Bogey Gets the Gold

As I sit and type in this infernal LA heat I feel it only appropriate to write about The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The great John Huston (Moby Dick, Wise Blood) directed this golden classic in 1948 which was based on the novel of the same name written by the mysterious B. Traven. Much of it was filmed on location in the sweltering heat of Mexico. The film starred Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca, The Big Sleep, The Caine Mutiny), Tim Holt (The Magnificent Ambersons, My Darling Clementine), and John’s father Walter Huston (Abraham Lincoln, The Devil and Daniel Webster) as a ragged trio of down-and-out fortune hunters seeking to find gold in a cruel 1920s Mexican desert. It is a rich and complex film that boldly neglects sentimentality in favor of a delirious story about greed, betrayal, paranoia, and the death of human decency in the face of all three.

John Huston and Humphrey Bogart had teamed up previously for Huston’s first film and solid noir classic, The Maltese Falcon (1941), and would pair up again after Sierra Madre for more unmissable classics, Key Largo (1948) with Lauren Bacall and Edward G. Robinson and The African Queen (1951) with Katherine Hepburn. Treasure of the Sierra Madre is another first rate character drama loaded with tension and texture. Its a fantastic classic not to be missed.

The gunfire from Federales executing bandits rings in the distance. People peddle their wares on every corner and all around is the inescapably dense feeling of stifling heat and the odor of too many humans living too close to each other. A sweaty, grizzled hobo, Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart), begs for pennies in the chaotic and colorful post Mexican Revolution town of Tampico. He is a self-professed “fellow American who is down on his luck” who sleeps on park benches and lives from drink to drink. Dobbs finds a fellow homeless American named Bob Curtin (Holt). Together they take a construction job from a shifty American who cheats his workers and runs off with their pay. Life is going nowhere for Dobbs and Curtin until they meet an old, penniless prospector named Howard (Walter Huston in his Academy Award winning role) in a seedy hostel. Howard jokes about the horrors he has seen and the wisdom he has gained from his many years on the trail mining gold. Dobbs doesn’t buy into the magical power of gold. He understands it all depends on what kind of a man finds it. Though he seems to be a bit cracked, the good-natured Howard is welcomed into the group of gringos by Curtin. The three invest all of what little they have attained during their cruel lives to obtain burros and supplies for a long journey and hopefully a profitable dig for gold in the Sierra Madre.

Much trekking and much sweating leads them into the wilds of untamed Mexico. Jungles, deserts, banditos, and sore feet all urge them to turn back, but the hearty old prospector puts their young muscles to shame as he jovially bounds onwards and upwards as sure-footed as a mountain goat. Just as exhaustion sets in and Dobbs and Curtin prepare to turn back, Howard cackles maniacally and calls them a couple of jackasses as he claps and performs an impromptu jig, for lo and behold the very dust beneath their feet sparkles with the tantalizing hues of that which they seek: gold. They quickly set up a mine and begin their panhandling. Always wary of strangers—for the perch is precarious—they proceed to extract riches from the earth. Without permit or claim they could be run off by the government, bigger mining companies, or slaughtered by banditos. Before long the old man’s words of warning about greed and mistrust set in and Dobbs, concerned about his share of the prize requests they begin dividing up the goods every night. Howard amiably acquiesces. Soon each man is hiding their share at night, lest they get ripped off by their partners. Howard seems to be the only one who retains a peaceful, logical, level head about the matter as he has seen this sort of thing many times before. Curtin regains his balance after he rescues Dobbs from a cave in, but Dobbs has become noticeably shaken by the discovery of gold. Dobbs mutters under his breath and talks to himself and exhibits apparent mistrust of the other two men.

More gold is being taken from the weary mountain every day and the beards grow thick on the three gringos and their clothes grow more tattered and dirty. Curtin returns from running errands in the nearest town and is followed by another would-be treasure hunter, Cody (Bruce Bennett). Dobbs will have no intruders to divide his share of the gold and convinces Howard and Curtin that they need to kill him, but they wind up needing all the guns they can get when a group of banditos who “don’t need no stinking badges” show up. Their leader (Alfonso Bedoya) toys with Dobbs before a desperate fire fight ensues.  Following this skirmish it becomes increasingly apparent that Dobbs cannot be trusted and has indeed sold his soul to the treasure of the Sierra Madre. Things only heat up when the team is separated. Howard is asked to stand in as medicine man for some Indians who have a little boy who nearly drowned. The pure-hearted Curtin is then left alone with the old man’s share of the loot and a crazed Dobbs (in full on greedy Daffy Duck mode). Betrayal, paranoia, greed, and violence all permeate from the scenes that follow. The film throws a few more shocks and shots of human and moral deterioration at us before it comes to a bittersweet conclusion that truly satisfies like a punch in the guts…but it tickles a little too.

This is a stand out film for the period. It is decidedly more dangerous and cynical. Huston and his amazing cast manage to conjure so many internal emotions and build so much tension in every scene. This film feels as hot and desperate as the three protagonists must feel. Real danger lurks in the shadows when a cluster of quiet Indians approach a campfire. Real terror prods one’s heart when the banditos show up and outnumber our “heroes.” There is suspense and devastation within each frame. There is an unflinching crazed look in Bogart’s eyes that continuously grows throughout the film and is difficult to shake. There have been many films about greed and the loss of humanity in the face of such greed, but perhaps The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the finest examples of the subject.

It’s easy to see the inspiration P.T. Anderson must have gotten from this film for his own There Will Be Blood (2007). Anyone who only knows Bogart as the hard-boiled detective needs to see this film. From each characters’ shrouded uncertain background and their even further cloaked futures, this film develops its own greatness. We follow the lives of “fellow Americans who are down on their luck” and we hope they will overcome the maddening heat and the ecstasy of gold because we really journey alongside them. John Huston won Academy Awards for Best Screenplay and Best Director, losing Best Picture to Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet. As a big fan of both Huston and Humphrey Bogart I cannot recommend this great film enough. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a truly unforgettable movie experience and amply worthy of its classic status.

Top 10 Reasons to See Treasure of the Sierra Madre

1. Humphrey Bogart plays against type and is awesome.

2. Great early location filming in Mexico.

3. Guys grow beards in it.

4. Considered a top ranking classic for many critics, film buffs, and directors.

5. It’s uncharacteristically bleak for the time it was made.

6. John Huston is a movie making beast.

7. It influenced many films to follow.

8. Bugs Bunny references Bogart’s Dobbs character in several cartoons (mostly the ones with the penguin who cries ice-cubes).

9. Walter Huston’s character is iconic and unforgettable—the quintessential crusty, old prospector guy.

10. Four Oscar nominations and three wins.

BONUS 11. The little boy next to Bogey in the first picture is Robert Blake.

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Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” July 20, 2010

The Inconsequentials

Somewhere there’s in immense list of all the movies you should see before you die. They are powerful, iconic, historic, influential, quotable. We call these movies “The Essentials.” Most of them you’ve seen or at least heard of; anything from Star Wars to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. How many people know The Pink Panther (1963) with Peter Sellers? Now, how many people know Topkapi (1964) with Peter Ustinov? In an effort to preserve all of the iconic, unmitigated masterpieces from film history (which is a very good thing), we can sometimes forget the smaller, old films that might not exactly be considered “essential” viewing.

Personal feelings: I think Topkapi is a far superior heist comedy to The Pink Panther.

I use the term “inconsequentials” as a sort of joke, but I think it’s a shame more people are not clamoring for copies of West of Zanzibar (1928), Shanghai Express (1932), and White Zombie (1932). These are three movies that I personally love and I will tell you what makes them special and why nobody cares today. Join me as we travel from the deepest African jungle to dangerous Chinese railways and then into Haitian voodoo country on our tour of some of the “inconsequentials.”

Lon Chaney, Sr. is a gateway drug into the world of silent cinema. Chaney, Chaplin, Fairbanks, Sr., the whole lot. They pull you in. West of Zanzibar is one of those strange silent jungle melodramas, and if you have ever heard of this one it was because you are a die-hard Lon Chaney fan. It also has the added cult appeal of being directed by the great Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks, The Unholy Three). Chaney is most famous for his roles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). His uncanny ability to utilize makeup and physically painful-looking bodily distortions are what made him a legend of the silver screen. This film is a little different. Chaney wears no disguises. No clown makeup, no monster deformity, no Fu Manchu getup, no drag. Nothing. Chaney plays a stage magician of great prominence named Phroso. He is betrayed when his wife, Anna, cheats on him with his arch rival, Mr. Crane (played by Lionel Barrymore of Key Largo and It’s a Wonderful Life). When Crane announces that he is taking Anna away with him to Africa, Phroso attempts to stop him, but is thrown off the balcony and becomes paralyzed from the waist down. Later Phroso, now a paraplegic, discovers that Anna has died and so he vows revenge. Phroso moves to Africa to get Crane. Eighteen years have passed and Phroso is now the grimy “Dead Legs,” a strange witch doctor type guy to a primitive jungle tribe. He uses his magic tricks to frighten the natives of a nearby tribe…who happen to be under the watch of who else but Crane. “Dead Legs” kidnaps Crane’s daughter and tortures her to make Crane feel the pain he felt. *SPOILER ALERT* Well into the plot, “Dead Legs” learns that the girl he captured is actually his own daughter and that Crane has been taking care of her all these years, but it is too late to fix the damage he has done. He has killed Crane and his real daughter sees him as an evil murderer. To reveal his true identity at this point would destroy the girl, so he sacrifices himself to the natives to buy her time to escape into the night with her main squeeze.

The movie is dark, demented, and perfect for fans of Lon Chaney. He’s great at playing these deranged patriarchs, vengeful creeps, sympathetic deformed characters, and the subject of impossible tragedy and in West of Zanzibar he gets to play them all at once. The story is very pulpy and silly, but it’s a lot of fun and it has a wonderful exotic feel. The reason West of Zanzibar gets overlooked is because of the more popular films like The Phantom of the Opera and Dracula. The average person gets a sense of who Chaney and Browning are and moves on, never discovering their smaller films. Like I said, you’d have to be a real Lon Chaney geek or silent film nerd to seek this one out, but for my money it is well worth it even if you’re not.

Shanghai Express is an exorbitantly pulpy flick about women of sin, how much faith it takes to love someone, and a train on an exotic track with a rendezvous with the Chinese civil war. Marlene Dietrich (Witness for the Prosecution, Destry Rides Again) stars as Shanghai Lily, the most famous and successful prostitute in the orient (don’t worry, she’s not in yellow-face). When she boards the Shanghai Express with her friend and fellow woman-of-ill-repute, Hui Fei (played by the always fascinating Anna May Wong), everyone is perturbed by their presence. Several colorful and leisured characters are on board the train including a very outspoken missionary, an officer, a fickle woman, an opium dealer, an exceedingly gregarious gambler (Eugene Pallette, who always seems to be playing priests, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro), the shady half-Chinese Henry Chang (Charlie Chan himself, Warner Oland), and Lily’s old flame, the stoic British Captain Harvey (Clive Brook). Lily still has feelings for Captain Harvey, but Harvey is displeased with the life she now leads (although we sense he still fancies her greatly despite their 5 year separation). Can these two lost souls rekindle their dwindling romance? Moreover, will everyone get out alive after the train is stopped and they are taken hostage by Henry Chang who turns out to be a powerful warlord and rebel in the civil war? What makes this film work is the fun cast of characters, the steamy locations, the feelings of entrapment, the themes of faith and love…and revenge. I was only nominally with this film until the train got stopped. Then I was fully invested. The stakes are raised and the plot thickens. Murder, torture, sex, betrayal, the works. It’s amazing how much they got away with in those pre-code days.

Shanghai Express is pulpy fun. Most of the characters are fairly broad or rigid. I honestly don’t know how Captain Harvey and Shanghai Lily ever got together to begin with. The film also throws in random spiritual elements that don’t exactly seem to mesh, but it’s a good trip on a mysterious train that collides with danger and intrigue. Shanghai Express is filmed well and Eugene Pallette really livens things up and Anna May Wong delivers another dark and subtle performance that steals every scene she’s in. I love this movie for its simple but interesting story and rich atmosphere. The reason why this movie gets overlooked? Because Casablanca was a better movie. Plain and simple. Brooks can’t compete with Bogart, but Shanghai Express is still a great little movie on its own and should be celebrated more these days.

The last two films I talked about had a few things in common. They were pulpy, exotic, and atmospheric “inconsequentials” and my last pick is no exception. White Zombie might be a little more well-known for two very important reasons: a.) it stars Bela Lugosi (Dracula) and b.) it’s the first zombie movie. Many people regard George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) as the first zombie movie, but White Zombie has it beat by a good 36 years. Romero’s film changed the rules for zombie flicks and added social commentary, but White Zombie is all just for fun. Bela Lugosi plays Murder Legendre, an insidious voodoo master and owner of a Haitian sugar plantation. As you might have guessed, his Haitian slaves working the spooky sugar cane mill are actually zombies! Here’s the plot in a nutshell: Charles (a plantation owner) loves Madeleine, but Madeleine is in love with and getting married to Neil, so Charles goes to Murder for help. Simple. But!…the only way for Murder to make Madeleine love Charles is to make her into a zombie. So that’s exactly what they do, but Neil discovers his dead fiancee’s tomb to be empty and recruits the knowledgeable missionary, Bruner, and meanwhile Charles is regretting his decision for a zombie romance and Murder is actually slowly turning Charles into a zombie too! It all builds up to an exciting climax in Murder’s cliff-side castle. Zombies attack and spells are broken and there’s voodoo and people die and stuff and bad guy’s name is Murder! It’s fun.

Despite the relative cheapness of the production, White Zombie boasts some fantastic atmosphere and one of Bela Lugosi’s best performances. The scenes in the zombie sugar mill are spooky and deliciously atmospheric. The castle is great and the shots of the zombies assembling in the hillside cemetery are fun and a lurking Lugosi practicing voodoo in the shadows is  just great. It’s a slight movie (some might call it “inconsequential”), but I really love it. The reason you don’t see this one on a lot of lists is because of legendary movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, and others that overshadow it. White Zombie has a fairly insignificant villain as far as supernatural antagonists go and it doesn’t seem to have been made with as much care…or money. All that being said, it’s a great bit of cheap horror and much better than The Creature From the Black Lagoon. It also makes for a delightfully inconsequential double-feature with The Vampire Bat (1933) starring Fay Wray (Doctor X, King Kong), Lionel Atwill (Doctor X, Captain Blood), Melvyn Douglas (The Tenant, Being There), and the always wide-eyed Dwight Frye (Frankenstein, Dracula, Bride of Frankenstein). (Incidentally the guy who directed the extremely “inconsequential” Doctor X just so happens to be Michael Curtiz, the guy who directed Casablanca. It all comes full circle).


One more film I must mention as I recently revisited it after several years and I am pleased to say it still holds up is Bluebeard (1944). Fans of John Carradine are probably quite familiar with it. Carradine plays Bluebeard, a puppeteer/painter/serial-strangler in 19th century Paris. It’s a delightfully low-budget yarn of the macabre.

As a lover of old movies it takes more than just the undeniable classics to appease me. Sometimes I like the smaller films just as much as the great ones. Don’t let the greats cast too long a shadow that they blot out the smaller film achievements. Use them as a reference point to find more movies from those eras. West of Zanzibar, Shanghai Express, and White Zombie may not be on anybody’s “essentials” list, but I’d say make room for these “inconsequentials.” You might be surprised by what you find.

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Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Feb. 9, 2011.

A Man’s Best Friend is His Invisible Rabbit

Everybody loves James Stewart. It’s a fact. Look it up. He’s just a likable guy. The star of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1940), It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), Rear Window (1954), and Vertigo (1958) picked up many fans. In an old interview James Stewart revealed that his favorite role he ever had was that of Elwood P. Dowd in Henry Koster’s light-hearted comedy, Harvey (1950). And it is surely worth a look.

That is actually one scary rabbit.

That is actually one scary rabbit.

Perhaps James Stewart’s soft, gentle demeanor made him a natural for the role of the innocent and gregarious star of HarveyHarvey itself is a great movie with a wonderful cast. Victoria Horne (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) is splendid as his love-hungry niece and the incomparable Josephine Hull (Arsenic and Old Lace) in her Academy Award winning role steals most of the show as his well-meaning, long-suffering sister at wit’s end. The real charm of Harvey lies with its sweetness and pleasantness that finds its root in the perplexing relationship between Elwood (Stewart) and his best friend, a giant invisible rabbit, six-foot one and a half inches tall.

Josephine Hull and

Josephine Hull and Victoria Horne in two wonderful performances.

After living many years with her brother and his long-eared hallucination, Veta Louise Simmons (Hull), can stand it no more. Veta is going crazy trying to keep Elwood away from the house so she can entertain and throw parties for her upper-class friends, but Elwood continuously comes home from the local bar early and—very earnestly attempting to introduce Veta’s friends to Harvey—unwittingly chases them all away.

Veta cannot have this. She loves her brother, but he is making it very difficult for her to get her daughter, Myrtle Mae (Horne), to meet young men. With no alternative Veta makes plans to commit Elwood to a sanitarium…but once there, her emotions take over when she’s describing how Elwood’s invisible rabbit friend is ruining her life and she winds up getting committed instead and the affable, oblivious Elwood wanders off with his head cocked up and to the right (to acknowledge his unseen friend) and an extra coat and hat (with two holes cut in the crown) over his arm.

You can't see him?

You can’t see him?

Once the well-meaning Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake) and the nurse (Peggy Dow) realize their mistake of locking up a sane woman and sending the would-be patient off on his way they do whatever they can to fix it. Veta is released and gets her old family friend, Judge Gaffney (William Lynn), in an attempt to sue the sanitarium. The less-than-compassionate sanitarium orderly, Wilson (Jesse White), is sent to find Elwood and bring him in, but gets sidetracked when he bumps into a romance-desperate Myrtle Mae. Meanwhile sanitarium director, Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway), is making plans to fire Dr. Sanderson and convince Veta to reconsider her charges.

The amiable Elwood P. Dowd seems to be harder to apprehend than originally suspected…almost as if something (or someone) is protecting him as he blissfully saunters along on his merry way. If he really is crazy (however harmless) then he also might be invincible, but there seems to be clues that the ambiguously ambivalent rabbit, Harvey, might be more than just a figment of his imagination. Even if Harvey is make-believe, he’s real enough to the kind and gentle Elwood who will pull him out of traffic and hold doors for him.

How do you capture a man who is too reasonable?

How do you capture a man who is too reasonable?

Elwood eventually is found, but he goes peacefully (he hasn’t an unpleasant or disagreeable bone in his body), but the “sane” people who have been running around crazy for the entire film want Elwood to take a serum that will make him not see Harvey anymore. Sad that he will never see his best friend again, but not wishing to hurt his sister or niece, he agrees to take the treatment, but Dr. Chumley has something to tell Elwood in private first.

To be smart or to be pleasant? That is the question.

To be smart or to be pleasant? That is the question.

Elwood and Dr. Chumley have a long talk about Harvey and much is revealed about Harvey and about Elwood’s life philosophy. Elwood’s gentle behavior may appear simple and possibly insane, but he has this to say to the good doctor, “Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be’ — she always called me Elwood — ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

In the end it doesn’t matter if the rabbit is real or not. The important thing is how people treat one another, and if it takes a magical, invisible rabbit to change people then so be it.

"Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

I don’t want to give too much more of the plot away, but hopefully I have whet your whistle enough to watch the film for yourself. Harvey is funny, touching, and beautifully written and might be one of the most pleasant movies ever. Harvey is wonderful, charming fun for the whole family.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Sept. 12, 2009

Still Marching: A Laurel and Hardy Kind of Thanksgiving…or any other time of the year. It doesn’t exactly matter.

Everybody remembers the Disney "Babes in Toyland" (1961), but do they remember us?!

Everybody remembers the Disney “Babes in Toyland” (1961), but do they remember us?!

Perhaps there is nothing remotely binding between the holiday in which we partake of turkey and welcome family fellowship with the obscure 1934 Laurel & Hardy musical March of the Wooden Soldiers (a.k.a. Babes in Toyland). All I know is that at my house growing up, it wasn’t Thanksgiving without this odd comedy (it used to be a holiday staple on TV in the 60′s and 70′s). The film stars the legendary comedy team of the infantile Stan Laurel and the rotund Oliver Hardy and features an interesting—and sometimes dark—peek into the world of fairy tales and nursery fables.

Santa Claus. Because Thanksgiving is just a primer for Christmas.

Santa Claus. Because Thanksgiving is just a primer for Christmas.

My deep admiration of Laurel and Hardy clearly influenced my enjoyment of this twisted yarn, but even for the uninitiated this film has undeniable charm and an incorrigible sense of whimsy…but it wouldn’t hurt to enjoy some of their other work and funny shorts first. The duo’s shtick was a basic one: two grown men with extremely childlike sensibilities saunter in and out of trouble while the softer more naive Laurel inadvertently causes more duress for the more domineering Hardy. They would put these characters into many situations and milk the comedy out of any circumstance and, naturally, the darker the dilemma the funnier the situation. Like Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy were always funniest to me when they were up against monsters, killers, ghosts, psychos, gangsters, etc. and in March of the Wooden Soldiers (directed by Gus Meins and Charley Rogers) they bounce from delightful childhood storybook characters to an army of Bogeymen led by the conniving Crooked Man, Silas Barnaby (Henry Brandon).

Silas Barnaby, he Crooked Man of Toyland.

Silas Barnaby, he Crooked Man of Toyland.

Based on Victor Herbert’s 1903 operetta, the story goes like this: Silas Barnaby is the wealthiest and meanest man in town (you don’t get rich by being nice to people), and he is in love with Little Bo-Peep (Charlotte Henry), but she loves the gallant Tom-Tom Piper (Felix Knight). Barnaby will not be beat so he frames Tom-Tom for pig-napping one of the Three Little Pigs and then furthers the deed by making it look as though Tom-Tom also ground him into sausage. Ollie Dee and Stannie Dum (Laurel and Hardy), two boarders with the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe (Florence Roberts) and friend of Bo-Peep, suspect foul play and so embark on a mission to find the truth…but get themselves arrested for burglary when they try to steal Mother Peep’s mortgage back from Barnaby.

The boring love interest.

The boring love interest.

Screwball mishaps abound as the lovable duo rub elbows with Mother Goose, Rock-a-bye Baby, Old King Cole, Mary Quite Contrary, Santa Claus, the Sandman, and many others. There are five musical numbers including the memorable “March of the Toys” instrumental piece that plays during the final battle when Laurel and Hardy unleash 100 giant Wooden Toy Soldiers on the vicious Bogeymen. The battle at the end is a lot of fun. All the characters band together to fight off the onslaught of monsters in their own unique ways. March of the Wooden Soldiers is a funny, entertaining, scary, bizarre, and fun Thanksgiving adventure for everyone. I will be the first to admit I was never a fan of most of the singing, but as I get older I appreciate its campy oddness more and more.

The last march of the ents.

The last march of the ents.

Personal notes: The Bogeymen are actually not the scariest part of this film. My family and I have always been slightly perturbed by the weird rubber pig costumes and the glassy eyed cat playing the cello (pigs and cat all played by people in suits). Another spooky aspect (but somehow absolutely fantastic in an incredibly deranged way) is the presence of Mickey Mouse. I’ve heard that they couldn’t get the rights from Disney (little surprise), but they still have a black mouse character with round head and ears, white gloves, red trousers, and yellow shoes. The spooky part: Mickey Mouse is played by small monkey that has been freakishly adorned to vaguely resemble the iconic rodent. The Mickey Mouse creature scrambles around, throwing bricks at the cat and is easily one of the coolest parts of the Bogeyman Battle (I won’t ruin it), but it is still slightly unnerving. Last note: This film is one of those rare movies that really benefits from the computer colorization process. Originally shot in black and white, the colorized version actually works for the film’s strange artificiality and brings a lot more surreal magic to this already kind of special movie.



See? Scary pigs.

See? Scary pigs.

See? Spooky man in cat costume and monkey in Mickey Mouse costume.

See? Spooky man in cat costume and monkey in Mickey Mouse costume.

Mouse monkey!!!!

One more time! Mouse monkey!!!!

Yeah, it’s weird. This celebrated classic may be strange, but I encourage you to invite Laurel and Hardy and the rest of Toyland into your home this Thanksgiving. Or any time of the year really. This movie isn’t themed to any holiday technically. It’s not really a great movie either. But it’s kinda kitsch now, I suppose. It doesn’t exactly matter.

Laurel & Hardy

Laurel & Hardy

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” November 25, 2009.

It’s STILL Alive…

For anyone who hasn’t been meticulously following my reviews in the past, I am a fan of classic horror. One of my favorites, nay, dare I say two of my favorites (“yes”, quipped he to himself, “let us be greedy today and make it two”) are James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

In the original script the confused Monster was to attempt to rescue the statue of the crucified Jesus thinking it was a living person, but the censors felt it was blasphemous so Whale rewrote it as the Monster toppling over a statue of a bishop.

In the original script the confused Monster was to attempt to rescue the statue of the crucified Jesus thinking it was a living person, but the censors felt it was blasphemous so Whale rewrote it as the Monster toppling over a statue of a bishop.

Whale also directed Claude Rains in The Invisible Man (1933), which was based on the classic H. G. Wells novel (easily one of Wells’ best), to great effect, as well as the winking Old Dark House (1932), but it is his adaptation of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s famous work that remains the more shocking and spectacular—in the humble opinion of this reviewer.

Even people who have never seen a movie that was made prior to 1990 know exactly what the Frankenstein monster looks like (Dracula too, but that will be the subject for another article). All the popular caricatures are based off of Jack Pierce’s amazing makeup from James Whale’s films. When asked to recall a film incarnation, most people—who have not even seen the movie—will have no trouble recalling Boris Karloff in grim makeup. So why am I talking about another movie everybody already knows about? Because I don’t think everyone has seen it, and I wish to change that.

I love all the fake science in these movies.

I love all the fake science in these movies.

Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) has locked himself away in an old, spooky, castle-like laboratory in the hills (the perfect haunt for any mad scientist). He and his wild-eyed, hunchbacked assistant, Fritz (the ubiquitous Dwight Frye), are hard at work on something Henry was warned about by his professors long ago: playing in God’s domain. In his mad quest to create life, he stitches together bits and pieces of fresh corpses to manufacture a living man. The result is the infamous Monster (Boris Karloff): a physically powerful being with a criminal’s brain, limited communication skills, a longing for love, a short temper, and no understanding of his place in the world. The stitched together corpses of several dead men operating under the consciousness of one villainous but infantile brain realizes all too soon that there is no place for him in this world, and when his creator and father, Dr. Frankenstein, is repulsed by his creation and shuns him in disgust and embarrassment the Monster escapes and roams the countryside looking for human connection…he winds up murdering several people accidentally, obliviously, or purposefully before he decides to punish the real cause of his torment: Dr. Frankenstein.

I liked to show this scene when I was young and my parents were about to leave me with a baby sitter.

I liked to show this scene when I was young and my parents were about to leave me with a baby sitter.

The doctor, however, has decided to forget about his creation and return to his family and marry Elizabeth (Mae Clarke). The Monster eventually finds his creator and his lovely fiancée. The terrified townsfolk band together with pitchforks and torches to go on a monster hunt. The whole night culminates in the grand finale of Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster of his own making battling in a burning windmill.


Every inch of this film is steeped in classic elements of horror. Expressionistic angles, cock-eyed tombstones, stark skies, tight little village streets, funerals, castles, evil machinery, lightning storms, chases, hunchbacks, dead bodies dangling from gallows, murder, and macabre humor. The infamous scene where the Monster accidentally murders a little girl even inspired a great Spanish art-house film decades later, The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). This film has got it all…but, wait, there’s more.

The sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, is one of the best sequels in movie history. Picking up where the original left off—but not before Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) and Lord Byron can summarize the events of the previous film—the angry mob of villagers dwindle down to just one poor, victimized couple waiting by the smoldering ashes of the windmill’s remains…their tragic fate gave me nightmares when I was a kid. As the wounded Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is rushed home with Elizabeth (now played by Valerie Hobson), trouble has already begun to brew. Surprise! The Monster’s not dead. Not only that, another truly evil mad scientist, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), comes to call on the good doctor with a proposition. The gaunt and sinister Dr. Pretorius wants Dr. Frankenstein to join him and perfect the creation of a man-made monster. You guessed it: it’s a woman this time. Frankenstein wants nothing to do with this quack, but this quack doesn’t always play fair.

Easy on the crucifixion imagery, James.

Easy on the crucifixion imagery, James. We get it.

The Monster (Boris Karloff) meanwhile wanders the countryside once more in search of love and understanding. This time around the film shows him a little more compassion. All of his murders are either accidental or in self-defense. He just wants a friend, but when you look like he does and have the reputation he does, people tend to shoot first and ask questions later.

See no evil, speak no evil.

See no evil, speak no evil.

Drawn to the sad melody of a blind man’s violin the Monster stumbles upon a cabin in the woods. The blind hermit (O. P. Heggie) takes him in without pause or prejudice. We learn that the blind hermit has been praying for a friend and that he believes the Monster to be an answer to prayer. The Monster and the blind hermit do indeed become friends. They share food, smokes, music, and then the blind hermit teaches the Monster how to speak. We learn more about who the Monster really is from these few brief scenes than we might have expected and we learn to really love him and understand him beyond pity or grotesque curiosity. Too bad it doesn’t last because soon enough two hunters (who see with whom the hermit has been hanging out with), take the hermit away and burn down his cabin in the hopes of killing the Monster. (One hunter is played by John Carradine).

Truly broken, forlorn, and alone after coming so close to being truly alive, the Monster, in light of this freshly witnessed cruelty, develops a new outlook: he knows he is dead and hates all things living. Enter the wicked Dr. Pretorius who divulges his plan to create a woman friend like him. So enchanted by this idea, the Monster agrees to kidnap Elizabeth so Pretorius can blackmail Frankenstein into aiding in his evil experiment. The Bride of Frankenstein (Elsa Lanchester again) is born, but she doesn’t exactly get off on the right foot with Frankenstein’s Monster…that means it’s time for an explosive finale.



Bride has a sharper wit and some kinda surreal special effects, but its horror is no less potent. In many ways Bride is a bit of a parody of its predecessor and it works on multiple levels. Karloff didn’t get to do much in Son of Frankenstein (1939). Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, and the loopy expressionistic sets are the real stars of the third film, but it’s such a step down after Bride. After Son Karloff stopped playing the Frankenstein Monster and actors like Lon Chaney, Jr. (meh), Glenn Strange (awful), Christopher Lee (pretty good), and Robert De Niro (disappointing) took on the character and some say the Monster lives on today.

Dr. Pretorius is so evil he keeps a miniature Satan in a jar.

Dr. Pretorius is so evil he keeps a miniature Satan in a jar.

The mad scientist sub-genre of horror doesn’t get any better than this. Monstrous men made from dead bodies creating havoc while competing ideologies of what the limits of science should be, all wrapped up in a twisted morality tale of what it means to be human begging questions of humanities’ relation to the divine? Who could ask for anything more? Boris Karloff is really good as the iconic Monster and the rest of the cast does a great job as well. Character actress Una O’Connor makes an appearance in Bride and Thesiger’s Pretorius is one of the most fiendishly memorable mad scientist villains of the silver screen.

Do yourself a favor and host a double feature of these two solid classics. They just don’t make ’em like this no more. Don’t miss horror at it’s finest this Halloween. Hey, you might even understand just what makes Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974) is so funny after watching these puppies. See Karloff in the original The Mummy (1932) too while you’re at it. For people interested in James Whale the man, Sir Ian McKellan (Gandalf!) played him wonderfully well in Gods and Monsters (1998).

Hide your kids! Hide your wives!

Hide your kids! Hide your wives!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 13, 2009

What Hump?

charles laughton

Old Chuck in David Lean’s excellent film “Hobson’s Choice” (1954).

Charles Laughton was one of the greatest screen actors of all time (as well as being a renowned stage performer and acting teacher) and even now it is difficult to shake much of his greatness after stepping away from one of his films. Creating such memorable characters as Dr. Moreau in Island of Lost Souls (1932), Henry VIII in The Private Life of King Henry VIII (1933), Marmaduke Ruggles in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), the notorious Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Agatha Christie’s determined barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (and Rumpole-esque) in Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and Sempronius Gracchus in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), Laughton established himself as a very versatile and respected performer.

Laughton's solo directorial effort resulted in the visually amazing "Night of the Hunter" (1955).

Laughton’s solo directorial effort resulted in the visually amazing “Night of the Hunter” (1955).

Despite being a closted homosexual (although perhaps not so closeted if you saw him in Jamaica Inn), he was married to actress Elsa Lancaster (The Bride of Frankenstein, The Inspector General). He discovered actors like Maureen O’Hara, trained actors like Albert Finney, directed the great Night of the Hunter (1955), and was a much sought after actor himself in his day. Classically trained and very professional, the British thespian also demonstrated a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor with quips like, “I have a face that would stop a sundial.” How fitting he play the infamous hunchback, Quasimodo.

Nice composite matte shot.

Nice composite matte shot of the cathedral’s interior.

My first introduction to Mr. Laughton came at about age five when I saw German director William Dieterle’s (The Devil and Daniel Webster) interpretation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). With Charles Laughton as the legendary hunchback, Quasimodo, this movie quickly became one of my favorites when I was a kid. All little boys love monsters, horror, and deformity and I most certainly was no exception. Although Laughton’s face and body were caked in prosthetics and makeup he still delivered a fine and heartfelt performance.

hunchback 4

With Maureen O’Hara as the bewitching gypsy, Esmeralda.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame boasts a pretty fine cast that included other great or iconic performers such as leading lady, Maureen O’Hara (The Quiet Man), as the gypsy girl, Esmeralda; ubiquitous character actor, Thomas Mitchell (High Noon), as king of thieves, Clopin; Edmund O’Brien (The Killers), as Gringoire; sinister menace, Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Rope), as the evil Frollo; and old character actor, Harry Davenport (Gone With the Wind), as King Louis XI.

Ed and Tom.

Ed and Tom discuss what it’s like to be whipped on the pillary.

With an impressive budget, hundreds of extras, grand scale, and wonderful performances, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a spectacular spectacle to behold. Most of you already know the story.

The face.

The face.

Quasimodo is a mysterious, deaf, and deformed bell-ringer for Notre Dame Cathedral. When his pious but tormented master, Frollo, is tempted by the unlawful arrival of the gypsy girl, Esmeralda, he will stop at nothing to have her for himself or destroy her as a minion of Satan. He sends Quasimodo after her, but when the poor hunchback gets caught and blamed for the crime of attempted kidnapping he suffers great public humiliation and torture.

Sir Cedric Hardwicke in one of his most memorable roles.

Sir Cedric Hardwicke in one of his most memorable roles.

Esmeralda is the only person (besides the good archdeacon played by William Hampden) who shows Quasimodo any kindness and so the hunchback falls in love with her too. The penniless poet, Gringoire, whose life is also saved by Esmeralda also falls in love with her, but Esmeralda’s true feelings lie with the vapid ignoramus and playboy captain of the guard, Phoebus. All four men have fallen under her spell, but they all love her differently and show it in different ways. Some are endearing and noble, some conniving and selfish, and some are heartbreaking to watch.

I love the king---seen here enjoying his once a year bath.

I love the king—seen here enjoying his once a year bath.

Amidst the torrid and twisted romances, the film also boasts lots of back-story into the conflicting politics and ideologies of the day. The gypsies are unwanted and outlawed immigrants, the thieves seem to run the streets, the French people are largely bigoted and uneducated, it’s the dawning of the printing press and an age of enlightenment, the King seems to be losing influence, and Frollo seems to be attempting to usurp power and get away with murder and torture while his brother, the archdeacon, watches on—conflicted about betraying his own brother. All the while the lives of little people are continuously stirring the pot until the rousing climax in which the great Cathedral of Notre Dame is stormed and Quasimodo must defend Esmeralda and the right to sanctuary. Ah, Victor Hugo.

Did we mention all the extras.

Did we mention all the extras?

As much as I enjoy Disney’s Hunchback (1996) as well as the great silent Lon Chaney, Sr. Hunchback (1923), I still regard the Charles Laughton version to be the finest. All three films tell the story a little bit differently and they each bring something new to the classic tale, but I feel that the 1939 incarnation reveals the most about the complex innerworkings of 1400s Parisian society and politics. It also presents a very clear picture of hypocrisy, mental and emotional anguish (as depicted by the conflict between human desires and the demands of the church and religious fanaticism), prejudice, and social injustice. The finale features them all at war on the steps of Notre Dame. Clopin and the thieves storm the cathedral to rescue Esmeralda from the Nobles who seek to remove sanctuary. The craftsmen and priests attempt to defend it. Frollo sneaks in to kill her. Gringoire prints a petition for the King to sign to save her. And ignorant Quasimodo sits at the top of the battle fighting everyone. It’s all pretty exciting.

The anguish!

The anguish!

Victor Hugo’s original novel is bleak. Severely bleak and depressing, yet elegant, beautiful, and even humorous. Les Miserables much? It’s a wonder anyone would try to adapt this into a movie for mass consumption—especially Disney (and I give them a lot of credit for the complexity they give Frollo in the animated film). While Dieterle’s version is not nearly as emotionally devastating as the book, it retains a very strong note of sadness that echoes within your very soul. It fakes you out. It shows you the happy ending you want, but then they insert that subtle dagger. This movie such an eloquent, bittersweet final shot. For me, the ending is right up there with Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and Being There.

The walk of shame after the Festival of Fools.

The walk of shame after the Festival of Fools.

For all its spectacle and pageantry, The Hunchback of Notre Dame remains a strikingly human drama and is quite intimate at times. The characters are very complex and the story is allowed to be equally complex. Mr. Hugo would be proud. It’s also one of those rare movies that work wonderfully well both in its original black and white and the colorized version. For anyone interested in seeing a great classic movie or another great Charles Laughton role, I hesitate not to place a sterling recommendation upon The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

"Why was I not made of stone like thee?"

“Why was I not made of stone like thee?”

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 17, 2009.

Hail to the King, Baby

Shut up!

Yeah. The title is a line from “Army of Darkness.” So what?

One of the most iconic, important, groundbreaking, and memorable movie monsters continues to be King Kong. Any way you slice it Kong is king. Unlike the more prolific Godzilla, Kong starred in only one movie. There was only one sequel (the aptly titled Son of Kong which starred his son and wasn’t as good). Many people have tried to remake King Kong from John Guillermin to Ishiro Honda to Peter Jackson. While Jackson may come closest to the original, none have been able to capture the cinematic magic and horror of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s extravagant original vision from 1933.

Fearful Wray

Fay Wray: babe of the 30s.

Merian C. Cooper, a bold adventurous man, was inspired to deviate from his wild documentaries—shot in the remotest locations and most dangerous jungles—in favor of this landmark fantasy adventure when told a story by his good friend, Edgar Wallace. Wallace was already a prolific novelist and screenwriter and his tale of a mysterious island fraught with peril and giant monsters sounded exactly like what Cooper had been looking for in his documentaries. Capturing unexplored natural dangers untethered was irresistible and teaming up with friend and producer Ernest B. Schoedsack to make this grand fictional epic was just the icing on the cake. It may come as no surprise that the main character of the wildly ambitious and peril-provoking movie director, Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong), was greatly modeled after Cooper himself. . . which is also another reason I was disappointed Jack Black’s snaky performance for the 2005 version (although it is miles better than Charles Grodin’s in 1976).

Look at that gorgeous matte painting.

Look at that gorgeous matte painting.

With actress Fay Wray as the lovely damsel in distress, Ann Darrow, and Max Steiner’s grand score—that very effectively mirrored the onscreen action in addition to providing a very tone-setting overture—and actors like Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, and Noble Johnson, there was just one thing missing: Kong. In the thirties many special effects were still in their pioneering stages, and Willis O’Brien (who would later teach the great Ray Harryhausen his trade) was a no-brainer for the job. O’Brien’s magnificent special effects which brought to life the prehistoric leviathan’s of Harry O. Hoyt’s The Lost World (1925) caught much attention. The finale of The Lost World, in which a brontosaurus terrorizes downtown London, would be the basis for Kong’s rampage through New York City. O’Brien, who had been having trouble and was forced to scrap several pet projects, was hired by Cooper and Schoedsack and to work they did set.

In watching Schoedsack’s earlier film, The Most Dangerous Game (1932), you’ll notice not only the recurrence of Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Noble Johnson, but also many of the same sets used later in King Kong.


Do you think they’ve spotted us?

The story is simple enough. An “enthusiastic” movie director, Carl Denham (Armstrong), wants to make the greatest wildlife documentary the world has ever seen. He wants to dazzle audiences with corners of the world never before seen by civilized men. His producers demand he get an attractive woman to throw into the picture to give it some sex appeal. Denham then takes to the Depression-era New York City streets in hopes of finding a desperate young lady who might agree to go along on their crazy expedition. He finds Ann Darrow (Wray) and they set sail for Skull Island. Let me repeat that. SKULL ISLAND. During their long sea voyage, Ann begins to fall in love with the stoic first mate, John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). Soon the mysterious island is spotted and they disembark to investigate. A primitive tribal ceremony is disrupted by their presence and the film crew manages to get away, but that night the tribesmen board the ship and kidnap Ann to sacrifice to their mysterious and legendary jungle god known as Kong.

It's not racist if it's film history.

It’s not racist if it’s film history 🙂

Kong shows up (in what is was of the best screen entrances of all time), but rather than kill Ann he takes her deep into the jungle. Perhaps it was merely her screams that sparked his curiosity or perhaps it was her beauty that stayed his hand. Driscoll, Denham, and the crew race into the jungle to save Ann—without any idea as to what awaits them. Inside the jungle, many men are killed by territorial and bloodthirsty monsters, dinosaurs, and Kong himself. It seems the ferocious Kong just wants some time alone to perv out with Ann, but with all the little men, dinosaurs, and giant snakes attacking, he can’t seem to get any peace with his screaming nonconsensual bride.

Kong uses some awesome boxing and wrestling moves to fight a nasty Tyrannosaurus-rex. It’s pretty cool stuff. Giant ape socking T-rex in the jaw and flipping him over? This is why fantasy was invented.

king kong t rex

Just look at how gorgeous this picture is.

There’s a lot of build-up leading to the main action, but it is all well paced and ominous. The music doesn’t even start until they get to Skull Island. Once the intrepid (and ill-fated) crew passes the ancient wall and pursues the gargantuan primate into the jungle the action is pretty quick. Stegosaurs, Brontosaurs, Ptersaurs, Tyrannosaurs, and imagined prehistoric horrors abound in the dense foliage, so there is plenty of violence. Life of Skull Island must be a nightmare.

Eventually Driscoll rescues Ann and Kong is captured (but not before he destroys the native village). Denham brings him back to New York City to show the public something they’ve never seen: Kong, the eighth wonder of the world. Long story short; Kong breaks free of his fetters in the opera house and runs murderously amok in the strange new environment, searching for Ann. Instead of giant snakes, Kong battles subway trains. Instead of vicious pterodactyls, Kong must battle biplanes. When Kong does find Ann he takes her to where he can be alone with her: the top of the Empire State Building (and in 1933 it was the tallest building in the world. How romantic). The planes come and Kong must let Ann go as he plummets to his death.

Come at me, bra.

Come at me, bra.

The special effects (although nearly a century old) still have amazing power and wonderful charm. The titanic monster battles are some of the best and most impressive ever filmed. O’Brien and his team had to invent most of the special effects shots for this film as they went along. There are scenes that feature live action people in the foreground and background, while stop-motion monsters battle in between. Plumes of steam from geysers steadily rise, stop-motion birds fly overhead, and the environments are sometimes  miniature sets that extend several feet behind the main action with painted landscape beyond that. The violence is still shocking (as when Kong chomps people in his jaws or mercilessly pummels a passenger train into dead silence), but for some reason we still love Kong. We fall in love with this big, hairy, murderous beast. Even though his performance is only the painstaking animations of a puppet, we still feel he is alive. Unlike other monster movies where we take our point of view from one of the frightened onlookers of the grisly carnage, King Kong makes the monster the central character. Kong is all alone and against the world and the movie audience, for some reason, readily embraces him.

Why you lookin' at my woman like that?

*Samuel Jackson’s monologue from Pulp Fiction*

Subsequent remakes have all tried to cast Kong as a softer, more sanitized, and sympathetic character; a misunderstood animal who the human protagonists eventually come to respect. . . and Kong only justifiably kills bad people. Remakes have cast him as a definite gorilla, but the original Kong’s species is somewhat more ambiguous.

In the original, Kong is a violent force of nature who murders indescriminately: cowering innocents; fleeing pedestrians; even the tribesmen who worshipped him. He doesn’t have a beautiful magical connection with Ann. He’s actually a bit more like a rapist. He is more lost ancient god than biological freak. Ann never warms up to Kong. None of the characters like Kong, in fact. Denham only wants to exhibit him to show the world something they’ve never seen. There is no awkward environmentalist or anti-capitalist message. To the contrary, the film is riddled with cultural ignorance, racism, sexism, and unsentimental depictions of animal cruelty (like the old Tarzan movies). It is very much an escapist product of its time, but for some reason I can forgive it all its faults just as I can forgive Kong for his incorrigible carnage. If it is unapologetic it is because it is a part of our history, and what an entertaining historical document it is.

King Kong 7

Acrophobic yet?

King Kong is easily one of the cinema’s most dazzling adventure stories. The colossal group effort of these daring men in the pioneering days of film, during a time when there was still a lot left of this earth that was unexplored, make King Kong something very special. In setting out to make an adventure movie to end all adventure movies—or maybe a monster movie to end all monster movies—I personally feel that the winning team behind King Kong succeeded with gusto. If you’ve only ever heard of King Kong as legend, myth, or saw him in any of the lesser remakes, I encourage you to revisit this fantastic classic. For my money King Kong (1933) is one of the best American movies ever made and not to be missed.

I am not an animal!

I am not an animal!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” September 25, 2009

The Littlest Fake Manslaughter

It’s a small film, but an important one. It is the collective work of Morris Engel, Ray Ashley, and Ruth Orkin for the 1953 American independent movie, The Little Fugitive (aka The Coney Island Kid). Not only was it a huge influence on American independent cinema and the French New Wave, but it’s also just a really good movie on its own. There are also elements of Italian Neo-realism. One will be reminded of the work of Vittorio de Sica for its perceptive non-romantic insights into little-seen worlds of lower class characters and for the directors’ use of non-professional actors. One might also see how both the style and mood would appear later in the works of Truffaut and Godard. Me? I see Hal Roach with a cheaper production team.

little fugitive 2

The story follows the adventures of little seven-year-old New Yorker, Joey Norton (Richie Andrusco). When his mother (Winifred Cushing) must leave town to visit their sick grandmother she puts big brother, Lennie (Richard Brewster), in charge until she returns. Lennie is bummed because he wanted to go to Coney Island and hang out with the guys and now he has to watch Joey. To get rid of Joey for awhile, Lennie and his friends devise a plan. Joey loves cowboys and guns so they get a rifle and some ketchup and trick little Joey into believing he has accidentally killed his big brother. Then they terrify him by saying the cops will be looking for him so he better run. And thus our movie begins.

It’s a simple enough setup, is it not? Small boy thinks he’s murdered his brother and so hides out at Coney Island. What makes this movie different from other films that follow the trails of killers is that Joey is a kid and handles things differently. Joey’s brother is alive (and eventually becomes remorseful and very worried about his missing brother) and so his fear of the law is irrational and since he is so young he naturally processes his own concerns for surviving and the moral dilemma of killing and lying differently than an adult might. He still needs his mommy to take care of him. He is not independent. He is not Harrison Ford.


After only a few hours following the apparent gunning down of Lennie, Joey is happily distracted in the carnival atmosphere of Coney Island. He’s getting his picture taken at a booth where you can stick your head out of a hole to make it look like you have a strong man’s body. Joey plays some of the midway games and collects glass bottles on the beach for small change to ride the horses. It’s lackadaisical and loose and there’s not much to keep Joey glued to his dilemma. He sleeps under the pier and tries his best to collect enough bottles to ride the horse again in the morning. There’s only about as much structure to Joey’s adventures as there would be if we were to follow a real seven year old boy around. The free-flowing narrative and organic hand-held camera shots with their cheap 1950s grain adds much texture and believability to Fugitive. Much like de Sica and Satyajit Ray,  Morris and company capture a living documentary style that has a strange unkempt elegance to it. Much of the footage (particularly at the beach) was taken covertly without the “extras” even knowing they were being filmed. Pure guerrilla filmmaking.

Lennie realizes too late that perhaps the joke they played on him was a bit much, but his real motive for finding Joey seems to be the fear of what might happen if mommy found out. He feverishly writes messages on walls, poles, and garbage cans in the hopes that Joey might see them and come home. Lennie is most definitely sorry for what he did even if most of his lesson-learning is dictated by the imminent consequences. But isn’t that how all developing minds learn?

Little Fugitive 4

The Little Fugitive (small admission, I personally prefer Coney Island Kid for the title) reminds me of a grittier take on Hal Roach’s Our Gang series. The story even feels as though it could have been told with folks like Stymie, Spanky, Wheezer, and Petey as the vehicles. Perhaps this is because Roach and the independent filmmakers behind this film understood something about kids that many filmmakers miss. Children are not mere puppets to present adult foibles and paint the tragedy of the spoiling of innocence in the real world. What makes The Little Fugitive such a successful and enjoyable movie is its uncanny ability to present a child’s eye view of the world. It does not condescend. The perspective of an adult is not something to be merely superimposed onto the face a youth. Kids are kids. They are different creatures who understand the world and how it functions in a different light, sometimes a forgotten light. They make mistakes grownups would easily avoid and they solve problems in ways grownups would never think of.

It also hearkens back to a much simpler time. 1950s New York City is a time of the past and this film is a great peek into what a child might have seen. It’s classic slice-of-Americana filmmaking and it’s a breathing postcard of a lost era. Joey walks around with a great big cowboy pistol around his waist the whole time. This was before those orange, plastic safety knobs at the tip. People seem friendlier and more trusting. Wishful thinking? Maybe, but I’d like to live in that wish for awhile. It all feels like how carefree and magical my own childhood was…before they scared us all to death with “Stranger Danger.”

little fugitive 3

The movie is a little rough around the edges, but this in no way detracts from the experience. I submit that much of its crudeness adds much to the presentation. What I like most about The Little Fugitive is how well it captures a child’s world. There is imagination and wonder for the mundane and then neglect for certain consequences, but they ultimately pave the way for much growing. The film does not paint Joey’s adventure as anything profound or moral, but rather as just another chapter in a growing boy’s life. I can almost see an 80 year old Joey recounting the time his brother tricked him into thinking he had killed him and so he spent a few days exploring Coney Island. It’s not played up for dramatic effect, but rather it presents the story in a more subtle and realistic light.

If you like children “lookin’ fo-uh dair bruddahs” and if you like Our Gang or French New Wave or Neo-Realism or independent films than this is a must see.

Zorba and the World Zorbas With You

“Life. Lust. Love. Zorba.”

I first remember seeing Anthony Quinn in Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! (1952), then in J. Lee Thompson’s The Guns of Navarone (1961), and as a bit role villain in the Hope/Crosby flick, Road to Morocco (1942, and my personal favorite of the Road series). Renowned for his scene-stealing exuberance—and what many would dub “overacting”—Quinn made a living out of being larger than life. Appearing in such films as David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, Vincente Minelli’s Lust for Life (1956), and Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954) to name only a few, the Mexican-born actor, Anthony Quinn, was a performer to be reckoned with.

Haulin' ass.

Haulin’ ass.

Although I find all of his performances fun and exciting, I have chosen to highlight one of my favorites. Mihalis Kakogiannis’ 1964 character study, Zorba the Greek (aka Alexis Zorba), is a bewitching cinematic experience. Based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis (who also wrote the amazing Last Temptation of Christ), Zorba the Greek is at once enigmatic and spellbinding. It is also the starring role of Zorba that Anthony Quinn was born to play.

A slightly uptight British bookworm, Basil (Alan Bates from Women in Love and Gosford Park), discovers he has an inheritance on the island of Crete. On the boat to Crete he meets the middle-aged ball of energy, Alexis Zorba (Quinn). Zorba has a zest for life that is so potent and boisterous that Basil feels they have nothing in common, but he takes him on as friend and assistant. Their unlikely friendship (despite frequent ideological differences) proves quite hardy throughout the trials and heartbreaks they face together.

The old world ways.

The old world ways.

The inhabitants of the backwater Greek town where Basil now lives are quite peculiar and occasionally quite bloodthirsty, but Zorba holds Basil’s hand and guides him through the troubles of life and shows him that wherever there is sorrow, there is room for rejoicing. Eventually Basil breaks out of his shell, but as Zorba will teach him, living life to the fullest has its price too. The message Zorba is trying to convey is not one of lifestyle, but one of attitude. Zorba’s cracked wisdom and childish optimism prove quite infectious to not only the characters within the film world, but to moviegoers as well.

Perhaps what struck me most of all when I first saw this movie was the characterization of the village. It is at once warm and welcoming, but there is an undercurrent of suspicion and a history of closed-mindedness (Zorba is somewhat excluded from this circle). Old ladies wait at the bedside of a dying woman like vultures ready to snatch her belongings as soon as she kicks the bucket. There are village customs that seem charming and then some that are barbaric. Sometimes, the way the village conceals some of its feelings and cruelly manifests others reminded me of a Greek Bad Day at Black Rock.



Zorba is as much an oddball to the townsfolk as he is to Basil. His cavalier attitudes represent the purest innocence the little Greek village has to offer. While many are beaten by tragedy and suffering, Zorba takes his sorrows and dances with them. He’s not a perfect character either. He has many faults, but that is one more reason we love him and why Basil is reluctant to see him as an equal.

Composer Mikis Theodorakis—the brilliant composer for two other great films; Costa Gravas’ Z (1969) and Sidney Lumet’s Serpico (1973)—weaves a truly hypnotic score and Oscars deservingly went to Walter Lassally and Vassilis Photopoulis for gorgeous cinematography and art direction. Russian actress Lila Kedrova also received an Oscar for her supporting role as an eccentric French woman trying to retain her youth and dignity in the xenophobic Greek town. Zorba the Greek was also nominated for best screenplay, best director, best picture, and Anthony Quinn was nominated for best actor (but lost to Rex Harrison in George Cukor’s My Fair Lady). Alan Bates plays a good stoic more concerned with keeping up appearances and remaining a spectator on the world rather than a participant. Irene Papas (Z, The Guns of Navarone) gives a tremendous performance in a silent supporting role as the ill-fated object of everyone’s desires. In many ways Zorba the Greek is similar to E. M. Forster’s novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, which juxtaposes uptight British pretensions against wilder more passionate and spontaneous lifestyles of a small Italian village.

When a man is full, what can he do but burst?

When a man is full, what can he do but burst?

In short, Zorba the Greek is a masterpiece. A brilliant and ageless tale with some very fine performances, a great look, and a truly inspiring outlook on life. For fans of the great Anthony Quinn (and dare I say, movies in general) this is a must-see. I hope you check it out and experience the joy that is Alexis Zorba.

Review of Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents (1960), starring Anthony Quinn as an Inuit.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 10, 1009.