The Black Watch (1929)

Heart of Darkness

The Black Watch marked John Ford’s first venture into talking pictures and as expected with talkies from 1929, the film’s dialogue is delivered at a snail’s pace as one actor will wait over a second for the other to finish before they themselves start speaking, creating many long gaps in the dialogue and making the film’s pace slower than it needs to be. This gives The Black Watch a disjointed feel while the film still uses title cards over establishing shots – a silent era holdover. Visually speaking, however, the production values do not let the film down with the craftsmanship to be expected from a John Ford picture. The sets and costumes are lush and there are plenty of grand and expressionistic visuals – ultimately the film succeeds in creating that sense of adventure.

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The Black Watch is a loose adaptation of Talbot Mundy’s novel The King of the Khyber Rifles. The Heart of Darkness style story sees Captain King (Victor MacLaglen) of the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland (“the descendants of highland chieftains who rallied behind Wallace and conquered under Bruce”) sent on a military mission during World War I to take out a cult leader in a territory not under British rule ahead of the northern frontier of British India near the Khyber Pass. The first portion of The Black Watch features a heavy emphasizes on military tradition with plenty of thundering bagpipe action to show off that sound technology, plus nothing beats some Auld Lyne Sang regardless of the movie. The Black Watch holds a number of parallels to the adventure film Gunga Din which was released 10 years later and also starring Victor MacLaglen in an Indian setting.

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One of the main draws of The Black Watch is Myrna Loy in the spotlight role of Yasmani – Goddess to the natives (“others have been sent to take her out but never returned”). Observe the theatrical manner in which Loy moves her body alongside her hammed up pompous speech delivery, all while cloaked out in lavish costumes and surrounded in splendour and opulence. Yasmani claims to be a white woman descended from Alexander the Great, with Aryan blood running through her veins as she puts it. When she delivers a sermon in the cave of echoes she speaks of the prophecy that a woman of Alexander’s line shall find a mate and are destined to rule these tribesmen.

The identity of the cult in the film is not made clear. The film gives many indications the cult are Islamic extremists (there is no mention of the words Muslim or Islam) from members praying to Allah to proclaiming the murder of infidels and even the appearance of a flag with the Islamic Star and Crescent. However, in Islam you wouldn’t have a woman, let alone one of western origin at the head of a traditional Islamic movement. Likewise wouldn’t referring to Yasmani as a Goddess not go against Islam’s (and Abrahamic religions’ as a whole) monotheism? Not to mention the cult’s racial undertones raises many questions. I can’t deceiver if The Black Watch is a poorly researched movie or was intentioned to be deliberately vague?

Don Juan (1926)

The OG Playboy

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The opening credits of Don Juan self proclaim the film to be “A Warner Brothers Classic of the Screen”. Well, this self-gratification didn’t aid the film over time as Don Juan has gone down in history more so for its technical achievements over artistic merit, being the first film with a synchronized pre-recorded soundtrack with additional sound effects using the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system (likewise some film fans might recognize Don Juan for footage used in the opening credits of Start the Revolution Without Me from 1970). As a result, viewers can watch the film with the same soundtrack as heard by audiences back in 1926 – not a new score or modern re-recording of the original. The synchronized sound effects themselves don’t add much to the film, nor are they well synced although this was new technology in 1926 so I can’t blame them.

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Don Juan is, however, a good swashbuckling romp in John Barrymore’s attempt to out-Fairbanks Fairbanks. Barrymore is a magnificent figure of a man, pausing every now and then to let everyone get a good look at his iconic profile. Contrary to the likes of Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn, the titular character is less of an escapist fantasy but more of a tragedy in the classic tale of a man whose lust for women is his undoing; arousing from his own mother’s infidelity and his father’s response to such – there’s more implied sex than you can shake a stick at. But this is still a romantic swashbuckler at the end of the day (reportedly with the highest kiss count in film history at a whopping 127), and the film ends with the most classic of romantic images, the man and woman riding off into the sunset, perhaps not as cliché or worn out in 1926?

In classic Cecil B DeMille style, Don Juan is a film of biblical morality but is never a preachy one at that. At the beginning of the film, Juan is courted by sultry women amongst displays of decadence when he is still a child. However, in adulthood, Juan eventually comes to find redemption in Adriana della Varnese (Mary Astor) as the first woman he legitimately falls in love with and must rescue from the clutches of history’s infamous, sadistic Borgia family. The wide-eyed Mary Astor is the face of innocence and virginal purity if there ever was one, as we even see her unconscious body laid down next to a statue of the Virgin Mary just to hammer the point home.

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Among the film’s supporting players includes Willard Louis as Juan’s amusingly effeminate and theatrical attendant Pedrillo. It would make sense to have a gay attendant guide his many affairs when they arrive at Juan’s residence and reassuring each one that she is “the love of his life”. Don Juan also features Myrna Loy in one of her earliest screen appearances. There’s no real meat to her role as Mai, Lady In Waiting as she part takes in background scheming, but it’s great to see her at such an early stage in her career in a number of close-ups and lingering shots as well as many costume changes.

My one major downside to Don Juan is that I’m left wishing for more action, only getting some in the final 20 minutes with a sword duel and a Conte of Monte Cristo style prison escape. At least the film’s money shot does not disappoint, Don Juan’s dive on top of the stairs and onto his foe. It’s filmed in one take with no editing trickery nor does a stunt double appear to be used.

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Don Juan is an example of the excess and opulence present in many silent-era films from the grandiose sets to the never-ending wardrobe of costumes (even all the women still have contemporary 1920’s makeup despite its 15th-century setting). In the words of John Hammond – “We spared no expense”. Watching these movies on a TV at home (or dare I say from a dodgy corner of the internet) really doesn’t do them justice.

The Electric Horseman (1979)

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Now I’ll Choose Your Outfit. Robert Redford in Electric Horseman

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Electric Horseman is a very old fashioned movie for the 1970s; Its a return to the type of movie made during Hollywood’s more innocent days and could have easily been a vehicle for an actor like Gary Cooper. There’s something about the movie that’s just very wholesome to it from the absence of sex, bad language and the innocent nature from the “that would never happen in real life” plot which hits all the emotional beats. A movie in which you’re rooting for a horse is going to have something inherently innocent about it. Even the opening shot of a running horse is very similar to the opening shot of Sydney Pollack’s earlier film They Shoot Horses Don’t They but they are, tonally, completely different.

The opening montage catalogues the story of rodeo star Sonny Steele (Robert Redford); a rise and fall story which echoes Walter Matthau’s final words in A Face in the Crowd. Sonny, a once legitimate figure is now nothing more than a mascot for a product he doesn’t even use. He is trapped in a world of corporate superficiality; no surprise then that the movie is set in Las Vegas of all places. Even the villains of The Electric Horseman are two dimensional, slimy businessmen who don’t have an ounce of empathy. They are about as cliché as it gets but in an enjoyable love-to-hate way.

Sonny’s horse Rising Star is a metaphor for Sonny himself; the horse’s story is essentially Sonny’s. When he talks about what the horse has been through and its desire to be free, he is talking about himself – A former champion who is leading a pampered life and has become no more than a corporate icon. It’s clear that Sonny has no sex or family, as evident from his recent divorcee just like how Rising Star has been sedated by drugs. Sonny is left with no choice but to try and break free from this existence and set Rising Star (and metaphorically himself) free because anything’s better than the living hell he is currently experiencing.

Jane Fonda’s role as Hallie is a throwback to the fast-talking, Hildy Johnson like news reporter. I also have to question if Fonda’s hairstyle and glasses had any inspiration on the look of the titular character in Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie three years later. The scenes between Redford and Fonda alone in the wilderness are reminiscent of classic screwball comedy in the age-old classic “they hate each other but love in love” scenario. Likewise one of my favourite scenes in the film involves Sonny giving passionate monologue to Hallie about the horses’ mistreatment unaware he’s being recorded. Once he thinks the recording has started he has nothing interesting to say (“He’s one of the great animals…in the history…of animals”). A lesson to filmmakers of any stripe really.

I also imagine the inclusion of Dave Grusin’s Disco Magic probably didn’t help the move when it came out in December 1979; six months after the Disco Demolition Night. However, The Electric Horseman is part of Hollywood’s urban cowboy phase the late ’70s and early ’80s. This oxymoronic combination does give the film one of the most unique action sequences I’ve ever seen as Sonny rides his horse against an onslaught of police cars and motorcycles through a small town (I’d like to see this in Grand Theft Auto).

The ending in which Sonny releases Rising Star into the wild is ridiculous. How long would a champion racehorse survive in the wilderness? It would probably die of starvation and loneliness and certainly not be immediately accepted by a wild herd. But at the end of the day, it still strikes an emotional heartbeat.

Moby Dick (1930)

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Here’s To You Ahab!

I have never read the novel Moby Dick although I am informed this adaptation has very little to do with its source material. The film does open with a shot of the novel itself, however, the screen dissolves into the first paragraph of a Chapter 1 which does not exist in the book nor contains the famous line, “Call me Ishmael” (a character who also does not appear in this adaptation). Yet even to judge Moby Dick from 1930 on its own merits this is a flawed film but has enough good in it to make it enjoyable; although it is a shame as all the ingredients are there for the making of a classic. Oh whale, what can you do?

John Barrymore’s performance is unlike my perception of Captain Ahab and also differs from Gregory Peck’s Lincolnesque performance from 1956. This Ahab during the first half of the film is a womanizing, carefree rapscallion who even exudes sexuality at times. What’s striking about Ahab’s introduction are his acrobatics atop of a ship’s mast. While some shots are clearly performed by a stunt actor, those involving Barrymore really gave me the Gene Kelly vibes, specifically of his performance in The Pirate (1948). Even his voice is reminiscent of Kelly when he shouts “Look out below!”. In the latter half of the film, we see the Ahab more identified in pop culture as a bitter, vengeful man once Moby Dick robs him of a leg. Nothing beats Barrymore hamming things up and in one scene we even see him wearing a cape and strutting like he did in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Ahab’s relationship with his brother’s finance Faith (Joan Bennett) is an endearing bit of adultery as established in a cutesy scene taking place in a church in which they bond thanks a trusty Saint Bernard. The other real striking presence in the film is Noble Johnson as Queequeg, of whom Ahab humorously refers to as a heathen throughout the film.

The structure and pacing of Moby Dick is rather flimsy. The landlocked portions of the film, for example, leave me wanting to get some sea action. Likewise, the sequence of Ahab’s ship navigating through a storm is visually impressive but didn’t have to be as long as it did, plus it’s hard to make out much of the dialogue amongst the sound of the storm.

One of the film’s big positive’s are the production values from the rich details of the port, the seedy taverns and even full-scale ship recreations – all contributing to the film’s downtrodden atmosphere ( we are even given a sequence amongst an exotic Asian port in Singapore). The special effects, on the other hand, are mostly good for the time, all except for one extremely poor close up of Moby Dick during the first encounter in which the little mouth of the beast is seen moving. It only appears on screen for a mere second but looks poor enough that it sticks in your mind. Historical adventure pictures were not common during the pre-code era. After being abundant during the silent era they wouldn’t make a comeback in Hollywood until the mid 30’s so it is interesting to see a picture of this nature made in 1930.

Details on this film’s background are not abundant. It wouldn’t surprise me if Michael Curtiz directed any scenes (he did direct the lost, German language version) due to two scenes featuring the unmistakable use of Curtizian shadows. – But for now, I can only speculate. This brings me to my next point; the changes in image quality in the Warner Archive print of the film. Much of the clarity of the image quality is above what you would expect for a film from 1930, yet other scenes are of a much-degraded nature. Even more bizarrely in some scenes, the brightness levels between shots are very inconsistent. Is this the fault of the filmmakers, the print or where portions of this film lost at one point? Whale we ever know?

Call of the Wild (1935)

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Baby its Cold Outside

The beginning of Call of the Wild (a very loose adaptation of Jack London’s novel of the same name) is made up of hard to decipher plot set up exposition which I was only able to get my head around until my third viewing; surely there could have been a more interesting and engaging way the film could have delivered all this information to the viewer. Likewise, a scene during the beginning of the film in which Jack Thornton (Gable) returns to his room only to find his love interest (and possible prostitute) Marie (Katherine deMille) having an affair with another man doesn’t appear to have any effect on the rest of the plot. According to TCM originally Marie had an earlier scene but this was cut from the original print of the film. After this rather static opening, the film gets rolling and finds one of its emotional cores.

Call of the Wild is one of the best dog movies with its complex relationship and emotional bond between Gable and the Saint Bernard named Buck, one majestic looking beast. Buck is a dog that would be of no use to Jack yet is willing to pay $250 to save its life. The image Gable hugging the pooch tells more than words can; truly man’s best friend.

Arguably the most powerful scene in the film is that of Buck trying to pull 1,000 pounds as the result of a bet. You couldn’t ask for a more powerful and barbaric display of willpower knowing if he doesn’t succeed his life will be taken.  The dog in the film appears to be legitimately struggling regards the weight it is actually carrying in real life. Much of the scenes in Call of the Wild featuring dogs would never make it to screen today due to the unethical treatment of animals which is more than apparent on screen. Near the beginning of the film two dogs fight each other on screen and uncut which today would ether to edited to create the illusion of a fight or with horribly unconvincing CGI. Likewise, the general handling of the dogs and even the use of an actual rabbit as bait for dogs to hunt creates a gritty and brutal realism on screen which could not be replicated today.

Reginald Owen is the show stealer as Mr. Smith, the posh, sinister English gentleman with a sick vendetta against a dog; those ridiculous magnified eyes give him the look of a madman. Likewise, Jack Oakie as Shorty comes off to me as an uncowardly version of the Cowardly lion, even down to that laugh. Shorty was killed off in the original cut of the film, as evident from the foreshadowing of his dice turning up snake eyes after Gable throws them to him. The new ending in which Shorty and Jack are reunited prevents the film from being darker in vein like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

It took me a long time to get the appeal of Loretta Young but I gradually came to see her immense likeability, partially in due to those gazing, soulful eyes. In Call of the Wild her makeup is applied flawlessly despite being stuck in the freezing cold wilderness but she’s still she’s a tough cookie who can lecture Gable on a thing or two. I love a good man and woman alone in the wilderness film in which their chemistry fully shines through and the process of falling in love happens organically which in this instance may have been aided by Gable and Young’s affair they had during the production which bore a child named Judy. In a moment of art imitating life Shorty even says; “You know I know a couple of people who used to fool around like that and they got children now”.

I like this sub-genre of the northern western, a refreshing alternative to the mundanity I can often experience in traditional westerns. This is aided by the extensive use of location shooting present in Call of the Wild with those beautiful mountains, silhouetted trees and all that gleaming white snow – I don’t believe there could be a better natural light reflector than the white stuff.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

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Flying Down To Rio

Only Angels Have Wings is the culmination of the 1930’s aviation pictures (and boy there were a lot of them), helmed by director Howard Hawks who previously directed The Dawn Patrol and Ceiling Zero and even features the casting of Richard Barthelmess, star of such flying pictures The Dawn Patrol, The Last Flight and Central Airport. With World War II on the horizon this genre would never be the same again. Like in The Dawn Patrol, the pilots in Only Angels Have Wings have methods of dealing with reality as the film really examines the psychology of early aviators and the danger they went through to get the job done; Hawks called Only Angels Have Wings the truest film he ever made. Why do flyers do what they do? As Kid (Thomas Mitchell) puts it, “I couldn’t give you an answer that’d make sense”.

The first 30 minutes of the movie takes place in real time in what is my favourite section of the film in which a whole host of emotions are presented with a short period of time; a real piece of film magic. As we are introduced to the cast and become attached to pilot Joe Souther (Noah Beery Jr.) as he and his buddy become friends with an American tourist Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) only for him to be killed in a flying accidents moments later when he’s called on short notice to deliver mail. Death is such a normal occurrence that the squadron leader Geoff (Cary Grant) has no problem eating the steak ordered by Joe prior to his death only moments ago while the pilots even sarcastically ask each other “who’s Joe?” when Bonnie questions them on their ability to carry on like nothing happened; a denial of reality in order to deal with reality. Just how healthy is that? Well as Bonnie puts it, “All my life I’ve hated funerals, the fuss and bother never brings anyone back, just spoils remembering them as they really are”. This 30-minute section of the film successfully goes from one emotion to the polar opposite from joy to tragedy and back to joy again. I still, however, can’t find myself fully engaging in the joy of Jean Arthur and Cary Grant playing the piano knowing one of their flying comrades just died a horrible death. Likewise, at the beginning of the film, we also see an interesting method of getting free drinks from a bar if you’re friendly with the owner; I must try that one out sometime.

Jean Arthur’s role of Bonnie Lee, a lone adventuress from Brooklyn is a change of pace for the actress as she leaves her usual urban dwellings. Arthur differs from other Hawksain women due to her absence of sex appeal, she’s simply not that kind of an actress but rather more inherently innocent and sweet hearted. Hawks wanted Arthur to play Bonnie subtly sexy way with Arthur stating, “I can’t do that kind of stuff”. The scene in which she invades Geoff’s room in order to take a bath was never going to be Clark Gable or Jean Harlow in Red Dust with Arthur playing the role, resulting in a scene which is playful without being flirty of sexual. Just listen to her as speaks of how “It’s so cold and rainy outside and nice and warm and cosy in here” – it couldn’t be delivered in a more innocent manner. I feel Jean Arthur represents the way young boys will innocently feel about women before hitting puberty.

I feel the rest of the film doesn’t reach the emotional heights which the first forty minutes accomplished partially due to the lack of the Jean Arthur touch with her being absent for lengthy portions of the film but it is still blessed with a great cast of players. Cary Grant plays a Clark Gable type role, a no-nonsense leader under extraneous pressure in the part of Geoff Carter while silent era star Richard Barthelmess uses his greatly expressive face which carries the baggage of his character. Plus what’s a Hollywood movie from the 30’s without a central to east European comic relief character in the form of Sig Ruman. The one cast member who doesn’t do anything for me is Rita Hayworth whom I’ve never particularly been a big fan off but there is still the bizarre amusement of Grant pouring water over her hair.

Only Angels Have Wings even opens up the potential to be The Wages of Fear of the air when Barthelmess is required to transport nitroglycerine by plane but the movie doesn’t take this far creating a missed opportunity. Regardless the aerial footage of the plans is an impressive sight with long uncut shots as the camera moves along with the aircraft. The film doesn’t identify what country the story takes place, however, I like when classic films leave details like that ambiguous; let your imagination fill in the blanks.

Treasure Island (1934)

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Me Timbers Remain Shivered

I’ve never read the book Treasure Island so I can’t compare this 1934 adaptation to the source material but rather give a point of view as someone who watched the film out of admiration for the stars involved. Treasure Island doesn’t have the unmanufactured feel or the neo-realism of the previous pairing of Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper of The Champ (then again few films do) but I was satisfied to get my fill of another Beery-Cooper pairing. The chemistry they share, what a pure and natural delight.

For me Cooper’s performance in Treasure Island is priceless; a little kid trying to act tough. I can’t help but let out an “awwwww!!” at any moment when he’s in over his head. I can see how his performance would rub others the wrong way but I can’t get enough of it. Cooper’s relationship to Beery, in reality, was nothing like it was in fiction but watching him on screen you would never think otherwise. You can see the admiration Jim Hawkins has for Long John Silver on his face and likewise, when he discovers the truth about Long John, just look at the pure horror that bestows his face. Wallace Beery on other hand looks just like a true, rugged seafarer and a beast of a pirate. Being an actor of the silent era he has a beat-up face which says so much. Beery simply had the look this role required.

Treasure Island saw the return of the swashbuckler to Hollywood, popular during the 1920’s but almost nonexistent during the pre-code era. Coming from MGM, the production values are second to none, even throwing some exotic animals into the mix and a taster of what was to come in MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty.

Before Beery appears on screen Lionel Barrymore as Billy Bones steals any scene he occupies and when I say steals, I mean steals. I can’t determine whether or not his performance is supposed to be funny or not but his scenery-chewing grounceness, rambling and his constant desire for rum cracks me up (“Bottle of rum ya old hag!!”).

The ending is an emotional punch to the gut albeit one of mixed emotions. It’s not clear during the film whether or not Long John has any affection for Jim or is just manipulating him and taking advantage of his naivety. Regardless of watching Jackie Cooper crying his little heart out as Beery embarks of the ship, you would need to have a heart of stone not to be moved.

The Pirate (1948)

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Caribbean or Caribbean? Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

At the beginning of The Pirate we learn Manuela (Judy Garland) has a life of servitude ahead of her while she yearns for a life of adventure. She desires to be taken away by the legendary Mack the Black, swooning over dreams of stolen treasure, maidens captive, of villages destroyed; kind of twisted don’t you think? Regardless I don’t think anyone can project an innocent yearning for adventure better than Judy Garland. The Pirate was a different role for Garland; more exotic, less girl next door and more grown up. For once she plays the object of desire and I find she pulls this off perfectly as although I’ve never found Garland to be a woman of sexual appeal, I do find her one of great beauty (why she was ever referred to as an ugly duckling is beyond me). At heart, however, Manuela is still very much a Judy Garland character, a down to Earth girl with aspirations for greater things.

The title of The Pirate could come off as misleading. Gene Kelly isn’t a pirate but rather a performer named Serafin masquerading as one. No the pirate of The Pirate is Mack the Black, whom in an odd turn of events is actually the man Manuela is going to wed in an arranged marriage known as Don Pedro, the mayor of a small Caribbean town who has put his life of crime behind him and kept it a secret. The Pirate is enhanced on second viewing knowing the true identity of Don Pedro as he speaks of his dislike of travelling on the sea and telling Manuela home is the perfect spot; remind you of another Judy Garland film? There is even a moment in which Manuela frantically tells Auntie Inez (Gladys Cooper) she wants to go home which feels like Wizard of Oz redux. The second half of the pirate is one huge comic, screwball-like farce which doesn’t fully work for me; it’s amusing but not so much laugh out loud making me prefer the first half to the second.

The Pirate shows Gene Kelly had the ability to be a natural swashbuckler while his introductory sequence in which he gives a lengthy monologue promoting his acting troupe has to be one of his most entertaining non-musical moments on screen. However what really makes his role in The Pirate stand out among his other films is the oozing sexuality he projects on screen; more than any other film he did. Serafin is a real Don Juan with his Gable like moustache as well as with his tightly fit pirate attire and the wipe he is seen sporting in the film (plus that cigarette trick, what a play-a!) His introductory song Nina is one steamy number with Kelly flirting and dancing with oodles of women (just look at that state his hair is in by the end of the number) while the topical setting just enhances the eroticism. The Pirate is another movie in the “how did they get away with that club”. You can censor all you want but you can’t tell someone to simply stop projecting natural sexuality.

Although Judy and Gene do display affection for each other at points in the film, the romantic element of The Pirate comes off to me as secondary. Serafin pursues Manuela for reasons other than love as he can tell she is going into a life she doesn’t want due to his ability to know an entire woman through their body language. This gives his character another element and shows he isn’t totally shallow and just out to get laid; he wants to prevent Manuela from going down a path she doesn’t want to and expose the adventures that she is as well as her hidden performing talents. By the end it’s evident they share a more of a professional association than a romantic one, nor is there even a final kiss between the two.

Mack the Black is the musical highlight of the film and an interesting change of pace seeing Judy Garland doing a more racy number. Mack the Black was the replacement for a number titled Voodoo of which the negatives were burned at Louis B Mayer’s instance over the number’s reportedly scandalous content. Would it be considered shocking by today’s standards, was it even that shocking to begin with?  – One can only imagine. As the audio still survives, the song itself is one of the darker, more eerie songs in the MGM library but doesn’t strike me particularly memorable. Perhaps going with Mack the Black was the right decision after all. Be a Clown, on the other hand, is notably the basis for the song Make ‘em Laugh from Singin’ In the Rain and plagiarised it may be, Make ‘em Laugh is a far superior rendition in my view. The ballet sequence in The Pirate, however, is a treat with a real sense of three-dimensional depth. The sequence with its many explosions and Gene Kelly’s masculine athleticism makes for one of the more primal musical numbers in film history.

The production values of The Pirate aren’t quite up to MGM’s usual standard with clear dividing lines on the sky backgrounds, visible wires holding Gene Kelly on the tightrope and even a very visible thread attached to Judy’s hat as its hoisted away by the wind. Come on MGM, you can do better than that. Ultimately The Pirate is not my favourite MGM musical but is unique enough to make it worthwhile.

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975)

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Young Holmes

I’m not a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, so usually, Holmes films appeal to me if they do something unique with the formula. The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother is not only a comedy which spoofs with reverence its source material but is also a straight-up action/adventure swashbuckler; a vehicle for writer, director and star Gene Wilder to show off a full range of talents including comedy, singing and fencing.

What prevents me from considering Holmes’ Smarter Brother from being a masterpiece is that the movie is not consistently funny. The first third of film had me laughing a lot, particularly the scene in which Wilder, Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn are introduced to each other had me laughing a lot with their kangaroo hoping madness (plus that fencing machine is one of the most amusing props ever); after that, I only laughed seldomly. Most of the jokes after the first third are only chuckle-worthy but at least avoid being embarrassing.

Even with the depleting laughs, there is enough for the film to keep it afloat. Firstly that the movie works on its own as an action/adventure film, full of interesting characters as well as a heavenly chemistry between the trio of heroes. I was still able to care what was going on even with the largely incomprehensible plot. Likewise, despite being as neurotic as he is, Gene Wilder does make for a convincing romantic hero – an intriguing, contradictory combo. Holmes’ Smarter Brother was one of Wilder’s directing ventures and he definitely has an eye for detail with the film’s handsome and lush production values – another aspect which helps elevate the film above its comic shortcomings.

The film also hosts some exciting swashbuckling action scenes in which Wilder gets to show off his skills as a swordsman. The final duel between Holmes and Moriarty is a real treat, taking place in a costume and props storage room of a theatre; it’s full of clever and inventive uses of the surroundings. It reminds me of the scene in The Lady Vanishes in which the two protagonists inspect the cargo bay of the train.

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Bother misses the mark of being a comedy masterpiece but is still a fun time.

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

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Who’s Your Bagdaddy?

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Could there be a more enchanting silent adventure than The Thief of Bagdad? – A film which is enormously pleasurable, fun, captivating and relaxing to watch. Even at the lengthy running time, there was never a dull moment and in my opinion is far superior to the 1940 version. The film has a dream-like state, one which I’m happy to see go on and on. This is a rare film which I feel you can pop into at any point and watch from there.

The Thief of Bagdad has a straightforward message which is literally spelled out in the stars at both the beginning and end of the film; “Happiness must be earned”. The film also opens with a verse from The Koran; “Praise be to Allah – the Beneficent King – the Creator of the Universe – Lord of the Three World!”. The remainder of the film, however, portrays the religion of Islam in a non-proselytizing manner. The film isn’t afraid to show the extent of slavery in the Islamic world of the time, likewise, the thief himself isn’t big into faith and even dismisses Allah as a myth in a Mosque right in front of worshipers. What’s particularly interesting about this scene is the Imam (Charles Belcher) prevents the worshipers from attacking the thief after he makes his comments. Islam is touted as the so-called “Religion of Peace” and this is at least symbolised in this scene. The Thief’s distaste of religion doesn’t last though as he later asks the Imam to be his catalyst in his transformation (“Allah hath made thy soul to yearn for happiness, but thou must earn it”). Anyone who grew up associating Bagdad with bombs and terrorism, seeing a movie which refers to Bagdad (or Baghdad as other sources spell it) as “dream city of the ancient east” is surreal to see. What happened to this dream city? Did such a place ever really exist or is it just a fictional fantasy?

The Thief of Bagdad was one of the most expensive films of the silent era and that money sure went to good use. William Cameron Menzies’ huge, D.W. Griffith like sets are a marvel to behold in their grandiosity and opulence. There’s so much going in many shots with people moving in the background and doing their own thing. Like other silent epics, The Thief of Bagdad is a movie of predominantly long shots which offer a voyeuristic like insight into this fantasy world. Not to mention many shots like a 2D platformer video game, so feel free to hold a controller while watching the movie and pretend to play away.

Julanne Johnston’s role as the Princess is very limited as she isn’t given a huge amount to do. However, the real stand out female performance is Anna May Wong at the Mongolian slave girl, a real toxic sexual siren. She acts as an insider for the villain of the film, the Mongolian Prince in helping him take over the city. Although considering she is a slave at the hands of a foreign power and the Mongolian Princes’ seizing of the city could ensure her freedom, I can empathise with her character. She is last seen telling the Mongolian Prince to escape with the Princess on the flying carpet all while one of her fellow slaves sees her doing this; the viewer is left to decide what happens to her character. The Mongolian Prince himself does not have much to his personality other than being overtly evil but is delightfully evil all the same while giving off the Fu Manchu vibes.

Like Errol Flynn who would come after him, on-screen Douglas Fairbanks projects a real lust for life. He is a marvel to watch with his athletic prowess, feline grace as well as his ability to give the middle finger to the laws of gravity and physics; and nice pecks too. Like some of the great silent comics, he also displays lateral thinking skills. Just looks at the scene in which he creates a makeshift pulley out of a turban, a chair leg and a donkey in order that he can get up to a balcony and steal some food. If his later films are anything to go by, Raoul Walsh was a great director of action. The Thief of Bagdad is a movie full of glorious action set pieces full of those oh so glorious “how’s he going to get out of this?” moments.

The fantasy element of The Thief of Bagdad really kicks in during the final hour. The special effects on display are not of the delightfully fake kind but are actually very convincing. The creature in the Valley on the Monsters or that creature in the sea are definitely something to be feared, or the Enchanted Tree – very eerie stuff. The movie’s two big money shots, on the other hand, do not disappoint. The first being the shot of the thief flying away on the winged horse, one of those cinematic images that always stay with you. The second of these being the first instance in which we see the flying carpet in action. You’ll believe a man can fly…on a carpet.