Friday, 31 July 2015

THE STORY OF MANKIND












d. Irwin Allen (1957)

We'll start with an announcement: this is the fortieth film I have reviewed on this blog to date, and the first ever to be in colour. Well, I thought it was interesting.  

When I first saw this film at the age of about five or six, it made an indelible impression on me and, for years, I thought it the most incredible epic ever made. Ah, the illusions of youth. Watching it now, this crazy canter through history is clearly cobbled together, with new material filmed on a series of tiny indoor sets heavily supplemented by lots of clips taken from other, much more expensive, films.  

The premise is that mankind has developed a 'super H bomb' around sixty years earlier than expected, so The Supreme Court of Outer Space (yes, that's a thing) holds a tribunal on a piece of mist shrouded celestial wasteland to ascertain whether mankind is capable of holding such power, or whether they should be encouraged to simply detonate this doomsday weapon, thereby extinguishing human life once and for all.

On the side of man: Ronald Colman, distinguished in his London Fog overcoat, tweed hat and silver sliver of facial hair. The prosecuting counsel is Mr. Scratch, the Devil himself, played suavely and convincingly by the superlative Vincent Price in a morning coat and a pair of red silk gloves*. The trial consists of Colman saying how wonderful humans are, and Price saying how terrible they are. Sometimes this is done in reverse order. We see the whole history of the world played out in a semi ironic, high camp series of vignettes starring a variety of ageing stars: the forty something Hedy Lamarr plays the teenage Joan of Arc, for instance; an ancient looking Peter Lorre is the twenty something Nero. As you might expect, Harpo Marx is Isaac Newton**.

Ultimately, the tribunal fails to come to a decision: mankind is as good as it is evil; as noble as it is savage. A pretty fair assessment, really. The court is adjourned and scheduled to reconvene at a later date when, according to Judge Cedric Hardwicke as he glares down the barrel of the camera at the audience, the verdict will be 'UP TO YOU', i.e. stop messing about with nuclear bombs, you jumped up tools.

*  Price is accompanied by his 'apprentice', Nick Cravat: acrobat, mime, circus colleague and film co-star of Burt Lancaster, as well as the nimble fellow in the furry suit on the wing of the plane in the incredible Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. 

**  Chico and Groucho also have roles, as a Monk and Peter Minuit, respectively. Astoundingly, it didn't occur to anyone on the production to put them in a scene together, which really is a crime against the Universe.

Friday, 24 July 2015

THE MAD MAGICIAN













d. John Brahm (1954)

It's the late 19th century, and curly haired Don Gallico (Vincent Price, one of the patron saints of this blog) wants to be a stage magician but, because he is a humble and rather nervous sort of person, he is stuck making tricks for other less talented and far less pleasant performers. When Don's big chance is ruined by his horrible. grasping employer (a man who also stole Gallico's wife and keeps bragging about it), something pings under the pressure (it might located be in his eye, which keeps twitching) and he becomes a committed maniac, wearing homemade masks and murdering people all over the place: by buzz saw, by strangulation, by cremation. 

Like a lot of murderers, once he solves his first problem by killing someone he soon finds that he becomes extremely busy. As the film progresses he becomes less sympathetic, more ruthless, increasingly unhinged and, because this film was originally made in 3D, he also has to keep throwing stuff at the audience, too - playing cards, water, flames, sawdust - it's just a relief that there are no sex scenes.

The Mad Magician is reminiscent of director John Brahm's earlier film Hangover Square (1939), even down to the scene where Gallico disposes of a corpse using a handily placed bonfire. The great Mr. Price gets to play several roles under a variety of latex disguises but reserves his best characterisation for 'The Great Gallico', a shy guy who is simply too nice for show business, and too crazy to live. 

The film is also worth watching if you have ever wondered what Zsa Zsa Gabor did before she became Zsa Zsa Gabor: she was an actress, apparently, though not so you'd notice. 

Friday, 17 July 2015

THE MOLE PEOPLE













d. Virgil W. Vogel (1956) 


The Mole People is a legendary b-movie, a sort of barometer of the psychotronic. It's cheap, ridiculous and has men grown dressed up as moles - but it is also inventive and entertaining and commits itself fully to the endeavour. There is no smirking, no camp, no sense that this film (about the discovery of a race of evil Sumerians who have survived for 5,000 years by living under an active volcano) is anything other than the greatest story ever told. This sense of purpose, this dogged belief, is essential in the creation of great b-movies, as any doubt or irony always shows on screen.

There's very little to dislike about this film, even if you're a historian, a Sumerian or, perhaps, even a mole. A catalogue of simple pleasures: the brief prologue in which the enthusiastic and engaging Dr. Frank Baxter runs through some hollow earth theories and introduces the film as a fable; the Sumerians themselves who still wear ancient costumes and have genetically mutated after years underground to become albinos, so much so that they are terrified by electric torches and are burned to death by direct sunlight; the fact that they have enslaved the original inhabitants of the volcano, the Molemen,  who are whipped by the Sumerians constantly as they scrabble around in the dirt looking for the mushrooms that everyone eats for every meal EVERY DAY. I was also entertained by the interpretive dance set to an accompaniment of gongs and bongos and, perhaps most of all, I enjoyed Alan  Napier* as the High Priest, caked in white face powder and wearing rheumy contacts and a straggly moustache, beautifully declaiming his lines with the dignity and diction of a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. 

I am smiling rather than sneering and quite sincere when I say that this is one of the high watermarks of low quality films. I absolutely guarantee that you will enjoy it more than anything else on telly this evening, so why not give it a go? 

* Best known as Alfred the Butler from the Adam West Batman series.

Friday, 10 July 2015

HITLER'S CHILDREN













d. Edward Dmytryk (1943)


At first I wondered why, in 1943, US audiences were watching a film about the dangers of Nazism set in 1938, especially as America had already been at war with Germany for two years. Then I thought about the timing and realised that it was probably preparing them for D-Day: when there is sacrifice ahead, it's a good idea to remind people what it's all for.

In order to connect with audiences, the film uses a handsome boy and a pretty girl, a sort of Nazi Romeo and Juliet: he is a German born in America; she is an American born in Germany, and they love each other, despite their political differences. In the early days, it's picnics and sing-a-longs in the stereotypical hale and hearty way of the old Fatherland, all jolly rucksacks and strudel. When Hitler begins his conquests, however, things change. The boy joins the SS and the girl, because she has 'German blood' is sent to a re-education centre for lessons in National Socialism. 

Being a decent, freedom loving girl she doesn't take to the teachings of Herr Hitler one bit, of course, so is publicly whipped and scheduled for enforced sterilisation. The boy, belatedly realising that Nazism is as fucked up a philosophy as you can get, tries to save her, but is arrested. He has time to denounce Hitler at his trial before he and the girl are shot.

Heavy stuff, but then what else could it be? A light musical would have been completely inappropriate. Behind the fractured love story we occasionally get glimpses of other heinous policies: the rounding up of Jewish schoolchildren, no doubt destined for concentration camps; talk of the extermination of the physically and mentally impaired to further the bloodline of 'the master race'; the suggestion that it is the girl's duty to get pregnant by an approved Aryan at the soonest opportunity, no relationship required. The overall picture is of a sick, almost surreally inhuman society presided over by sadists who are either thugs or pseudo-intellectuals or an unsavoury combination of the two. 

Hitler's Children was an absolutely enormous box office success. Propaganda is always propaganda, of course, no matter which side it comes from, no matter how many facts (or lies) it contains. It's purpose is to create the collective frame of mind where it is okay to hate, to fight, to kill, to die - and this film, with its emphasis on the way the Nazis stamp down on personal expression and individual liberty, chimed absolutely with American audiences. They've always been very big on the old freedom thing in the US of A - for Americans, anyway.         

Friday, 3 July 2015

GIRLS IN PRISON












d. Edward L. Cahn (1956)

There’s not much to distinguish Girls In Prison as anything other than a very generic b-movie: a mass stabbing, perhaps, a slight allusion to lesbianism, an earthquake that facilitates an escape, a prison chaplain who is a bit too interested in one of the new inmates. Much of the film is just as you’d expect, and given the advanced ages of most of the cast, the definition of 'girls' is fairly loose, to say the least.

The best thing in it is Adele Jergens as Jenny, top dog and matriarch of the prison. Jenny is fairly genial most of the time, even likeable and kind, but is hard as nails when it comes down to tin tacks, a gun wielding, wavy peroxided, scarlet lipped force of nature. She’s absolutely gorgeous, even when chewing gum whilst simultaneously smoking a cigarette (actually, especially when chewing gum whilst simultaneously smoking a cigarette). The film would be almost insufferably dull without her.
After an hour and twenty minutes of molasses slow mayhem, the film climaxes in a bruising brawl and a gun fight. It’s a good way to end any drama, I find. After the dust has settled and the wonderful Jenny has gone the way of all pistol packing mama's, we end on a close up of a church steeple while some quasi-religious music plays, as if God has in some way been responsible for the restoring the balance of law and order. Rubbish. God was not responsible, although maybe he set off the earthquake to punish some other sinners in the general area. As for the rest, omniscient he may be, but micro management is not exactly his style.