Blu-ray: James Whale’s ‘The Old Dark House’

James Whale followed up his iconic horror classic Frankenstein (1931) with the strange, sly, and sardonic The Old Dark House (1932), part haunted house terror and part spoof executed with baroque style.

Cohen Film Collection

Boris Karloff (fresh from his star-making turn in Frankenstein) takes top billing in the supporting role of Morgan, the scarred, mute butler with a penchant for drink and a vicious mean streak, but the film is really an ensemble piece. Melvin Douglas is the wisecracking romantic lead caught in a raging thunderstorm in the Welsh mountains with bickering couple and traveling companions Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart. They take refuge in the creepy old manor of the title, lorded over by the gloriously flamboyant Ernest Thesiger and his dotty, fanatical sister Eva Moore, when a landslide wipes out the goat-trail of a mountain road, and are later joined by more stranded passengers: a hearty Charles Laughton, whose Lancashire working class accent and blunt manners sets him apart from the social graces of his companions, and his “friend” Lillian Bond, a chorus girl with a chirpy sunniness in the gloomy situation.

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DVDs for 8/4/09 – Ladies of Screwball and Italian Culture Wars

Jean Arthur is one of the greats of screwball comedy, at once the girl next door and the sardonic smart cookie, the idealist and the sophisticate rolled into a snappy, sassy, yet still romantic package. Sony has come up with a nice way of showcasing some of the lesser known films by their marquee players in their new Icons of Screwball Comedy collection. The first two volumes debut with a quartet of films on two discs, each volume spotlighting a pair of actresses with two films apiece: Volume One featuring Arthur and Rosalind Russell, Volume Two with Irene Dunne and Loretta Young.

Jean Arthur leaves lipstick traces on her co-stars
Jean Arthur leaves lipstick traces on her co-stars

Jean Arthur had been more than ten years in the business, bouncing between stage and screen, when she made If You Could Only Cook (1935), but she had only recently come into her own as a leading lady, a talented comedienne and a formidable actress with a personality that bursts out of the frame. She’s second billed to Herbert Marshall, who plays an auto company president frustrated by a conservative board of directors and about to marry a woman he clearly doesn’t realize is all wrong for him. Marshall may have been no matinee idol – he was ten years older than Arthur and looked even older, with his thinning hair and doughy frame – but he was one smooth, suave, elegant leading man, a real class act with a wonderfully wry and underplayed sense of humor. He’s the society gent without the aristocratic snootiness and he seems to sense a kindred spirit in Joan (Arthur), who meets while she scours the want ads in the park. Before he knows, he’s posing not just as her husband but as a butler and takes a job serving a nouveau riche gangster (Leo Carrillo) with gourmet tastes. It’s a light little trifle of a romantic comedy with larger than life characters who carry the film for director William A. Seiter. It’s a treat watching Marshall get tips from his butler without a trace of self-consciousness and it’s not hard to see his attraction to Arthur, who is all spunk and street smarts but drops her no-nonsense front when flustered by the pangs of romance.

It’s paired with Too Many Husbands (1940), with Arthur top billed over Fred MacMurray and Melvyn Douglas (the husbands of the title). It’s a pretty predictable set-up (lost at sea husband comes back to find wife remarried – to his business partner, no less) and a fairly conventional script, based on a play by W. Somerset Maugham, of all things. The minor pleasures come from Arthur’s sly delight in watching the two men compete for her affections. The two-disc set also includes a pair of Rosalind Russel comedies: the original screen version of My Sister Eileen (1942), co-starring Brian Aherne and Janet Blair, and She Wouldn’t Say Yes (1945) with Lee Bowman, both directed by Alexander Hall.

The gem of the collection is on Volume Two: Theodora Goes Wild (1936), one of the great comedies of the thirties. Irene Dunne is magic as small town girl Theodora Lynn, a grown woman living under the suffocating strictures of her moralistic aunts. She vents her frustrations and indulges in her fantasies of uninhibited living by writing (under a pseudonym) a scandalous novel that she is forced to condemn when her own town paper starts serializing it. Melvyn Douglas is pure, unbound charm and impish attitude as the social butterfly determined to “free” Theodora from her double life and unleash her inhibitions. He succeeds all too well and she moves to New York to return the favor: it turns out self-styled artist Michael Grant doesn’t live the life he preaches. He’s an unhappily married man playing at bachelor while careful to keep out of the paper, lest he tarnish his politician father’s image. I would never have pegged Richard Boleslawski for a sense of humor, let alone a talented director of comedy, but he masterfully guides his cast through Sidney Buchman’s sparkling screenplay. “There’s nothing more deadly than innocence on the manhunt,” remarks one New York observer as Theodora embraces the reputation of her alter-ego and tramples through the polite manners and paper-thin veil of appearances of New York society. The film hammers the small-town hypocrisy much harder than the parallel high society double standards (gossiping biddies jumping on every scandal they pretend to abhor is an easy target), but it’s still a fun double reflection when it’s Dunne blowing through the social events of New York’s high and mighty. Her spirit is adorable, her laugh is to die for and her drive is commendable. This is screwball at its finest. The set also features Dunne and Charles Boyer in Together Again (1944) and Loretta Young in The Doctor Takes a Wife (1940) and A Night to Remember (1942).
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