30 October 2009

26 October 2009

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Although conventional wisdom holds that Universal Studios had cornered the market on monster/horror movies in the 1930s, Mystery of the Wax Museum -- a 1933 foray into the genre by Warner Bros. and Vitaphone Pictures -- surely deserves to be mentioned when the topic of classic horror pictures comes up. Lionel Atwill -- who seems to have made a career of playing a wide variety of villains -- plays the oh-so-inventively-named Ivan Igor, whose sculpture collection in London is destroyed in a fire set by a business associate out for a bit of insurance money. Igor's prized work, a sculpture of Marie Antoinette, is also destroyed. Twelve years later, Igor has -- big surprise -- gone a little mad and relocated to New York, where he has begun to rebuild his collection.

Enter feisty newspaper reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell), who is snooping about for a big story. As luck would have it, the body of young woman is stolen from the city morgue by a shadowy figure, and the trail leads to Ivan Igor's new wax museum. Meanwhile, Charlotte Duncan (played by Fay Wray, and who just happens to be Florence's flatmate) pays a visit to her boyfriend, an aspiring sculptor working under Igor's tutelage. Igor catches a glimpse of Charlotte, and realizes that she is the spitting image of his long lost Marie Antoinette sculpture. He requests the she pose for one of his sculptures and she, unsuspecting of his nefarious intentions, agrees. Thrills, chills and even the occasional spill ensue.

Although Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray get top billing, it's Glenda Farrell who steals the whole picture. She is eminently likable as the fast-talking, tough-as-nails Florence, and seems perfectly cast for the part. As a matter of fact, the character of Florence Dempsey seems like the spiritual predecessor of Torchy Blane, another gritty reporter type whom Farrell portrayed in no fewer than seven pictures. Lionel Atwill is also good in the role of Ivan Igor, staying far away from ham territory (I still can't get over that goofy name, though. It sounds the name of a lesser Bond villain). Fay Wray, meanwhile, hasn't much to do in this picture besides look pretty, horrified, or both (fortunately, she does a commendable job in both cases).

What might be most interesting about this picture, however might be just how surprisingly good it looks. Not only are there some unexpectedly artsy shots--including a particularly memorable one of a crucifix-clasping Joan of Arc sculpture (appropriately enough) going up in flames -- but the entire picture is filmed in two-strip technicolor, which makes everything look even better than usual, especially Fay Wray. Heck, even Glenda Farrell looks good in two-strip technicolor!

For those who like horror movies, I can't recommend Mystery of the Wax Museum strongly enough. It's good, campy fun from what -- for my money, at least -- was one of old-school Hollywood's best years (that's 1933, for those keeping track at home). Vincent Price would remake the picture as House of Wax in 1953. A remake of the remake appeared in 2005, but nobody cares about that version, except maybe Paris Hilton. Mystery of the Wax Museum was included in its entirety on the DVD release of House of Wax, which makes the package well worth picking up.

[Poster Image Sauce]

20 October 2009

Five More Good Songs

I've been listening to rather a lot of music as of late, and rather diverse variety of music, to boot. The sole advantage of a morning commute that borders on thirty minutes in duration is that it gives me plenty of time to delve into my music collection (that's me, always looking on the bright side). Let's take a look at five songs that I've had on heavy rotation recently.


"The Elk King's Daughter"
Fabled Lore

The music of Nest is a stirring blend of folk music and ambient soundscapes. Aslak Tolonen is the creative force behind Nest, and he draws his inspiration from the natural beauty of the Finnish landscape. Appearing on Nest's 2000 demo tape Fabled Lore,"The Elk King's Daughter" is an especially atmospheric track that brings to mind a feeling of isolation. Yet rather than being melancholic, the mood is actually quite peaceful, as though it were the score of a fairytale. For me, this song is quite evocative of the foggy winter nights I spent in Washington. For those interested, the track is available for a listen at this site.

"It's Only A Paper Moon"
The Paul Whiteman Orchestra

As with many of the classic Jazz standards, there are numerous extant recordings of "It's Only A Paper Moon". The version I had in mind, however, is the 1933 version recorded by the Paul Whiteman orchestra with vocal accompaniment by Peggy Healy. This recording of the song was featured on the soundtrack to the Peter Bogdanovich film Paper Moon (1973) (the film takes its name from the song). It's one of those catchy old numbers that sticks in your head and stays there for quite a while. And yes, I did like the movie. Rather a lot, in fact.

"Cremation Ghat II"

God Is Good

Om was formed from the ashes of the legendary Stoner Doom band Sleep. Om's meditative, quasi-ritualistic brand of music has always carried an oriental twist, but God is Good, the band's latest offering really allows those influences to shine through. "Cremation Ghat II" is perhaps the most memorable cut from the album; although it is not quite five minutes long, the track is quite epic within the confines of that short direction. The use of sitars give the song a decidedly Indian flavor, and the whole composition evokes a feeling of crossing the desert (or perhaps ascending to Shangri-La). Do give the song a listen over at Om's MySpace.

Nine Inch Nails

The Slip

I used to listen to Nine Inch Nails quite a lot way back when (and by quite a lot I mean all the damned time). I've returned to listening to the band after an absence of a few years, and it seems that somewhere along the line I forgot just how good Nine Inch Nails really is. In May of 2008, Trent Reznor and company decided to give away a complete album to the fans, with no strings attached. That album was The Slip, and it's just as good as NIN fans could have expected it to be. My personal favorite track from The Slip would have to be "Discipline", with its driving tempo that is faintly reminiscent of 80s New Wave. The album is definitely worth getting for those unfamiliar with NIN's music (if there is anyone left who isn't by now), since it is not only quite accessible but also quite free.

Смуглянка ("Smuglianka")
Red Army Choir

You just knew these guys were bound to show up on this, didn't you? Although it bears the musical hallmarks of traditional Russian folk music, "Smuglianka" is actually a fairly recent composition (insofar as one may call the early 1970s recent). The song seems to have first appeared in a film about Soviet pilots entitled В бой идут одни «старики» (Only the Veterans Will Go to Fight). As for the song, it starts off softly but builds up to a frenetic crescendo during the chorus. It's also extremely catchy -- just have a listen, and I'll guarantee you that you'll have it stuck in your head for weeks).

16 October 2009

Musical Interlude: The Cossack Ride Over the Don

This is a fantastic song. Just give it a listen, and you'll wish you were a Cossack.

09 October 2009

A Classic Cinema Survey

I found a nifty little survey on classic cinema over at the blog A Noodle in a Haystack, and thought I'd give it a stab.

1. What is your all-time favorite Clark Gable movie?

Probably Wife vs. Secretary (1936). Yes, It Happened One Night (1934) was good, but everybody likes that one, so I have to go with a more unorthodox option. Idiot's Delight (1939) also deserves a nod.

2. Do you like Joan Crawford best as a comedienne or a drama-queen?


...But to be less coy about it, I have to say that I like Joan a bit more as a comedienne than as a drama queen. Especially early on in her career, she seems much more natural in a comedic mode than in a dramatic one.

3. In your opinion, should Ginger Rogers have made more musicals post-Fred Astaire?

I don't think so. The musicals Ginger made with Fred would have been too tough an act to follow. And any leading man would almost inevitably have been unfavorably compared to the fleet-footed Mr. Astaire, anyway.

4. I promise not to cause you bodily (or any other serious) harm if you don't agree with me on this one. So please be honest: do you like Elizabeth Taylor? Hm?

I haven't seen enough of her pictures to formulate a reasoned opinion, to be honest.

5. Who is your favorite off-screen Hollywood couple?

Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst. Sure, the whole arrangement was a little creepy, but their relationship outlasted the average Hollywood marriage by decades. An honorable mention goes to Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg.

6. How about onscreen Hollywood couple?

Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. It's a downright shame that they made only three movies together. A close second would be Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, with William Haines and Joan Crawford taking third place.

7. Favorite Jean Arthur movie?

Any of the movies she made under the direction of Frank Capra, although You Can't Take it With You (1938) would probably my favorite of that lot. Also deserving of mention are Too Many Husbands (1940) and The Talk of the Town (1942).

8. What was the first Gregory Peck movie you saw?

The Guns of Navarone (1961).

9. What film made you fall in love with Alfred Hitchcock? (And for those of you that say, "I don't like Hitchcock" -- what is wrong with you?!)

Probably Rear Window (1954). By the by, I think "love" might be putting it a bit strongly, but whatever.

10. What is your favorite book-to-movie adaption?

Pick any of the movies Stanley Kubrick made between 1971 and 1987. The three Hannibal Lecter pictures were also quite good (Anthony Hopkins wasn't in that fourth one, so it doesn't count). In truth, most great movies begin as great books, so it's virtually impossible for me to narrow it down to just one.

11. Do you prefer Shirley Temple as a little girl or as a teenager?


12. Favorite character actor?

Probably Eddie Cantor--the nervous, little Jewish song-and-dance man.

13. Favorite Barbara Stanwyck role?

This one's a toss-up between Florence Fallon from The Miracle Woman (1931) and Phyllis Dietrichson from Double Indemnity (1944). Lily Powers from Baby Face (1933) isn't far behind.

14. Who is your favorite of Cary Grant's leading ladies?

Aside from Irene Dunne? Probably Katherine Hepburn for The Philadelphia Story (1940). Myrna Loy would be a close second for Mister Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948).

15. Bette Davis or Joan Crawford?

Do you really even need to ask?

16. What actors and/or actresses do you think are underrated?

I don't think Fay Wray really gets her due. When she wasn't being manhandled by a giant monkey or otherwise being compelled to shriek at the top of her lungs, she was actually a decent actress.

17. What actors and/or actresses do you think are overrated?

Although her style works well in silent pictures, I find Greta Garbo's swooning somewhat grating in talking pictures. Personally, I think Garbo owes her success more to onscreen presence than to acting ability.

Also, fuck John Wayne.

18. Do you watch movies made pre-1980 exclusively, or do you spice up your viewing-fare with newer films?

This one's a little difficult to answer. Generally speaking, I like classic films and modern films based on decidedly different criteria. I'm also more critical of modern films. Take from that what you will, I suppose.

19. Is there an actor/actress who you have seen in a film and immediately loved? If so, who?

Leslie Howard for his indomitable Britsh flippancy and wit, and Jeanette MacDonald for that voice.

20. Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire?

Fred, without a doubt.

21. Favorite Ginger Rogers drama?

Truth be told, I've never seen her in any dramas, so I really can't say.

22. If you wrote a screenplay, who would be in your dream cast and what roles would they play? (Mixing actors and actresses from different generations is allowed: any person from any point in their career.)

A biopic of Lyudmilla Pavlichenko, starring Dorothy Sebastian. Other significant players include Joan Crawford as a field medic, Evelyn Brent as a Commissar and Lionel Barrymore as Josef Stalin.

...Fuck off, this is the best movie ever.

23. Favorite actress?

It's a dead heat between Joan Crawford and Dorothy Sebastian.

25. Favorite actor?

Fredric March, without a doubt.

26. And now, the last question. What is your favorite movie from each of these genres:

Drama: That's a fairly broad category, but Amadeus (1984) comes to mind.

Romance: Until somebody makes a good film version of La Vita Nuova (which will probably never happen), this one's going to stay blank.

Musical: 42nd Street (1933).

Comedy: Like drama, this a broad category and extremely hard to pick. Duck Soup (1933) might be the one, though.

Western: The Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957), if only because it's so damned hokey.

Hitchcock (he has a genre all to himself): The Birds (1963). I always root for the birds in this movie.

06 October 2009

Relevant to My Interests, Ep. 19

I know what you're thinking. "Just what's going on here?" you say to yourself. "Sarah Blasko isn't dead! And she's not pushing a hundred, either! What gives?" I guess it just goes to show you that I'm perfectly capable of being smitten by modern women, too. So you see, I'm not totally hopeless. Just mostly hopeless.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Sarah Blasko, allow me to enlighten you. Sarah Blasko is a singer/songwriter from Australia. And she is fabulous in so many ways. Do yourself a favor and give a listen to some of her songs-you're certain to like what you hear.

[Image Sauce]