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Islands In The Stream: Week Seven
by Peter Sobczynski

Anther week of streaming suggestions to help you pass the time and broaden your knowledge and love of the world of film. (Pompous, ain't I?)

Here comes a seventh week of streaming recommendations for you to contemplate. This week, I am going to try doing something different for a change of pace and I hope that you like it. If you do or you don't or you have suggestions/scathing criticisms to make, drop me a line at petersob@efilmcritic.com and I will get to them


This week, for a change of pace, I am going to attempt to help you recreate the classic moviegoing experience of old. Granted, not even the best home setup can replicate the sensation of seeing a movie in an old and ornate auditorium but thanks to the internet, we can at least sort of recreate the various components of what might have been on the program once upon a time. For example, those of you with a knowledge of Chicago and who are film lovers are no doubt familiar with the Music Box, a lovely old movie palace that just celebrated its 90th anniversary and is still going strong. One of the best things about the Music Box experience is going on the weekends and hearing Dennis Scott play the theater's refurbished Kimball pipe organ on the weekends between screenings and during other special events. For the benefit of theater regulars who have been missing his work during this pandemic and those who have not yet been able to make the pilgrimage, the Music Box has posted a pair of videos showcasing Scott playing away. Simply look up "The Music Box Home Edition" on YouTube and you will be instantly taken back to another era, when going to the movies was a genuine experience. Trust me--play this video before watching any movie and I guarantee that it will make the entire evening more entertaining. (YouTube)




In much the same way that each of the major movie studios used to have their own signature style--the in-you-face topicality of Warner Brothers, the lush pageantry of MGM and so on--the offerings by the key cartoon producers would also prove to be just as distinctive. The Disney cartoons were not always funny per se (especially as Mickey Mouse transformed from a character to an institution) but they were so technically impressive that they were still worth watching. The Warner cartoons had a far rougher look to them but they also had a brash energy and humor to them that proved to be a delight and the Tom & Jerry cartoons from MGM managed to thread the needle between rambunctious laughs and sleek style. Meanwhile, the efforts from Universal, most notably the misadventures of Woody Woodpecker, were often so tiresome that they practically encouraged kids to go outside and get some fresh air by assuring them that they wouldn't be missing anything. On the other side of the coin, the efforts of brothers Max and Dave Fleischer, whose studio was Disney's first major business rival, were darker and stranger, both visually and comedically, than their competitors, never more so than in "Bimbo's Initiation," a 1931 mindfuck that introduced generations of young viewers to the concept of surrealism, even if they didn't quite know it at the time. As it begins, amiable dog-boy Bimbo is walking down the street when he suddenly plunges down an open manhole that is immediately locked behind him by a mouse with a certain resemblance to another animated rodent of note. Bimbo crash lands into the underground lair of a mysterious secret society whose leader asks "Wanna be a member?" Bimbo sensibly refuses the offer and finds himself encountering a number of increasingly elaborate and bizarre deathtraps while trying to find an escape and avoid the other members who keep pestering him to join. Finally, Bimbo winds up in front of the leader one final time and makes a discovery that inspires him to rethink things. Considering just how crazily nightmarish the imagery presented by the Fleischers--who never exactly shied away from such things--remains today (there are times when the short feels like a combination of the sensibilities of David Fincher and Tim Burton), the mind reels at the thought of what kids back in the day must have thought when they came across it for the first time. Although the Fleischer Studio would go out of business a decade later despite the popularity of such characters as Betty Boop and Popeye, their output was too strong to be forgotten and indeed, "Bimbo's Initiation" is generally regard as one of the all-time great animated shorts by historians and film buffs alike. If anything, the weirdness is more striking today than ever, especially after watching the twist ending and coming to the realization that the short could actually serve as a ersatz origin story for that weird sex cult in "Eyes Wide Shut." (Fandor, YouTube)

Studios used to use short subjects as a way of putting new talent before the cameras in order to look for hints that stardom might be in the wings for them. For example, in early 1934, a small outfit called Educational Pictures released, "Going Spanish," a short featuring a performer who had been making a name for himself in vaudeville and on Broadway but was still unknown to most people. The end result was pretty dire and most people hated it, none more so than the guy at its center, Bob Hope--during an interview with Walter Winchell, he famously quipped "When they catch Dillinger, they're going to make him sit through it twice." This jibe cause the head of Educational to tear up his contract, which might have been Hope's aim all along because within a few months, he was at the more prestigious Warner Brothers studios starring in "Paree, Paree" (1934), a fairly lavish musical comedy short based on the 1929 Cole Porter musical "Fifty Million Frenchmen," which had been adapted into a feature of its own three years earlier. In it, Hope plays Peter Forbes, a rich young man in Paris who has fallen helplessly in love with beautiful shipmate Lulu (Dorothy Stone). When he brags to his friends (Rodney McLennon and Charles Collins) that she was the type of girl who would have no interest in his money, at bet arises where he has thirty days to get engaged to her without using any of his money or letting her know about his wealth. Needless to say, the course of true love doesn't run especially smoothly and things become more complicated with the inclusion of Violet (Billie Leonard), another American who keeps innocently popping up at the worst possible times. Although the narrative may not provide many surprises for viewers today (or back then, quite frankly) but what is a shock is how quickly this "Broadway Brevity" moves along. Though it only clocks in at about 21 minutes, this is a film that goes to multiple locations and manages to include five songs (not counting a reprise) from the original score--including the classics "You Do Something to Me" and "Find Me a Primitive Man"--along the way. (By comparison, when musicals were thought to have gone out of commercial favor just before its release, the full 'Fifty Million Frenchman" adaptation deleted all of its already-filmed musical numbers before it came out.) Of course, the real point of interest is seeing Hope in just his second screen role and a few years before his comedic persona would be fully formed. He is not quite as brash as he would become and there are times when he seems visibly uncomfortable in front of a camera (though he had clearly improved since the making of "Going Spanish," where his sheer awkwardness dominated the proceedings). That said, he is a more than passable romantic comedy lead, demonstrates a nice rapport with his two leading ladies and doesn’t do too badly with the Porter tunes. While it is ultimately more of a curiosity than anything else, "Paree, Paree" is a breathlessly paced piece of ultimately weightless entertainment that would have more than satisfied audiences back in the day and is still worth taking a peek at today. (Turner Classic Movies)

The old movie serials were never meant to have intricately designed narratives that would stand up under heavy scrutiny--they were meant to provide enough thrills, spills, dangerous traps and split-second escapes to fill twenty minutes while distracting viewers enough to realize that, based on what was seen during the previous week's cliffhanger, the stalwart hero most certainly did not get out of the cock-a-doody car. Even taking that into consideration, the 12 chapters of "The Phantom Empire" (1935) are so bizarre and crazy that even the discovery that writer Wallace MacDonald supposedly conceived of it while still loopy from the gas after a visit to the dentist doesn't entirely account for the madness on display. Singing cowboy Gene Autry, in his first starring role, stars as, funnily enough, Gene Autry, a singing cowboy who runs a dude ranch, the Radio Ranch, where he broadcasts a daily radio show, fairly customary for dude ranches at the time. Along with him at the ranch are two young sidekicks, Frankie (Frankie Darro) and Betsy (Betsy King Ross), who are there for reasons never adequately explained. It turns out that the ranch is situated above Murania, a super-secret underground empire that is filled with awesome technological advances (robots, ray guns, big-screen TVs, stockpiles of radium), populated by people who cannot breath on the surface without the use of special tanks and ruled by the evil Queen Tika (Dorothy Christy), who wants Gene destroyed . Before long, Gene and the kids get caught between an underground revolutionary plot to overthrow Tika and an aboveground plot led by the malevolent Professor Beetson (J. Frank Glendon) to get rid of Gene so that he can seize the ranch and all that sweet radium for himself. And yet, even though the action is so thick and heavy that Gene dies at least once (he gets better), he still somehow never misses a broadcast. The whole thing is goofy and incoherent and exhausting--a few years later, it would be reduced from its full 250-minute length into the 70-minute feature "Radio Ranch" (also known as "Men with Steel Faces") without really losing anything in the process--and I would strenuously advise against trying to binge watch the entire thing in one fell swoop. However, if you watch it as it was meant to be seen, at one episode per week with no going back to look for inconsistencies, you may enjoy the combination of breathless pacing and cheerful inanity on display throughout. Who knows, maybe you can even figure out why the Muranians require those masks to help them breath on the Earth's surface but Gene and his pals do not require them when they are down below. (YouTube)

One of the last films released before the induction of the Production Code, "Fashions of 1934" is a strange, admittedly uneven but undeniably entertaining romp that manages to pack a lot into its brief 77-minute running time, including startlingly ribald humor, elaborate production numbers, double-crosses, lots of ostrich feathers and the only on-screen pairing between two of the greatest movie stars of the era. William Powell stars as Sherwood Nash, a down-on-his=luck investment banker who hits upon a new business idea as profitable as it is shady--with the aide of ambitious fashion designer Lynn Mason (Bette Davis), he starts churning out cheap copies of expensive designer dresses. When he gets busted, he convinces the very people he has been ripping off to send him, along with Lynn and flunky Snap (Frank McHugh), to Paris to steal the designs of the latest in high couture for them. When getting access to the new designs proves difficult, Lynn discovers that top designer Oscar Baroque (Reginald Owen) gets his inspiration from pictures of costumes found in old books and begins doing the same, attaching famous names to her drawings to keep up the ruse. Meanwhile, Nash realizes that Baroque's glamorous fiancee, the Grand Duchess Alix (Vernee Teasdale), is actually an old girlfriend from Hoboken named Mabel and blackmails her into convincing Baroque to finance a stage revue that will make Nash enough money to open up his own fashion house. As a whole, the film really is kind of a mess--the plot makes very little sense even by the standards of the gossamer-thin entertainments of the era and old movie buffs will be perplexed by the general lack of chemistry between Powell and Davis and by the decision to glam Davis up in an attempt to make her into a sex bomb. (She looks great but the effect is undeniably disconcerting--Davis herself hated the part but did it so that she could be loaned out to do "Of Human Bondage" for her next film.) At the same time, however, it is still pretty entertaining for a number of reasons. Like most of the Warner Brothers films of the time, it moves at a brisk pace and covers a lot of story--perhaps too much--in its abbreviated run time. There is a lot of saucy humor on display that might surprise viewers who don't realize how risqué films sometimes got before the Code was instituted--there is a great bit where someone accosts Snap on the streets of Paris to try to sell him some filthy pictures and most of the resolution of the plot revolves around the knowledge of a birthmark on a particularly sensitive portion of the Grand Duchess's anatomy. There is also a massive musical number choreographed by Busby Berkley, a demented orgy of ostrich feathers, belly buttons and barely sublimated sapphic imagery that stands as one of the most astonishingly over-the-top spectacles of his entire career. Evidently too weird for its time, the film was a flop when it came out and no one involved with its making appeared to have been particularly happy with it but it does works a variation on the old backstage story narrative that was popular at the time and the sheer outrageousness of the enterprise (not to mention some of the gowns) definitely makes it worth checking out today. (iTunes, Amazon Prime, Vudu)


link directly to this feature at https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=4238
originally posted: 05/05/20 01:56:48
last updated: 05/08/20 22:46:01
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