniently brought. All, that is, except Mabouloff, who’s horrified to presently open the icebox door and find his friends frozen in a huge ice block. Luckily, the fire he starts with help from some straw soon revives them.

Everyone relocates to their submarine, which lifts off from a solar cliff and travels back through space, finally landing in the ocean depths. After several minutes underseas, a boiler causes an explosion, and the travellers are spewed into the air.

They land at a seaport, along with the submarine wreckage, and triumphantly return to the Institute of Incoherent Geography. They’re welcomed back with a grand reception.

Méliès also filmed an optional epilogue, sold separately, which starts in Mabouloff’s study. There he’s criticised by the Institute for losing so much precious transportation equipment during this impossible voyage.

Mabouloff lays out a plan for recovering the equipment—a magnet to collect the lost car in Switzerland, the train in the Sun, and the submarine underwater. This magnet works just as proposed, and a celebratory banquet is held to laud Mabouloff.

The epilogue was believed to be lost till the 1970s, when Méliès scholar John Frazer found it in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’s archives, along with other negatives from Star Film’s New York office. Despite this, a 2008 Méliès filmography lists it as lost.

Posted in 1920s, Movies

Welcome Danger

Released 12 October 1929, Welcome Danger was the great Harold Lloyd’s first talkie. A silent version also made, for the many theatres not yet wired for sound.

While I’d give this film a solid 4 stars, it needed to be trimmed down a lot. There’s no reason this story needed to run almost two hours!

Botany student Harold Bledsoe is travelling home to San Francisco when he makes the acquaintance of Billie Lee (Barbara Kent). During a stop in Newbury, Colorado, Harold finds a double-exposed photo of the two of them, from a malfunctioning photo booth. He becomes smitten with Billie, little realising she’s the same woman who presently bangs him with a door.

There’s mechanical trouble soon after the train gets back on the road, and Harold is left behind thanks to fooling around with flowers. He then comes across Billie and her little brother Buddy, who are having car trouble. Harold is very annoyed with Billie’s incompetence, and thinks she’s a man because of her name and clothes.

Their carburetor accidentally drives off with someone who stopped to refuel them, and there’s more car trouble. They have no choice but to camp out for the night. Once again, Billie drives Harold up the wall.

Harold is stunned to finally discover Billie’s true sex when she emerges from the tent wearing a dress, her hair uncovered. He runs away in mortification, remembering how he kicked her. However, they’re soon reconciled.

Their romance isn’t long-lived, since very soon another train arrives and they must go their separate ways. After he boards the train, Harold realises he never got Billie’s surname or address.

In San Francisco, Harold is invited to work at the police station, and impresses Captain Walton (William Walling) on his first day by stopping a stickup in its tracks. He’s immediately fascinated by the forensic science of fingerprinting, and decides to fingerprint the entire station.

The other guys don’t exactly share his passion.

To get rid of Harold, the police send him on a dangerous mission to Chinatown, with the objective of catching criminal lord The Dragon.

Soon after he arrives in Chinatown, Harold happily makes the reacquaintance of Billie and causes a huge traffic jam when he jumps into her car. A cop, Patrick Clancy (awesome character actor Noah Young), chews him out, and follows him after he finally gets out of the car. During the attempted arrest, another guy knocks Clancy unconscious and makes off with his gun.

Harold, determined to help Clancy, runs after the miscreant and knocks out everyone in the building. All Chinese look alike to him, so he has no idea who the guilty party is.

Clancy is very impressed by his heroism, and changes his tune even more upon finding out his identity.

Harold buys a pot of flowers for Billie and roller-skates for Buddy. When he arrives, the famous Dr. Chang Gow (James Wang) is also there, and says his operation on Buddy’s leg has a very good chance of success.

Dr. Gow accidentally knocks over the flowerpot on his way out, revealing a little packet of opium. Harold tells him where he got the flowers, and says he stole it because the florists wouldn’t sell it.

Dr. Gow goes to confront the criminals, whom he previously voiced grave concerns about to the police, and is promptly kidnapped. While Harold is stammering his way through an attempted marriage proposal that night, the radio announces Dr. Gow was kidnapped.

Feeling Dr. Gow is the only chance to save Buddy’s leg, Harold rushes over there to try to rescue him. He soon runs across Clancy, who joins his dangerous mission.

Will they be able to rescue Dr. Gow in time?

Posted in 1930s, Movies

Anarchy at the circus

Though the Marx Brothers’ post-Irving Thalberg films get a rather bad rap, they’re really not as awful as their reputation. Certainly they’re not as polished, classic, and consistent as everything which came before, but they’re hardly the bottom of the barrel. At the Circus, released 20 October 1939, is my favorite of their later films.

Unfortunately, this film does have one big thing going against it—their worst pseudo-Zeppo by a very large margin, the extremely annoying, Mickey Mouse-voiced Kenny Baker. At least the only real fault of Tony Martin in The Big Store (1941) is that he takes up way too much screentime and performs the cringey “Tenement Symphony,” not that his actual character is annoying.

Jeff Wilson (Kenny Baker)’s troubles go far beyond his annoying voice. Circus manager John Carter (James Burke) loaned him $10,000, which Jeff is ordered to repay before their agreed-upon Saturday deadline. If he doesn’t cough it up in time, Carter will take over.

Jeff’s wealthy aunt Suzanna Dukesbury (Margaret Dumont) disinherited him for joining the circus, which means he’s broke.

Jeff promises to give Carter the money that very night on the circus train.

Jeff’s buddy Tony Pirelli (Chico) calls lawyer J. Cheever Loophole (Groucho) to help. When Loophole arrives, Tony gives him a hard time about getting on the train, since he hasn’t a badge. The badge scene is one of the film’s classic routines.

Also in the circus is strongman Goliath (Nat Pendleton)’s lookalike understudy Punchy (Harpo), who’d love to take over the role full-time. Tony suggests Loophole might make that dream come true if Goliath and his cohorts are booted.

After Loophole performs the classic novelty song “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” Goliath knocks out Jeff by gorilla Gibraltar’s cage and steals his $10,000 for Carter.

Loophole, Punchy, and Tony set to work investigating who attacked Jeff and where the money disappeared to. They predictably, hilariously bungle everything, though they strongly suspect Goliath is behind it, and that he was aided by Little Professor Atom (Jerry Maren), the midget (to use the parlance of the era).

Tony later suggests Carter might know something about Jeff’s money, and that his girlfriend Peerless Pauline (Eve Arden), an upside-down walker, might thus have inside info too.

Loophole finds the money in Pauline’s trunk and sticks it in his pocket, but Pauline is wise to him, and sticks it in her cleavage. Loophole breaks the fourth wall to say “There must be some way of getting that money without getting in trouble with the Hays Office.”

Loophole’s prayer is answered when Pauline demonstrates ceiling-walking, but when the money falls out, she jumps off the ceiling, grabs it, and runs off, leaving Loophole stuck on the ceiling. Punchy comes to his rescue.

Loophole’s next plan of attack is to visit Jeff’s aunt Mrs. Dukesbury and beg for $10,000. Mrs. Dukesbury jumps to the serendipitous conclusion that Loophole’s an associate of conductor Jardinet, who’s soon due to arrive. She agreed to pay him $7,500, which Loophole convinces her to up to $10,000 based on the exchange rate.

Back at the circus, Tony and Punchy are still hot on Goliath’s heels, and search his wagon. They don’t exactly choose the best time, since Goliath is there, albeit asleep when they arrive.

Jeff is thrilled to get a call from Loophole, announcing his aunt will provide the money. Loophole then sets to work getting rid of Jardinet and his orchestra.

Now the stage is set for one final confrontation between Carter’s henchmen and Tony, Punchy, and Jeff, complete with lots of comedic mayhem at Mrs. Dukesbury’s party.

The name J. Cheever Loophole was inspired by financier John Cheever Cowdin, who served as president of Universal and chairman of its board of directors from 1936–46. He loaned the studio $750,000 to finance Show Boat, and when the Laemmles were unable to repay the investors before release, Cowdin took control of the studio. Had the repayment request not been made till after release of that very successful film, the Laemmles easily would’ve been able to pony up the money and retain ownership of their family business.

Buster Keaton was famously a gag writer for At the Circus. His comedy style was rather at odds with that of the Marx Brothers, which frustrated both parties. At this point, Buster’s career was deep in the toilet (thanks to being sabotaged by Louis B. Mayer, who also screwed over the Marx Brothers), and had to do whatever he could for money.

Posted in 1910s, Movies, Silent film

Happy 100th birthday, Broken Blossoms!

Broken Blossoms, released 13 May 1919, was based on British writer Thomas Burke’s 1916 story “The Chink and the Child,” from his collection Limehouse Nights. All the stories are set in and around London’s Chinatown in the Limehouse district, in the East End. A second story from the collection, “Beryl and the Croucher,” was turned into a film in 1949, No Way Back.

In contrast to many of D.W. Griffith’s other films of the 1910s, Broken Blossoms is a small-scale production instead of a grand, sweeping, lengthy epic with a huge ensemble cast. It tells a heartrending, intimate story of marked visual contrasts.

The première at NYC’s George M. Cohan Theatre, during the D.W. Griffith Repertory Season, featured moon lanterns, flowers, and gorgeous brocaded Chinese draperies.

Critics and laypeople alike loved it, to the tune of $700,000 ($10,412,843 today). However, many were deeply disturbed by the depiction of child abuse, some so much they left the theatre to vomit. Griffith himself took several months to edit it, so disturbed and depressed was he by the subject matter.

In 1996, Broken Blossoms was chosen for inclusion in the U.S. National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. The film is widely regarded as one of Griffith’s finest, and one of the great treasures of film history.

Owing to the strict anti-miscegenation laws of the time, Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess were unable to have any love scenes. Even when both actors were white in real life, they were legally barred from kissing onscreen if their characters were in an interracial relationship.

Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) sets out from China with a pure heart and soul full of love and idealism, little realising what ugliness and cruelty await him. He “holds a great dream to take the glorious message of peace to the barbarous Anglo–Saxons, sons of turmoil and strife.”

Prior to his departure, Cheng interferes in a fight between foreign sailors, trying to tell them not to do unto others what is hateful to themselves (a maxim found across almost all religions). His message of peace and love is received with violence and mockery, but that makes him even more determined to spread the word.

London’s notoriously seedy, impoverished East End is a shocking wakeup call to this gentle-hearted, sensitive Buddhist missionary. A few years after his arrival, he’s nothing but another poor shopkeeper, and his “youthful dreams come to wreck agains the sordid realities of life.” To try to cope with the ugly real world, Cheng smokes opium and gambles.

Meanwhile, boxer Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp) is raising his daughter Lucy (Lillian Gish) as a single dad. Battling, “a gorilla of the jungles of East London,” is violent outside the ring too, and an alcoholic. It really speaks to how desperate Lucy’s mother must’ve been to relinquish her to Battling.

Battling’s manager rightly complains about his drinking and womanizing, but Battling keeps his anger in check for the sake of his career. He saves the release of his rage for Lucy, his personal punching-bag, who’s too passive and weak to stand up for herself or escape.

Lucy is warned by both her married friends and prostitute friends not to follow in their footsteps, since their lives have been nothing but sorrow and misery since starting down those respective paths.

Cheng has been admiring Lucy from afar for awhile, struck by her fragile, haunted beauty amidst the muck and mire of Limehouse.

Battling’s manager finds him womanizing at a bar, and the ensuing lecture sends Battling into a rage. At home, he unleashes his rage upon Lucy with a whip.

Severely wounded and half-conscious, Lucy escapes after her father departs for training across the Thames, and collapses on the floor of Cheng’s shop. Cheng shows her the first gentleness she’s ever known when he cleans her wounds.

Cheng carries Lucy upstairs to his flat and tenderly nurses her back to health, beautifully decorating the room as befits a princess. He also gives her gorgeous clothes and renames her White Blossom.

Troubled waters start brewing when one of Battling’s friends comes to Cheng’s shop. While Cheng is out getting change, he hears an odd noise from upstairs and goes to investigate, finding Lucy asleep in bed.

Battling is horrified to learn Lucy is living with a Chinese man, and races home to get his revenge after the big fight. The concluding scenes are some of the most powerful, heartbreaking, and unforgettable of cinematic history.

Posted in 1940s, holidays, Movies

A hypnotic murder mystery

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) was so popular, a second Meet film was created for them. Originally, Meet the Killer was entitled Easy Does It and intended for Bob Hope, but Universal bought the rights and reworked it. A&C’s prior two films, Mexican Hayride and Africa Screams, weren’t exactly their strongest work, and they needed another hit.

Boris Karloff’s character was initially a woman named Madame Switzer, and the film was called Meet the Killers. Five days before shooting began, Karloff was hired, and the character became a swami.

In New Zealand and Australia, censors removed every scene with a corpse. Denmark banned the film because of a scene where corpses play cards.

Meet the Killer was filmed from 10 February–26 March 1949 and released on 22 August 1949. Sadly, Lou was stricken by a relapse of rheumatic fever after filming wrapped and bedridden for several months. That November, he had to have an operation on his gangrenous gallbladder. Because of his illness, the next A&C film didn’t begin production till 28 April 1950.

Freddie Phillips (Lou) and Casey Edwards (Bud), a bellboy and detective, respectively, at the Lost Caverns Resort Hotel, are swept up in a lot of trouble when famous, short-tempered criminal lawyer Amos Strickland checks in. Shortly after he has Freddie fired for his hilarious incompetence, Freddie goes to his hotel room to apologise.

Freddie doesn’t realise Strickland is a corpse, nor does he see a mysterious hand in a black glove reaching under the curtains. When it finally gets through to him, Freddie races to the lobby in terror.

Suspicion is cast on Freddie when guest Mike Relia reports someone broke into his room and stole his gun. Bellboys have keys to all the rooms, and he also yelled at Strickland and was fired shortly before the murder.

The missing gun turns up in Freddie’s room, which makes him look even worse. Casey believes his innocence, and goes with him to Relia’s room to return the gun. While in the room, they discover a damning telegram.

Freddie opens the door to check if the coast is clear while Casey plants the gun in a suit pocket, and up comes a swami who hynotises Freddie.

Inspector Wellman (James Flavin) and Sgt. Stone (Mikel Conrad) order Freddie kept in custody as a guest of the state in his hotel room until his name is cleared. This is hardly a punishment, as Freddie lives it up with room service and beautiful female employees giving him beauty treatments.

Freddie’s luck becomes even worse when his date Angela compels him to write and sign a confession, pretending the real killer will confess when he sees it.

Casey sends Relia’s fingerprints to HQ and reports he has a criminal history, with Strickland serving as his lawyer. The investigators don’t think this is damning evidence, since his criminal past is common knowledge and ancient history, and six of Strickland’s other past clients are also at the hotel and received the same telegram.

Angela falls under suspicion too when she’s accused of mixing a poisonous champagne cocktail.

The swami creeps into Freddie’s room that night and hypnotises him again. His orders entice Freddie into putting a noose around his neck, but Freddie is cowardly even under hypnosis, and falls backwards instead of jumping.

Not deterred, the swami asks Freddie to kill himself with a gun. This also fails, and the swami asks how he’d prefer to die. Freddie wisely answers “Old age.”

The swami asks him to jump out of a window next, but Freddie jumps backwards into the room. All these refusals make the swami angry, and he goes after Freddie with a knife, ordering him to plunge it into his heart.

Freddie still refuses to kill himself.

The swami thinks he’s finally found success when he asks Freddie if he’d plunge the knife into the heart of the man in the mirror, and Freddie says yes. Things don’t go as planned when Freddie tries to stab the swami, believing that was the man in the mirror.

Casey comes to the rescue after the swami scrams.

And then the bodies start turning up in Freddie’s closet. Even more damning, he comes into possession of a bloody handkerchief.

Several attempts are made on Freddie’s life, culminating in a mysterious voice ordering him to bring the handkerchief to the Lost Cavern.