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Capsule Reviews (May 2006)

West of Zanzibar (1928) Tod Browning

Here's one I've been looking forward to for a long while. A couple of years I was stunned by the precode Kongo, made in 1932 with John Huston's father Walter in the lead role. He played a man crippled not just in form but in mind who exacts a terrible revenge on the man he hates, only for it to backfire on him horribly. It's a perfect example of the sheer power that the precodes could display.

I wasn't surprised in the slightest to find that it was a remake of a silent film made only four years earlier with, who else, Lon Chaney in the tortured lead. If Walter Huston could be a knockout in the role, how much greater must the greatest screen cripple of all time have been? Not only that, but the man in the director's chair was the man behind the greatest of Chaney's films, Tod Browning.

Well finally I get the chance to find out. Chaney is simply stunning, as he always was, but this film has still more going for it than one incredible actor. Chaney's nemesis is played by a young looking Lionel Barrymore, and there's Mary Nolan and even Warner Baxter too. Unfortunately it's too short and so misses out on twenty or thirty minutes of buildup, and thus doesn't reach the extremes that Kongo went to.

The Murder Man (1935) Tim Whelan

This is a Spencer Tracy movie with Virginia Bruce as his leading lady, but buried deep below the supporting cast of Lionel Atwill, Harvey Stephens and Robert Barrat is an uncredited James Stewart, a full year before the other bit parts I've seen him play. He plays a newspaperman just like you'd expect a young Jimmy Stewart to play a newspaperman and his potential is palpable. The key reporter in the story is the Murder Man himself, naturally played by Spencer Tracy, a star journalist who beats everyone to the punch. His boss, Mr Robbins is played by someone very much trying to be Walter Huston but not doing a bad job at it. In fact there are lots of interesting characters in this one, not least regular villain Lionel Atwill as a cop for a change. I also know Mabel with her squeaky voice, but can't think where from. She's like Billie Burke on helium.

Tracy's character is by far the best of them. He's hardened by personal tragedy and can't resist a drink. He's therefore either drunk or working but he's great at both activities. There's a serious talent inside him but he can't be serious about it because of the torment that's tearing at him from the inside. This is the earliest but one of Tracy's movies that I've seen and the earliest didn't work for me. In 20,000 Years in Sing Sing he was trying to be a bad guy and it's nigh on impossible to buy Tracy as the bad guy. Here he's the good guy who's done bad things and that works much better. In fact it works very well indeed and ranks among the best of his performances that I've seen thus far.

Tribute to a Bad Man (1956) Robert Wise

And talking of Spencer Tracy, here's a film he was due to star in but which he didn't want to do so badly that he misbehaved like crazy, leaving his friend James Cagney to save his bacon. Cagney plays an important 19th century land- and herd-owner and we meet him first with fresh lead in his back from a couple of horse rustlers.

While I'm a major Cagney fan, I remember really not buying him as a cowboy in The Oklahoma Kid. But that was 25 films and 17 years earlier, and the old Cagney is far more believable out west than the young Cagney. He does a good job. Irene Papas is fine as the leading lady (and one of only two ladies in the film). I don't know many of the cast, but I recognise Vic Morrow and, after a few double takes, a very young Lee Van Cleef. He's four years older than he was in High Noon, but he still looks like a baby.

Even so, there's an even younger character. Steve, the grocery clerk from Pennsylvania, who is far from home turf in the Wyoming territory. I didn't recognise the actor, who is Don Dubbins, but anyone who can sass Cagney and seem believable must be doing a good job. He more than holds his own.

The Naked Man (1998) J Todd Anderson

Any movie co-written by Ethan Coen and featuring a character who is a chiropractor by day and a masked wrestler called the Naked Man by night has to be a peach, and this one doesn't disappoint. Now, as the Naked Man, Michael Rapaport does wear a costume, but there are still plenty of opportunities to show him actually naked and flying through the air. I'm sure the ladies were happy for that.

I'm happy for the humour. The Coens were always just as great as scriptwriters as directors and Ethan lays it on thick here. I smiled and laughed and chuckled and roared all the way through the film at the characters and the dialogue and the situations. Everything is a joy, from the wrestling chiropractor to the thug with spina bifida to the stoned Elvis; from the wrestling ring speech to the coffee on pizza breakfast to the Hog Heaven biker bar brawl. I particularly liked the subtle film references, from the love/hate breast tattoos to the thoroughly polite request for a motorcycle in a biker bar by a Naked Man. Feel the marshmallow!

One thing I found noteworthy was that there are more people in this film deliberately trying to look disabled, different or just plain ugly than in any other film I can think of.

Ex-Lady (1933) Robert Florey

I don't know Gene Raymond but I sure know Bette Davis, even as young as she is in this film. Backing them up is Frank McHugh so it's going to be fun even if it sucks, and it's a late precode to boot so it's going to be interesting even if it sucks.

Bette is a lively young lady but she has an old-fashioned father called Adolf, though he isn't short and has no moustache. He is highly upset that his daughter should mess around with men without getting married but Bette is a modern girl the way that modern girls were allowed to be before the production code kicked in. Even when she finally succumbs to getting hitched, she doesn't want to be a wife or a mother yet she does want a career: exactly the sort of nonsense that the powers that be couldn't approve of. And she and her husband don't even sleep in separate beds! The shame of it! Knowing how much of a career-minded modern girl Bette Davis the actress was, I wonder just how frustrated she must have been to be restricted after such freedom at the start of her career.

Whatever, she has a ball here possibly being largely herself, and Frank McHugh is as joyous as always: he really is one of the most underrated character actors I've ever seen and I can't help enjoying myself whatever he does. It's a credit to his talent that he didn't burst out laughing many times through this one. However, leading man Gene Raymond, on the other hand, is plain boring and annoying to boot. Until I checked up on him, I hadn't realised I'd seen him before, as the fourth of the four leads in Red Dust. I wonder if he ended up doing some TV series in the fifties as the boring dad of a wild bunch of wacky kids. If he didn't, he should have.

The Lash (1930) Frank Lloyd

Very applicable in these days of the Mexican immigration furore, The Lash is one of the precodes I remember reading about in Dangerous Men, Mick LaSalle's book on the men of the precode era. Richard Barthelmess was a softspokenn actor almost entirely forgotten today but who was huge in that short precode era and he had a social conscience unlike any other actor of the era.

Here, he plays the cultured Pancho, Don Francisco arriving home after a few years away to Rancho de los Coyotes in Southern California, newly American after the war to liberate California from Mexico. Naturally things have changed. This is really a western, where the bad guys are the gringo Americans and the good guys are Mexican Californians. The Spanish have culture and class while the Americans are just racist landgrabbing pigs who enjoy things like fights between bears and jackasses. One boorish American ties up Don Francisco for daring to speak to a woman and hits him across the face with a lash, only to discover that he's the man who has come to deliver 3,000 head of cattle to him. When Don Francisco delivers them by stampeding them through the centre of the town, we're entirely on his side.

Barthelmess has talent, that's obvious, but there's also a sense that he cares. Many of his films deal with racism and here that means American prejudice against the real Spanish Californians. If he were still alive today, I wonder whether he would come outon the side of returning California to Mexico! Certainly he gets upset about the new American policy of kicking any 'foreigners who don't speak English' out of the town Spanish Gulch and ends up fighting for justice as a sort of Californian Robin Hood called El Puma.

I'm happy to have finally caught this fascinating film after a long wait, and I'm looking forward to the original The Dawn Patrol and D W Griffith's Broken Blossoms, where he played a Chinaman just as he did in Son of the Gods, the only other film of his I've previously seen. The only other name I know here is Mary Astor, mostly from her leading role in The Maltese Falcon of course, but whom I've also seen in a wide variety of roles alongside such people as Richard Dix, Clark Gable, Ginger Rogers, Joel McCrae and Claudette Colbert.

A Trip to the Moon (1902) Georges Melies

This is one of those legendary films that we get to read about in every history of film, or any history of science fiction for that matter, but never get to actually see. Well now it's available for free download at the Internet Archive, in an amazingly good quality print for a film of this age, and it's an astounding picture for its time. Sure, the sets are mostly made of cardboard, but who cares? This is 1902, for Pete's sakes! It's over a hundred years old!

I watched it twice, once in complete silence and then with the accompanying soundtrack of piano music and commentary in a French accent. Without a soundtrack, it was still easy to work out what was going on, but the commentary helps provide more detail. We meet a bunch of astronomers with their wizard hats and cloaks and long beards. They talk about their mission in a studious setting, with chalk drawings on a blackboard then visit their craft, still being rivetted together, and finally climb inside and fly off to the moon. As you know from pictures you've already seen, the moon has a face and the bullet ship shoots straight into his eye. On the moon itself, they all climb out without any breathing apparatus at all and watch the earth rise before going to sleep. There's no playing golf here! Of course when they wake up they end up dealing with unforseen circumstances such as snow and moon monsters...

As for special effects, which were the forte of French director Georges Melies who virtually invented the art single handed, they're incredible. That doesn't mean they're always any good from a modern standpoint, but for 1902 they're truly astounding. The props and sets may be cardboard and the costumes cheap and cheesy, but they're true art. They are wonderfully and beautifully created, from the factory landscape on earth to the vistas below the surface of the moon. Melies also gives us fire, snow and explosions. He gives us acrobatic moon people who disappear in puffs of smoke when attacked. He gives us comets, stars and planets. And he does it all over a hundred years ago!

Scientifically it's complete nonsense, of course, but as art and as early filmmaking it's beyond compare and I can't even imagine how stunned audiences must have been in 1902.

Dancing Lady (1933) Robert Z Leonard

This may seem insane today, but this is a dancing film where Fred Astaire appears as low as sixth on the cast last! Then again, it's his debut appearance. He appears alongside stars Joan Crawford (still known at this point as a dancer) and Clark Gable, and the supporting cast of Franchot Tone (Crawford's future husband) and May Robson. Other key names include Nelson Eddy and the Three Stooges, from when they were still Ted Healy and His Stooges.

Gable is a Broadway producer, Crawford is a burlesque dancer trying to make it big, Tone is a rich Park Avenue type who falls for her initial burlesque act and proves to be her way into the business. Gable had a presence from his first day in Hollywood and he displays it well here; and Crawford and Tone have such serious chemistry that it's really not surprising that they'd be married within two years. Joan Crawford does wonderfully as a dancer who's still learning how the industry works, even though she'd already been in it for far longer than Gable. Fred Astaire, playing Fred Astaire, gets very little to do until the production numbers at the end but it's patently obvious from the get go that he was special. Crawford isn't a bad dancer, and that's how she made her money before becoming a Hollywood star, but she can't hold a candle to Fred Astaire on a ten second partial dance routine. Then again, who could? And there aren't too many people who have a receding hairline on their very first picture.

There are a few things I couldn't help but notice here. Firstly, it's not a great movie but it's not bad and that's refreshing because Strange Interlude, the last film Gable did for Robert Z Leonard, is possibly the worst movie I've seen from the entire first half of the twentieth century. Thankfully, every subsequent movie I see from everyone involved strengthens the opinion that it was an aberration. Secondly, it's obvious that while Crawford can certainly dance, she's no Ginger Rogers and she also can't keep up with Astaire who could seem graceful standing on his head. Thirdly, Joan Crawford looks better when she's forced into someone else's haircut and Astaire looks like David Niven when he has a moustache.

Last, but certainly not least, here's early proof of Busby Berkeley's influence on the Hollywood musical. This came out the same year as his work on Footlight Parade and 42nd Street changed the way production numbers were staged, from being realistic stage numbers to cinematic flights of fancy. There are kaleidoscopic There's one section especially when the entire company moves from one side of the stage to the other, and as they pass between two pillars, they change completely from one era to another. Even the horse and carriage turns into a limousine. None of it is remotely possible on a stage but on film it looks great. I knew that everyone else copied Berkeley but now I can see that they did it very quickly indeed.

Princess Nicotine (1909) J Stuart Blackton

This is a short that exists only to showcase some special effects with mirrors which were quite outstanding for 1909. The story, as much as there is a story, comprises of a pipe smoker (played by the villain from The Perils of Pauline) falling asleep. A couple of fairies emerge from his tobacco box and play tricks on him.

Walker (1987) Alex Cox

William Walker, hero of this film, was a real person. He was an American who fought for the Mexicans against a corrupt dictatorship. He was tried back in the States but acquitted. Eventually he accepts an invitation by the richest man in the world, Cornelius Vanderbilt, to free the country of Nicaragua. In doing so he ends up as the country's president.

The entire opening section is very Peckinpah, very spaghetti western, very much in keeping with Alex Cox's acknowledged influences. As things progress he continues to avoid all the old standard ways of behaving. This is real 19th century life in the same way that Dark Star was real space travel. It isn't pretty. People swear, fart and blatantly cheat just like they do today and just like they don't in conventional movies. It sounds strange to say it but it's refreshing to see that people who don't bathe much have flies hanging around them. That's the sort of honesty that should be in a biopic, however much it debunks treasured history. This is the most sardonic treatment of biography I've ever seen.

There's also a wonderful sense of humour here. Cox is a genius but one of his key talents is to instil humour into unexpected situations. I loved the section where Walker is translating for a beautiful young lady who cannot speak. She expresses her disgust with all sorts of obscenities for him to flounder around trying to tone down what she says into some semblance of polite argument. It's hilarious and so is the subsequent argument where she berates him for doing just that.

Ed Harris is awesome in the title role. I don't know how easy it must be to look serious, honourable and devout while his men are about to rape sheep as the best bet after a long sea voyage, but Harris manages it. Cox's humour is apparent when he accompanies it with the serious narration that 'Walker realised that he would need to keep a firm hand on the moral conduct of the men.' Harris manages the highly difficult task of being believable at all times through a wide range of emotions, whether that being tough, saintly, reactionary, insane, incompetent, blind, brave, stubborn, violent, humorous, casual, polite, whatever. It's a superb performance.

The other astounding performance here is from director Alex Cox. I've seen a number of his films and have never failed to love any of them. Finding a new one is always a joy and this one is no exception. Cox is one of those filmmakers, like Quentin Tarantino, who is fascinated by genre cinema, massively influenced by it and who wears those influences openly. The Peckinpah influences here are obvious and to hammer the point home I noticed a grave marked in Peckinpah's name during the film. There's some John Woo here too and Sergio Leone and Alejandro Jodorowsky. I don't think it's an accident to see people like Tenpole Tudor and Gerrit Graham here. It's certainly no accident that at one point Nicaraguans sit in a 20th century car reading colour copies of Newsweek, and the 20th century gradually intrudes more and more throughout the end of the film. Cox knows exactly what's on his screen at all times and down to the smallest details. He's very happy to subvert biographical honesty into surreal political message, which becomes truly blatant over the credits. What he ends up creating is something truly memorable, on the level of the films of Jodorowky. And that ain't easy, folks.

Limelight (1952) Charles Chaplin

This Chaplin movie was interesting for a number of reasons even before I started watching. It's a sound film for one, and it's always interesting to see what Chaplin, the great silent comic, did with sound, especially as he made very few sound films. It's also the last film he made in the US before the Americans revoked his visa and he retired to Switzerland. It's that film he made with Buster Keaton. It's the one with his kids as street urchins. It has Robert Aldrich as the assistant director. It's the most recent Chaplin I've had the chance to see, with only two made later. Lots of reasons!

And another becomes apparent very quickly into the film indeed. Chaplin plays Calvero, an aging 'tramp comedian', hardly a far cry from Chaplin himself. The film even begins with a title card reading, 'The glamour of limelight, from which age must pass as youth enters', and again it's hard not to read more than fiction into things. The more the plot unfolds the more parallels we see between Chaplin the actor and Calvero the character. In fact it plays so much like a swansong that it somehow seems bizarre that he should make another couple after it. Not that he made many: there are as many Chaplin films from his first year in the business as in his last 51.

Anyway, Calvero comes home one night to discover a young lady attempting suicide, played very properly by Claire Bloom. He saves her, nurses her back to health and falls in love with her and she with him. When he sleeps, he dreams and they give further insight into who he is, who he was and who he wants to be. Bloom is very good indeed, at times sparkling like Audrey Hepburn and doing a fine job both as a dancer and a drama queen. There's also Nigel Bruce, who I'm discovering did far more than play blustery Watson to Basil Rathbone's Holmes, and of course Buster Keaton himself. Neither of these get much screen time though, as this is really about Chaplin and Bloom and those other things that shine aren't acitng roles. Chaplin's own score is great and may well have deserved its Oscar, and the ballet scenes are well staged and somewhat refreshing after all the more traditional dancing I've been seeing lately in thirties musicals.

The Dark Horse (1932) Alfred E Green

Back in the days when Warren William could outbill Bette Davis, he was the perfect man to appear in a political machinations movie. After all Warren William could quite believably doublecross himself and . Guy Kibbee becomes the Progressive Party's nominee for governor as a dark horse, purely because the people doing the nominating can't nominate anyone so resort to all sorts of manipulation that backfires on them spectacularly. Unfortunately he's a complete idiot, so Bette Davis persuades them to hire Warren William as a campaign manager.

William, with Davis at his side and Frank McHugh on board to boot, does what you'd expect the precode dynamo to do. Every time the opposition comes up with a dirty trick, he comes up with a dirtier one. He's not as good as he is in same year's The Mouthpiece, but he's still great. Bette Davis is the self-assured professional young lady you'd expect and Frank McHugh is the usual fun character actor, but neither get a huge amount of screen time. After William, who is always a sheer delight, the star of the show is Guy Kibbee who plays an amiable idiot better than I could have imagined. I can still see him grinning.

Satan Met a Lady (1936) William Dieterle

I've waited a long while to see this one. Everyone knows that The Maltese Falcon is one of the greatest and most influential films ever made and a good proportion of them have even seen it. However most of them don't realise that it was actually the third version of Dashiell Hammett's novel to reach the screen. Back in 1931 a film called Dangerous Female told the story first, in a very similar manner to the John Huston classic but with a few precode touches. Then came Satan Met a Lady, which did things in an entirely different way. In fact it did things it such a different way that it takes a long while to realise that it's the same film.

Picture that Bogart classic in your mind, then try to translate it into a light hearted comedic treatment with precode staple Warren William in Bogie's role and Bette Davis in Mary Astor's. This one changes the names of the characters and even the character of the characters. Now Elisha Cook's character is fat, Peter Lorre's is English and Sydney Greenstreet's is female. Even that Maltese Falcon itself has become the Horn of Roland, but the broad sweep is very similar.

William plays Shane, a private eye without any real scruples at all but plenty of savvy, in many ways just like the way he had started playing Perry Mason around the same time he did this film. He's such a ladies' man that he flirts with dancers while his date is sitting at the same table. His partner is killed and he doesn't seem to care. He chats amiably and drinks sherry with the tall Englishman who has just destroyed his apartment.

I can't for the life of me remember where I know Shane's secretary Murgatroyd from. She's the epitome of the dumb blonde and she does it very well indeed. Warren William always excepted, she's the most fun thing here but everyone is having fun. And if John Huston had never come along five years later, this English dressing room style farce would have been really cool. However he did and so did Bogie, Lorre, Greenstreet and the rest along with the entire film noir genre and so this suddenly seems fun but little more than doublecrossing fluff.

Judge Priest (1934) John Ford

The commonwealth of Kentucky is trying to persuade Judge Priest that a young black gentleman is a chicken thief, but Priest doesn't really care. He ends up talking fishing with him rather than locking him up and hiring him for odd jobs, and that's the sort of down home judge he is. He does a lot of people a lot of good, but often so surreptitiously that they don't even know it. He's played by Will Rogers, who expounded a lot of homespun philosophy in his time. I'm sure he must have been a major influences on people like Jimmy Stewart.

What's most obviously interesting about Judge Priest the film is the stereotypes of the time, especially the one depicted by Stepin Fetchit, the foremost black actor of the time. He's a moron, pure and simple, who speaks in such a slow and rambling way that it's very difficult to work out what he's talking about. At the time, apparently, he was looked upon favourably because he was such a success, but it's not hard to see why the African American community now wants to forget he ever existed.

On the flipside, there's another great black American actor in Judge Priest, who suffered her own stereotyping (here too) but still managed to rise above it on occasion. Hattie McDaniel is always going to be most remembered for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, but I've seen her a few times now and she's an underrated gem. She got an special push in Imitation of Life with Claudette Colbert but she's just wonderful in everything she does, and this is no exception. She gets to sing more than talk too.

In fact, Stepin Fetchit notwithstanding, John Ford treats the black folk far more positively than I'd have expected, and is free and easy with his depiction of a whole bunch of white folk as idiots, liars, hypocrites and just plain bad people.

The Unholy Night (1929) Lionel Barrymore

Lionel Barrymore is a justifiably well known actor with a whole slew of films behind him, quite a few of which are acknowledged classics. What is far less well known is that he wasn't just an actor: he composed, wrote, painted and even directed films. His name appears as director on thirteen movies and he worked on two more without credit, though I've only seen one up until now. That was the Sea Bat, not a particularly great movie, made a year after this one. The one interesting fact about it is that it included in the cast, admittedly a long way down it, one Boris Karloff, a full year before he would rocket to immortality as Frankenstein's monster.

That becomes interesting now because The Unholy Night also features in its cast, admittedly so far down as to not appear on no less than three pages of credits, the very same Boris Karloff, here playing a man with the name of Abdoul Mohamed Bey, which certainly bodes well for his future in many exotic roles. He's a lawyer from the Orient speaking with some sort of French accent, and he's fascinating even though my recording from TCM annoyingly includes a monthly Cox digital cable test that wipes out all sound exactly when Karloff is reading a will.

The unknown Karloff of 1929 is far from the star here, even though he's genuinely creepy (though a little overdone) in a genuinely creepy (though a little overdone) murder mystery which really ought to be just his cup of tea. Instead the three lead names on the title card are Ernest Torrence, Dorothy Sebastian and Roland Young. I don't know Sebastian at all but I've enjoyed both Torrence and Young in very different films: Torrence earlier in silent movies alongside such major stars as John Gilbert and Ramon Novarro, and Young a decade later as the mainstay in all three Topper movies. Then again, in the Topper films Young was a man who could see a couple of ghosts and thus appeared to be more than a little unstable, whereas here he's a lord who believes he can see a couple of ghosts and thus appears to be more than a little unstable. No wonder he was so good at it. He'd had practice.

He plays Lord Montagu, one member of the 4th Rutland regiment, who begins the film surviving a strangulation attempt that successfully claims four of his colleagues in a dense fog. The survivors congregate at Montagu's estate along with a number of officers from Scotland Yard who are investigating. Into this company comes the daughter of a former member of the 4th Rutland, a man dismissed from service for cheating at cards and sentenced to death for fighting against his own regiment. He disappeared into the Orient where he made his fortune but is now deceased. He left a strange will which left his entire estate to be split between the surviving members of his former regiment on the day of probate and it amounts to a seven figure sum. This naturally explains why they have begun dying like flies.

I really enjoyed The Unholy Night which makes it something of an anomaly for 1929. I've discovered that 1929 is the lost year of Hollywood: everybody was busy frantically switching to sound but nobody really knew what they were doing. I've seen truly great silent films from every year up until 1928 and truly great sound films from every year from 1930 on, yet I haven't found anything from 1929 that merits more than merely good. Some major names tried their best, but even people like the Marx Brothers (The Cocoanuts), Greta Garbo (The Kiss), Harold Lloyd (Welcome Danger), John Gilbert (Desert Nights) and Anna May Wong (Piccadilly) could only just save their respective films from mediocrity. Even Lionel Barrymore himself couldn't save The Mysterious Island which was massively confused being half silent and half sound.

The Unholy Night is certainly the best of the bunch and by a good distance. Barrymore does a much better job as director here than he did as an actor in The Mysterious Island, and he has a notably large cast to shuffle around his sets. The real star though is playwright Ben Hecht, who wrote a very literate script that highlights not just how good it is but just how bad everything else was at the time that even remotely approached the same material. Hecht was no stranger to the movie industry and he eventually worked on no less than sixty screenplays including such classics as Scarface, Nothing Sacred and Wuthering Heights. He writes a lot of complexity into his story, giving us many viable suspects for the growing number of murders. It does seem to be very stagebound, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. A murder mystery has to be constrained somehow so that we have a finite scope and a finite suspect list, and this one is constrained inside one building.

It's also a very creepy film, certainly ahead of its time. The king of horror in 1929 was Lon Chaney who only had another year to live. The German expressionistic masterpieces had already come before but their American descendents courtesy of Universal studios were another two years away. Karloff and Lugosi were both around and had been for a while but their stars had not yet risen. It's easy to see Karloff's power though, even in a small part such as this.

We begin with a number of murders committed in a dense fog and move on to ghosts, men with scarred faces or other debilitating injuries, a s´┐Żance, shadows, maniacal laughter, catalepsy, hypnosis, a vanishing corpse, the road to madness, a supposedly doomed regiment and a number of exotic characters. Barrymore had obviously seen Nosferatu as the German influence is palpable whenever he tries to get creepy.

Two Arabian Knights (1927) Lewis Milestone

Lewis Milestone of course is best known for his 1930 classic, All Quiet on the Western Front. A few years earlier in 1927, all was really quiet on the western front because Two Arabian Knights is silent. We start in France in 1918 where a couple of soldiers tumble into a foxhole. Believing they're both about to die, they fight out their differences. There's some wonderful cinematography as the two battle at the bottom of the foxhole while German guns surround the hole.

One of the two is Louis Wolheim, so memorable in All Quiet on the Western Front, and he becomes memorable here within the space of about five minutes as Taxicab Pete, the hardboiled sergeant who carries around his own wanted poster. The other is William Boyd, playing W Daingerfield Phelps III, obviously of quality stock and with no small amount of cartoonist talent.

What makes this special is that every early scene depicts the harsh reality of war but adds in a wonderful sense of humour. Wolheim has a face full of character, all Brooklyn street fighter, and he makes a great double act with Boyd, the baby faced pretty boy. The two of them, together with the sharp script, are what make this film, and Milestone has a deft touch for comedy. On top of the double act there's Mary Astor, who was known primarily for her sound work in films such as The Maltese Falcon but was still a major silent actress. There's also a very short cameo by Boris Karloff, though not yet Karloff the Uncanny. In fact last night's The Unholy Night was the earliest Karloff I'd seen up to that point, but this came a full two years earlier.

Chained (1934) Clarence Brown

Not just Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, but also Una O'Connor (for about ten seconds), Akim Tamiroff and Otto Kruger, all of which are notable supporting actors.

Joan Crawford's beloved is already married and his wife is happy with her position in society and so doesn't want a divorce. So he's chained while she'd just like to be. Until he can sort it all out he puts her on a cruise on one of his ships, where fellow passenger Clark Gable gets very interested and persevering indeed. When she decides she's going to fall for Gable, everything works out for her beloved so that he can be chained to her. Except now she's chained to Gable, and well, you can imagine the rest.

Crawford and Gable made a number of films together, but unfortunately they tend to be the weakest of Gable's movies, this one included. Maybe it's because Crawford is generally the lead, as backed up by Clarence Brown directing two of them, and Gable's there to bring in the men and lend some danger to proceedings. In many ways he's just the love interest, not that Gable could really be just anything. The only one I've seen where Gable was the lead over Crawford was Love on the Run, which was little more than a fun rerun of another successful Gable movie, It Happened One Night. As much as I like both of them and I enjoy both of them together, I enjoy their films apart much more.

Kid Galahad (1937) Michael Curtiz

The moment I see Edward G Robinson in a movie I smile, because I know from moment one that he's going to give a great performance. He simply doesn't know how not to give it his all. Here he's a boxing promoter with a pork pie hat, and of course he gets plenty of opportunity to shine. His girlfriend is Bette Davis, which wouldn't seem to be a expected combination but they're both too good not to make it work. Into the mix comes gangster Humphrey Bogart, looking sly and menacing, and a bellhop with a heart of gold who doesn't know when not to stick his nose in to do a good deed. Naturally Eddie G puts him on a track to the title.

This is a pretty solid boxing yarn, anchored by some superb performances, especially by Robinson and Davis. She really shines in this one in what is really a supporting role. And it can't be too often that an actor (Wayne Morris in the title role) gets the chance to knock down both Edward G Robinson and Humphrey Bogart in the same movie. If only Jimmy Cagney had popped in for a cameo, he could have retired right then and there.

The Great Ziegfeld (1935) Robert Z Leonard

Here's one that's eluded me for a while, mostly because it's three hours long. Every time it comes onto TCM I find that there isn't enough room on the DVR to record it. I have plenty of reason to catch it though. Not only is it a William Powell/Myrna Loy double bill, where Myrna is playing Billie Burke, but there's Frank Morgan and an almost unrecognisable Nat Pendleton and even people like Fannie Brice and Ray Bolger playing themselves. To top all of it, it won three Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Luise Rainer.

Powell plays Florenz Ziegfeld, the great impresario who put on the Ziegfeld Follies and other Broadway spectaculars. He marries twice, both to actresses: Anna Held (Luise Rainer) and Billie Burke (Myrna Loy). Frank Morgan plays Billings, a fellow impresario, and the two of them raise sparks on the screen. Of course it's not surprising that Powell should play so well opposite the Wizard of Oz when his character's second wife is the Good Witch of the North and the Scarecrow pops in playing himself with those insane marionette legs.

Luise Rainer is superb, as the flouncing, histrionic and passionate French singer who becomes Ziegfeld's first wife, but Frank Morgan is better. I've been a fan for a while as he's always solid, but every now and again he outdoes himself and he's as great here as he's ever been. Only Honky Tonk comes close so far for a great Frank Morgan performance. And then come the sets. When we get halfway or so and the Ziegfeld Follies begin, we get stunned with the most extravagant sets I've ever seen, all shot in one long single unbroken shot. I'm not sure how much of this is Busby Berkeley extravagance (ie completely unreal) and how much is just skilful design, as after all Ziegfeld hosted his follies on a real stage, but it's stunning.

As to the film, it's less than stunning, at least as far as the standards of Best Picture winners go. It's great fun, and people like Luise Rainer and Frank Morgan are wonderful, but unless I really wasn't paying attention, I lost track a couple of times. The film is three hours long, so there's hardly any justification for missing out entire chunks of the story. For instance, I thought Ziegfeld was proposing to Anna Held but it turned out to be their first wedding anniversary. Much later when Billie Burke finally turns up at about two and a quarter hours in, she refuses to have anything to do with him. Then, blip! They're suddenly at the end of their courtship. Blip! They're married. Blip! One scene with the ex on the phone and it's Christmas and they have a daughter. It seems a little unsatisfying to have long exuberant production numbers but miss out great chunks of biography. It's also hard to gain a sense of time when people play themselves twenty years after the fact.

At least my biggest question before the film started got answered. How did Myrna Loy manage the singsong voice of Billie Burke? Well, not badly. Not great by any means, but not badly at all.

The Wagons Roll at Night (1941) Ray Enright

This is an interesting little film. It's essentially a remake of Kid Galahad, the boxing yarn I watched a few days ago with Edward G Robinson, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. This version isn't a boxing film, it's a circus film, but it's exactly the same story and often even the same dialogue. What makes it interesting is that Bogart is back, but not in his own role: this time round he's playing Eddie G Robinson's part. Unfortunately he's better in the Bogart role and it's a shame he didn't get a better role for his first leading credit.

The same problem affects everyone else too. Bette Davis was superb in Kid Galahad and Sylvia Sidney, one of my favourite lesser known actresses of the era, is good here too. Eddie Albert is good too playing Barney the Great, the new version of Kid Galahad. It's just that the material lost a lot of strength in translation and the actors are working above the material. There's only so much they can do with such a diluted version.

Marked Woman (1937) Lloyd Bacon

This one has Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart, plus a whole slew of women I don't recognise. There are guys that I do know, like Allen Jenkins, but they're way down the list. This may be a gangster film but it's full of women not men. The first gangster we meet is taking over the last clipjoint in town but it isn't Bogie. He's a gentleman by the name of Eduardo Cianelli playing a gentleman by the name of Johnny Vanning. I'm sure it should be the other way around, but hey.

When we finally meet Bogart, we find that he's not a gangster at all. Playing very much against type, he's working for the District Attorney! Somehow though it works and seems to be a quick glimpse into the future. Bogart was at his best being a good guy, not a squeaky clean paragon of virtue but a good guy nonetheless and throughout the thirties he was generally a bad guy. He's not bad here, though she gets better as the film progresses and she has more to work with. This Eduardo Cianelli guy is excellent too.

What's most notable though is just how hard this one hits. It takes a look at the dark side of something that was usually treated with a far more entertaining slant back in the thirties. Bette Davis wasn't one to hide from ugliness but I don't recall seeing her in worse shape than she is late in this film until the much later days of Baby Jane. Then again, as the story is roughly based on the life of Lucky Luciano, what else would we get?

Virginia City (1940) Michael Curtiz

Here's Bogart again. I've been really catching up on his work lately. This is 1940 so he has enough clout to warrant a supporting credit alongside no less a western legend than Randolph Scott. Errol Flynn and Miriam Hopkins are the leads and further down the list are names like Alan Hale, Frank McHugh, Moroni Olsen and others I've seen a bunch of times lately. It's also another Michael Curtiz, who seems to have both made a lot of films and kept up the average quality of them to a notable degree. Unfortunately this one doesn't hold up past the halfway mark at which point it stops being an excellent civil war western and becomes little more than a joke.

It's apparently a true story though with fictional characters, though given the track record of Errol Flynn historical movies I kinda doubt that. We start at Libby Prison in Richmond, VA, known as the Devil's Warehouse and run by Randolph Scott. Errol Flynn is a yankee prisoner who has been tunnelling to get out but on the last day of his dig Scott shoots down his hopes in a very gentlemanly way. After all this is a 1940 film so the confederates are honourable underdogs. We're far from the days of Deliverance. Naturally Flynn escapes and ends up crossing tracks again with Scott in Virginia City, NV, where southern sympathisers own three huge mines and Scott is going to transport five million bucks worth of gold back to President Jefferson Davis's coffers.

Many of the cast appear exactly as you'd expect: Scott is a solid and honourable officer; Errol Flynn is an ice cool undercover operator; Frank McHugh is a gun shy but enthusiastic insurance agent; Alan Hale is large but reliable backup for the good guys. The incredible exception is Bogart, who for some reason was cast as a Mexican bandit of the sort that would have been played to excellence by someone like Anthony Quinn. Bogart could be many things but a Mexican bandit was not one of them. I hope whoever thought up that idea never worked in film again.

Also notable were the stunts which were excellent. This may be the earliest example I've seen of the famous under the car stunt made famous by Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Here it's a horse drawn carriage but the stunt remains the same. One other stunt that left a very bad taste in the mouth saw Flynn and his horse tumbling down a steep hillside. I hope the horse came out of it OK.

Love Me or Leave Me (1955) Charles Vidor

Doris Day plays singer Ruth Etting in another fifties Hollywood biopic with James Cagney. This one's in Cinescope too! Seriously though, I wonder why Cagney seemed so set on biopics at this point in his career: The Seven Little Foys was the same year and The Man with a Thousand Faces was only two years later. There's also Cameron Mitchell who I know from really dubious B-movies from all over the globe: he did action, ninja, fake history, gangsters, horror, scifi, you name it. After those, it's a little hard seeing him as the love interest for Doris Day.

A full half of the film has Cagney trying to get it on with Day and Day telling him to get lost, following which they get married even though she hates him. In the meantime he's still moving her career as a singer onwards and upwards, from dance halls to the Ziegfeld Follies. And there's lots of singing, so much singing that it's almost a Doris Day music video.

Cagney does a good job but he has a pretty despicable one dimensional character to play. Day is good too but she's either singing or seething and that gets a little grating after a while. All that's left is the singing and that I can do without. I've nothing against twenties singers but my tastes run more to Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald. Doris Day may be great, but she doesn't have the soul to fit into that company.

Before Sunrise (1995) Richard Linklater

A 1995 romance between an American boy and a French girl doesn't sound like something I'd normally be interested in, but it comes very highly recommended. It's on the OFCS Top 100 Overlooked Films of the 1990s list, which I've found very interesting, and its sequel, which reunited the director with both leading stars nine years later, is solidly placed in the IMDb Top 250.

The boy is Ethan Hawke, who I may only have seen as a kid in films like Explorers and Dead Poets Society. There were a lot of kids making waves in the late eighties, but I tend to remember a lot of others before Hawke, maybe because he wasn't as prolific as Corey Haim, Corey Feldman, River Phoenix and so on. Here he's ten years older than Explorers and looks like nothing less than a young Tom Cruise wannabe. Julie Delpy really is French and I've never seen her before, though she appeared in all three films in Krzysztof Kieslowski's renowned Three Colours trilogy, which is certainly a major credit to her name.

They meet on the train from Budapest to Vienna and find enough of a connection to wander around Vienna together, and that connection grows as the day rolls on. Almost all the story takes place in the conversation between them to the degree that it would probably work just as well as a radio programme. All the action takes place outside of the characters who do little except sit and talk: it's the trains and the buses that they sit on that get the action.

Now if Hawke and Delpy weren't so good together, this would be truly awful, but they are very very good indeed and they feel alive. There's a scene in a record shop's listening booth where they play a record and don't speak, but their movements are so real. They look at each other and away from each other and almost laugh but not quite and almost set each other but not quite and the impression is that these are exactly the sorts of thing that people really do but which never get to appear in movies. It bring lifes to the deceptively clever script, which feels really real. This isn't too surprising given that the director is Richard Linklater, the man who came up with Slackers, which was groundbreaking reality. Now I'm really interested to see the sequel.

Kika (1993) Pedro Almodovar

I know any Pedro Almodovar film I see is going to be strange but somehow he always surprises me. Kika is a flighty young Spanish cosmetologist, played by Veronica Forque, who is interested in an American writer, played by a very badly dubbed Peter Coyote. One day he calls her up to come and make up his stepson who has died, but he revives partway through the process and Kika heads off with him too. Ramon's ex is a very strange TV presented known as Andrea Scarface who presents a programme called Today's Worst that covers exactly what you'd think. Andrea is played by Victoria Abril who is wonderfully bizarre. She gets to wear some insane outfits, like you'd expect to be designed by a cross between Jean Paul Gaultier and Salvador Dali.

She's been in Almodovar films before, as has almost everyone else in the film. I've seen many of his films but know little about the man. I know that he had a falling out with frequent early leading lady Carmen Maura but that they sorted out their differences. He can't be too hard to get along with though, as his actors seem to reappear on a regular basis in his films.

And given the sort of things that Almodovar puts in his movies, they must get some serious job satisfaction out of what he puts them through. This one has the most bizarre rape scene I've ever seen.

Stolen Moments (1920) James Vincent

Made a single year before he became world famous in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, this Rudolph Valentino film isn't really a Rudolph Valentino film. It was a six reeler starring Marguerite Namara with Valentino in support, but after he rocketed to fame it was re-edited down to half its length to bulk up his part and re-released as 'Stolen Moments' featuring Rudolph Valentino. Today, this is the only version that survives.

Because it's pre-fame, it has Valentino as a bad guy. He was apparently cast as a villain until Four Horsemen remoulded him as a hero. He's a romantic villain here playing a Brazilian writer in the States, all seduction and hand kissing until Vera, our heroine, gets upset with his intentions and he tries to have his wicked way anyway. Then he heads back to Brazil only to try the same tricks on another lady, then back to the States where he runs into the newly married Vera again and tries to blackmail her... it's all very quick and jumpy because of course half the film is missing and we're really just watching one of the subplots. If we had the whole film to go on, there might be more to appreciate, but there's very little as it is.

Lone Star (1996) John Sayles

It was painfully obvious within the introductory scene that Lone Star was not meant to be shown fullscreen. But this is on Encore so they don't care. Sigh. Anyway this is a modern western mystery movie, of sorts, made by independent film legend John Sayles. There are some serious names in the large cast, like Kris Kristofferson, Elizabeth Pena, Matthew McConaughey, Frances McDormand and Chris Cooper, who I'm discovering is a massively underrated actor and every time I see him I come away from his performance more impressed than ever.

Cooper is the focus, as the sheriff of a Texan town that is mostly Mexican. Before the titles even roll, a soldier with a metal detector searching for bullets in the desert discovers a skull and a tin star. It's a John Doe but Cooper knows from old town stories that it may well be a corrupt sheriff that his deceased father may just have put in the ground many years before. The story is far from just a murder mystery though. There's a serious depth here, as exhibited that individual lines tell us more about the state of things than a hundred and one mainstream Hollywood films. It's a film about small towns, the border, family, age, race, history, education, the military, everything. There's a great couple of lines that read, 'It's not like there's a line between the good people and the bad people. It is not like you're one or the other.' That sums up much of the film.

Cooper is stunning, as always, as is McDormand. Also noteworthy are people I didn't know, like Beatrice Winde, Clifton James or Ron Canada. In fact the supporting cast is so large and so consistently solid that it could have monopolised the supporting categories at the Oscars. The only downside is some of the child actors who aren't bad but can't keep up with such a level of quality. The script is blistering. Most surprising is how well Sayles manages segues between flashbacks and the present day. He handles them in single takes and I found myself smiling a lot in admiration.

Beyond the Rocks (1922) Sam Wood

Lost for almost eighty years, Beyond the Rocks is the only collaboration between silent screen legends Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino, an especially potent combination as 1922 fits well within the timeframe when stars were expected to avoid competition. There was only one star per picture because these were star vehicles, pure and simple. Yet here are both of them.

Swanson plays Theodora, the young daughter of a retired English guardsman, and Valentino is nothing less than Hector, Lord Bracondale. Of course, being a melodrama, Theodora marries someone else, even after he's saved her from death by drowning. She does this because she's a daddy's girl who would sacrifice her own love just to help her father and her greedy two half-sisters from being poor. Of course life isn't particularly happy, as she knew it wouldn't be, and Valentino gets the chance to save her life for a second time when she falls off an alp.

The film looks really good for its age and formerly lost status, but there are portions in atrocious condition. We should be thankful, however, that we can see the film at all, as only a one minute clip had been thought to survive for over eighty years. Then the Netherlands Film Museum discovered a copy in a private collection, individual reels in different places, and they put it back together again.

I've seen Valentino a few times now and he's still not what I expected him to be. He had a presence though: there are scenes in his films where he does little but stand up and yet he commands attention. He carries himself with a disinterest that hides a keen eye, and on occasion looks like a young Gable without the rough edges that made him so dangeorus. Swanson is really not what I expected at all. I know her from Sunset Boulevard of course, when she was much older. I knew she was a glamorous young lady in her heyday with no less a persistent suitor than Joe Kennedy, but here she's a little plump, a little frail and not often glamorous. At times she's wearing so much makeup that she looks like a raccoon.

Moran of the Lady Letty (1922) George Melford

Beyond the Rocks was a 1922 silent Rudolph Valentino movie that saw him play an rich man falling for a much poorer, though certainly not poor, girl. In stunningly stark contrast, Moran of the Lady Letty was a 1922 silent Rudolph Valentino movie that saw him play an rich man falling for a much poorer, though certainly not poor, girl. The difference is that Beyond the Rocks was aimed at the female audience who loved the romantic Valentino charm whereas this one is aimed at a male audience who didn't really appreciate Valentino's talents. It's an action film not a romance.

The girl is Letty Sternensen, the Lady Letty being the ship of the title named after her. She's also the moran of the title, moran being a nautical term for her for some reason or other. She's a girl who gets to tag along on the boat because her father owns it, anyway. Valentino has a yearning to do more than live the pampered indifferent life that he's been leading. Luckily, or unluckily or both, he gets drugged and shanghaied onto a tough smuggling vessel. Naturally the two meet soon enough as he ends up rescuing her from her burning ship. Adventure naturally ensues.

Valentino proves that he's not bad as a tough guy, even if he's not great. Dorothy Dalton didn't get to do much as Letty but she's admirably unstereotypical for a girl in a 1922 movie, at least for some of the time. Walter Long isn't bad at all in a very Wallace Beery-esque performance as the crook captain. Apparently he was a major name as a villain back in the silent days, including a memorable performance in blackface raping Mae Marsh in The Birth of a Nation. Certainly this one's a major improvement on Beyond the Rocks.

Shaft (1971) Gordon Parks

From the moment we see John Shaft walk out of the subway and across taxi cab filled streets, we know he's the man. That's even before Isaac Hayes starts in on one of the most memorable theme tunes in movie history, one that won him an Oscar. To be honest, this changed movie history before the credits finished. It wasn't technically the first blaxploitation movie, and there are plenty of arguments to say it isn't really a blaxploitation movie at all, but it helped to create the genre and was certainly the first example to reach such a massive crossover audience.

Richard Roundtree was perfect for the role but he still got better as the years went by. The part is well defined, something that got lost pretty quickly in the blaxploitation genre, and there's a pretty solid script. There are scenes of serious tension and even some of serious emotion, which is almost unheard of in blaxploitation. Moses Gunn is also superb as the black crime boss, as is Charles Cioffi as the white cop, and there are quick cameos from Antonio Fargas and multitalented director Gordon Parks.

It's Parks (Parks Sr, that is, not Parks Jr who also made blaxploitation flicks before dying quickly in a plane crash in Kenya) that holds most credit here. He does a craftsman's job on Shaft, using a variety of technique that isn't too surprising for a renowned photographer for Life. Rewatching Shaft tells me that I really need to find more of his work.

Superfly (1972) Gordon Parks Jr

Far more traditional a blaxploitation film, here's Ron O'Neal playing a dope dealer hero. There's the tough black hero with his tough black moustache who has both a white and a black girlfriend and who does his own thing regardless what anyone else wants him to do. He rules the streets just like Shaft did a year earlier, but this time he's not a private detective working for good, he's a dope dealer working for bling bling.

He has a cool pad and a big Caddy (actually provided by a pimp called KC in exchange for a part in the movie), but he wants out of the dope business even though he's shoving it up his nose every chance he gets. He has a bunch of guys working for him and when one can't come through, he threatens to put his wife out on the street instead. But he wants out and so hatches a plan to sell 30 kilos of coke in four months to make enough to retire on.

Gordon Parks Jr wasn't entirely devoid of talent, as proved by moments here, but he wasn't his dad. Neither were most of the cast up to the level of the cast that his dad worked with. Ron O'Neal really isn't Richard Roundtree, and his lack of acting talent is really highlighted in scenes with Julius Harris who can carry his own with the best. The strangest thing about the film is watching Curtis Mayfield. It seems a little weird when someone who looks so intellectual singing about being your pusher man. It sounds awesome but somehow he would fit better on the stage at a civil rights rally.

The Bride Came COD (1941) William Keighley

This time round Bette Davis is marrying musician Jack Carson, but they have to wait three days for legal reasons. They are persuaded instead to elope to Vegas by Tattletale Tommy Keenan, radio personality, where of course anything goes. They hire a plane piloted by James Cagney, but because he's James Cagney he hatches his own plans to save his fledgeling business that's under threat from financier Edward Brophy. He discovers that her father, Eugene Pallette, doesn't approve and so he takes her home to papa for a tidy sum.

That's a lot of star power in one movie, and it all works. There's a lot of plot here too and that all works too. Cagney made some very interesting movies as the thirties turned into the forties, and this one of those produced by his brother. Quite apart from the names above, there's also William Frawley, who my wife knows well from I Love Lucy, but who just looks familiar to me, and best of all Harry Davenport playing an old man running a hotel in a ghost town. He's blessed with a wonderful part but he really makes the most of it. It's just joyous watching him and hearing every word that comes out of his mouth.

When Ladies Meet (1933) Harry Beaumont

Robert Montgomery swims the Hudson and climbs onto a boat to propose to writer Myrna Loy. She declines. He spends the next considerable portion of the movie persevering. For a change Myrna isn't playing an exotic character at all, which is refreshing for the precode era. The opportunity really shows off her talents and sets the stage for The Thin Man a year later and onward to stardom. Montgomery is jealous of Myrna's publisher, Frank Morgan, and there's good reason even though he's married.

And this is where the title comes in. Loy's book features a woman carrying on with a married man and she can't work out how to write the last chapter where the mistress gets to meet the wife. Of course she finds herself in much the same situation. It's a precode so of course they can get away with things like that. The best character in the film is called Bridget, and she's a talkative scatterbrain, who has her own kept man. Definitely precode.

The other best character is Morgan's wife who is so totally unlike we are led to expect Morgan's wife to be. She proves to be the real cat amongst the pigeons and she's great. Frank Morgan is solid as always but doesn't seem to engage much. Maybe it's the character he's playing who just isn't that interesting: the story is about the women. Robert Montgomery was always someone I didn't have too much time for, but the more of his early work I see the more I appreciate him. He's great here, just like a young Franchot Tone.

And at the end of the day, the film is a peach, with cleverly written characters, a cleverly written storyline and actors who understand all of it and make the best of it. It rings incredibly true.

The Young Rajah (1922) Philip Rosen

Rudolph Valentino again, in another lost film, that this time has only been mostly not entirely salvaged. Valentino is Amos Judd, adopted son of the leading citizen of the town of Daleford, or at least he thinks he is. In the sections missing at the beginning but replaced by stills and title cards, we discover that he is really the son of a Maharajah, usurped from this throne in a coup. He is rescued by Morton Judd and whisked away to Daleford on the other side of the globe to be brought up by his brother.

Four years later, but very quickly for us as there's still not much footage, Judd is at Harvard rowing stroke in the winning crew against Yale. Also in these early scenes is William Boyd, who I enjoyed so much in Two Arabian Knights, and who would end up as Hopalong Cassidy. This is also when Judd discovers his talent for premonition which becomes more important as life goes on.

It seems that at least half the film is still lost, but the presentation of it is admirable. The half that remains suggests serious power. I've seen a few Valentinos now, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse being by far the best. This one looks like ranking well above the others, because there's much more here than just Valentino, who shows some serious power and presence. The story has mystery and depth and shows much more style and substance than most films I've seen from this era. Also, there are real actors backing up the star, especially the leading lady, Wanda Hawley. The score, surprisingly important in silent movies, is also excellent. It was composed and performed by Jon C Mirsalis.

Command Decision (1948) Sam Wood

Off go the bombers and off go the bombs. They're RAF heavy bombers on an American mission and they're hitting Germany from some intriguing camera angles. Because this is a war film, there's a long string of male names and not a single lady in the entire film. How's this for a string of talent, though: Clark Gable, Walter Pidgeon, Van Johnson, Brian Donlevy, Charles Bickford, John Hodiak and Edward Arnold. And those are just the names we see before the title. There's also Cameron Mitchell, Moroni Olsen and Ray Collins and still more.

These are solid names, most of them not major stars but still solid consistent character actors. Gable looks very good. He's Brigadier General K C Dennis, the man in command of hitting industrial targets to prevent production of a new German superplane. He's doing what he has to do and he's getting results, but there are also a lot of planes that aren't coming home. That's what the film is really about: the conflict about the conflict. Gable also should have been well aware of the material, as he flew five missions as an aerial gunner in Europe on a heavy bombardment group.

Bickford was wonderful in The Woman on the Beach and he's been excellent in everything else I've seen him in, including this one as a stubborn reporter. I know Donlevy primarily from his roles as Professor Quatermass, but he's far more versatile than that. Walter Pidgeon was versatile too, admirably playing detectives like Nick Carter and Bulldog Drummond and totally different key roles in films as diverse as Mrs Miniver, Forbidden Planet and this one. He gets a couple of really superb speeches, and this film runs on speeches. Gable gets some powerful ones too. There's also one truly magic scene that is going to resonate with me. Also notable is Van Johnson, who is one of those names I seem to notice a lot without actually noticing him.

The Delicious Little Devil (1919) Robert Z Leonard

Valentino once more, this time before he had reached fame with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In fact, far from his usual fare, this is a slapstick comedy, immediately obvious not just through leading lady Mae Murray's posturing, but also because when Valentino finally appears as the son of a rich industrialist, he looks suspiciously like Buster Keaton complete with pork pie hat. He also carries the notably unexotic name of Jimmy Calhoun.

Murray was a fascinating Hollywood character, who at this point was married to the film's director Robert Z Leonard who wrote and directed many films specifically for her, including this one. Coincidentally six years later she'd marry Prince David Mdivani with Valentino as the best man. A former Ziegfeld girl, she was known as the girl with the bee-stung lips and for good reason, but she's far more notable to my eyes for the fact that she never stops moving. I mean never stops moving, way beyond the way Jimmy Cagney never stops moving. She's hyperactive and often different parts of her body are moving in different directions all at once. Her dancing is an experience and it was very hard to keep my eyes off her, in much the same way that it's hard to stop from watching Marion Davies when she was doing comedy. Admittedly, I'm a guy but it was difficult to notice Valentino with his hat and overdone makeup. He certainly didn't exert the kind of presence on the screen that was to come in just a few years. Apparently after years of living in eccentric poverty, there was a biography, called The Self Enchanted, which I'll definitely look out for now.

The story is a simple but fun comedy of errors, based entirely around Miss Murray's talents. She's a poor young lady who gains fame as a dancer under false pretenses. To get a job, she assumes the name of a French dancer and cause celebre in hiding, but of course this decision comes back to haunt her. Parts of the film don't make a lot of sense and there's a scary amount of overacting, but the sheer energy of this one wins out in the end.

The Conquering Power (1921) Rex Ingram

Just as The Delicious Little Devil was written for its leading lady, Mae Murray, by her husband, the director Robert Z Leonard, this Rudolph Valentino movie was also tailored towards its leading lady, Alice Terry, by her husband, the director Rex Ingram. This was all fine for the other film because, after all, Mae Murray was the whole point of the film and she was merely giving Valentino a break in Hollywood. This time round though, Valentino was coming off the massive success of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and deserved far better.

This one is a story from no less a writer than Honore de Balzac. Valentino plays Charles Grandet, the spoiled son of a rich Parisian family. However as he turns 27 in a typically extravagant fashion, his father's last chance to avoid bankruptcy is dashed. So before he commits suicide, he sends Charles off to his miserly uncle's, where he falls in love with his cousin.

The story, as written by Balzac, is apparently about greed, but as filmed it is more about love instead. Such liberties were just as commonplace back in the twenties and thirties as they are today. Then again, the key character really isn't Valentino's or Terry's, it's Ralph Lewis's as Pere Grandet, Eugenie's father and Charles's uncle. He's the one with all the gold that he keeps locked up in the walls and he's the one who becomes crazed with greed.

Hearts of the World (1918) D W Griffith

D W Griffith was asked to make this film by the British government in order to help persuade the US government to get involved in World War I. By the time it was made and released, the US was already involved, so its intended impact had been rendered irrelevant. It certainly has interest though, as it begins (as it did on initial release) with a couple of short documentary clips: one of Griffith in the British front line trench at Cambrin, only fifty yards away from enemy lines, and a second of David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister at the time wishing Griffith all the best.

Then we get a couple of preachy title cards, as was the wont of one of the few directors who was really in charge back in the silent era. From the silents through the golden age, directors weren't the powerful industry leaders they are today; instead it was the producers who were in charge. That's why people like David O Selznick were so important.

Finally we actually get to the film, and as the title suggests it's the story of a village: an old fashioned play with a new fashioned theme. There are names here I should know but don't yet, such as Robert Harron, who is The Boy of the credits, veteran of many Griffith productions but who would die only two years later in mysterious circumstances. I know the girl he falls in love with though: it's Lillian Gish, queen of all silent film actresses, who already had classics like The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance behind her and with Broken Blossoms to come a year later. Amazingly the 25 year old had already made 49 films and had almost another seventy years more film career still to come. Everything I've seen her in amazes me. In an era when most people overacted as a matter of course, her work stands up today as masterclass work.

She's not the only Gish here. Her competition for The Boy is played by her sister, Dorothy, and elsewhere there's their mother, Mrs Mary Gish in the last of only four film appearances. In fact there's a lot of family here. Robert Harron is only one of five Harrons! On top of these legends, there's also Erich von Stroheim (as, shock horror, A Hun!) and even Noel Coward in a dual role as The Man with the Wheelbarrow and A Villager in the Streets.

For a war film, it's almost surprising when the war comes along. We get a full half hour of real life nonsense: girls vying for boys, younger siblings getting jealous, people being happy... and then the town cryer finally gets to say something important: war! But the war isn't the plot, it's the background. The film is the village and how the war affects it. Maybe that's what gives it its power.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) Howard Hawks

We're in Barranca, somewhere in South America where the banana boats pull in. There's also an airfield where Cary Grant runs a couple of mail planes and into the mix comes Jean Arthur, beautiful American performer trying rather hard to be Barbara Stanwyck. One pilot goes up into the fog, can't keep going but can't come back down. He ends up wrapping himself round a tree, all because he wants to eat dinner with the new blonde.

There's a lot that works very well indeed here and what works best is that it feels real, utterly real. I have no clue where it was filmed but it was probably some backlot in Hollywood, the scenes on the ground at least. However it feels exactly like an airfield in South America with a bunch of ex pats who live to fly and fly to live. I believed the rain and the fire and the wind. I believe every single one of these characters, with all their flaws and faults, because they're real.

The dialogue is awesome too, courtesy of a man by the name of Jules Furthman,who I'm going to have to read up on. I've enjoyed his work for years without knowing his name, but his list of credits is unsurpassed. They just don't write dialogue like this any more, and probably haven't since the heyday of Howard Hawks movies of this era, many of which had Furthman's name on them too. This one came a year after Bringing Up Baby, and within another ten years Hawks had his name on His Girl Friday, The Outlaw, Ball of Fire, The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not which recycled a notable line from this one. In fact it's that Bogart/Bacall dialogue that shines here and when a few well written spanners get thrown into the works, it gets more and more tense.

Jean Arthur is simply stunning and would have been more highly regarded, I'm sure, had this not come out in 1939, Hollywood's biggest year of them all. Just look at the 1939 credits of another man who puts in a stunning performance here, Thomas Mitchell. He made five films that year: Only Angels Have Wings, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Gone with the Wind, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Stagecoach, for which he won the Best Supporting Oscar. Wow. There's also a very understated Richard Barthelmess, looking like a freaky Peter Lorre; Rita Hayworth breaking her way out of B-movies; and no less a star than Cary Grant, in a solid show himself with some notable depth to his performance. In fact it's one of the best of his performances I've seen and he chalked up a lot of them. This is one I'm going to need to see again becauseI think it's going to rank way up there on my personal list.

Do the Right Thing (1989) Spike Lee

Here's one that I should have seen a long time ago, but amazingly enough given that I've been catching up on my black filmmakers, it's my first Spike Lee. It's also his most renowned movie that has already secured a solid place in film history. As you'd expect it's a film about racism, but it's nothing blind and expected. In fact almost everyone is ethnic, but there are many ethnicities. The main characters are either African American or Italian American, with some Hispanic Americans and Korean Americans thrown into the mix.

The leads are Ossie Davis, who I know best as a black JFK to Bruce Campbell's Elvis in the wonderfully offbeat Bubba Ho-Tep, and Danny Aiello, who I know from all sorts of things from Jacob's Ladder to The January Man to Broadway Danny Rose. There's also a seriously good supporting cast, from Spike Lee himself to John Turturro, Samuel L Jackson, Martin Lawrence, Miguel Sandoval from TV's Medium, Rosie Perez. I even know the people whose names I don't know. They all get thrown together on a hot day in New York City where tempers start to flare.

I enjoyed a lot of the confrontations here that build very nicely indeed. Racial slurs shouldn't be this funny, but they are because they're real and, after all, they're not stereotypical when it's ethnicity against ethnicity. My favourites are the three elderly black men who do nothing but sit on the corner and bitch about everything, all entirely improvised. They're like the Statler and Waldorf of African American culture. All three are hilarious, especially Robin Harris as Sweet Dick Willie.

The film as a whole took a while to get moving, or so it seemed. Looking back it did exactly what it should have done, and when it kicks in it does so with a really big punch. And that's a punch in 2006. What must it have done in 1989!


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