The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

Everyone knows the outline of the Robin Hood story.  Robin is a Saxon nobleman who fights to avenge the oppression that the Saxons suffer at the hands of their Norman overlords.  He steals from the rich and gives to the poor.  He is a superb archer.  The story goes that while King Richard is absent on the Crusade his brother John uses the circumstance to overtax and terrorize the Saxon population.  The local tyrant for this story is the Sheriff of Nottingham who hunts relentlessly for Robin.  The happy ending is Richard’s return to England.

In this Warner Brothers’ version Sir Guy of Gisbourne, played by Basil Rathbone inherits the activities usually given to the Sheriff of Nottingham and is Robin Hood’s primary enemy.  Robin is iconically portrayed by Errol Flynn in his most famous and most successful part.  And his love interest, the Maid Marian Fitzwalter is played by Olivia de Havilland.  Rounding out the major parts are Claude Rains as Prince John, Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck and Alan Hale as Little John.  But many of the smaller parts are also ably performed by a crew of excellent character actors.

Robin Hood’s heroics and acrobatics are generously sprinkled throughout the film and swashbuckling is a word that might as well have been invented for this movie.  Robin and his merry men swing on vines through Sherwood Forest, scale castle walls, and sword fight their way up and down stone staircases with the greatest of ease.  Robin can shoot backward from a galloping horse and hit his foes with arrows as they gallop along in the dark.  And of course, the feat of splitting an arrow with an arrow in the bulls’ eye is called a “Robin Hood.”  And so, it becomes the climax of yet another chapter in the film.  Robin fearlessly confronts his enemies right in their strongholds and only once is captured.  But on the brink of being hanged he is rescued by his men and returns to Sherwood in triumph.  And finally, when King Richard returns to England in disguise, Robin saves both him and Marian from the murderous plots of Prince John.

And in the spirit of the happy ending Robin kills Sir Guy in a sword fight, restores Richard to the throne and is betrothed to Marian with the king’s blessings.  Because this is 1938 a certain part of the reason for this movie is the pro-British sentiment that was being sponsored by the US government to counter the rise of Nazi Germany.  But it really isn’t necessary to justify the regard that this movie received at its release.  It actually is a remarkably stirring film.  Errol Flynn embodies the swashbuckling hero and Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains positively exude villainy and malice.  As I mentioned earlier, all of the bit players are excellent and the script is crisp and the stunts wonderfully choreographed.  It is an altogether lively and spirited romp.

If you’ve never seen this movie, I suggest that you remedy that deficiency as soon as you get the chance.  Very highly recommended for old and young alike.

Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

This was a British production based on the stage play of the same name by George Bernard Shaw.  It is a fictionalized account of Julius Caesar’s actual campaign in Egypt during the Roman Civil War.  Caesar had defeated his former ally Pompey in a battle at Pharsalus and pursued him into Egypt.  The Egyptians inform Caesar that they have assassinated Pompey and so he is left with the task of deciding whether Cleopatra or her younger brother Ptolemy will be the ruler of Egypt.

The play presents Cleopatra as a childlike woman who combines vivacity, intelligence and cruelty in equal measures.  As opposed to the actual sexual relationship between the historical Caesar and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar is presented as an avuncular figure trying to teach Cleopatra how to grow into the responsibilities of a queen.  And over the course of the stories she does grow.  We see her go from a selfish child into a shrewd player who uses her relationship to Caesar to destroy her enemies and get what she wants.

Claude Rains as Caesar is remarkably amiable and if the real Caesar had been as pleasant you could imagine him having avoided all those daggers in the Senate that day in 44 B.C.  G.B. Shaw’s script gives him any number of wonderful lines and speeches.  They combine wit, philosophy and humanity.

Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra is charming both to look at and to listen to.  She is given free rein to indulge herself and the audience with the spectacle of a child who thinks herself a goddess and a beast.  And she portrays both.  She can be delightful and winning or she can be a heartless murderess dripping venom from her fangs.

The supporting cast surround us with the spectacle of a “swords and sandals” epic with Roman legions and Macedonian phalanxes squaring off in the sands of Egypt.  We see the burning of the Library of Alexandria and cavalry charges across the desert.  The gruff but powerful Roman soldiers are contrasted to the cultured but ineffective Egyptian nobles.

Caesar and Cleopatra are still immortal names that stand for power, strength and passion.  Their story can’t help but fire the imagination.  But it’s also clear that G.B. Shaw is using the Romans as a stand in for the British Empire of his day.  The dynamism of the Romans is shown to be the reason for their dominance of the older, more cultured but less powerful nations that surround them.  And Caesar, the confident, competent and intelligent man is the prime example of this power.  But we know that in just a few years Caesar will be dead and the Roman world will be plunged into civil war.  The comedy of Caesar and Cleopatra will become the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra.  But that is no different than the First and Second World Wars that obliterated the British Empire in the modern world.  And it doesn’t prevent us from marveling at the courage and daring that planted the British flag on every continent and archipelago on this planet.

Shaw has given us this sunny story of court intrigue, war and a pretty girl.  It is amusing and diverting and allows us to enjoy his witty script and the considerable acting skills of Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh.  Recommended for those who enjoy history, the stage or both.

Universal Classic Monster Movies – An OCF Classic Movie Review – Part 4 – Wolfman

Re-posted from October 2017

 

Nowadays urban fantasy has gotten all highfalutin with a bunch  of flavors of wolf creatures.  There are werewolves and lycanthropes and loup garous and lycans and blutbaden and all other sub-categories of wolf metamorphosing humans.  Back in the day there were just werewolves.  And the most famous case was Larry Talbot.

Larry was a British ex-pat living in America.  He left home after a disagreement with his father.  His father was a titled Lord living on the family estate.  But when Larry’s older brother died it was time for the prodigal son to return and take up his family responsibility as the heir apparent.  As luck would have it, Larry’s arrival home coincided with the arrival of a troop of gypsies outside of the local village.  And it was at the gypsy camp that Larry would begin his personal exploration of nocturnal non-domestic canine/human feeding habits.  Larry is attacked by a werewolf who during the day is Bela the gypsy fortune teller (interestingly played by Bela Lugosi).  Bela wounds Larry but is himself killed by Larry using a silver headed walking stick.  The head of the stick is, of course, shaped like a wolf’s head.  Larry is carried back to his home where he survives his wound which heals in the shape of a pentagram (the sign of the werewolf!).  The killing of Bela becomes part of a police investigation and Larry is suspected but being a nobleman, he is not pestered by arrest or even having to appear before a magistrate.  The police inspector is forced to come visit him at the manor and all deference to his status maintained.  Meanwhile Larry is starting to feel funny and the next night he turns into a werewolf and goes on a killing spree.  After this he is desperate to believe that he is only suffering from nightmares and delusions but the evidence starts mounting up against him.  At one point during one of his nocturnal hunts, he is caught in a leg trap.  And here he is saved by Bela’s mother.  The old gypsy lady feels responsible for Larry’s plight and recites a spell over him that turns him back into a man and allows him to escape the trap.  Finally, Larry reaches the end point of his despair when he knows that his next victim is the woman he loves.  Luckily (sort of) his father manages to kill Larry with the same silver wolf headed walking stick that Larry used earlier for the same purpose.  So, the story ends on this somber scene of father looking down at the son he has just killed.  The gypsy woman recites her spell again and we’re supposed to realize that this was the merciful release and the best-case ending for poor Larry Talbot.

In terms of range of acting ability and style the Wolfman is probably the most varied of the Universal Classic Monster Movies.  On the one hand we have Claude Rains playing Lord Talbot, Larry’s father.  Rains is an excellent actor and also a very polished individual who easily can play a nobleman in a movie.  He was also rather short and slight of build.  Then there’s Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry.  Chaney was an indifferent actor and a very large and tall man with a booming rough voice.  He was more at home in a broad comedy such as the pictures he did at Universal with the comic duo Abbot and Costello.  In fact, he reprised his role as the Wolfman in the monster spoof, “Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.”  It might be assumed that he would be out of his depth trying to portray a nobleman’s son but he plays the part as a self-made man who grew up in America and reflects the manners and outlook of his adoptive land.  He employs a working-class diction and style of speech and comes off as a personable individual with maybe a slightly hot temper.  The relation between father and son seems to be cordial, warm and in the spirit of a mutual rapprochement after a youthful revolt against parental authority.  Before the disaster occurs to Larry, the atmosphere is of a joyful family reunion.  So, these two actors almost exact opposites in appearance, acting style and talent level manage to do a convincing job of portraying themselves as family.

The other important portrayal is the old gypsy woman played by Maria Ouspenskaya.  Since her son Bela was a werewolf she understands Larry’s plight and realizes what his fate will be.  And being a gypsy of course she has witch-like powers (and a really cool accent).  When Larry needs to escape from his wolf form she could recite the following spell to revert him to human form.

“The way you walked was thorny, though no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Now you will have peace for eternity.”

She is the coolest aspect of the movie and provides the atmosphere (along with the fog machine that must have been working overtime for this film) that allows you to think 20th Century England could be infested with werewolves and gypsies.

And finally, the other notable aspect of the movie is the tradition spawned of werewolves transforming during the full moon.  Or did it?  Actually, in this first Larry Talbot outing the full moon isn’t explicitly mentioned:

Even a man who is pure in heart

and says his prayers by night

may become a wolf when the wolfs bane blooms

and the autumn moon is bright.

Later they change the final line to “and the moon is full and bright.”  So here we can see that autumn and wolfs bane is part of the equation.  Maybe this restricts it to the Hunter’s or Harvest Moon.

So, do I like the Wolfman?  Only parts.  I like the beginning and I like the end.  But the middle where Larry is fretting over whether he is going crazy isn’t all that good.  So, I recommend seeing it at least once but it’s not my favorite for sure.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 3 – Notorious – A Classic Movie Review

Of all the films made by Alfred Hitchcock, the one that most closely aligns with the feel of Hollywood’s Golden Era is Notorious.  The action of the characters and the look and feel of the scenes adheres to the conventions and formulas of that period’s filmmaking.  And I mean this in a positive sense.  The production values are excellent.  The actors are the finest.  The dialog and plot are very well done.  A good case can be made that this is the best movie made in Hitchcock’s long and successful career as a filmmaker.  The movie takes place in 1946.  World War II had just ended and Nazis were still topical.  Ingrid Bergman’s character, Alicia Huberman, is the daughter of a German spy recently convicted of espionage in the United States.  She is a loyal American and agrees to help the U.S. government in the person of T. R. “Dev” Devlin played in his typically winning way by Cary Grant.  Naturally they fall in love but the problem is the government wants Alicia to become romantically entangled with a German industrialist living in Rio de Janeiro named Alex Sebastian (played by the inimitable Claude Rains in his remarkably idiosyncratic way).  She is supposed to find out what dastardly plots these escaped Nazis are planning.  This of course leads to jealousy and spite in Devlin and pain and anger in Alicia.  When circumstances force her to marry Sebastian to maintain the espionage this further poisons the relationship between our two star crossed lovers (are there any other kind?).  The plot has twists and turns and uranium salts (which got Hitchcock in trouble with the real US Government) but throughout we root for the love story and hiss at the bad guys (in this case Nazis and the US Secret Service).  The remarkable thing in this movie is that although Claude Rains is the evil Nazi you kind of sympathize with his character at certain turns.  He is the unfortunate man in a house with two women, his new wife and his domineering mother.  And he is haunted by the ubiquitous Cary Grant popping up everywhere and presumably a rival for his wife’s affections.  Who wouldn’t want an atom bomb available under those difficult circumstances?

Hitchcock’s cinematic work began well before Hollywood’s Golden Era and in England.  He continued to create popular and original thrillers well into the 1960s, long after the studio system had disappeared.  Thus, Hitchcock is not defined by or limited to the Golden Era sensibilities.  But Notorious without a doubt possesses the “classic” look of that era and definitely deserves its reputation as a masterpiece.  Anyone interested in Hitchcock or the movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s should consider viewing this film.

Now put all that aside.  Notorious is a great story.  Hitchcock provides all kinds of suspense and intrigue.  Everyone on both sides is hiding something from everyone, including themselves.  So much deception even starts to trip up the deceivers and eventually it all starts to crumble.  The ending is a collapse all around and a fitting finale.  I highly recommend this movie and hope you’ll enjoy the performances not only by the three main characters but also from all those bit part Nazis doing their best to be wonderfully evil.