The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode Two – yeah, I did it again.

Sometimes this is just easier and more fun than writing long reviews.

What follows are some of the last several films I have watched. Perhaps, just to show that I do take in a fairly wide range of cinema. Perhaps something more sinister. Perhaps you’ll never know and me and your cat are in cahoots. They are listed in ascending order of what I thought of them. Kindly interact with this post if you feel I have misordered the movies.

Oh No:

“Why are a lot of my movies showing up on this list of disasters?”

This was actually a fairly good bunch of movies so luckily the “bad” will be short. Knowing (2009) is so almost bad it might as well count as bad. It stars the infamous Nicolas Cage (Adaptation, Con Air) and was directed by Alex Proyas (The Crow, I Robot, but I’d say it’s Dark City that keeps him on the radar). The world might be ending and somebody knew all the key dates for major world disasters and recorded them years ago. Knowing has a lot of interesting ideas floating around in it but somehow it can never feel like something more than an improved Left Behind or a not as good Signs (sorry, spoilers, if you’re picking up the clues). It’s mostly almost bad, but more bad than good yet still sort of interesting. Ah, just watch it and you tell me. I don’t think it deserved to be as critically panned as it was. It’s probably on par with most crappy thrillers that get decent reviews.

Meh and/or Misguided:

“Dear Lord, make some better Christian movies.”

So I was a little disappointed with Androcles and the Lion (1952). Perhaps it was partially because I did not realize it was going to be a comedy. Maybe I didn’t think anybody besides Mel Brooks would stage a comedy in a coliseum. Unlike Brooks, however, the comedy is very sweet and there really isn’t any edge. I’m a fan of Alan Young (Mr. Ed, The Time Machine, and the voice of Scrooge McDuck) and he’s okay here. Victor Mature (The Robe, Samson and Delilah) I’ve never been wild about. I think it’s his face. Jean Simmons (Spartacus) is pretty and Elsa Lancaster (The Bride of Frankenstein, Murder By Death) is a hammy annoying wife lady. Robert Newton (Oliver Twist, Around the World in 80 Days) plays the most interesting character…and he’s still fairly simple. Finally Maurice Evans (Planet of the Apes) is Caesar. Decent cast, no? That’s not the problem. This sword and sandal show plays like a bad Sunday school lesson. It has a very juvenile tone. I’d say maybe it’s just a kid’s movie, but then there’d still be really boring parts the kids would want to fast-forward through (the Mature-Simmons romance for one). Ultimately more cheesy than purposely funny and the tacked on spirituality schtick just does not fly or seem believable. In fact, it feels a little insulting. The lion costume at the end is pretty jarringly awful too.

“Any of you clowns seen ‘Dumbland? It’s friggin’ hilarious'”

I am a fan of David Lynch (Elephant Man, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire) but this one I’ve never fully gotten along with. I re-watched Dune (1984) because I remembered not liking it as a kid, but a friend kept insisting I needed to see it again. I can honestly say I respect it more as an adult, and I really admire Lynch’s guts in making a totally anti-Star Wars sci-fi flick when people were only craving more Star Wars, but I still don’t think it works. This translation of the dense Frank Herbert novel is emotionless, bizarre, murky, and downright incomprehensible. It’s got some great visuals and some killer guitar riffs (particularly when they ride the sandworms into battle. That’s cool), and the cast of Lynch regulars is there, but nothing clicks with the story and the voiceover internal monologues feel really inappropriate. Kyle MacLachlan (Blue Velvet), Virginia Madsen (Sideways), Brad Dourif (Wise Blood), Sean Young (Blade Runner), José Ferrer (A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy), Linda Hunt (Silverado), Max von Sydow (Minority Report), Jack Nance (Eraserhead), Everett McGill (Twin Peaks), Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: TNG), Sting and others are all there, but more just blank faces in wild costumes than characters (except for Dourif who’s always on his own wavelength). Dune is an epic that sports incredible production design and dark tone, but Lynch is better when he’s more focused and intimate I think. Originally Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, The Holy Mountain) was supposed to direct this behemoth with Pink Floyd and Salvador Dalí aiding in the production. What a gloriously surreal trainwreck that would have been! Maybe worse than Lynch’s take, but I’d want to see it.

“Snuffy? Like Snuffleupagus?”

Spike Lee is a talented guy. Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing are masterpieces. I wanted to like Crooklyn (1994) more. It has a lot going for it. The story of a spunky young black girl growing up 1970s New York City directed by Spike Lee should be great. It’s colorful and actually has a gentler charm and sweetness than he’s ever used before and Alfre Woodard (Star Trek: First Contact, The Piano Lesson) gives a wonderful performance as the struggling mother of five rowdy kids and wife to a deadbeat musician (Delroy Lindo, Get Shorty), but it’s also episodic, melodramatic, and contrived at times. It’s a movie I enjoyed in segments, but the whole eluded me. I still have no idea why all the footage when Troy goes down south to live with her awful aunt is squished (because the atmosphere is stifling? We get it, but it looks terrible). Not bad, just so-so and I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that despite some contrivances it does seem to have a heart. I’m just sad because it could have been a lot better.

Guilty Pleasures:

“It’s a comedy!” —“No! This is serious!”

I kinda like the old hokey Flash Gordon serials with Buster Crabbe. They’re silly and dated and very cheesy, but there’s a vintage charm and weird energy about them. The film adaptation directed by Mike Hodges (Get Carter) is a weird mixture that is so uneven and odd that I kinda like it. Flash Gordon (1980) is a mess from start to finish. Some of the cast and crew seemed to think it was a comedy, others a very serious drama, and still others just found great camp in it. The production, sets, and costumes (like Dune) are a lot of fun and very in step with the original series, but with a much bigger budget. I was excited when I found out Queen did the theme songs, but it sounds like they were just phoning it in. The acting goes from bad to silly to campy to deadly serious. The tone is all over the map, but that’s the main reason I liked it. Sometimes things not working really makes it work. The cast includes folks like Max von Sydow (The Virgin Spring), Topol (Fiddler on the Roof), Timothy Dalton (The Rocketeer), Ornella Muti (Oscar), and the king of jovial hamminess, Brian Blessed (Hamlet)—here Blessed is a boisterous winged man whose garments seem to consist primarily of strategically placed belts. Still not as good as Barbarella or Starcrash but it’s that type of movie.

“You’re happy. I hate that.” *throws folder at temp*

Today George Huang’s Swimming With Sharks (1994) would be quickly forgotten, but as an early nineties low-key indie type movie it mostly works. Kevin Spacey (American BeautySe7en) plays Meryl Streep’s character from The Devil Wears Prada. He is Buddy Ackerman, a manipulative, megalomaniacal, malevolent dingbat who happens to be an important Hollywood producer. He psychologically and emotionally bullies and abuses his naive bumpkin assistant (Frank Whaley, The Doors and Buddy Faro, remember that show? The one with Dennis Farina?) so much that eventually something must be done. The assistant fights back. Told in flashbacks Swimming With Sharks is half dark comedy and half revenge thriller and it half works as both. I liked it somehow despite it’s cliches…maybe they weren’t as cliche then. It reminded me a little of Suicide Kings with Christopher Walken. It’s a bleak and cynical view of the Hollywood system, but perhaps not entirely inaccurate. Watch it for Spacey’s delightfully wicked performance.

“I know. I know. We’ve all done better.”

I watched this next one because I like Jack Lemmon (The Apartment, The Out of Towners) and I like Walter Matthau (Bad News Bears, Hopscotch). The Front Page (1974) is a double remake (but the first screen version that kept all the swearing) directed by Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot) and if it looks and feels like a stage play…it’s because it was (although far better a transition than Rhinoceros). Lemmon is a retiring reporter about to be married to Susan Sarandon (Rocky Horror Picture Show), but his irascible chief editor (Matthau) doesn’t want to lose him. The trouble kicks in when, on his way out, he gets caught up in the story of his career and can’t let his buddy reporters get the scoop so he bounces back and forth between leaving for his woman and staying for his story. After a bumpy first act I must admit the movie picked up after about the halfway point and got more interesting. It’s a lesser Wilder picture and it does feel pretty stagey, but it has a few decent moments that make it worth it. Charles Durning (O Brother Where Art Thou?), Austin Pendleton (My Cousin Vinny), Harold Gould (The Sting), and Carol Burnett (Annie) co-star. Not great, but you could do worse.

“Good-bye, Jeeves. I die. I’ll see you at the finale.”

My last guilty pleasure was The Ghoul(1933). It’s one of those movies that’s hard for me not to like. Boris Karloff (Frankenstein, How the Grinch Stole Christmas) is a dying archaeologist (or something) who has ensured his immortality using ancient Egyptian magic, so long as his faithful butler (Ernst Thesiger, The Bride of Frankenstein) can do what he is told immediately after his death. It’s your typical shadow enshrouded haunted house movie and it moves a little slow, but it’s got fun atmosphere and pretty solid finale. Sir Cedric Hardwicke (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Kathleen Harrison (Scrooge) co-star. My only real beef is that Karloff is barely in it.

Officially Good: 

“Paris blows.”

I need to watch more African movies. I say that every time I watch one. America has pretty easy access to European and Asian cinema, but Africa’s a different story. I’ve only seen a few films by celebrated Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène (Xala, Moolaadè) and Black Girl (1966) was his first feature. It’s rough around the edges, but it’s a solid movie. A young Senegalese girl named Diouana is hired by a white French family to be a nanny, but when they relocate back to France everything changes. Diouana was looking forward to seeing Europe, but she is relegated to the house and must be a common servant. Her pride and misfortune make her increasingly despondent and her deteriorating attitude sets her at odds with her employer. Black Girl has some delicate nuances to it that make it more interesting than it might have been. The last act is what got me the most, but I couldn’t ruin it for you.

“Silence. The ‘Munsters’ is coming on.”

Is E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire(2000) a good movie? Some might debate the point, but I sure liked it. It starts with a simple premise: what if German director F. W. Murnau had made a Faustian deal with the devil to make the world’s greatest horror movie and Max Schreck really was a vampire? The reason why this works is because it is treated with a twisted sense of humor in addition to the spookiness. It’s a weird, claustrophobic, and eerily intimate movie and if you know your movie history it’s pretty funny and entertaining. Willem Dafoe (Boondock Saints, Clear and Present Danger) gives a mesmerizing performance as Max Schreck the insatiable vampire and John Malkovich (Being John Malkovich) Malkoviches away as an amoral, crazed Murnau. Udo Kier (Manderlay), Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride), and Eddie Izzard (The Cat’s Meow) co-star. In many ways Shadow of the Vampire is way more interesting than remaking Nosferatu. Besides, Werner Herzog already did a pretty great remake in 1979. This is an enticing alternate history of the making of the definitive vampire movie, Nosferatu. Creaky, spellbinding film even if it does make Murnau out to be a snuff film director. Ironic Murnau made a version of Faust in 1926?

“I agree. Madeline Kahn needs to be celebrated more today. She was a talented and underrated comedienne.”

Peter Bogdanovich made some good movies back in the day. The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, and such are pretty great. What’s Up, Doc? (1972) is a charming throwback to the screwball romantic comedies of 1930s. Barbra Streisand (Hello, Dolly!) aggressively (yet playfully) tries to get the attentions Ryan O’Neal (Barry Lyndon) who is engaged to Madeline Kahn (Blazing Saddles) while several identical suitcases keep switching hands. Hijinks and hilarity ensue. Plenty of good one-liners, funny characters, slapstick gags, cartoon violence, and a fantastic car chase at the end make this worth a look. Kenneth Mars (Young Frankenstein), Michael Murphy (Manhattan), John Hillerman (Magnum P. I.), Randy Quaid (Christmas Vacation), and Austin Pendleton (Finding Nemo) all make memorable appearances. If you like Doris Day/Rock Hudson comic romances and zany thirties mayhem and chic seventies style then check this one out.

Greatness Beckons: 

“I say, Billy Bob Thornton and John Heder? Well that jolly well doesn’t sound like a good time at all.”

The original School for Scoundrels (1960) is a lot of fun. I mainly watched it for the cast which included the inimitable Terry-Thomas (It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Those Daring Young Men and Their Jaunty Jalopies), the illustrious Alistair Sim (Scrooge, The Ruling Class), and Ian Carmichael (I’m Alright Jack). Henry (Carmichael) is a lowly, innocent peon who wants to be a “one-upman” and get a degree from Mr. S. Potter’s (Sim) school of “Lifemanship.” With this degree he will never be behind and always get the girl and the last word and no one will take advantage of him because he is too busy taking advantage of everyone else. If Henry is Donald Duck then Raymond Delauney (Thomas) is Gladstone Gander in this movie. Delauney is a huge tool and master at one-upmanship and when the two of them are after the same girl (Janette Scott, The Day of the Triffids) it will take all of Potter’s tricks to help Henry be the victor, but Henry still has a stronger moral compass. A funny battle to get the girl full of wicked head games.

“Nyet. It doesn’t look like Johnny Weismuller is down there. It’s safe to drink from this stream.”

Sergei Parajanov (The Color of Pomegranates) is a singularly unique voice in Soviet cinema. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965) was his first big foray into film as a place to truly experiment with what the camera could do. It is an energetically photographed tale of a Carpathian villager who falls in love and is plagued by tragedy and, eventually, sorcery. It is a strange movie, but hypnotic and captivating. We are transported into an almost mythical landscape that begs us to live in the shoes of one lowly man for a spell. Those who see Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors will not soon forget its imagery or its musical rhythms. Watch this before Pomegranates; it’s a much needed stepping stone before entry into the near unclassifiable.

“‘Jurassic Park’ was the ultimate feminist movie.”

I’m a sucker for adventure and despite a slow middle act, the immediately hooking intro and exciting climax make She(1935) a worthy contender in the genre. Produced by Merian C. Cooper (King Kong), She was adapted from H. Rider Haggard’s novel and features some wonderful escapism. When Leo Vincey (nonstop cowboy, Randolph Scott) is given a deliciously enthralling mission from his dying uncle he goes off to search for the lost fountain of youth that his ancestor allegedly discovered 500 years ago. Avalanches and cannibals lead them to a subterranean tribe of people who worship their never-aging female master (“She who must be obeyed”). She believes Leo to be her lover (Leo’s ancestor) from 500 years ago and refuses to let him leave. A fun production with nice sets and fun action. Co-stars Nigel Bruce (Rebecca and frequent Dr. Watson).

“Yeah. I still got it.”

Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds) likes being cool and putting cool people in cool movies doing cool things and although Jackie Brown(1997) might strike one as oddly restrained for a Tarantino flick, it’s actually one of his very best. Sexy blaxploitation star Pam Grier (Coffy, Foxy Brown) is Jackie Brown, a poor stewardess who runs illegal money over the border for cocky arms dealer Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson, Sphere, The Caveman’s Valentine, Die Hard 3). When she gets busted by the fuzz she realizes she has been living in an all too precarious situation and hatches a plan to two-time the cops and Ordell and run away with a bunch of money. It’s a fantastically good crime caper movie that also features a touching love story between Jackie and a sympathetic bail bondsman played by Robert Forster (The Black Hole). Jackie Brown also showcases Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice), Bridget Fonda (The Road to Wellville), and a decidedly odd turn for Robert De Niro (Heat, Raging Bull). And the music chosen for this movie is great!

“Do you forgive me for ‘Pinocchio?'”

As long as we’re talking crime, how about Jim Jarmusch’s (Stranger Than Paradise, Dead Man) movie about three men on the lam in Down By Law (1986). Shot in gritty black and white and giving us a really textured look at New Orleans, Down By Law is the story of three dudes who wind up reluctantly teaming up for  a jailbreak. Cool dudes, Jack and Zack, are played by musicians John Lurie (frequent Jarmusch collaborator) and Tom Waits (Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) and manic Italian immigrant, Roberto, is Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful). It’s gritty, funny, and full of lingering shots that force you to look at them. No fast cuts here. Unyieldingly low-key and pleasantly quiet, this is not a movie for everyone. Lurie, Waits, and Benigni are a lot of fun together. “I scream. You scream. We all scream for ice-cream.”

Another Invigorating Apex:

“Don’t do drugs and stay away from The Blue Angel.”

Sam Wood (A Night at the Opera, The Pride of the Yankees) directed what might just be the best teacher movie ever with Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). Robert Donat (The 39 Steps) is the eponymous Mr. Chips, an aging British school teacher who is being honored for his long years of service. This somewhat sappy movie is told in flashback and hopefully  will make you think differently about all the teachers you had growing up. We see his highs and lows and we come to see Mr. Chips as a complicated person with loves, hopes, dreams, and cares as human as those of his many students. He is a tie to another time. Perhaps it has been my own brief and unexpected experiences as a teacher, but I know you fall in love with schools and kids and you always wonder if you made any difference to them. Goodbye, Mr. Chips feels like a cross between Mr. Holland’s Opus and Kurosawa’s Madadayo, but superior to both of them. It’s sweet and touching and Robert Donat’s performance makes it great. An interesting double-feature with The Blue Angel.

“I hope you like low angles.”

Michael Caine (Sleuth, The Dark Knight) is cool and Britain in the sixties was super-cool. America had westerns, China had kung-fu, and England had spy movies. The Ipcress File (1965) is a deliciously stylish sixties British spy flick with all the right moves from start to finish. It’s not as bleak and hard-nosed as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold but it’s bolder and more believable than most of the James Bond movies. Cold war secrets and double-cross make it a classic tale of espionage, but it’s sumptuous style and kooky artistic angles make it a legend.

“Ah…we had a good run.”

Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertoclucci (1900, Last Tango in Paris) had the rare opportunity to film an anti-communist movie inside of China in The Last Emperor (1987). John Lone (Rush Hour 2) is Pu-Yi, the last emperor of China. His lifetime saw many great and terrible changes. Crowned when he was three years old he is not allowed to leave the Forbidden City—he also is shocked to learn years later that his rule only extends as far as the city’s walls and that the charade continues chiefly for the servants. It’s a fine historical piece that shows the shifting of allegiances, the desperation for significance, and wild journey through many conflicting forms of government. A grand epic production with lots to look at and Peter O’Toole (Becket) and Joan Chen (Twin Peaks) co-star. Interesting double-feature with Scorsese’s Kundun.

“Not even Bruce Campbell could defeat us.”

This was a good bunch of movies overall. Army of Shadows (1969) was a masterpiece that has eluded American audiences for decades. Directed by the great Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samouraï, Le Cercle Rouge), this dense and methodically crafted political thriller ranks up alongside Costa-Gravas’ Z and Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers. During WWII the French Resistance is a shrewd and necessarily surreptitious beast, but when one of their chiefs (Lino Ventura) is betrayed it sets a whole new set of tactics into motion. We are forced to examine the harshness and mundanity of life under the big German microscope. By the end of the film you will have questioned everything. It’s beautifully shot but it’s not a glamorous film. It is a dangerous, cold, and clandestine world where you may have to kill your brother. It’s a real life 1984.

“‘Super Mario Bros.’ never happened.”

Finally—not that it is the best movie on this list, but it was my favorite—is Mona Lisa (1986) directed by Neil Jordan (The Company of Wolves, Interview with the Vampire) and starring a personal favorite of mine, Bob Hoskins (Brazil, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Nixon). George (Hoskins) gets a job driving around a beautiful call girl named Simone (Cathy Tyson) and he gradually develops an affection for her and agrees to help her find a missing girl, not realizing entirely what Simone is all about and how dangerous this new job is. Michael Caine (Zulu, The Italian Job) plays a seedy crime boss and Robbie Coltrane (Goldeneye, Harry Potter) plays George’s artistically bent best friend. Mona Lisa is a great drama and character study and I really was rooting for Hoskins’ character (and he gives a fantastic performance—that was nominated for an Academy Award). Hoskins is always fun to watch but he is in superb form here. The film has a grimy, discomforting sexy vibe to it and it really gives the actors room to play. If I didn’t love it so much it wouldn’t be here.

Whew. I am a huge nerd.

What are the last things you saw? Anything good?

Previous list can be found HERE.

The Inconsequentials 2: Inconsequentialier

You may recall an article I wrote earlier called The Inconsequentials wherein I attempted to circumvent the ubiquitous essentials trope. Rather than plug great films everybody should see because of their power, depth, craftsmanship, and iconic status I chose instead to highlight some pulpier films that might not get as much attention as say It’s a Wonderful Life or Chinatown. I confess that I felt somewhat disingenuous with my previous selections of The Shanghai Express, West of Zanzibar, and White Zombie. Perhaps these films were not obscure enough for the discerning Alternative Chronicle audience, I thought. Hence, I decided to extend my affections once more to the so-called “inconsequential” films of the past. This time, I tried to find movies that might be even less well-known, but still deserving of remembrance for different reasons.

They can’t all be classics, but that does not mean they cannot all entertain.

This time around we will venture into the dense forests of India with Elephant Boy (1937) then take a steamship to a deadly jungle island where they hunt The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and finally we’ll wash up on the suspicious shores of Japan to experience The Wrath of the Gods (1914). So you should know the drill by now. These are movies that might not exactly be considered “essential” viewing, but I challenge you to enjoy them nevertheless. A common theme of interesting race relations lurks in all three of these films and I think it makes them even more worthy of study.

As a huge fan of iconic Indian actor, Sabu (The Thief of the Bagdad, Jungle Book, Black Narcissus) how could I resist plugging his very first movie, Elephant Boy (1937)? Nope, it’s not a prequel to David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. Sabu was one of those special rare cases of a non-white performer who gained notoriety in America and the United Kingdom during the 1930s and 40s. He had a naturally engaging persona and exuberance that was immensely enjoyable to watch. He’s still my favorite Mowgli. Before he played Mowgli in Zoltan Korda’s 1942 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic story, however, he played Toomai of the Elephants. Toomai was another Rudyard Kipling character and the movie was directed by Zoltan Korda and documentary filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty (Nanook of the North). The Flaherty wildlife photography has been praised and it is pretty wonderful—as when the film takes the time to lollygag around a watering hole just observing a playful baby elephant run laps around its reclining mother—but the rest of the movie is just as fun. Toomai (Sabu) is a young elephant driver (Sabu’s father was one himself) and he has a special kinship with his elephant, Kala Nag. He talks to it, scolds it, scrubs it, and climbs all over it like Kala Nag is a giant puppy dog. When Toomai and Kala Nag join a party led by a British gentleman, they journey into the jungle to find wild elephants. Toomai wants to be a great hunter, but the older Indian elephant drivers tease him and say he will never be a great hunter until he sees the elephants dance. Tragedies strike and eventually Toomai must save Kala Nag’s life before it is too late. If he succeeds, Kala Nag will most assuredly repay Toomai with the secrets of the elephants.

Elephant Boy features a great debut performance for Sabu (whose life ended far too soon) and some nice jungle photography. The animal performances are pretty good too. Say what you like about Kipling’s “white man’s burden” form of racism, I still enjoy his writing. I like how in touch he tries to be with the jungle. Elephants are not just elephants for this British author and resident of India. Elephants are “the wise ones.” He captures mystery and wonder in the jungles and beasts and this film attempts the same. Another interesting thing about this movie is that Sabu is the only Indian actor. He is virtually surrounded by white actors in makeup and beards. The other odd thing to note is that the Kala Nag character is essentially selling out his untamed elephant brothers and even after he is antagonized by human captors. Maybe the wild elephants screwed him over and he’s just settling the score. Who knows? Elephant Boy could be the pachyderm equivalent to Get Carter if taken from the animal’s point of view. So why don’t people celebrate this film more? Because Jungle Book was better. The film’s story is only adequate and some might say it hasn’t aged very well, but for Sabu’s charming performance and the great elephant footage, I’d hesitate not to recommend it.

If you like King Kong (1933) then names like Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Ernest B. Schoedsack ought to be familiar to you. Schoedsack (Mighty Joe Young, Dr. Cyclops) co-directed this next project with Irving Pichel. Based on the famous short story by Richard Connell, The Most Dangerous Game (1932) starts with a horrific shipwreck complete with leaks, explosions, sharks, the works. Suck it, Titanic. The last survivor, Bob (Joel McCrea), swims to shore only to discover a jungle island with a castle on it. Upon investigation of said castle he meets the eccentric Russian, Zaroff (a particularly hammy Leslie Banks), and a cadre of mute cossacks acting as butlers. Zaroff introduces Bob to his guests, two former shipwreck survivors, Eve (Fay Wray) and her incessantly inebriated brother Martin (Armstrong). Honestly, Bob seems to be taking the grisly death of all his friends on the ship pretty well, and he doesn’t even seem to be a little perturbed by Zaroff’s odd insistence on ominous secrecy. He likes Eve though. Bob does finally get riled up when Zaroff’s plans are revealed: he’s a manhunter! Tired of the lack of challenge with hunting wild beasts, Zaroff craves a foe who can outsmart him. He has human heads mounted on the wall in his trophy room from his games of “outdoor chess.” Soon the hunt is on and Bob and Eve are set loose in the forest. They set traps for Zaroff, but Zaroff upgrades from bow and arrow to rifle and then he sets the dogs on his prey. The Most Dangerous Game is extremely melodramatic and silly, but the jungle settings are great (it even has the infamous log from King Kong) and the fights are fun. I really liked the castle too.

Yes, it’s hammy and the villain is oh-so-obvious and over-the-top, but I really liked this movie. It’s quick, breezy, pulpy, and fun. No one is going to confuse The Most Dangerous Game with a “great movie” but it does everything it needs to do and it’s entertaining from start to finish. So what’s the weird racial thing in this one? Here it is. It’s Americans vs. disgruntled Russians, right? Well, the head butler-cossack, Ivan, is played by African American actor, Noble Johnson (he’s the chief in King Kong), in white-face and a funny beard. As a big fan of the movies of the 1920s and 1930s, I’m used to seeing white actors in black-face, yellow-face, red-face, etc., but it’s not often you get to see a black guy in a supporting role in white-face. It’s kinda cool in a weird way. This movie obviously gets overlooked living in the shadow of the far superior and grander King Kong, but this more modest film has a lot of the seeds that would grow into Kong and it’s a fun little adventure to boot.

When you hear The Wrath of God what do you think of? Wener Herzog? Carl Theodor Dreyer? Robert Mitchum and Frank Langella? Skip them for now. How about Sessue Hayakawa? The Wrath of the Gods (1914) is a silent film that takes place near the pounding surf of a doomed Japanese shore. Sessue Hayakawa (The Bridge On the River Kwai, Swiss Family Robinson) is a poor fisherman named Yamaki. His daughter, Toya San, is cursed because of an ancestor’s murderous desecration of a temple and so she cannot find love lest the gods unleash their wrath on the village. Toya San (played by Hayakawa’s wife in real life, Tsuru Aoki) renounces her Buddhist faith exclaiming, “I refuse to acknowledge a god who would so unjustly curse the innocent.” This is a huge religious and philosophical statement. One that I’m not sure even the film fully comprehends. When a shipwreck lands an American sailor, Tom Wilson (Frank Borzage), at their doors they take care of him, but soon he and Toya San fall in love. Here’s where things get interesting. Toya San cannot accept his marriage proposal for fear of the curse, but Tom assures her that Jesus Christ will protect them and that his god is stronger than all their Japanese gods. It was at this point I realized that guys will say anything to get sex but his motives are purer than that, I think. He genuinely loves her and so he evangelizes to her so he can marry her. Seeing that they can be happy together, Yamaki accepts Christianity and builds a wooden cross to replace the figure of Buddha. Naturally, the small village community is furious when they get wind of this idiot American staining their way of life. They murder Toya San’s father and torch their house and then the whole island erupts and rocks and flames poor down on everyone. The old Japanese seer gets killed in a volcanic avalanche and the island burns and the entire town is wiped out, but Tom and Toya San escape. As the Japanese villagers die in the distance, Tom says, “Your gods may be powerful, Toya San, but mine has proved his omnipotence. You are saved to perpetuate your race.” Wow. Culturally insensitive much?

The implications in this film are reason enough to watch this! Seriously! This is crazy, crazy stuff! It was based on an actual disaster that struck Sakura-Jima in 1914, the biggest Japanese eruption in the century. The dramatic elements were based on an old Japanese legend, but the implications here… This is not a love story, this is the gods at war. Each god has a very different nature and personality it seems, yet they appear to both wield authority despite their seemingly distant and abstract portrayal. The American guy has no idea how serious his infringement on their culture is. He just wants the girl and he has a simple faith in Christianity. He says Christ will protect them if she believes. Which he does and they are saved. The seer says that the Japanese gods will destroy the island if Toya-San marries. Which they do and everyone is killed. Not to say there isn’t a clear pro-American/pro-Christian agenda here, but I think there is plenty more to unpack in this story. It presents two very different world views. The ignorant, meddling, naive, and optimistic Christian American all in favor of New World ideals and individualism is in stark contrast to the traditionalist, isolationist, and superstitious mob mentality of the Japanese fishing village who live in fear and follow strict ritual. Both are caricatures, but both make Toya San’s choice that much easier to go with the flat white guy. He’s nice to her and says she won’t be cursed. Who would you go with?

Another really cool thing about this movie is that the Asian people are PLAYED BY ASIAN PEOPLE. The Wrath of the Gods was made early enough (1914) that there was still some diversity in American films. No yellow-face in this film. Another really fascinating thing is that, unlike Madame Butterfly copies, the Japanese girl gets the white guy in the end and doesn’t die. Actor Frank Borzage and actress Tsuru Aoki even share an onscreen kiss. Miscegenation laws be damned! This sort of interracial romantic representation would be banned later on in Hollywood and hurt the careers of people like Anna May Wong. No one remembers this movie today because it is a silent movie with no big, famous names in it. Hayakawa was a fine actor and he made dozens of films in both the sound era and the silent, but he is not as famous as Valentino, Pickford, Chaney, or Fairbanks. This is a strange little movie, particularly in its representation of foreign relations, but it’s only good and not great and so it gets swept under the carpet.

So why do I keep doing this? Watching these films that are good but not great and recommend them? It is because I’d hate to think of some of these fine movies being forgotten or missed by people who might enjoy them. Like The Shanghai Express, West of Zanzibar, and White Zombie which I loved and featured folks like Marlene Dietrich, Lon Chaney, Sr., and Bela Lugosi; Elephant Boy, The Most Dangerous Game, and The Wrath of Gods are not so off the beaten path that even the most nominal of film buff couldn’t enjoy them. Sabu, Fay Wray, and Sessue Hayakawa are still pretty big. Next time maybe I’ll try to find even smaller movies. Until then enjoy these titles.

http://www.moviemartyr.com/1932/mostdangerousgame.htm

http://www.britmovie.co.uk/films/Elephant-Boy/

http://www.listal.com/list/filmography-robert-j-flaherty

http://www.filmfan.com/pages/memorial_wray.html

http://furuhonjoe.blog137.fc2.com/blog-entry-5.html

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” June 22, 2011